Affection, Addiction, Affliction, and Amy
On Saturday, July 23rd, Amy Winehouse was found dead at her Camden home. Details seem ambiguous, presumptions are rife, and people’s opinions bipolar.
I met Amy in December 2008. Fresh out of a 3 month stint in rehab she had been clean for the previous 6 weeks (rehab, like prison, has it’s blind eyes) and had come to St Lucia because a) she loved the island after honeymooning there the previous year, and b) her record company wanted her to bypass Camden and be somewhere more containable. The all-inclusive BodyHoliday resort might therefore be somewhere she could soak up some sun and practice new constructive habits.
Of course it wasn’t all plain sailing, of course the media made ridiculous stories out of tittle tattle and fabricated events, and, of course, Amy didn’t help herself nor did she care a jot about any media. Amy had a bubble; if you were in it then there was nothing she would not do for you, no length she would not go. If you were not in it then you weren’t real, you were just another being on the same bit of rock probably staring or asking for a photo. There was no middle ground.
Fortunately, strangely, unbelievably I was inside the bubble.
2 days before Christmas I was meeting and greeting guests in the Piano bar, everyone ready for dinner in their dresses or short sleeved shirts and trousers. Clad in denim shorts cut as high as can be and a bikini top, a diminutive figure raced in. After she ordered a drink she looked around and I could feel her gaze as I pretended not to care she was standing a few feet away. Breaking into my conversation she announced, “You’re fit. What’s your name?”
“I’m Matthew. What’s yours?”
She shook my hand, saw my pathetic insincerity and walked away.
The following evening was the Christmas Eve cocktail event around the pool of the Wellness centre. A band was hired, the whole resort adorned their finery and everyone stood around making small talk and enjoying some pre-dinner cocktails and champagne. Amy arrived with her best friend, they both spent much of the time trying to persuade the staff to get them lights for their cigarettes. It was a non smoking area, a non smoking resort, and we were in the wellness centre. You had to laugh and, weakly, accommodate. Predictably no-one was making small talk any longer, all eyes were on her and it wasn’t long before she was asked to sing with the band. All staff had been told to ask guests not to take pictures of Amy, that they could go and ask, but otherwise respect her privacy when she was simply holidaying. This was clearly now impossible.
The band were due to finish at 8. At 9 they finally stopped but Amy was having fun singing to Lance, the lead singer, whilst ignoring the gaze of the guests. We tried to usher people down to dinner but they were far happier listening. When there was no pianist however, Amy hit the ivories solo style and it wasn’t pretty. Trying to prevent a deluge of pictures and mpegs making their way to the papers I tried to persuade Amy away from the mic and piano.
“Can I top you up Miss?”
“Yeah go on then darlin’,” moves to the mic and says in a deep, comedy voice, “he’s fit”.
“Come over here to the bar then” I cunningly retort, walking away.
The champagne glass missed my head by inches. “If you want me to stop singing just fucking say you fucking nonce”…she shouts into the mic. She had seen right through my poor attempt at guile. Well done Matthew.
Then came Christmas Day. At The BodyHoliday Santa would arrive onto the beach to give presents out to guests, and each year had to be different to the last. They had done wakeboarding Santa, scuba Santa, horseback Santa etc, so I had had the idea of an “Anti BodyHoliday” Santa to arrive, drunk, shouting, dirty and dishevelled, before the epitome of BodyHoliday Santa arrive on a throne, carried by buff, Caribbean men and flanked by beautiful, Caribbean elves. I was to be the Drunk Santa.
It wasn’t a stretch. After being abused in front of the whole resort the previous night I had gone out, got royally drunk, and had returned to my onsite premises 3 hours earlier. I hit the beach, filthy santa suit on and bottle of Jack in my hand, and proceeded to scream a volley of incoherent welcomes to the guests. The plan was for me to get half way down the beach before one of our larger staff members, dressed in security clothes, ushered me off forcibly. The waves were huge that day. Walking in the wake I got slammed. That sobered me up. I recovered to continue down the beach but my drunken clumsiness had caught Amy’s eye as my start point was a few feet away from her villa. By the time security came to usher me off, I had Amy in tow. Literally. She was hanging onto my soaked Santa cloak wailing that she loved Drunk Santa and that I should be allowed to stay.
I exited stage left and she followed. Oblivious to the previous night’s events she was charm personified.
I hung out with her for the rest of the day. In an hour we were piggybacking around the tennis courts, having hand stand competitions and there I was, surreally sat on an Indian Temple in the middle of a Caribbean lake, listening to Amy’s account of drugs, addiction, marriage to Blake and that “fucking song” (Rehab). I had 2 thoughts.
1. My friends are NEVER going to believe this, and
2. I, Matthew Powell will be the one to “fix” this troubled soul.
My friends didn’t have to believe it, I was pictured in The Sun chatting to Amy on the beach shortly after I’d disrobed as Santa. As for fixing her, it was my pure arrogance of self. Plenty of very well paid, extremely well qualified, and vastly more intelligent people than I had failed. But I’m a man, and I suffer accordingly
But that was it. I was in the bubble. We hung out, whether I liked it or not, almost every day for the next 3 months. Tiring wasn’t the word. Amy never sat still, never shut up, never stopped wanting your attention and never gave a monkeys about who was looking at her. She wasn’t taking class A’s, I am wily enough to recognise the physiological effects, and she was looking healthier each week that passed. She had her moods, she also had a temper like I had never seen, but it was only ever directed at her friends, staff or whoever she thought were upsetting her friends and staff. Her altercations with other guests were solely because these guests has upset her friends. Our core clientele at that time of year were 40-60 years of age and multi-returner families and a few of them were not going to keep their powder dry. They let her group know when they thought them overly boisterous. My word did she let them have it. You could abuse her, she’d just tell you to fuck off, but you abuse her friends and she would turn into London Gangsta number 1.
And therin lay the Jekyll and Hyde. For the most part Amy was a thumb sucking, attention craving, fun loving child. But she could turn. One minute she was charming, saccharine even, vulnerable and wanting your approval; when you showed disapproval, when you didn’t let her do what she wanted, she would curl her lip and walk with her shoulders rounded with faux aggression. It was all an act. I nicknamed her Danny Zuko as she flitted between the nice guy longing for the All-Americal gal, and the T-birds, too cool for school hard guy. Whenever she put this act on I’d ask, “What’s happening Danny?”, and her face would light up.
She signed up for the health & lifestyle programme I was running on resort, mostly as a way of hanging out I think as she was always disappointed to bound into the gym or mid consultation full of energy and stories to tell only to be told I was working and that I’d see her later. I couldn’t just hang out though, I was being paid, by her and the resort, to improve people’s health, wellbeing and lives in general. And remember, I was going to “fix” her.
Who am I, Chris Martin? Honestly!
Much of the programme was consultation based. Talking through stressors in life and how to cope with or eliminate them; working through nutrition plans; introducing or refining fitness regimes and improving posture. Getting Amy to sit down was never going to happen, try as I might, but I’d worked out that I could chat with her whilst she was moving. So I put her on the exercise bike. 40 mins a day – 20 in the morning, 20 in the late afternoon, we’d talk through issues whilst she pedalled erratically. It was a coping strategy a parent would employ with a child. It was tricking her into exercise and into sitting in one place for long enough that we could stay on the same topic for longer than 2 mins.
We discussed drugs. I would quiz her on how she got into them, why she got into them and what she now felt about them. There was no look or tone of nostalgia in her concise yet eminently coherent answers, only that of dismissive disgust and disdain. She hated them, hated what she had become on them, and was terrified in the knowledge that a return to them would be the end of her life. She didn’t preach like a born again Christian who’d seen the light of the righteous path, she didn’t dole out the platitudes of rehabilitation centres or psychologists. She was matter of fact. Drugs had got her, she was doing everything she could to release their grip, and every second of every day was about trying to not think about them.
And so it went on. Twice a day, every day we’d meet to work. After the bike we’d stretch, she loved to show off her flexibility and told me time and time again that she used to be a dancer, that she was really just a backing singer / dancer at heart and that it was other people who made her sing on her own. She would come down to my Spin class at 7am to watch. I could tell because the class in front of me would, all at once, switch off completely to my bad jokes and motivational clichés and be transfixed to a focal point behind me. I would turn, she would wave with the hand not having its thumb sucked, and I would try and say something over the mic to embarrass her.
One day I added one of her tracks to my playlist. It was the 4th track in, she had usually had her morning spliff by then and would be watching intently. The beat came in, I smiled and looked behind, Amy was walking out of the room, her hand high making a “tosser” sign. She was so sharp, and so blunt, and once again she was walking off having seen through my lameness. During breakfast after the class I sat with her, she called me some names for embarrassing her; we were now mates, taking pleasure in winding each other up. I knew she became uncomfortable whenever her music was played, but the music was sung by Amy Winehouse, not Ames who sat in front of me. Paradox, paradox, paradox.
My finest hour training Amy was on the tennis court. It was away from the other guests, too hot at midday for anyone in their right mind to be out other than the usual mad dogs and Englishmen (and us). I again played a game to entice her into obedience – I’ll answer questions or we can talk about whatever you want or we can have lunch later etc if you do this exercise first. I would throw tennis balls in the air for her to catch. If she dropped them she would have to do 10 lunges or 20 press ups or 5 sprints etc. I soon realised that throwing them up in the air was pointless – this girl had skills. Bar none Amy Winehouse could catch and throw better than any girl I have ever met, and better than most of the cricketing men I have played with! It was akin to watching a girl perform keepy-uppies. I was in awe. She barely dropped one, right hand or left, and would “wing” them back at me quicker than I was throwing them at her. Amazing. “It’s my bruvva; we used to play with a baseball and mitt for hours”. I knew she could sing, I kinda expected that to impress me, but this… Boy!
The next day the tabloids ran a story of drunken excess and a return to the demons of drugs. I was incandescent with anger. When I saw her I asked how she was. She was fine. I asked if she’d read the papers, she told me Tottenham had drawn with Arsenal 0-0.
Amy left in March, and it was sad to see her go. With Violetta she had arrived as a British holiday maker intent on getting drunk and enjoying herself. They left as Lucians, part of the island, residents not tourists, and friends of us all. I had never asked her to sign stuff, to have pictures taken with her, it would have been cheap to start with and later on it would have been weird – you don’t ask your mates for pictures. But on her last day I did, we took ourselves off, messed about doing handstands to commemorate our “first date”, and I was fairly emotional to say goodbye. I told her that I would one day see her again at Glastonbury, that I would have a massive banner declaring, “Drunk Santa Still luvs ya Ames”, but that she’d ignore it. She cried, told me I was a c**t for thinking that, and then later laughed as she told me that if she did see me at Glastonbury she would tell the driver to splash me.
Amy epitomised paradox; the reluctant hero. She craved attention from the people around her but hated the public’s gaze. She shunned the limelight, but sang the songs because she wanted to make her loved ones happy. She was a little girl – meek, shy, and giggly, and a violently tempestuous woman with a mouth to make sailors weep – all at the same time.
I thought her someone who had lost control, had deferred her life to others but, in moments of clarity, craved her own direction. She wanted to be a dancer and a backing singer, she doubted her talent, was humble about her abilities and was always incredulous at people’s fascination with her. She could be in the foulest of moods and yet, as we walked from the clubhouse to the gym, would be asked 10 times for a picture and would retort with believable happiness, “Of course darlin’”, put her arm around the person and smile. I never once saw her refuse a picture, and they were so numerous, and it wasn’t long after meeting her that I used to get angry with guests for taking surreptitious pictures when she was only too accommodating to have them taken with anyone.
I can’t comment on the addictions of Amy Winehouse; I’m not an addiction counsellor, I haven’t seen much of it first hand and so it would be basket psychology from me. What I do know however is that if someone has lost control of their life, if someone craves the attention and affection of the people she loves but has her need rebuffed, if every flaw of this fragile soul is borne out in ever increasing column inches, if someone is introduced to, has unlimited access to and runs in circles of drugs, then there really can be only one outcome. That person’s ongoing relationship with drugs is dependant on their innate personality, but to those who have shouted down her apologists by saying that she had a choice every time she took a line, before every hit, then you must also condemn every bulimic, every smoker, every anorexic, every obsessive compulsive that you know. And if you think you don’t know any of the above then you are mistaken.
I spoke to Amy in the week before she passed. I’m not pretending I spoke to her much, maybe every 6 weeks or so when we were on Skype at the same time, but she seemed calm, or calmer. I asked if there was anything wrong, strange given to all intents and purposes she was more “normal”. She said that she was just chilling. “You’re chilling? You?”
“Yeah Matty, me”.
She was cool, horny as she always was but cool with it. Sharp enough to deliberately get my girlfriend’s name wrong with a smirk on her face, she always had called her Shelly instead of Lenny; retentive enough to ask about the insecurities that only my closest friends know about, and caring enough to re-assure, to dismiss the folly and futility in them. She was witty enough to ask the same thing she’d ask every day when we trained, now 2 years past, the question that had become our in-joke and had become a throw away nod to a time once spent in the heat of St Lucia. She seemed fit, she seemed well.
The world knows what we lost to music last Saturday, and it’s a terrible shame. What I know a little of, what her close friends know so much more painfully, is that a girl who’d lost her way will now never find the path that she was once set on. A fragile, sensitive, loving to the last and protective to the core human being, was found dead in her North London home. It breaks my heart, brings tears to my eyes to re-read those words over and over, and all I have been able to say about the matter in response people’s condolences is, “poor, poor luv”.
Someone died on Saturday who touched my life, she left my life richer for knowing her, and I am so much poorer now she is gone. It doesn’t matter who she was, she was the same as everyone else, she was someone who loved and was loved.
Rest in Peace Danny Zuko.