Amy Winehouse: A Losing Game by Mick O'Shea

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Amy Winehouse: A Losing Game by Mick O'Shea

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A well-illustrated biography of the 'Queen of Camden', the singer who died at 27 after a short career curtailed by alcohol and substances abuse.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 191 Date: October 2011
Publisher: Plexus
ISBN: 9780859654821

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At the risk of stating the obvious, this is a sad book. Writing this review some five months after her death, now the immediate smoke has cleared, it is apparent from this book (as well as other general sources) that she was a gifted performer, with a jazz voice which could have qualified her for a lengthy career long after scores of aspiring X-Factor contestants had given up singing and opted for less glamorous, more steady careers. After all, her idols had been not only near-contemporaries like Michael Jackson and Missy Elliott but also those of an earlier generation such as the classic 1960s girl groups, as well as Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, with whom she was thrilled to record a duet four months before she died.

Instead, the combination of a wildly self-destructive streak, a wilful refusal to listen to the voices of sanity around her, and a toxic relationship (I’m choosing my words carefully for legal reasons), all led unhappily to membership of what has been called the 27 Club. Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Alan ‘Blind Owl’ Wilson, Jim Morrison, and Kurt Cobain, who all died at the same age, have been joined by one more.

Born in Enfield in September 1983, Amy was surrounded by music in the home from an early age and enrolled at the Sylvia Young Theatre School. Not satisfied with singing cheesy show tunes with her more dutiful classmates, she was easily bored and dissatisfied, reluctant to apply herself to academic studies, but in a class of her own when it came to singing soulful jazz numbers. Her refusal to toe the line in the discipline department meant that her time at the school was shortlived. Nevertheless, she was ambitious, and one thing led to another until she signed to a major record label and released her debut album, Frank, in October 2003. But the arrogance, the readiness to belittle her rivals and bite the hand that fed her was not long in surfacing.

So many of her faux pas were splashed across the pages of the press as they happened that there is very little new in this book, except for the casual reader. But Mick O’Shea chronicles the increasingly unhappy saga faithfully enough, with the aid of interviews and press cuttings. The inevitability of it all begins, perhaps, with an interview on a chat show hosted by Charlotte Church in October 2006, the month her chart-topping second album Back To Black was released. Having been drinking on an empty stomach much of the day, she disgraced herself with a hopelessly shambolic appearance that culminated in an attempt to sing with Church but found her unable to remember the words of the song.

Throughout this and the other undignified escapades which followed, there were always those ready to make excuses for her behaviour, not to say lack of professionalism. One or two fawning journalists portrayed her as something of a heroine, the woman who refused to play the music industry game, a wide-eyed Queen Mum except with tattoos all over her arm and a Ronnie Spector beehive. But there’s no disguising the fact that she was her worst enemy, whose excessive reliance on alcohol and later drugs led her into a downward spiral from which her sorrowing parents realised there was almost certainly no way back. Occasionally the author asks the question why nobody tried to help her – but the answer seems to be that she was one of those people who would not be helped.

The continuing saga of bad behaviour in public and increasingly shambolic appearances on stage becomes wearisome after a while. One is reminded of the last months of Sid Vicious, although all the evidence suggests that she had considerably more talent than the hapless punk icon. Among the many colour photos throughout, some – inevitably the earlier ones – show her looking wide-eyed and relatively happy, a few of them with her family, and there is also one of her onstage at the Isle of Wight festival 2007 singing with Mick Jagger. But at least two tell part of the miserable story of the young woman dubbed Wino by the tabloids, especially one of her in tears as she hugs herself onstage during yet another disastrous ‘comeback’ performance, this time at Belgrade a month before her death.

It is obviously far too soon for a full biography. This one tries to be as up to date as it could, and reports the final reopening of the inquest into her death on 26 October 2011, although it went to press before the release of her third and presumably final album of unreleased material in December. There are several other biographies of her around, and there will no doubt be more before enough time has elapsed for the preparation of the definitive life. This may have been rushed out to compete with similar offerings from rival publishers, but that’s no reason to fault it as it summarises her life and death accurately if harrowingly enough.

Our thanks to Plexus for sending a review copy to Bookbag.

For the life of another performer who died tragically young, you may also be interested in reading Touching From A Distance: Ian Curtis and Joy Division by Deborah Curtis. You might also appreciate Cemetery Gates: Saints and Survivors of the Heavy Metal Scene by Mick O'Shea.

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