[5 June 2008]
Amy Winehouse has become as famous for her controversial and destructive ways as she has for her music. Nick Johnstone’s biography of Amy, titled Amy Amy Amy: The Amy Winehouse Story, explores her life before and during notoriety from a British perspective. He details the events that led her down fame’s path and speculates about her personal demons. This is the first biography of the big-haired songstress, and so the book reads as hasty and formulaic. Right now a tabloid fixture, Winehouse creates scandals by just leaving her flat.
People all over the world are fascinated by her self-destructive, teetering-on-the-edge behavior. So to keep his information current, Johnstone, of course, had to rush the book to press. Johnstone briefly touches on Amy’s early life while extensively explaining every detail of her short catalogue. Perhaps most glaring is the absence of first-hand accounts by Amy, although Johnstone addresses this lacking in his Author’s Note. Nonetheless, the book is as engaging as it is speculative.
Reading Amy Amy Amy is just like reading the tabloids. The interviews contain much hearsay, and several interviewees had very brief contact with Amy Winehouse. Nonetheless the reader is intrigued, driven to find out just what other crazy anecdotes Amy’s life holds. The popularity of tabloid rags, especially those coming out of the UK, informs us that indeed we enjoy bearing witness to celebrity destruction so long as we are removed from it. The book plays on those drives. The book’s main concern is simply to feed our gossip cravings.
Johnstone opens by describing the Jewish north London neighborhood where Amy grew up. Johnstone briefly summarizes this early life in a single chapter. He mentions mini-anecdotes ranging from Amy’s swallowing cellophane to her rap duo Sweet’n'Sour (inspired by Salt’n'Pepa) with her best friend. He also discusses her schooling and music training, but the details are sparse. The headmaster of the school who “suggested she leave” tells Johnstone of Amy’s early antics:
She wouldn’t wear the school uniform correctly. She chewed gum in lessons. She wore a silver nose-ring and, when I asked her to take it out, she apologized, removed it, and replaced it an hour later. She would break the rules; I would tell her off; she would acknowledge it.
But Amy, we discover, was not your average goof-off. According to an interview with another of her headmasters, Sylvia Young, Amy possessed an intelligence that the school did not challenge, causing boredom which led to her acting out.
Johnstone explains the causal chain of Amy’s success, mostly explaining the ladder of people climbed over on her way to the top. Along the way, the reader sees how Amy meets the right people to make her music career prosperous. One person, Johnstone explains, would put her in touch with another person, and that person would put her in touch with another. The huge voice coming from her little frame wowed producers, managers, and session musicians enough for them to keep talking about her to those key “other people”. Such chains led to Mark Ronson (one of the producers on her mega-hit album Back to Black) and the Dap-Kings (the backing band responsible for Amy’s vintage sound).
As much as Johnstone tries to add credibility to his book by painstakingly detailing Amy’s recordings (though with much repetition of words and phrases, such as his overused comparisons of Amy to Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu), his lack of real research and actual interviews with those close to Amy means more reliance on tabloid reports to “inform” his discussion of Amy’s perceived recklessness leading up to canceled appearances and lackluster performances. The Sun and The Daily Mirror are common sources here. Johnstone does succeed in talking with some of Amy’s associates from her past, from early producer, Major, to early singer and songwriter studio collaborators Skarbek and Matt Rowe. However, these people have played only bit-parts in Amy’s path to stardom. The insights they bring are little more than those of casual acquaintances.
So the gossip-fest continues. Johnstone details Amy’s personal life struggles that have been splattered over front pages for the past year. He discusses Amy’s turbulent relationship with husband Blake Civil-Fielder, her dramatic weight loss, her admittance of drug use, and self-harm. According to Johnstone, these issues sparked the creativity within her, driving her music to personal, deeper levels. So her destructive ways are fuel for her creative fire; and, in turn, fuel our interest in her and the things she says, does, then sings about. Johnstone, who is without a psychology degree, might be on the button here, but the public that lusts for its Amy fix is probably aware of this cycle. Amy, after all, is not the first singer to go through it.
Johnstone takes an extra step here, weighing in on Amy’s situation with concern. He notes the uncertainty of Amy’s future, serving as little more than a tabloid stirrer. He concludes by measuring the clout of Amy’s voice against the pressures of the media. “Eventually,” he writes, “the music will win out”. Her talent, he notes, is too great, and her feelings too intense. He reiterates that the stress she undergoes just adds depth and passion to her art. One wonders what Amy and her family might think about such a summation, that without her pain we wouldn’t have her hit songs to nod our heads to. And while for Amy, 2007 was a fast-paced snowball of personal issues, musical success, and strange behavior, so Johnstone’s book darts by, summing up Amy’s life to date, replete with mistakes and intrigue.