Monday, July 25, 2011

Russell Brand's letter ' For Amy ': Addiction

When you love someone who suffers from the disease of addiction you await the phone call. There will be a phone call. The sincere hope is that the call will be from the addict themselves, telling you they’ve had enough, that they’re ready to stop, ready to try something new. Of course though, you fear the other call, the sad nocturnal chime from a friend or relative telling you it’s too late, she’s gone.

Frustratingly it’s not a call you can ever make it must be received. It is impossible to intervene.

I’ve known Amy Winehouse for years. When I first met her around Camden she was just some twit in a pink satin jacket shuffling round bars with mutual friends, most of whom were in cool Indie bands or peripheral Camden figures Withnail-ing their way through life on impotent charisma. Carl Barrat told me that “Winehouse” (which I usually called her and got a kick out of cos it’s kind of funny to call a girl by her surname) was a jazz singer, which struck me as a bizarrely anomalous in that crowd. To me with my limited musical knowledge this information placed Amy beyond an invisible boundary of relevance; “Jazz singer? She must be some kind of eccentric” I thought. I chatted to her anyway though, she was after all, a girl, and she was sweet and peculiar but most of all vulnerable.

I was myself at that time barely out of rehab and was thirstily seeking less complicated women so I barely reflected on the now glaringly obvious fact that Winehouse and I shared an affliction, the disease of addiction. All addicts, regardless of the substance or their social status share a consistent and obvious symptom; they’re not quite present when you talk to them. They communicate to you through a barely discernible but un-ignorable veil. Whether a homeless smack head troubling you for 50p for a cup of tea or a coked-up, pinstriped exec foaming off about his “speedboat” there is a toxic aura that prevents connection. They have about them the air of elsewhere, that they’re looking through you to somewhere else they’d rather be. And of course they are. The priority of any addict is to anaesthetise the pain of living to ease the passage of the day with some purchased relief.

From time to time I’d bump into Amy she had good banter so we could chat a bit and have a laugh, she was “a character” but that world was riddled with half cut, doped up chancers, I was one of them, even in early recovery I was kept afloat only by clinging to the bodies of strangers so Winehouse, but for her gentle quirks didn’t especially register.

Then she became massively famous and I was pleased to see her acknowledged but mostly baffled because I’d not experienced her work and this not being the 1950’s I wondered how a “jazz singer” had achieved such cultural prominence. I wasn’t curious enough to do anything so extreme as listen to her music or go to one of her gigs, I was becoming famous myself at the time and that was an all consuming experience. It was only by chance that I attended a Paul Weller gig at the Roundhouse that I ever saw her live.

I arrived late and as I made my way to the audience through the plastic smiles and plastic cups I heard the rolling, wondrous resonance of a female vocal. Entering the space I saw Amy on stage with Weller and his band; and then the awe. The awe that envelops when witnessing a genius. From her oddly dainty presence that voice, a voice that seemed not to come from her but from somewhere beyond even Billie and Ella, from the font of all greatness. A voice that was filled with such power and pain that it was at once entirely human yet laced with the divine. My ears, my mouth, my heart and mind all instantly opened. Winehouse. Winehouse? Winehouse! That twerp, all eyeliner and lager dithering up Chalk Farm Road under a back-combed barnet, the lips that I’d only seen clenching a fishwife fag and dribbling curses now a portal for this holy sound. So now I knew. She wasn’t just some hapless wannabe, yet another pissed up nit who was never gonna make it, nor was she even a ten-a-penny-chanteuse enjoying her fifteen minutes. She was a fucking genius.

Shallow fool that I am I now regarded her in a different light, the light that blazed down from heaven when she sang. That lit her up now and a new phase in our friendship began. She came on a few of my TV and radio shows, I still saw her about but now attended to her with a little more interest. Publicly though, Amy increasingly became defined by her addiction. Our media though is more interested in tragedy than talent, so the ink began to defect from praising her gift to chronicling her downfall. The destructive personal relationships, the blood soaked ballet slippers, the aborted shows, that youtube madness with the baby mice. In the public perception this ephemeral tittle-tattle replaced her timeless talent. This and her manner in our occasional meetings brought home to me the severity of her condition. Addiction is a serious disease; it will end with jail, mental institutions or death. I was 27 years old when through the friendship and help of Chip Somers of the treatment centre, Focus12 I found recovery, through Focus I was introduced to support fellowships for alcoholics and drug addicts which are very easy to find and open to anybody with a desire to stop drinking and without which I would not be alive.

Now Amy Winehouse is dead, like many others whose unnecessary deaths have been retrospectively romanticised, at 27 years old. Whether this tragedy was preventable or not is now irrelevant. It is not preventable today. We have lost a beautiful and talented woman to this disease. Not all addicts have Amy’s incredible talent. Or Kurt’s or Jimi’s or Janis’s, some people just get the affliction. All we can do is adapt the way we view this condition, not as a crime or a romantic affectation but as a disease that will kill. We need to review the way society treats addicts, not as criminals but as sick people in need of care. We need to look at the way our government funds rehabilitation. It is cheaper to rehabilitate an addict than to send them to prison, so criminalisation doesn’t even make economic sense. Not all of us know someone with the incredible talent that Amy had but we all know drunks and junkies and they all need help and the help is out there. All they have to do is pick up the phone and make the call. Or not. Either way, there will be a phone call.

Josey said...

Wow, what a great piece. I'm sure that everyone who reads it will be thinking of someone in their minds that they care about who is struggling with their own addiction. Thanks for sharing...

Drunk Love Poet said...

Speaking of brilliance... Russel is genius to bring addiction to light through the death of his friend. Besides her musical endowment to the world, perhaps Amy came into this life as a sacrificial lamb (so to speak). The greatest of human potential and tragedy wrapping their arms around each other. Beckoning us to pay attention. If in fact we take this opportunity to speak openly about addiction, find new ways and without judgment, then perhaps Amy's death will not be in vain... but her beautiful talent and passion can live on through the resurrection of other souls suffering the same pain of life 'in between.'

Hannah Stephenson said...

I'm sorry to hear of her death (and repulsed by the jokes I've been reading/hearing about this--a loss of life is never funny)--it was touching to read this.

Allison the Meep said...

What a perfect piece he wrote. Anyone who has struggled with addiction or loved an addict can really understand this.

I have been so saddened lately about how callous people are being online about her death. She was a deeply troubled girl, and addiction is a terrible thing that ruins lives. I really dislike when people make light of it.

~L said...

And he writes well too...where did you find this? I would like to share and read more Russell. Important piece. Thanks for sharing Maggie may. Peace.
~L

Caroline of Salsa Pie said...

What an extraordinary letter from Russell Brand. For anyone who has known/loved/been a family member to an addict--these are important words to read.

Amy Winehouse was a genius and I was so saddened by her death. I'd like to imagine that she's leading one pretty incredible choir in Heaven. May she rest in everlasting peace.

tiffany said...

Thank you for posting this. It breaks my heart that her life ended in this tragic way, the only consolation being that she has more peace now than she ever did here on earth. She, indeed, was a genius and deserved recognition for that and still does.

Mo said...

Thanks for sharing-that was very well-written. I am often taken aback at how easily some people dehumanize addicts and famous people. As if those qualities (both or either) somehow disqualify them from the need for empathy and compassion.

This is coming from someone who has several addicts in her family, and struggles to balance compassion and love with self-preservation...

T. Clear said...

This is an amazingly tender and well-written piece. Thank you for posting it.

Sarcastic Bastard said...

I quoted part of this letter, too. I thought it was really well written.

Love you, Mags.

SB

silverfinofhope said...

How eloquently written. My heart breaks for everyone who knew and loved her. I especially love the bit where he says that addicts are not fully present when they speak to you, how they're behind a sort of veil. As a recovering addict who is married to another recovering addict (and the child of two addicts), I can attest to this. It's SO hard to climb out from behind that veil, whether your addiction is active or dormant. xoxo, and thank you for sharing this.

silverfinofhope said...

P.S. Shared this post on facebook under the Far Away page. Thank you for spreading such love, Maggie.

silverfinofhope said...

...and of course I spelled your name wrong. Whoops! Sorry love!

yolanda said...

i love Amy!
love to you, maggie!!!!

Lydia said...

This is so powerful. I have been mourning Amy Winehouse and wishing treatment had helped her as it did me 26 years ago. What a tragic loss.

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