When Amy Winehouse died of alcohol poisoning on July 23, 2011, she had not released a new album in five years, since she put out her landmark, multi-Grammy-winning classic Back to Black in 2006. That Winehouse was just 27 years old when she died underscored her sheer natural brilliance, the meteoric nature of her rise and the wrenching tragedy of her downward spiral and ultimate fall.
Winehouse knew it was her destiny to make music
Winehouse was always a rebel, bent on doing things her way; in the Oscar-winning documentary Amy, her mother Janis admits that she was determined and stubborn even as a small child. When her parents split up, Winehouse declared her own independence, collecting tattoos, smoking marijuana and cutting school. The only future she saw for herself was as a musician, and she poured her soul into writing deeply confessional lyrics and singing around London, her hometown. She was a unique talent, a jazz fanatic with the voice of a soul singer, and she was quickly signed by Island Records.
Frank, Winehouse’s first album, came out in 2003 when she was only 20-years-old. It was an instant hit, rising to No. 3 on the British Billboard chart and earning her both awards and financial freedom. It hinted at her propensity for drinking and indulging in other vices — the song “Mr. Magic,” the hidden last track of that album, was about substance abuse — but it was in the aftermath of its success that Winehouse truly began the struggle with narcotics and liquor that would inspire her greatest work and then steal the generational talent that had made it so transcendent.
She thrived in the chaos of her relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil
Suddenly flush with a six-figure advance that would soon be followed by much larger paychecks, Winehouse bought her first apartment in London’s Camden neighborhood, long the mecca for punk musicians, drug dealers and people who enthusiastically consumed both their products. With little to do but work on her music, she embraced the local scene with open arms, becoming a regular at its pubs — her drink of choice was the Rickstasy, unique to the pub The Hawley Arms. It was during this time that she met Blake Fielder-Civil, a charming addict who became the center of Winehouse’s world and her most dangerous addiction.
“Amy changed overnight after she met Blake,” her first manager, Nick Godwyn, told The Times in 2007. “She just sounded completely different. Her personality became more distant. And it seemed to me like that was down to the drugs. When I met her she smoked weed but she thought the people who took class-A drugs were stupid. She used to laugh at them.”
Pain was Winehouse’s muse and her combustible relationship with Fielder-Civil provided plenty of inspiration. He introduced her to heroin and other hard drugs; she had his name tattooed over her right breast and he inked hers behind his right ear. Theirs was an on-and-off relationship at first, as they were frequently separated by his infidelities and stints in prison.
“If you’re a musician, and you have things you want to get out, you write music,” she told an interviewer in 2006. “You don’t want to be settled, because when you’re settled you might as well call it a day.”
To put a finer point on the idea that she sought out chaos, whether through impulse or conscious focus, she also told an interviewer that year that “it sounds such a wank thing to say, but I need to get some headaches goin’ to write about.”
The grief and turmoil fueled her creativity, and the tumult with Fielder-Civil would inspire many of the lyrics in Back in Black, her heartbreak, frustrations, and unhealthy addictions belted out over the sounds of ‘60s girl groups. The most famous of the songs, “Rehab,” would prove to be apocryphal.
Despite several attempts to go to rehab, Winehouse continued to spiral out of control
In the fall of 2005, Godwyn had seen enough of his client and close friend stumbling through Camden and closer and closer to the edge of squandering her talent, not to mention her life. He tried to convince her to go to rehab, but she swore up and down to her father that she didn’t need the detox time, so the effort itself was very short-lived. The song it prompted, however, became Winehouse’s most iconic tune, an anthem for her way of life and ultimate demise.
Winehouse did eventually agree to go to rehab, and more than once, but the months and years in between her brief attempts at sober living were increasingly sordid and sad, filled with private chaos performed for the public. Back in Black was released in the United States in March 2007, at which point she was fully in the grip of drink and drugs. She’d dated a chef named Alex Claire for nine months, which provided a bit more stability, but she ultimately reunited with Fielder-Civil in February, just before her album’s stateside debut.
Magazine profiles documented her inebriated storming of the United States, where she played festivals and made TV appearances that were increasingly erratic and then disastrous. Her U.S. tour was canceled due to “exhaustion.” In October 2007, Winehouse and Fielder-Civil were arrested in Norway for marijuana possession, and in December, she was photographed wandering around Camden in just her bra and jeans, looking emaciated. Soon after, in January 2008, footage of the singer smoking crack showed up in the English tabloid The Sun.
The arrested prompted her first stab at rehab, though not before she performed for the live telecast of the Grammys via remote satellite, as her growing legal problems meant it was impossible for her to get a work visa in time to come back to the U.S.
That night at the Grammys would prove to be the pinnacle of her career, as she won five awards, including the two biggies, Record of the Year and Song of the Year. During the broadcast, she thanked her “Blake, incarcerated,” which served to introduce the rest of the world to her husband, who was in jail due to a bar fight in 2006. Winehouse herself would be arrested several times, for charges that included assaulting a fan, though she never spent time in jail.
Winehouse' blood alcohol level was more than five times the legal limit when she died
The world watched as Winehouse malfunctioned, her saga growing sadder by the month. She fainted in the summer of 2008 and was diagnosed with emphysema, a shocking warning that more smoking and drinking would permanently ruin her natural gifts.
The message didn’t take; Winehouse was booed off the stage at gigs around the world when she was too drunk to perform and canceled more concerts than she played. She left the stage in the middle of a performance in St. Lucia in early 2009, unable to remember lyrics and, in her own words, “bored.” Winehouse’s commitment to record a song for the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace fell through, and while she claimed to have quit doing drugs in 2008, alcohol became her constant companion.
There were bright moments, including performances for Nelson Mandela’s birthday and stretches of sobriety, when she’d begin working on new material and perform in successful concerts and TV broadcasts. But then she’d fall back into her old ways, with more assault charges and personal drama. Fielder-Civil filed for divorce in 2009, citing Winehouse’s infidelity. A new album promised for 2010 never transpired, and aside from a song she recorded with Tony Bennett, she never did record more music.
Winehouse checked back into rehab in the spring of 2011, emerging in May with hope of putting it all back together. But her final performance was a shambolic disaster in Belgrade, Serbia in early June and she was found dead in her dirty, dingy home on July 23. That fall, the coroner announced that she’d died of accidental alcohol poisoning, as her blood alcohol level was .416% at the time of her death.