The Times December 19, 2009
– Ginny Dougary
What must it be like to watch your child’s life spiral into drug-addicted chaos, reported daily by a rapacious press? Mitch Winehouse on the torment of Amy’s self-destruction, its impact on the Winehouse clan, and why he believes she’s finally getting better
Photo – Phil Fisk
So, let’s get the great big elephant out of the room straightaway. Is there something a bit iffy about the way Mitch Winehouse appears to be making a career on the back of his daughter’s demons? What career, you might ask. Well, there are at least two documentaries in the pipeline in which he features large as day, as well as Mitch Winehouse’s Showbiz Rant, an online TV series that films him in his cab sounding off to various celebrity-lite passengers (David Hasselhoff; someone called Shaggy, who was told to take his feet off the seat) – “And don’t get me started on that Lady Gaga…” and so on – and now he’s even recording an album of his own, Rush of Love, due to be released in spring.
Isn’t it a bit weird, I ask him, since he would never have got an album out if… “Never. Not in a million years,” he jumps in. “Course not. I mean, I’m not an idiot. I know that I got the album ’cos I’m Amy’s dad.”
You love the limelight? “That’s a very good question, and you wanna know the truth? I do. There’s no getting away from it, Ginny. But I didn’t ask to go before the Commons select committee [to talk about addiction in families], just like I didn’t ask to go on GMTV or This Morning or Ian Wright’s show. They invited me. What am I supposed to do? Not go? And if I said, ‘I didn’t enjoy it,’ I’d be lying because I do enjoy it. But I don’t want it to come across that I’m big-headed and I love the limelight for the sake of it.”
It was for Amy’s sake, initially – a self-confessed “Daddy’s girl” with those words tattooed on her arm – that her father came to the fore to protest about various untruths, as he sees it, being written about his daughter. And now that the media have got a taste of Mitch, we find him distinctly more-ish. Although it’s debatable how much of that has to do with him being a convenient conduit to channel Amy, whose talent – and, more so, the personal turmoil that threatens to destroy it – makes her such an object of fascination.
For her father, of course, this objectification of Amy is part of the problem. The more insatiable the public interest in the details of her downward spiral, the longer it will take her to recover – or, according to him, stay recovered: “My daughter is a recovering addict. She is not a drug addict now.” He says she has been clean of drugs for a year. A whole year? “Yes, a whole year.” But according to one of the documentary-makers, Daphne Barak, who spent time with father and daughter in St Lucia and later wrote about it, Mitch had said there had been relapses since Christmas and, “She [Amy] didn’t [give up drugs] all of a sudden; she was talking about it for two or three months.”
When he talks to me, however, Mitch’s version of events is rather different. He tells me his daughter declared in August last year, “‘Dad, that’s it. I’m not taking drugs any more. I’m done.’ It did take her a couple of months, but she actually came off them in about October.” Part of me thinks that as Amy’s father, he is entitled to offer whatever edit on his daughter’s progress he wishes. But there is also something Faustian about accepting the role of the singer’s public mouthpiece that makes me want him to be, at least, consistent in what he tells us. At one point, he says apropos of an anecdote about him commanding Mick Jagger to pipe down during one of her performances: “What’s good about it is that it’s a true story. Normally, I make these things up.” Later, I make him swear on his daughter’s love that he hasn’t made up anything in this interview, and he does. So since he seems to me to be a good, warm-hearted bloke, we’ll take him at his word.
Barak, who did not endear herself to either her rival documentary-makers (with their My Daughter Amy as opposed to her Saving Amy) or her subjects, painted a grim portrait of Amy as a tragic child-woman – needy and obnoxious, in turn – who has substituted her drug addiction for alcohol abuse. Is this true? “Well, you know, having spoken to many counsellors and therapists and experts in the field, normally one addiction can follow another. But this isn’t an addiction; it’s just that she drinks too much every now and again,” he says. “It’s not alcoholism. I would say that she doesn’t drink every day, but when she drinks, she drinks a lot.
“But there are also positive addictions, like her gym work. She’s got the physiology – if that’s the right word – of, like, an Olympic athlete. The doctor who saw me last week said: ‘She could go into the Olympics, she’s so fit.’”
Is she happy? “Well… it’s difficult to know really. I mean, she’s my daughter and we’re very close but she’s not gonna tell me her most intimate things.” But does she seem happy to you? “Most of the time.”
Amy has been back in London, from her extended Caribbean sojourn, for about three months, working on songs for her new album and living in Barnet, near her mother. Her father says she wants to move back to Camden. Is that a source of debate for you? (He had earlier in our conversation told me that an addict had to be removed from surroundings that trigger their addiction.) “Well, it’s her choice – she’s 26 years old – and it’s her money.” But the thought of it makes you anxious? “What I was saying to you before – and I’m not talking about Amy, because Amy hasn’t taken drugs for a year – is if anybody wants drugs, they could be in Orkney, the Outer Hebrides, and they’d pick up the phone and within an hour, somebody will be there with drugs. So it doesn’t matter where you are.”
This is not the first time that Mitch seems to contradict himself, but the role of a loving parent in dealing with a child – who remains that father’s child, regardless of his or her age – is, perhaps, necessarily contradictory. You want to protect your daughter from herself, and from those who would prey on her vulnerabilities; you want to protect her from the scrutiny of the public and the press. You consider tough love or maybe that she needs more love. Most of all, it seems – certainly in Mitch’s case – that you want to believe that every small, teetering step towards getting your child back from the possibility of extinction might presage the larger step into her being restored to the blithe, healthy spirit she once was. If his own “recovery” – and it’s interesting that he uses that word for himself – involves a measure of blanking out and delusion (another word he uses), then so be it.
There is a poignant moment when Mitch is crooning some of the songs from his new album (Sinatra, but not the standards; Antônio Carlos Jobim’s How Insensitive; four new songs by Tony “Save Your Kisses for Me” Hiller – “They’re much better than that; more like Cole Porter”) and I ask him whether he has a vocal coach. “I don’t need one,” he says, mock-outraged. “I taught Amy to sing, for God’s sake! She used to stand on the table when she was 2, even younger…and I would sing…” He starts to croon, and I swear there’s a trace of that distinctive, slightly adenoidal Amyness about his voice. “…‘Are the stars out tonight? I don’t know if it’s cloudy or bright/ Cause I only have eyes for…’ and she would sing ‘you’ in her little voice. Oh, she was so cute.”
Any parent can imagine the pain of seeing their child go off the rails so spectacularly. How did that dear little girl end up with blood-stained pumps and wild eyes, scoring drugs from a prostitute, fighting with her (now ex) husband, Blake Fielder-Civil? “I can’t remember how I felt,” he says. “Well, I do remember how I felt; I felt terrible. But part of the way I protect myself, and it’s not only me who does this – it happens with all the families of recovering addicts – is that as things progress positively, they kind of draw veils down a little bit. You can’t forget entirely.”
One of the reasons he agreed to participate in My Daughter Amy, Mitch says, is that although Amy was beginning to emerge “from 18 months of hell”, she was still being portrayed as “‘Junkie Amy’ and ‘Wino’ and all the rest of the stuff they do. And yet Amy was starting to get better, remarkably better, and I felt this was a chance to redress the balance and maybe show how she really is. How she is now.”
Back then, he admits that he did succumb to despair, although he never really could bring himself to believe that Amy might die: “People said that I wrote her obituary. Absolute rubbish.” He took to going to bed with his mobile phone, knowing that it could go at three in the morning. “And I’d be waiting for the phone to ring. But it was almost as bad if it didn’t ring. Because if the phone didn’t ring, why didn’t it ring? Is it because something bad has happened? Is it because it’s been a good night? You know, there is a whole raft of emotions. What I found amazing is that if you had told me about this ten years ago, I wouldn’t have believed it. But you are programmed genetically to protect yourself emotionally and you won’t know that until, God forbid, you are in that situation.
“And delusion is part of the protection. I’ve spoken to literally dozens of families [in therapy groups dealing with addiction], nice middle-class and working-class people, who were normal and didn’t abuse their children, and we have had exactly that conversation – ‘How are you able to cope with this?’ – and part of it is delusion, because how else can you survive? It’s all about very, very small steps forward, the occasional big step backwards, small steps forward… You cling on to little things; little things become massive triumphs.”
I had read that Amy suffered from manic depression but refused to take medication for it. Is that so? “She’s never been diagnosed as a manic depressive. Ever.” Has she ever been thought to be? “Not as far as I know.” Frankly, I would have thought that if there were a possibility that this might be the case, it would have emerged by now. Is there any manic depression in the family? “I’m pretty sure there’s none.” What about addictive behaviour? “Kindly leave my Uncle Alfie out of this, please,” he says crossly. Sorry? “Nah, that’s a line from Hancock… ‘Is there any insanity in your family?’ ‘Please can you leave my Uncle Whatever out of this.’”
What about his own experience of drugs?
“I once took a puff of a marijuana whatever – reefer – and I thought, ‘Why is everyone going mad? This is rubbish.’ I’d rather go and eat a bagel [which he pronounces ‘bygel’, very Yiddishly] or something.” Drink? “I have a glass of wine every now and then.”
I ask how many times Amy has done rehab but, apparently, she really meant it when she sang, “No! No! No!” “Yeah, she’s got a thing about it… I don’t know why, ’cos there’s obviously hundreds of thousands of cases of people going into rehab and having marvellous results,” her dad says.
“She’s had counselling and therapy but she’s got this thing about being able to sort a lot out in her own mind. You could argue that it wouldn’t work for everybody, but at the moment it’s working for her.”
So what’s his explanation for Amy’s descent? “I would say that she couldn’t deal with fame and in her mind, she had image problems, which she shouldn’t have done ’cos she’s lovely, and at the time that she was vulnerable, she met Blake who, in my mind, fed on that vulnerability and, you know, it was, ‘I love you, darling. Here’s some drugs.’” (Blake has admitted that he introduced Amy to crack and heroin.)
Is he totally out of the picture now? “Hope so. It will be a disaster if he’s not out of the picture.” Do you have anything to do with him or his family? “None whatsoever. I think his family saw [us as] a fantastic opportunity.”
Isn’t there talk about a book coming out? “You’re kidding! See what I mean? Now why would anybody be interested in a book that that woman [his mother] is going to write about her son, who is a criminal? He’s a drug addict, he’s a liar. He kicked someone in the head [so hard that the victim’s face had to be reconstructed], he tried to pervert the course of justice and his mother’s going to write a book about him?”
No, I think he was going to write a book (which was to have been a joint effort with his ex); that’s what I read anyway. “He’s gonna write a book? What’s he gonna write a book about?” My life with Amy? My drugs hell? “OK, that’s up to him. We need the money; we’ll be able to sue him. Jesus Christ. I think I have heard something about this before. It’s pathetic. Anyway, I don’t want to get aggravated by it.”
It’s only at the end of the interview that Mitch mentions that for the past two years – precipitated by Amy’s annus (or so) horribilis – he has suffered from panic attacks that have made it impossible for him to drive his cab. “If I heard over the radio that the traffic was gridlocked, it would come on,” he says. Now he’s worried that if he took a passenger, he might have forgotten the best way to go. Anyway, as he admits, he’s no longer reliant on cabbing for an income since he and Janis (Amy’s mum, his ex, who suffers from multiple sclerosis) now run their daughter’s business, which is worth £5 million – half of what it was the previous year. (So, this is what Mitch meant when he said, “We need the money.”)
When we had started talking about Amy’s troubles, he said that, “My own feeling is that Amy was affected by Janis’s and my break-up [when Amy was 9], although my son [Alex] and daughter saw even more of me. In the end, they said, ‘Dad, you really don’t have to come here every day!’ But I couldn’t be without them. I had to see them every day – which was causing Janis problems. But, obviously, when I left home I was guilt-ridden; not because of Janis, but because of the children. Although it was definitely the right thing to do.”
Had you been arguing a lot? “No, you couldn’t argue with Janis. She’s such a lovely, well-centred person.” But unfortunately you had fallen in love with someone else (Jane, who worked with him in a double-glazing business and to whom he has been married ever since)? “Exactly. It happens. But Amy has known Jane since she was 18 months old and she loved her then and she does now. Everyone loves Jane. Janis loves Jane. They all love each other! It’s fantastic!”
He comes from a huge Jewish family – tailors on his mother’s side; barbers and cabbies on his father’s – and was brought up not far from where we are conducting our interview in a film production office in Commercial Street, East London. “We had six people living in a house, including my uncle, my great-grandmother, my grandmother, my aunty, and a lodger from the Holocaust who lived upstairs, and everyone was kissing and cuddling you. It was great in those days.
“And when you come from the East End, you do whatever you can to protect your family. When we moved to Southgate in North London, we were the only Jewish family there and they thought Jews had horns in their heads or something. So I was fighting all the time – that’s what you did, when we were kids. I’m not a tough guy or anything like that, but I know how to protect my family.”
When were you last in a fight? “In a fight?! I’m 59 years old! If I had a fight now I’d die. In a fight? About 20 years ago.” He does admit to throwing Pete Doherty out on his ear, when Amy was late for a gig and our Rimbaud wannabe was sprawled on her bed, being creative. When I ask Mitch what he thinks of Pete, his answer is succinct: “He’s an a***hole, but an enormously talented a***hole.” The problem for Mitch is that Pete’s attitude towards drugs is the same as his former son-in-law’s, who once told him: “I don’t want to give up drugs. I like them.”
Nick Cave – a reformed junkie – told me he used to feel much the same way. But he also said, “I think the heroin addict becomes one in order to separate himself from the rest of society. It’s a very masochistic act. For a long time, it served me well, but there did come a point when it became intolerable. When it became clear that it was interfering with things that were ultimately more important to me – like my artistic aspirations.”
Cave was a good deal older than Winehouse when he finally came to that conclusion, and it takes a certain level of maturity to weigh up your priorities in life. Amy has had a number of serious health scares – such as the threat of emphysema – but is she evolved enough to comprehend that her significant talent is worth fighting for, let alone her own health?
It’s worth reminding ourselves of her triumphs before her (hopefully short-lived) fall. Her debut album, Frank, in 2003, was critically acclaimed and was nominated for the Mercury Prize. With Back to Black, its follow-up in 2006, she became the first British singer to win five Grammys, including Best New Artist, Record of the Year and Song of the Year. In 2007, she won the Brit award for best British female artist. She has won the Ivor Novello songwriting award three times.
Her dad loves Frank: “It was a much better time for her. The songs were great, innocent-ish. Back to Black obviously sold three trillion copies or whatever but, of course, to me, I can’t play the album any more because a lot of the songs are about Blake. ‘If my man were fighting’ – I mean how great is this – ‘If my man were fighting/ Some unholy war/ I would be beside him.’ But she’s talking about depression, ’cos he’s not around and whatever, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘Well, I don’t wanna listen to this album much any more.’ It reminds me of a really bad time and part of my recovery is to put that aside.”
He wasn’t best pleased when he first heard What Is It About Men?, with its stinging lyrics: “Understand, once he was a family man/ So surely I would never, ever go through it first hand/ Emulate all the s*** my mother hated.” “I thought, ‘How dare you?’ and when I read it, I thought, ‘You’ve got it bang on.’ ‘All the s*** my mother hated’ – perfect. Absolutely perfect. The way she encapsulated it in a sentence. At least I’m big enough to admit it.”
He’s heard some lines from a new song, Queen of Spades, Amy wrote for her paternal grandmother, Cynthia (teenage sweetheart of the late jazzman, Ronnie Scott), whose death three years ago was thought to have contributed to her granddaughter’s descent: “She was a massive influence on Amy because she brought the kids up when we worked.”
They’ve been talking quite a lot about songwriting recently; perhaps working on his own album is giving Mitch some ideas of his own. “What she does is carry loads of books around with her all the time, and I say to her, ‘What are you doing?’ and she says, ‘I’m just writing’. So when she’s gonna write the album, she does it in a month. She writes little stanzas which she uses and goes back to.
“Actually, you tend to forget… because to me, she’s Amy, my daughter, I tend to forget that she’s actually a genius. And those aren’t my words. She’s got people thinking she’s a genius and it’s not the singing so much as the songs. I say to her, ‘Amy, when you write a song, what do you do first? Do you write the music or do you write the lyrics?’ And she looks at me, like to say, ‘Aw, Dad!’, like I should know! So with Rehab, it’s re-hab – bah, bah. ‘They tried to make me go to re-hab,’” he sings rather unconvincingly, à la Matt Monro, “so she’s explaining to me about beats, but I’m still not quite sure what she does.”
What parts of you do you see in her? (They are remarkably similar physically around the eyes and strong eyebrows.) “She never gives in, ever. She’s resolute and brave and – although, obviously, there is a weakness in her character – nothing can beat her down when she sets her mind on it. And she’s got a great sense of humour. Like me, she’s a great practical joker. I mean, with us it’s like a fine art.”
Mitch is obviously partial, but Lily Allen said something similar: “I know Amy Winehouse well. And she is very different to what people portray her as being. Yes, she does get out of her mind on drugs sometimes, but she is also a very clever, intelligent, witty, funny person who can hold it together. You just don’t see that side.”
What would he wish for his daughter if he could wave a magic wand? “What I would want her to be is as she is – a normal, lovely person with a loving family – and to find a man, or a woman, if she wants…” Oh! Is she…? “No, no, no, no! A person she loves and who loves her and who cherishes her and wants to have children with her. That’s what I hope and I don’t care about her career. Well, I do care about her career, but it’s secondary. In other words, I’d prefer it if she had a normal life being a normal person, but she’s not.”
Finally, what does he think Amy’s new album will be about? Might there be any sunny songs? “I doubt that for one second! Every song Amy writes is like… [He sticks an imaginary knife into his substantial tum and circles around as though he is eviscerating his entrails.] In Yiddish, it’s ‘schlapping your kishkas [your insides] out’. Amy’s a great one for schlapping her kishkas – because every song is, like, heartbreak… sorrow… depression,” he thumps out the words. “She’s never gonna write a song about, ‘You look lovely in the moonlight, my darling, give me a kiss.’ I mean, that’s just never gonna happen, is it?”
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My Daughter Amy is on at 7.30pm on January 8, 2010, on Channel 4, made by Transparent Television. Mitch Winehouse’s Showbiz Rant is on livingtv.co.uk every Wednesday