What a strange feeling to watch Mitch Winehouse, father of the Amy who died young, telling the camera after her death how he felt it was not his place to save her. You can’t force treatment on somebody, he says. Meantime he is running the Amy Winehouse Foundation, his income derived from her work. After everything that’s happened, still an unawakened person: living in an unreflecting stupor, so it seemed, entirely selfish, he has milked his cow to death and still has no idea what went down, or who she was, or what life is like for a sensitive – that is, a wakeful – person.
It is cold in Berlin at night the end of the summer, I drew my feet up on the chair. Two dogs kept tangling in a hassle of growls every time someone got up to buy a beer. Would be great, said the announcer in English and in German, if you could all carry your deckchairs over to the stacks afterwards, and bring your ashtrays back. Her fingers tangling in her afro loomed larger behind her like fame.
The last film I saw here, a month ago, was about another tormented musical artist: Brian Wilson. I remember afterwards standing in the queue laughing as though crying again, watching all the Germans patiently waiting, chairs folded, to hand back their deckchairs to the two fellows rapidly stacking and folding.
Today I discovered I have cried so much in the last week that the skin round my nostrils is all chapped and eroded. Standing in front of the mirror rubbing oil into it in little tiny circles I was thinking of the psychologist I spoke to on Friday, a much younger woman I have met a few times now, who is Danish. We speak in English. She said, I am sorry that these sessions just involve an hour and after that I have to let you walk out into the world all alone. I wish I could come with you for a few hours, and spend the afternoon beside you, just sitting with you. “There is nothing I would like more,” she said. I walked across the bare floor of the old sewing factory to the bathroom and dunked my face in the cold water several times, patting down the aggrieved and swollen skin, the red. I tipped my bag onto the floor and twenty-one sodden tissues rolled out on the tile. Later that night woken by street noise and unable to stop from weeping I rang my parents’ house. It was 3am here, there almost noon. “Have you tried concentrating on the positive things in life?” My dad searched for something to say when I became so entrailed in sobs I no longer could speak. “I meant to tell you,” he said, “about the friend from Engineers Australia I ran into at the spinal clinic. Lovely bloke. But he has broken his neck and now he’s paralysed from the neck down.”
Amy Winehouse’s ex husband, the reprehensible Blake Incarcerated, lounged in his splendid corner chair. He was being made up for a biopic about his famous wife, had filled out, was feeling self-assured. He spoke about himself and then rolled on over her, already dead. Wha’ I fought was, he said Londonishly, the emblem of fake punk, I’m earning good money now, I’m a good looking man, I dress well – what ve hell am I doin’ wasting my time wiv ‘er? He had drawn her into the tiny heroin room, and left her there. In the film she climbed onstage, booed by the people who’d been chanting her name, and began beseechingly hugging one big black man after another – musicians who reminded her, I would imagine, of one of her only true friends, a bodyguard who used to stop her from going out for more booze. Her girlhood friend’s voice broke describing how they had rung the father imploring him, please, do not let her tour. But she ‘ad commitments, innit. So he put his wretched daughter, skinny and cowering, on stage in Belgrade, where she stood trembling and evasive until she was booed off.
In the audience, no one stirred. Five hundred people in a pervasive stillness. A slight wind rattled the screen. In eerie silence they showed slowly the unhappy photographs she had taken of herself in her house in a daze, a woman hounded on the street. She only had to show her face at a window to be blinded all over by mega flash bulbs. Her husband himself and her father, deserter of his family when his daughter was ten, are in their own ways mega-flash bulbs, though dim: yet both have survived and now flourish on the messy heap of her memory and her fame.
The story was heartbreaking and base. A person eaten alive by the public, undefended by her nearest loves. We were aware in our deckchairs that we had all feasted on her, like Marilyn, like Diana. We are entitled to feed on the female: the role of a woman is to cater our eye.
We are a cruel culture. We trash the wild. This outdoor cinema is set up in the green in front of a famous smoking squat, where rivers of drugs have been consumed. It now houses galleries, the summer cinema, and a restaurant which is always booked out. The queue round the corner to see this girl’s life, the silence that spread from one person to another, a searching in the self and a tribute. The film makers pieced it all delicately together from the home movies she’s left behind – and from footage in the vocal booth – and from interviews with those who loved her and those who exploited her gift.
Gift in German means poison. Tony Bennett said, she had the true jazz voice. Jazz singers don’t want to be up in front of 50,000 people.
A breeze stirred the trees in the prolongued, painful silence. It was cold and growing dark around half a moon. We were Berliners, many of us people who have tried at some stage to suicide by substance. Four lights came on in the big house, a hospital before. She drank so much that her heart just stopped. The treetops stood there stately, shaking a little. I drew a sigh in the immaculate silence.