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Why I Cried About Amy Winehouse

I'm not famous and I don't do drugs. And I identified with Amy Winehouse all the same.

By E.J. Dickson

Last Saturday, after I found out from Twitter that Amy Winehouse had died, I spent the rest of the afternoon in bed watching YouTube clips of her early performances, eating a block of cheddar cheese, and crying. Considering I had never met her, or even listened to her records in the last six months, my reaction might seem excessive. It shouldn't even have been a surprise — at the time of her death, Winehouse was far more famous for her personal issues — her heroin addiction, her tumultuous relationship with ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil, her spitting attacks on ample-bottomed English socialite Pippa Middleton — than her prodigious singing or songwriting talents.

Yet for whatever reason — sadness, shock, the effects of cheddar-cheese hormones on my endocrine system — I spent a good part of the afternoon quite upset. And as I watched her belt out "You Know I'm No Good" on Top of the Pops, followed by her most recent performance of the same song at Belgrade, I figured out why. I was not sad for Amy Winehouse as a fan, but because I strongly identified with her on many levels. In a strange way, she felt like a talented, famous, drug-addled version of myself. Thousands of people probably felt the exact same way, particularly if they, like me, listened to Back to Black incessantly after it came out and sported black bras under wife-beaters during the summer of 2007. 

I will never come close to encountering the demons that haunted Winehouse throughout most of her adult life — crack cocaine, knife fights with boyfriends, physical dependence on copious amounts of liquid eyeliner. Nor do I have an iota of the talent, musical or otherwise, that she had, and so I'll never achieve the same level of success that she did. (It's safe to say that if I'm ever found dead in my apartment at the age of twenty-seven, no one will ever compare me to those other illustrious members of the twenty-seven club, Jim or Janis or Jimi; I'll be lucky if I get Pete Ham or Kristen Pfaff.)

She wore her indecisiveness and poor judgment proudly, like a full-body tattoo.

But, like Amy, I grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish home, with a supportive mother and a loving father who provided my first exposure to the music of his generation: classic rock, pop, soul, R&B, and to a lesser extent, jazz. Like her, I was interested in writing and performing from a young age, and like hers, my family was unwavering in its support. And, as a few of my friends have pointed out, I even bore a passing physical resemblance to Winehouse, which is just another way of saying that we were both pasty and relatively large-breasted and obviously Jewish.

So when I first read about Amy in a 2006 Rolling Stone profile, I felt the tug of a connection to her. For an unconventional-looking, mouthy, fucked-up Jewish girl with performing-arts aspirations, the way I felt about Amy Winehouse was akin to the way I imagine little black boys felt in the '40s when Jackie Robinson started playing for the Dodgers, or how women in law school felt when Sandra Day O'Connor became the first female Supreme Court justice.

Granted, Amy Winehouse was not Rosa Parks, but here was a famous member of the tribe who was allowed to pursue a path other than summer camp in the Adirondacks and a major in public relations at UMich or Indiana and a nose job for her nineteenth birthday. Here was someone who routinely described herself as "a nice Jewish girl," but of course was anything but, whose bad behavior — spitting at debutantes, swigging Jameson between sets, cupping her boyfriend's balls during interviews — was truly a shanda fur die goy. (I took a semester of Yiddish in college.) 

Commentarium (55 Comments)

Jul 28 11 - 4:47pm

This was really nice, and beautifully written. Cheers.

Jul 28 11 - 10:56pm

agreed, very well - written and totally resonates with how i felt that day, too. but, "ample-bottomed" and "Pippa Middleton" keep echoing over and over in my head and i'm all, "whaaat, whaaaat?".

Jul 30 11 - 12:12pm

lol, you took the words right out of my mouth. I'm not a hater, I appreciate a nicely shaped womanly form when there is one...but that girl has absolutely no bottom..and I'm so confused how this has been an ongoing thing circling the interwebs...

Jul 28 11 - 6:28pm

How about crying for the untold deaths in Africa every day.

Jul 28 11 - 6:46pm
Red Dragon

Well, for starters, none of them has recorded a duet with Tony Bennett.

Jul 28 11 - 8:01pm

Why don't you write an article about it? Include links to the aid organization of your choice. Do something for a cause you care about instead of telling someone else to do your bidding.

Jul 28 11 - 8:49pm

Oh, I don't give a damn about the untold deaths in Africa every day. I'm just saying, if you don't want to cry for Amy Winehouse, here's an alternative. Just trying to be helpful.

Jul 28 11 - 9:59pm

That's not clever or funny, that's just dumb. I'm sitting here at my computer, embarrassed for you right now. You have to come up with better material.

Jul 29 11 - 12:34pm

With a name like 'NickingFuts' what do you expect?

Jul 30 11 - 4:44am

Not a hell of a lot, hey?

Jul 31 11 - 4:25pm

Amazingly, humans are capable of lamenting tragedies of vastly different magnitudes simultaneously. This essay is gorgeous. It doesn't distract from nor alleviate that 11 million in the Horn of Africa are living in famine conditions. But that wasn't the point.

Jul 28 11 - 7:41pm
Tom Paine

Ugh. The stone-age "tribal" obsession has gotten really old and bloody destructive. If Amy Winehouse was "just" a tragically talented Londoner of, oh let's say, West Indian ancestry, would you still have felt this and written this, E.J.?

Try this little experiment: Next time you feel compelled to write about one of "the tribe", leave the secret handshakes out and pretend we're all just human beings, none more "chosen" than others. You might find it a relief.

RIP Amy.

Jul 28 11 - 7:48pm

I don't really see your point. There was no destructive message here, no degradation of outsiders. People will always want to be a part of a community; shared identity can be a beautiful thing. A support system, a set of idols and inspiration, or just a sense of not being so tiny and alone in the world.

Jul 28 11 - 7:56pm
Tom Paine

No accounting for taste, I guess. Still, no need for the exclusive "tribal" connection here. If Amy's losing struggle with reconciling her strengths and weaknesses isn't enough to draw EJ and the rest of us in then we're screwed.

Ethnocentrism is boring and barbaric.

Jul 28 11 - 8:56pm

Where can we all send our drafts for your approval?

Jul 28 11 - 11:19pm

Sorry, dude, you should have been born in 1900. You could join Lenin's army to spread your anti-ethnic ideals. News Flash: Jews don't have to hide anymore.

Jul 29 11 - 8:27am
Tom Paine

You need to read your Russian history more carefully. Pay better attention this time to Lenin and Trotsky's background, the ethnic makeup of the Bolsheviks and allied Communist movements in Eastern Europe, which religions they outlawed (and which they did not), which places of worship they dynamited (and which they did not) and who they slaughtered or dispossessed. The obsessively self-referencing "tribe"'s trouble came when FDR's buddy, Uncle Joe Stalin, decided that ethnic and tribal loyalties were a threat to him, the party and national unity. Purging much of the "tribe" from the party apparatus solidified Stalin's power... but ticked off a lot of people on the Lower East Side. The moral of the story: Tribalism is poisonous in the life of multi-ethnic nations and in already weak music/lifestyle essays. The plain old humanist angle works better in both cases.

Jul 29 11 - 8:33am

Wow, that was almost COMPLETELY incoherent. It would've saved you a lot of trouble and brainpower to have just written, "I'm a rabid anti-Semite."

Jul 29 11 - 8:58am
Tom Paine

The real or imagined tribal "connection" in the essay is one of it's many distracting weaknesses. It was used as a self-obsessed substitute for artsy, edgy child of a respectable middle-class family. It added nothing of value to draw most readers in. If we care about Winehouse at all, it's as a fellow human being. No tribal ID card necessary. But, Dog, if you love the empty ethnic link meme, explain why. Maybe, the tribal thing IS the only connection between author and subject. And quit the adolescent name-calling.

Jul 29 11 - 9:17am

Holy hot christ, some people will find a reason to take offense to almost anything. Did you seriously feel "excluded"? Is it really "bloody destructive"? Are you absolutely sure you aren't just an angry human being who get's their thrills writing self-victimizing screeds in internet comment sections?

Jul 29 11 - 9:29am
Tom Paine

I take it you find the hollow ethnic "connection" in the essay one of its strengths. Please explain its appeal. And yes, in the Middle East, in "our" foreign policy, and even in formerly idyllic Norway, this primitive groupism is "bloody destructive." We all ought to give it up and emphasize our commonality. Does this perspective make you angry at me?

Jul 29 11 - 1:31pm

T-Paine, are you playing devil's advocate here? I like your message about emphasizing cooperative humanity over divisive differences, and I see your point about Jewishness not being intrinsic to this essay, since the author didn't say much that qualified her shared experiences with Amy Winehouse as particularly Jewish in nature (other than by dropping the word "Jewish" a whole bunch). But would you really tell all writers everywhere to leave their ethnic ID cards at home? What about gender ID cards, or socioeconomic ID cards, or geographical ID cards? We may all be human, but we sure don't always have the same experiences. Recognizing this seems fundamental to bridging the distance between people, as long as people are engaged in trying to find out what those other experiences are. Aren't memoirs all about pointing to highly idiosyncratic individual experiences in the hopes that readers can both (a) find out what it's like to be someone else, and (b) find that other people are way relatable?

Jul 29 11 - 2:42pm
Tom Paine

Rachel, I agree with everything you wrote. If the real or imagined ethno-religious "connection" between these two strangers, dead celebrity and sad writer, had deepened the insight into the meaning of the tragic demise, then, of course, I'm all for it. But in this case, it only highlighted the author's shallowness and self-indulgence. Now, if they had both been... Rotarians... or left-handed, that would have been a connection to write home about. Peace.

Jul 29 11 - 3:22pm

i take it you and the author had a messy breakup?

Jul 30 11 - 1:15pm

Tom Paine, you should really be using quotation marks, the words "tribe", "tribal", "connection" more.

Aug 11 11 - 7:46pm

How about this? Get your own holocaust and then don't be proud of your people and sense of belonging to a community that has gone through a lot of shit. Or don't and spit on a pretty cool, well-written and well-meaning article. Fucking hater. You're just pissed because you're a European mutt with no connections to anything. #notjewishbutalsonotadouche

Jul 28 11 - 7:54pm

So tired of hearing about this culture vulture crackhead.

Jul 28 11 - 10:24pm

Then don't click on links with her name in the title.

Jul 28 11 - 8:00pm

It just occurred to me, and obviously I don't know enough about her to really know what I'm talking about, but when you hear her issues laid out like that... it sounds like she had ADD.

Regardless -- this was really beautiful, and what happened was awful. But I do think, in death, it's become evident that her musical successes have far outshadowed her substance abuse.

Jul 28 11 - 8:03pm

I'm so upset that somebody I don't know died! boo hoo hoo

Jul 28 11 - 8:24pm


Jul 28 11 - 8:47pm

Yes, really.

Jul 28 11 - 10:48pm

Better than James Franco... oh wait............

Jul 28 11 - 8:48pm

Beautiful piece..there will always be paines in the ass...identifying with Amy's soul like this, and being able to express and share with all is a gift..thanks EJ

Jul 28 11 - 8:54pm

So sad, just a human...flawed like the rest of us. I am deeply moved.

Jul 28 11 - 10:08pm
HipHop Hippo

Beautiful piece, but nobody, NOBODY, can top Patti Smith.


Aug 01 11 - 10:31am

Beautifully written. While I didn't even know of her existence your article displays a refreshing ability to observe and communicate in a most sensitive manner the struggles of another human being's life. Well done EJ!

Jul 29 11 - 1:01am
I think

"spit at Pippa Middleton" should become a common euphemism. But what for...?

Jul 29 11 - 8:24am


"I'll be right back, I'm head to the loo to spit at Pippa."

Jul 29 11 - 1:18pm

In other news, I wasn't sad til I realized someone else was.

Spit at Pippa= Masturbation. I second that.

Jul 29 11 - 2:26pm

I bet this writer has a very small squirrel face.

Jul 29 11 - 3:00pm

I accept! What are the terms of our bet?

Jul 29 11 - 6:46pm

She actually does not, checked her facebook

Jul 30 11 - 1:25pm

I WIN! What do I win?

Jul 29 11 - 4:11pm

There is a time and place to spit at poppa...has a nice ring to it.

Jul 29 11 - 4:42pm
G Unit

My fantasy dead pool is "WINNING"

Jul 29 11 - 6:46pm

brilliant piece, EJ

Jul 30 11 - 7:11am

Brilliant read, thank you :)

Jul 30 11 - 6:53pm

This was a lovely and fascinating read. Fantastic writing.

Jul 31 11 - 4:29pm

E.J., your essay is gorgeous and contains one of the most eloquent final paragraphs I've encountered. Some comments here are insightful and compassionate; others are laughably stupid. Stick to what you're doing: your essay indicates you're vastly more talented than you realize. Screw anyone who says otherwise.

Jul 31 11 - 5:53pm

your glamorizing the death of a hack singer, who simply emulated other genuine singers of days gone by, she was a vulgar drunken waste of time. People are commenting on your eloquence? "who would not want to spit at pippa middleton?" eloquence... really?

Jul 31 11 - 8:14pm

"Still, even when she was making a mess, it seemed to me that she was somehow okay; at least making a mess proves that you're still kicking."- beautifully written.

Aug 01 11 - 6:44am

I couldn't cry about Amy Winehouse. I was too busy crying over the tragedy in Oslo.

Aug 01 11 - 11:42am

And yet, it didn't have the slightest impact on me.

Aug 03 11 - 8:29pm

I came, I read, I enjoyed. I enjoyed more this comment section chock full of characters. I don't know you but I think you are a gifted writer. Keep at it. Sidebar... I just can't understand meth-crack-alcohol heads period. Really what were her "issues?" siigh and Shalom y'all. (How's that for ADD, that's a tribe I'm down with.) xoxo

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