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Back to Black

04 Aug Posted by in Jewelle Gomez | 11 comments
Back to Black

I had hoped that Amy Jade Winehouse would be one of those who made it out of the frightening forest of addiction and emotional instability.  It’s not unusual for the indiscretions of artists and performers to be tracked and publicized…it goes with the territory.  But I was often surprised at how people revealed their own limitations with their responses to the limitations of others.

My brother’s ex-wife (fortunately) said once she would never watch actor Stacey Keach because of his conviction for possessing marijuana.  Recently a friend said casually she couldn’t stand Amy Winehouse because she was celebrating her addiction and whatever happened she got what she deserved.  It made me wonder if these people had never made mistakes, gotten hurt, felt tortured or miserable?  And did they have as strong a reaction to serial rapists?  To war mongers?

I am not prone to prayer but I know I sent positive thoughts out to the cosmos for Robert Downey, Jr. I want him to keep beating his addictions as much as I’d always hoped my Aunt Jo would beat hers.

The triumph of Drew Barrymore over her addictions is a good thing just as anyone’s.  Stars have the advantage of paying for rehab, but they do it in public with a barrage of negativity which is unsettling.  When I see the misery of addicts on the street I hope there is someone, somewhere who has not given up on them like people seem eager to do.

I don’t know that AJW was an abused child or neglected or any of the things that led to the dysfunction of her life.  I don’t need to rummage through her closets and find excuses for her humiliating behaviour or her untimely death.

I would like to mention a couple of things though: she was the first British female singer to win five Grammys with her amazingly compelling 2006 album, ‘Back to Black.’  The album’s popularity helped to keep Universal’s Music Division afloat, kind of like blues empress, Ma Rainey’s albums helped save Columbia Records in the 1920s.

Winehouse’s style led to the popularity of current favorite British ‘soul’ singers like Adele and Duffy.  Her eye make up and bouffant hair were an homage to the ‘60s girl groups, especially the Ronettes.  And her singing was as good as any of them.

I’d hoped to hear more of her work; and that she’d figure out the path out of that dense forest.  Even with the ongoing support of those of us who loved her, my Aunt Jo never did. I’ll never know what it is that makes one person resilient enough to recover and leaves others to languish in what seems like a living hell.

Amy Jade Winehouse was young, talented and troubled. Hearing people (who didn’t know her) dismiss her death (or Marilyn Monroe’s or Billie Holiday’s) feels like it diminishes who we are as people.  We don’t have to celebrate the mistakes others make but we can celebrate a star that flashes through the sky.  So I put some Winehouse on a CD alongside the legendary Sarah Vaughn, another troubled singer who died too young, and sing along really loud in my car.  The art lives.

Jewelle Gomez is the author of 7 books including the lesbian vampire classic novel, The Gilda Stories.  Her new play about James Baldwin will be produced in September 2011. Follow her on Twitter: VampyreVamp.  Or her website:


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  • epochalipsnow says:

    Jewelle, I love your viewpoint on this…Amy Winehouse was amazing. Addiction is a complicated issue, and I find it interesting that many addicts are brilliant artists. I think its about being a spiritual seeker somehow and getting stuck along their path. Bravo!

  • MauiHeBro says:

    Jewelle: Thank you so much for your tender, right-on piece. So many of the post-mortem bios and obits have been too focused on the disease that killed AJW instead of the gifts that gave meaning to her life. Yours is one of the best depictions of why her life and death hurt so, so much. Hopefully, even the hope-to-die-dopefiend who dies alone on the corner is mourned by someone. AJW’s fame and talent make her death no more tragic than your Aunt Jo’s or my Uncle Dickie’s–dying of a treatable disease is utterly heartbreaking.

    It’s impossible for anyone to know another’s demons, insecurities and the true extent of his/her self-loathing. It’s too easy to conceal. Whatever the source of her pain, AJW tried, like millions of addicts and alcoholics before her, to extinguish it with booze and drugs, but the disease won. I believe that the sensitivity and vulnerability that made her such a compelling artist was exactly what mitigated against her recovery. She would have had to deal with all of that pain–that was so palpable, it was like an aura surrounding her–straight, with no buffer if she wanted to get clean. AJW clearly, after leaving rehab, again just 6 weeks prior, wasn’t able, for whatever reason, to handle that prospect.

    Another preventable alcoholic death isn’t shocking–as her publicist said, at the time– except in the persistent ignorance attached to the disease, but it is almost unbearably sad. Thanks, Jewelle, for lending your prodigious talents and unique voice to this incredibly important topic and AJW’s rare talent and memory.

    With love and gratitude,


  • Pirl Harbour says:


    Sara Vaughan died at the age of 66. Did you just think that is still young? People are living so much longer that I can see it as a possibility. Although we say that she died young, I think that she came to the end of her life and so sadly let it go for reasons we will never understand and do not need to know. Her music is alive and well.

  • Pirl Harbour says:


    Excuse me please for not spelling your name correctly. I also wanted to add that Sara Vaughan died of lung cancer. Professionally Sara was able to give so much, she reached her artistic pinnacle and then some.

    Unfortunately Winehouse left us without reaching her artistic maturity. Or then again, she had nothing more to give and so left.

    Whatever the reason the pain is just as great.

  • Hi, Thanks for catching that! I really meant Dinah Washington!! I can’t believe I let that slip. I think I got intrigued by the photo of Sarah Vaughn!!! But Dinah was a troubled soul and died at 39 of drug poisoning. UGH! I just hate these kind of losses! Any way THANKS! and maybe I’ll do something on Dinah now.

  • aleada says:

    nice tribute to both artists. i have asked harsh character judges what they would do if they had a severe addiction? currentlty, we lock most of them up for many years even here in “liberal” california. Even our last 3 presidents (including present) have all admitted doing “illegal drugs”. Then have nerve to prosecute small time users on a federal level. Maybe some people would be more empathetic if she had a legal pill overdose like heath ledger, elvis presley or marilyn monroe. only wierd thing about article is Sarah Vaughn is amazing but did not die young – perhaps b4 her time but not young – she had a career alone that was longer than Amy’s entire life. kudos 2 u n yr tribute 😉

  • Alicia Orozco says:

    Thank you for this wonderful piece. I agree with you. This was a talented woman who left us too soon. I also hoped that she would find peace and continue to give us such joy with her voice. When I heard the news of her death I felt very sad. Where is our humanity? There is a saying “but for the grace of go there go I.” None of us can be sure what life holds for us so don’t throw the first stone.

  • rachel wahba says:

    thanks for this jewelle
    i loved and love amy w.

  • Gina says:

    There but for the Grace….Go I. <3

  • […] you to Pirl Harbour for the comment on my blog about Amy Jade Winehouse   (I like to use her full name to separate the artist and person from the object that we and the […]

  • Mary M. Messer says:

    Jewell, AJW didn’t deserve an untimely death. Have been clean & sober 25 years and remain grateful. Why me and not someone else? Will never know. AJW had a tremendous talent and we have lost that talent too too young. No telling what she could have created.