Amy Winehouse - Gifted, but a loser in the fame game

Published: 28 July 2011
by RICHARD OSLEY, PAVAN AMARA and ROISIN GADELRAB

WHEN the hairy stories of Amy Winehouse are told and retold in the decades to come, when the inevitable books are written and the films are made, the cartoon of a woman collapsing under the weight of drug and drink addiction will dominate.

It is true she often ate up that role, sometimes her eyes bulged out of the tabloids, sometimes she spat and snarled at the paparazzi.

And for that, there will be some who have little sympathy for the demise of a caricature derided as “Amy Wino”. Others will question too why at a time of international tragedy and scything cuts to public services at home, a woman who appeared to do little to help herself has attracted so much newsprint.

But in Camden Town, the place she made home with a magnetic devotion, she is held for the most part in high affection, a tormented talent who will not just be recalled for the hazy nights and cokey quarrels.

In fact, in these streets, the 27-year-old won’t simply be remembered for her breathtaking abil­ity as a musician either, even if admirers of her Grammy-winning jazz and soul are concentrated as greatly here as anywhere.

As the shrine of flowers, kiddy drawings and beer cans mount outside her house in Camden Square, the New Journal has found in the Camden Town streets where everybody vaguely knows everybody, people are recalling the superstar in their midst as a sweet-hearted neighbour rather than the lout in the tabloids. If she was a mess-up, she was their mess-up.

Our interviews since her death on Saturday and recollections from the newspaper’s reporters who have covered Camden Town during the “Winehouse years”, uncovers a troubled but caring woman who seemed frustrated by the impossibility of returning to the life she led before the rush of fame.

More than once it has been suggested she would have loved to have taken the night off from being Amy Winehouse – and headed off to see unsigned bands at somewhere like the Dublin Castle in Parkway. Like the old days of her youth, before Back To Black, before Rehab. She certainly felt unfulfilled at being somebody simply stared at, as if all people wanted was a waxwork beehive to photograph.

The journey to that farce, from her start as a cheeky-eyed stage-school graduate with a voice that knocked her peers out of the park, had many ups, but a painful number of downs which no young singer should want to replicate.

And there is, for those feeling sentimental this week, no escaping that at many times she presented like a walking brochure of drug abuse, a terrible example.

With that miserable reputation, she risked heightening Camden Town’s own fame as a place where menacing substances are transferred casually and consumed with dangerous abandon.

For those who retain affection for the place as a meeting point for musical brilliance, tension of this kind has always existed, a see-saw between crea­tivity and some truly ridiculous tales of excess.

Camden Town’s own musical history is not simply written in smudges of cocaine, heroin and crack, and ­neither was Amy Winehouse’s life.

As he stood in Camden Square on Monday morning, Mitch Winehouse, her father, said: “Amy was about one thing: love.”

Key to this thesis was   a natural friendliness unseen by the national press but talked about in abundance locally these past few days. Amy, for want of a better description, gave people the time of day. The stories from the cafés and the pubs are warm.

When New Journal reporters would by chance run into her in Camden Town, she was chatty, boisterous in a good way, polite about the paper and interested in the people’s history of the borough. After the paper’s chief feature writer Dan Carrier interviewed her in the early days – back in 2004, when her first album Frank was winning acclaim – he found a typical north London young woman, more interested in fun than greasing up to the right industry figures.

A few days later, she dropped off a collection of vinyl presses at his home dedicated to his young niece, a fan. “Your uncle is cool,” an inscription read, before being signed off with kisses.

That spirit of generos­ity, again not always seen in the image punched across papers and television screens around the world, is commonplace through many of the ­stories being shared in NW1 this week. People remember her gossiping with Big Issue sellers, and handing fivers to the homeless, sparking up conversations with blushing fans in the Marathon kebab shop.

Former Mayor Councillor Jonathan Simpson, now the Town Hall’s music czar, whose remit is to protect Camden’s live music scene, said: “I was introduced to her at the Roundhouse and we chatted there – she couldn’t believe I was the Mayor of Camden.

“You would see her in Camden Town, she was always friendly, always ready for a chat. She was a truly beautiful, talented girl. A day doesn’t go by when tourists don’t stop you in Camden High Street and ask the way to the Hawley Arms pub because of Amy.

“She had become another part of Camden’s musical history.”

The cartoon “Amy Wino” cliché would have it that she only left her home to score drugs or buy vodka. Yet in one of her favourite fish and chip shops in York Way, Mohammed, behind the counter, said there were times when you would have no clue about all of that unless you read the tabloids.

“She seemed like a good girl, a very normal customer,” he said.

“I used to see about people saying she was getting drunk and all of that, but I never ever saw her like that in here. If it wasn’t for the news­papers, and you asked me if she took drugs, I would have said, ‘no, of course not’, because that’s what she seemed like.”

Most of the residents and people working in the area suggested she just wanted to assimilate into normal everyday life around Camden Square after moving in earlier  this year – not easy with the baggage of a broken marriage and such notoriety.

You would just as likely find her buying Assam tea from her local newsagent, lots of it, and tuna salad from Cafe ­Villa in York Way.

“I knew her a long time in here because she was coming in for years. I’d just take her order and not really talk to her, but I’d overhear her conversations with her band,” said waitress Lesieli Kava.

“Once, a band member was expecting his second child, and he was talking about it with everyone, and I remember she said something like, ‘I want that’, or ‘I wouldn’t mind that’. I remember that really well because everyone started kind of teasing her about it afterwards a bit.

“It didn’t last long but I remember that.”

Short spells in Barnet and St Lucia were the only interruptions to Amy’s life in Camden Town; she had previously lived in a street behind Camden Road overground station.

One of her favourite places was the market road Inverness Street – and in going there, she followed in the footsteps of members of Blur during the Britpop days of the mid-1990s. There she would be, one of the world’s most famous musicians, laughing and joking with fruit and veg sellers.

Sarah Hurley, a friend and the owner of the legendary Good Mixer pub in Camden Town, said: “She loved pool, even after a few shots she could wipe the floor with most people. She knew all the market boys by name.

“They’d see all these things about her in the Sun and all the photos, but most of the time they’d been there the night those photos had been taken, and they’d say, ‘Oh yeah, I know that night, I was there, she was enjoying herself but so were we all’.”

Amy’s sense of humour proved infectious – she would walk down the street deliberately singing badly, the croon of a bad busker to make people laugh.

Renato Pazium, owner of Made In Brasil on Inverness Street, said: “One night she stayed until closing, we closed the door and the bar. The staff always have a drink after the bar closes and she was sitting around with them, and then, you know, I said to them all, ‘OK everyone, come on get up, let’s clean the bar’. Amy got up and said, ‘I’m polishing the glasses, give me a cloth’. And she stood there polishing the glasses, cleaning all the sticky liquids off the bar.”

He added: “My brother had come from Brazil that night, and we said, ‘Amy, my brother’s asleep upstairs, go and wake him up, he won’t believe it when he sees you there’.

“She thought it would be hilarious, so she crept up the stairs and then shook him and his partner awake, while they were asleep under the covers. I remember she said, ‘This is not a dream, boys’. It was so funny, my brother just lay there, confused. She laughed, he laughed, we all did.”

People in Camden Town will remember the songs and always cringe at the abuse Amy delivered to her petite frame, but they will remember the laughs like this as well. History may have her pinned as a tragic, drug-addicted genius – and nobody is numb to the danger she so often gambled with.

In these streets, however, she is largely being remembered as “one of us” this week.

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