27 is simply too early to die; yet this Saturday, July 23, 2011 saw the death of pop sensation Amy Winehouse. Immediately jokes began, "Well, she should have gone to rehab... yes, yes, yes!"
If only it were that simple.
It's easy for the general public to pass judgment on Winehouse, or any of the other host of celebrities that left too soon because of drugs, alcohol, fast cars or a myriad of other ways to die. Those critics are not artists.
What people should be asking is, why artists? Since the dawn of time artists have left early, been addicted, been "not right." If Prozac existed a hundred or more years ago, would we have Van Gogh's work? If Joplin or Hendrix had Dr. Drew and didn't have their demons, would they have had their brilliance?
The fact is, at times, being an artist hurts, and so many choose to self-medicate because it gets them out of their heads, it slows things down, it removes, temporarily, the unbearable lightness of being. From GaGa fessing up to earlier drug use and the fact that she still smokes pot (which neither she, nor I, consider a dangerous drug) to pictures of Sinatra or Davis, Jr. with glasses of booze and cigarettes hanging from their lips, artists medicate.
I know this, because I'm an artist and I surround myself with them; many very, very famous. Over the years, as a music journalist for Billboard, The Advocate and countless others I've been behind-the-scenes, on a personal level with many. And let me tell you, whether it's Streisand or Pavarotti, rock god or contemporary goddess, they are each, in their own very special way, insane. I know I am. Most, control their insanity with their art; it's why they do it. They're called quirky, eccentric, bitchy, a myriad of things. But a small few deaden the pain with substances. Just this week alone Eric Dane from Grey's Anatomy checked in to 30 days of rehab for painkiller addiction, which is a nice way to say he wants to stop taking opiates.
The general public looks at the powerful and privileged and say, "What a waste, if I had all that fame and money I wouldn't..." Trust me, you never, ever know.
Look at Whitney Houston. She seemingly had it all. Untouchable vocals, an acting career taking off, hit records only to let a substance in that devastated her life, and her voice. Now, she is the shell of the superstar she used to be; and it's tragic. But why? Because something in her, something private, something personal, hurt, and the drugs made it go away.
In America we don't respect our most valuable commodity: our artists. Let's remember, in this down economy it's Hollywood and the music world that is still one of the biggest revenue generators and one of the few things we still export that the rest of the world wants. No one wants their child to say to them, I want to be an actor or actress, a musician, writer, painter exclusively. I heard the same thing from my parents, "That's great dear, but maybe you should also have a backup, just in case..." Do accountants and lawyers also train to be chefs and doctors? Only in the arts are people told to see it as a secondary profession, not the main.
And yet to the artist it is all they can do, all they know. It's not a job. That's what so many do not get. Being a singer, an actor, a writer, painter, photographer... it's not a choice. It's in the DNA, the very makeup of the person. And yes, these people like Winehouse, these great artists are usually broken. I referenced Streisand earlier. She came from a home where her father died when she was young, where the second husband and mother weren't the most supportive. She thought she wasn't the most beautiful thing in the world and entered a business of constant rejection. In other words, she was working out her demons through her art. But she had to, there was no other way. She knew it, it's why she grew her nails so long at 16 so she couldn't get a job as a cashier. She simply had to be in the arts.
Winehouse was another artist whose pain was channeled so beautifully into music. She laid her life bare in every track, in a pop-jazz-fusion way that brought an entirely new genre to life. There would be no Duffy, no Adele if there weren't Winehouse. And look at Adele, 21 and top of her game. As a friend from South Africa just commented to me, "She chain smokes constantly, she's overweight and really pushing herself..." Medicating her own way, with food instead of drugs, tobacco instead of something else.
And it's now seen as typical. Young pop star throws it all away for drugs or alcohol. As if some have a choice. No one will know what went on in Winehouse's head, what she thought about as she tossed and turned at night, what made her tick. Look at Michael Jackson. He had it all to most of the world, but he couldn't sleep. He so desperately wanted sleep that he became dependent on serious drugs which would then kill him. Because his body wouldn't rest, his mind wouldn't calm down. How could it? It's the same mind possessed by a musical genius; a two-edged sword. When he recorded the song "Morphine" with the lyric "Demurral, demurral, dear God he's taking demurral...." He sang of his own demons, like Winehouse in "Rehab." And we danced and sang to the songs, personal expressions of real issues in the artist's lives.
Who is to blame? No one and everyone. I've seen people around artists that give them whatever they want if it keeps them functioning. When they become industries, and Winehouse was becoming one, there's a lot at stake for a lot of people. If the girl wants a bump to get her going, give her one. If she wants a pint of this or a fifth of that, let her have it. It's the lifestyle, right?
Actually, it is and that's what really needs to be talked about. Anne Rice wrote the beginning of the Vampire Chronicles battling alcohol and pain brought about from a death in the family. So much of what we consider great art has been created by people half out of their minds on something. Lenny Bruce and other comics medicated right on stage. Billy Holiday was a jazz great and heroin addict. Whatever makes a person an artist also makes them susceptible or predisposed to addictions, to self medication; not all, but some.
Should we rehab them? Take the substances away because some die like Winehouse? It begs the question, would the same person create the same genius? Many of the greatest painters had lead poisoning from putting their tools in their mouths. If we chelated their blood and removed the poison, would they have had the visions that they painted? If Jim Morrison was sent to a 30-day program with Dr. Drew, would he have lasted, and if so, would he have created the same music?
It's an unfortunate instance that self-medicating is what artists have done since the there were artists. And some over do. Many handle their addictions fine. Or they channel them. They create a family, and put all their energies off screen in to them. They create a life outside of the norm, away from Hollywood and the spotlight to keep their sanity and not need the medications.
Winehouse never got there. She never found the person or thing behind-the-scenes that brought her the relief the substances did. Madonna found Kabbalah and adopting a family. The Beatles found a guru, and John found Yoko. 90% of all artists find something or some one that keeps them from self-destructing other ways; even those that once turned to other means.
Had Winehouse lived, she may have found her way, to life, to love of herself enough to not over-do. But her pain grew. She recently did a gig in Belgrade, where for 90 minutes she slurred her way through. She was booed, and she cancelled the rest of her tour. That couldn't have been easy for, or on, her, even if her habits were to blame. Knowing the reason and being able to fix it are two different things.
In 2006 her album Back to Black, her second, brought her to the world. Five years later, the success of it would help take her from it. A story so often told.
But before you write her off as just a drug-addled pop diva, remember there was a person under that beehive; a real, live breathing person, born to Mitch Winehouse and his wife Janis in 1983. A person who went to school at the Sylvia Young Theatre School, and then to Brit School, a performing arts academy much like the High School for the Performing Arts featured in Fame.
When she was 19 she released "Frank" and Britain loved it. She didn't, once stating, according to the San Francisco Chronicle on the day of her death that she was "only 80 percent behind it." Three years later, she hit and hit big with "Rehab."
During that time she broke up with her boyfriend and went through all that a young girl of 20 or 22 would go through. But she was no ordinary young girl. She had an incredible vocal style and a knack for writing hit songs.
And now, at 27, she will join the ranks of Heath Ledger, Michael Jackson, Marilyn, James Dean, Elvis, Hendrix, Joplin... so many who are immortal because they died too soon and left behind something that touched many.
Amy Winehouse was broken, as most great artists are. She chose a path whose conclusion was written eons prior by so many others who had traveled down it. She knew it, she had to, and others around her as well. But you can't force someone to change. You can't fix them, they have to find a way to either fix themselves or navigate around the break. Most artists fill the void, fill the chasm with their work, with family, religion, yoga, something. Amy filled it with her work, and substances.
She's not a cliché, she was a real, living, breathing young woman who burned brightly and extinguished just as fast.
To hear Karel on this topic go to www.thekarelshow.com or the podcast at iTunes. Also, Karel's new book, Shouting at Windmills: BS from Bush to Obama is now available at Amazon.com and www.thekarelshow.com