Amy Winehouse was riding a runaway train of self-destruction, which reached the end of its tracks on Saturday when she was found dead in her London home.
Winehouse suffered from a mental illness — the kind of illness that can become consuming.
The 27-year-old singer, who took the entertainment world by storm in 2003 with her first album Frank, joins a long list of musical geniuses strangled at young ages by an unforgiving yet enticing world of drugs and booze.
Winehouse’s death came as no surprise, even to her family. “It was only a matter of time,” said her mother Janis Winehouse. Her daughter struggled with drug and alcohol abuse for several years.
The writing was clearly on the wall in June when Winehouse bombed at a concert, now known as the “Belgrade meltdown.” Belgrade was the first stop of her European tour, an opportunity for Winehouse to get her life and career back on track.
But that opportunity shattered.
The tour was cancelled after she stumbled onto the stage, incoherent and confused.
An Associated Press account said: “Winehouse was jeered and booed . . . unable to remember the lyrics to her own songs.” She could barely stand up, was unable to carry a tune, and appeared disorientated and unaware of her surroundings. Many of the 20,000 fans walked out, demanding their money back.
It was a pathetic showing for the five-time Grammy winner.
But Winehouse was ill. Actor Russell Brand, a recovering drug addict, urged the media and public in a tribute to Winehouse to change the way addictions are perceived, “not as a crime or a romantic affectation, but a disease that will kill.”
“Winehouse and I shared an affliction, the disease of addiction,” said Brand. “Addiction is a serious disease; it will end with jail, mental institutions or death.”
Famous or not, people suffering from such an affliction must be afforded compassion.
The glitter of success often creates an environment of parties, drugs and booze for entertainers. It is an environment that can quickly consume the soul.
Winehouse is “a sadly familiar script in pop music, the history of which is checkered with greats and would-be greats snuffed out too early in life,” wrote Jake Coyle of the Associated Press.
The list of young and talented claimed by self abuse includes Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison and Hank Williams Sr. All young, all brilliant, and all gone too soon.
British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg noted a similarity in all theses tragic endings. “It’s not the age that Hendrix, Jones, Joplin, Morrison, Cobain and Amy have in common,” Bragg wrote on Twitter.
“It’s drug abuse, sadly.”
But what drives these greats to the doom of drug and alcohol abuse? Is it a genius they can’t bring under control? A fear and loathing triggered by a mind racing with inspiration and creative ideas? Does such creativity open the opportunity for a mental illness that triggers a need to reign in that talent with drugs and booze? Is genius its own worst enemy?
Take Williams, for example. At 29, he died of a massive heart attack fuelled by drug and alcohol abuse. Within a span of five years leading to his death in 1953, he recorded 35 singles that would place in the Top 10 Billboard chart — 11 were ranked No. 1.
Amazingly, he could not read music, and the songs he penned came from the heart. Perhaps such creativity had overwhelmed his mind.
And what about Morrison? Hit after hit after hit in such a short period. Was he tormented by a mind racing out of control with creativity?
Brand’s observations about Winehouse’s early death must be taken to heart. Mental illness knows no boundaries, afflicting the rich and famous and those sleeping on the streets.
And no matter how many times the tragedies are repeated, the message stays the same: substance abuse destroys lives.
Rick Zemanek is an Advocate editor.