The Amy paradox

By Paul Lester, April 11, 2008

Amy Winehouse: The Biography
By Chas Newkey-Burden
John Blake, £17.99

One of the problems involved in writing a biography about a super-celebrity like Amy Winehouse or her US counterpart in the tortured young diva stakes, Britney Spears, is that it is impossible to keep pace with the speed at which events in their life are relayed to us in this endlessly updated Internet-scurril age. Chas Newkey-Burden’s account takes us up to late 2007, with a brief reference on the book jacket to the five statuettes she received at February’s Grammy awards in the States.

So the story is already about three months out of date, when you consider that Winehouse is pretty much headline news on a daily, sometimes even hourly, basis.

It is no exaggeration to say that, with books about volatile, mercurial characters such as Winehouse and Spears, the danger is that, by the time they are published, the artists in question might feasibly be dead.

Winehouse gives few interviews these days, and she was never going to agree to be interviewed for this biography, not when she could easily command a seven-figure sum if and when she runs out of musical ideas and decides to pen her autobiography.

And so Newkey-Burden, who is currently collaborating with Julie Burchill on a tome called Not In My Name: A Compendium Of Modern Hypocrisy, has to rely upon secondhand quotes from cuttings and interviews with subsidiary players in the Winehouse saga.

Normally, that means half-truths and semi-insightful reminiscences but, in the case of Winehouse, a North-London Jewish girl from whom surely many readers of the JC have only one or two degrees of separation, the anecdotes of close family members or schoolfriends and teachers from the Osidge Primary School in Southgate, the Mount School in Mill Hill or the Sylvia Young Theatre School, can prove quite revealing.

Winehouse’s mother, Janis Turner, and cabbie father Mitch, are quoted frequently and, even though they are not all first-hand, the quotes help create the image of a three-dimensional woman often in danger of resembling a 2D caricature of herself, all giant beehive, livid tattoos and junkie scars.

Actually, it’s a music journalist, Garry Mulholland, who best and most pithily captures the contradictory human being when he says of Winehouse: “Sounds Afro-American; is British-Jewish. Looks sexy; won’t play up to it. Is young; sounds old. Sings sophisticated; talks rough. Musically mellow; lyrically nasty.”

Finally, though, it is Winehouse herself who offers the most poignant glimpse of the straightforward Jewish girl behind the drug-and-drink-ravaged tabloid monster when she says: “I’m a nice girl. Everyone says I’m a bitch, but, like the stuff in the papers, it’s only the bad stuff. It’s not going to make the papers if I cook dinner for 12 of my best friends and we have a lovely night doing nothing but talking and laughing…

“I’m just a little Jewish housewife, really.” Until she puts pen to paper herself, this is probably as good as we’re going to get on the subject for now.

Paul Lester is currently working on a biography of post-punk band Gang of Four

Last updated: 6:06pm, May 13 2008