Interview: Mitch Winehouse
Having stood by his daughter during her long battle with drugs, Mitch Winehouse is looking to cut an album
Amy Winehouse’s father, Mitch, draws encouragement from the fact that the formerly anorexic singer is now eating normally, and has even developed an appetite for salt beef
It may not be any kind of proof that Amy Winehouse is back on the straight and narrow, but her father sets a lot of store by the fact she will be at the family Seder this year — and, with luck, not touching even a ritual drop of her four glasses of wine.
“She hasn’t had a drink for two weeks,” says Mitch Winehouse, the black-cab driver who manages his daughter’s business affairs and seems to be willing the bad girl of British rock back from the brink of self-destruction. “Two weeks may not sound like much, but it’s a major achievement for her,” he adds. “And when you’re the parent of a kid in trouble, you learn to treasure the small triumphs.”
Making the most of any good news of Amy’s progress is really all Mitch and his ex-wife Janis, who is fighting her own battle with MS, can do to support a 26-year-old bent on self-determination, he says. “When your child is ill you go into self-preservation mode, and your built-in survival mechanisms include delusion. One day the drug intake isn’t as much as it was the day before, and you hang on to that. When one day of abstinence becomes two days you get excited. That’s how you cope.”
The couple, who have lived apart since divorcing 16 years ago but remain close, came to an early decision on how to deal with their daughter’s multiple addictions. “We got advice from the most eminent experts in the field when this all began,” says Mitch. “But when expert number one would say: ‘You’ve got to adopt tough love,’ and expert number two would say: ‘You need to be there and pretend it’s not happening’, we had to find a happy medium. Amy is so family-oriented, how could we wipe her out of our lives and tell her we didn’t want to see her?”
He points to the old friends who did turn their backs as one cause of Amy’s setbacks: “Other people filled that void who weren’t her friends; I didn’t want that happening with her family.”
While he has very publicly blamed Amy’s ex-husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, for his daughter’s dependence on crack cocaine — “it’s usually coercion by a partner that causes a woman to become addicted”, he recites — he is desperate to hold on to the belief that he has been the best father he could have been, bearing in mind he left the household for another woman when Amy was 10.
“One of the drug counsellors I’m very close with told us that when an addict comes out of it the other end, a normal whole person, they often find their family destroyed — a mother who’s had a nervous breakdown, a father who’s had a heart attack. If I was going to give advice to other parents, it would be to try and get on with your own lives until your son or daughter back to you — and not to blame yourselves.”
Janis has admitted taking a step back from Amy’s problems for the sake of her own health. But staying totally hands-off would have been impossible for Mitch. “The thought of not being there at the most critical time in her life — we just couldn’t do it.”
Without the help of family and friends, none of the three of them would have survived, he believes, though the only advice really worth having was from those who had been in the same situation — like TV personality Sharon Osbourne. “She’s been through this with her husband, and her children, Kelly and Jack. Kelly tells me that her family saved her life. Both Sharon and Kelly have been very, very helpful.”
Although we are meeting in Tunbridge Wells to talk about his own unlikely emergence as a recording artist at the age of 59 — “Are we the only two Jews in Kent?” he wonders — he digresses often to kvell like any Jewish father, though his particular sources of naches are far from universal: “Amy’s been clean for over a year… she’s back in the studio… she’s eating like a horse, always asking me to bring her salt beef.”
While he prefers to dwell in the present rather than the past, he believes the death of his mother, with whom Amy had an intensely close relationship, could have been the catalyst for her descent. “It didn’t help at a time when she was vulnerable. She wasn’t coping with the fame her first album brought; she had self-image problems.”
Bubbe Cynthia, a former jazz singer with Elizabeth Taylor looks, was clearly the model for Amy’s love of big hair, eyeliner and performance itself. She was the one who suggested Amy should go to stage school, and, as Mitch has said in the past, the member of the family she really listened to. “Right until the end, we were all at her house for Friday-night dinner every week.” It’s no surprise Cynthia’s name was the first of Amy’s many tattoos.
What seems like a slightly incongruous decision to release an album of his own is a kind of affirmation of life, he says: “I’ve always sung in the house, and Amy and I first spoke about my doing an album five years ago. But then she wasn’t well, and I just didn’t have the coyech for it. Now she is well into her recovery I decided I could do it. I wanted to record some songs written by Tony Hiller, an old friend of our family, which sound like ones Sinatra could have sung, and some songs which actually were recorded by Sinatra.
“We might release it on Amy’s label, Lioness, but it’s not true I’m doing this off the back of my daughter. Obviously, because I’m Amy’s dad I’ll get lots of publicity, but I’ve still got to be able to sing.”
It will be his fourth career change — his first job was proof-reading at the JC, followed by a long spell in a double-glazing business. “When I gave that up seven years ago, there was nothing I wanted to do so much as study — which is why I became a cabbie. I loved London and came from a family of cab drivers; for me doing the knowledge was like going to university.”
But panic attacks took away his confidence to be in charge of passengers three years ago: “It might well have had to do with Amy’s situation, though I thought I was coping so well emotionally.” It is easy to see how Amy developing life-threatening anorexia around the same time his mother passed away would deeply affect him: “My father was only 43 when he died; we’ve lost so many so young,” he says. “You love them so much and you think they’re going to live forever, but we’ve been surrounded by death.”
That’s the real reason he is in the studio, he says. “It’s true I like the limelight, but no-one wants the limelight when it’s through no choice of your own and full of tsouris. You want it when it’s about having a good time.”