Life & Culture

Amy Winehouse in her own words is a moving tribute to a star taken too soon

A new book released by Amy Winehouse's family catalogues the life of the little Jewish girl under the beehive


A little girl at her Jewish nursery school, smiling without a care in the world. A young girl at bar mitzvah parties, dressed up and having fun. A postcard to a loved brother, complete with Chanukah stamps. It could be any family’s photo album, marking the milestones of a daughter’s passage to adulthood. But there’s an unbearable poignancy to these ordinary images because the girl they portray died aged just 27. And all the talent in the world couldn’t save Amy Winehouse.

Winehouse would have turned 40 this year, while her first album Frank is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Rather than release a formal biography to mark the occasion, her family have put together a kind of scrapbook of Amy’s early journals, photos and handwritten lyrics to paint a picture of the little girl they knew.  The entire advance and any royalties from the book go to The Amy Winehouse Foundation which supports those suffering from addiction — as Amy did —  and educates children to try and save them from her fate.

The book corrects much of the narrative surrounding Amy that has previously been told from a gentile-gaze perspective (“goy-splained” you might say). Her Jewish background and its influence on her life and music are rarely mentioned in popular culture. (Asif Kapadia’s 2015 documentary  Amy for example, never touches on it.) One can’t help but feel if Amy belonged to any other minority, this would be front and centre of the stories about her.

Perhaps because of her lower middle-class background and cockney accent, she doesn’t fit the affluent stereotypes often conjure up when people hear the word “Jewish”? This book makes the case for  Amy’s Jewish roots as a big part of her upbringing, stressing her close friendship with Mark Ronson “a Jewish boy from north London” who produced Back to Black, as well as her relationship with beloved grandmother Cynthia, the family’s formidable matriarch.

The book also reveals that Jewish music was also a big part of Amy’s life growing up. She loved the Chanukah song Ma’oz Tzur which she sang over and over again at the top of her lungs.

When visiting her mother Janis’s family in Miami, she sang spiritual Jewish songs on the beach with her cousins. She wrote in her journal: “When I was a little kid it was my dream to go to drama school, but it was never something I thought would happen to me…I was a Jewish girl from north London and things like that don’t happen to Jewish girls from north London called Amy Winehouse.”

She achieved fame in the early 00s, an era that started our obsession with the cult of celebrity, where the worlds of reality TV and artistry frequently overlapped. People were more interested in picking apart the private lives of talented people —particularly young women — rather than celebrating their talents. Nothing was sacred, and Amy’s messy spiral into addiction following the release of her 2006 album Back To Black —  which, of course took her mental health as an inspiration for classic songs like Rehab— was well documented with commentators relishing every gory detail under the guise of “concern”.

Even today, the narrative surrounding Amy tends to focus on her troubles rather than her talent. Her untimely death at 27 from alcohol poisoning put her in the notorious ’27 club’ alongside the likes of Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix, fellow artists who all died at the same age. She subsequently became a cautionary tale, a creature of myth — like Antigone, if she’d smoked and was covered in tattoos.

This new book by Amy’s family aims to subvert this “bad girl” image. Amy Winehouse In Her Own Words takes us beyond the beehive — the wild-eyed, tearaway of the tabloids is replaced by a cheeky, smiley Jewish girl from north London, with a gift for self-expression. As you might expect, there aren’t any big revelations in this book that would make headline news, but reading it is like being invited round to tea by her parents Mitch and Janis as they take you through boxes of memorabilia. Amy’s childhood mementos — journal entries, photos, poems, song lyrics and school reports — have been lovingly preserved, each one showing us a side to the singer we rarely see.

They create a beautiful collage of little Amy’s world, far and away from the Camden wild child she would later be known as. For the reader, it almost feels like playing detective; piecing together evidence of who Amy was to get a clearer picture of the icon she became. The book touches on her troubled later years at the height of her fame but it doesn’t dwell on Amy the Tragic Figure. Instead it’s more of a happy celebration of who she was and her life, albeit one cut tragically short.

Of course the family’s view of their daughter doesn’t give us the full story. The earnest letters home and drawings depicted in the book reveal a sweet, sensitive little girl who was obviously very much loved and whose creativity was undoubtedly nurtured and encouraged. She already shows a dramatic flair— in one letter home whilst on a trip, she demands that her parents confess to her that her cat had died (“I can sense it”). It hadn’t. On another page, she has drawn a map entitled “Places in my heart” following her parents’ separation, which is tearjerking in its simplicity. Under “Dad” she writes “I miss him”, under “Mum” she jots down “working too hard.” Such relatable childhood angst paints a more human picture of who Amy was, growing up in a close-knit but complicated family, as many of us do.

The book will strike a chord with readers who are around Amy’s age. Any 90s kid will feel a wave of nostalgia pouring over Amy’s pre-teen scribblings in her balloony neat handwriting. Her parents kvell about her throughout the book, praising said handwriting as well as her apparently “flawless American accent” when she played Rizzo in her school production of Grease. They are typically proud Jewish parents taking you endlessly through their child’s drawings and writing. If you didn’t know who Amy was, you might greet all of this with a polite smile and an eye roll. But knowing the child in question’s life was sadly cut short, these eager little snippets are tragically bittersweet. The book is a lovely tribute to a creative, sparkly little girl, even if we’ll never truly know the woman she grew up to be.

Amy Winehouse In Her Own Words (Harper Collins) is out now

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