I was unexpectedly shaken over the weekend when I learned the news about singer Amy Winehouse, who was found dead in her North London home just hours after her manager had announced that she was withdrawing from all future concert dates. She was 27 years old.
In those first news reports, no explanation was given for either Winehouse’s concert cancellations or her subsequent death, though most assumed that drugs were in play. This wasn’t random speculation. Given her long history of substance abuse — which included showing up late for concerts or missing them altogether; stumbling about the stage and forgetting her lyrics; and, in 2007, checking herself into treatment for, among other things, an addiction to heroin — the only question was whether she ended her life intentionally.
Then again, flirting with death never seemed to bother Winehouse.
“They tried to make me go to rehab, but I said, ‘No, no, no,'” she coolly cooed on the first cut of her 2007 Grammy-winning album, Back to Black. “I ain’t got the time and if my daddy thinks I’m fine … I won’t go, go, go.”
By all accounts, Winehouse’s talent for pushing the limits of her indulgences, then pulling herself back from the brink at the final moment, had been a recurring theme for much of her short career. And it clearly fed her popularity. It was precisely this anti-heroism that made her death so worrisome to me.
As the father of two girls, ages 12 and 16, I knew that Winehouse was in their lives; and that even though neither of them were fans, like everyone else, they were well aware of her perilous high-wire act, and how it made her a darling of the British tabloids and a cult hero to those who see recklessness as a virtue.
It was my older daughter who broke the news of Winehouse’s death to me, and I could instantly detect her confusion about it all, as if it somehow didn’t compute.
“It’s really sad,” she said to me quietly. “She was so young.”
I completely get that. When I was 14, over the span of just 10 months, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison — all, eerily, 27 years old, all having lived on the edge — met the same tragic fate as Winehouse. I can vividly recall trying to reconcile that most perplexing of teenage conundrums: that, in the end, the immortal were mortal after all. It was a sobering lesson for a kid to learn.
Similarly, Winehouse’s crash-and-burn life will now serve as a cautionary tale for an entire generation. I imagine it will surpass even Michael Jackson’s premature death two years ago, if only because, in his case, Jackson had already survived more than 40 years at the center of a bizarrely dysfunctional storm. So in a way, packing it in at 50 seemed more like early retirement than anything else.
Not so with Winehouse, and as a parent, I feel like I dodged a bullet. Fortunately, the singer’s notoriously dangerous lifestyle never really appealed to my kids, so I didn’t have to worry about either of them adopting her as some kind of a revolutionary role model.
Yet I do have to wonder about those countless other cultural influences that rain down on their heads every day. Last year, iTunes celebrated its 10-billionth download, which means a lot of messages are being delivered to children by the minute, with no real consideration given to their ages. Add to that the non-stop clatter that comprises the soundtrack of their lives — streaming into their world from their cellphones and iPads and social networking pages like so much oxygen — and you have to start to think that any attempt to regulate what our kids see and hear is ultimately an exercise in futility.
We cannot force them to close their eyes and cover their ears, even if the object of their affection is obviously barreling headlong to her death. We can only try to give them the wisdom to determine for themselves what’s worth looking at and listening to.
In the weeks and months to come, there will undoubtedly be a torrent of tributes to Winehouse, placing her in the pantheon of all-time great musicians, but I would prefer to linger a little longer on the sad way she checked out. Because if there’s one positive thing that came from Amy Winehouse’s death — and given her enormous gifts as a musician, there’s precious little about her demise that can be defined as uplifting — it’s that, perhaps, the shocking inevitability of her passing scared our kids a bit, or at least long enough to make them think about their own choices in life.
But maybe Winehouse knew this about herself all along.
“I told you I was trouble,” she warned in one song lyric. “You know that I’m no good.”
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