Amy Winehouse was born in London on September 14, 1983 and broke into the music business at the age of 16. Her music was a mix of Jazz, pop, soul and R&B. She won 5 Grammy Awards for her 2006 album Back to Black and many of us remember her song “Rehab”, which was released as the lead single. It won 3 Grammy’s at the 50th ceremony, won record of the year, song of the year, and best Female Pop Vocal Performance. It made the billboard hot 100 list and became Amy’s first and only top 10 hit in the United States. She had a bright future ahead of her, only to lose her life at such a young age to the disease of addiction. Amy died on July 23, 2011, at the age of 27 from a seizure due to a night of excessive drinking.
I had the pleasure of meeting Amy’s father, Mitch Winehouse and interviewing him for The Sober World. Mitch has suffered the greatest loss any parent could- losing his only daughter Amy. It is a heartache that no parent should ever have to endure. Unfortunately, there are families across the globe everyday enduring the
same heartache. Mitch hopes through his foundation- The Amy Winehouse Foundation, which he started in Amy’s memory can help young people, especially those in need by reason of ill-health, disability, financial disadvantage or addiction.
Patricia: I want to say how truly sorry I am for your loss.
Mitch: Thank you. You only know too well yourself. It’s something no parent should have to go through.
Patricia: You’re right. We get through it but you never get over it. There probably is not a day that goes by that I don’t think of my son.
Mitch: I understand.
Patricia: Your daughter was so talented, you must have been so proud of her.
Mitch: So proud!
Patricia: Looking back now, with everything Amy accomplished, what do you think about most? Is there anything different you would have done or said to change any of it?
Mitch: Good Question. No, not really. Amy was 27 when she passed away and her downward spiral began when she was 22. We were always encouraging her to get help. At 22 there isn’t a whole lot you can do or say to get them to stop. They are over 18. You can’t court order them because they need to be crazy, Amy wasn’t. Her grandmother could have come down from heaven in a chariot and asked her but she would have said yes, and been back the next day doing the same thing. One time I pretended I had a heart attack. I was in the hospital and she came in, looked at the chart and told me I didn’t have a heart attack. I almost wish I had.
Patricia: That is pretty funny…….I remember crazy things I did and said to try to stop my son from using. It’s amazing what we will do.
Mitch: Yes, well what could we do? Amy wasn’t going to stop until she was ready and the thing to remember is Amy had stopped using drugs three years prior to her death. She saw me in an uncomfortable situation. I had a fight with her drug dealer, and I am not a young guy. She also saw her mother very sick and saw the look on her mum’s face and she just knew it was time to stop using drugs. She was very strong willed and when she made up her mind, there was no stopping her.
Patricia: So I guess it’s true when people say when the addict is ready to stop using, they will stop.
Mitch: Yes, what are you supposed to do? Like any other parent you don’t know what to do about it. There is no book written about it. Many people tell you different things. One person talks to you about tough love, another one is telling you to do this or that and one person said to me you have to cut off her money. It’s her money! I had no power to cut off her money. Another person said “you have got to leave her”- how do you do that? It’s my daughter. I couldn’t do that.
Patricia: right… I agree with that too.
Mitch: And ultimately, whatever we did together it worked because she did quit drugs. She never went into rehab per se. She would go into detox. You know not everyone goes into treatment although I personally think rehab is a wonderful thing and that she would have benefitted from it. She never dealt with the underlying problems so yes she stopped using drugs but then she started another addiction. I don’t know if you know London but there is this store Selfridges which is like Saks 5th Avenue and she would go into the store and spend like £40,000 on dresses.
Patricia: So she substituted one addiction for another?
Mitch: Yes, and then I would take them back the next day and she would be like “dad, where’s my dresses, stop taking them” but then we would laugh about it because she knew what I was doing. The store didn’t mind because like 200 people followed her and bought the store out but she never really dealt with the underlying issues of her addiction.
Patricia: Do you have any idea of what those issues were?
Mitch: Well, I am only surmising but the 3 major things that happened were: My mother passed away, her big album Back to Black came out at the same time and her boyfriend Blake came back into the picture. Fame didn’t sit easy with her. She had a friend in a group the Artic Monkeys which was a massive group but he wasn’t like Ringo Starr in the Beatles, no one knew who he was. He had all the money and whatever but he could walk down the street and no one knew him. With Amy, everyone knew her. Do you know London? Have you ever been there?
Mitch: Well there’s this street Wardour Street, you would start at the top and we would walk down the street and everyone knew her. She would talk to everyone. It was like Adele and Lady GaGa. She was mobbed. Some of the times she was cool with it, she loved the kids but sometimes she was uncomfortable with it. But, who is prepared for stardom? She certainly wasn’t.
Patricia: And not when it’s constant and you have no privacy.
Mitch: That’s right. So as I said, she had these 3 big things, her grandmother passed away, her album was coming out and her boyfriend re-emerged who was a drug addict. He coerced her into drug addiction. He put up his hands and admitted it. So there might have been other underlying issues, I don’t know- one thing I know, it had nothing to do with her family. We were a very close Jewish family who loved and nurtured each other. We were all very close and nothing like this had ever happened in our family.
Patricia: Like many families in the country, in the world really! I say this country, meaning the United States but you’re from London so it’s really reaching people globally. It doesn’t seem to matter, it’s an epidemic and good families are being hurt.
Mitch: That’s right. This preconceived feeling that it can’t happen in my family, it can happen in any family.
Patricia: Any family, regardless of race, income, religion, old, young …it makes no difference. Do you have other children?
Mitch: Yes, a son. He has a little boy.
Patricia: Did Amy always like music? I know you said you are a musician and I heard she had a couple uncles that were Jazz musicians.
Mitch: On her mum’s side.
Patricia: Did she always like music? How did Amy get into music?
Mitch: When she was a little baby like all fathers and mothers, we would sing to her. When she was able talk we would sing and she would put words in, but, I did the same thing with my son, like most families do. When she was 3 or 4 she took ballet and tap lessons. She was a brilliant dancer. She would go to my mother’s apartment and ask “Grandma, can I tap dance on your floor?” and my mother would say “You need to ask Mrs. Cohen downstairs”. My mother had that linoleum flooring and if she didn’t ask, Mrs. Cohen would start banging the broom on the ceiling to stop the noise!
Mitch: So, Amy would run downstairs and ask Mrs. Cohen who said “yes, darling, you can tap dance” and Amy would run back up and tap dance. So, yes… And then as she grew up she went to stage school on weekends, got some dancing and acting jobs but you wouldn’t think she necessarily would have become a singer. One time she asked me and my second wife to come hear her sing in a school show. I said to my wife “she’s singing?” But, ok, I watch my son play soccer so I will go and listen to her sing. So, we went to see her and they were doing the show Annie and she didn’t understand about keys- Do you understand about keys?
Patricia: Me? No, what do I know. You reach a key or you don’t reach the key.
Mitch: If it’s Ella Fitzgerald you have to reach the right key, if you don’t she will sound like you- with all due respect. Everything has to be in the right key. So this Annie was in the wrong key. I said to my wife Jane- “Thank god she can dance!”
So the next year she says “I’m singing in the show again.” I said to my wife “oh god, she’s singing again. We have got to go. She sang the Alanis Morissette song “Isn’t it Ironic” and it was in the right key. So, now I know she can sing and now she doesn’t want to go to school anymore. She wants to go to stage school. She said “Dad, I want to go to the Sylvia Young School.” I said she couldn’t. I told her she had to be good for a year and then she could go. She was naughty, no…not really naughty but mischievous. She would sing in class and sometimes disrupt the other children but the teachers and everyone really loved her. So what did she do? Unbeknown to us she applied for a scholarship. I still have the letter.
Fast forwarding a minute, The Amy Winehouse Foundation provided scholarships for 3 children trying to go to the Sylvia Young School who didn’t have the financial means to attend. We sat through over 100 kids just to find 3 who would be accepted into the program. It’s very difficult to get into, much like the Dreyfoos School here. So, I know what kids have to go through to get in and Amy got in!
Patricia: And she did that all by herself.
Mitch: Yes, all by herself. She was very resourceful, very resourceful at such a young age.
Patricia: She knew she wanted it and she went out and did it.
Mitch: Yes. The minute she could go to work, she did, sometimes working 3 jobs!
So anyway this is when we knew she could sing and when she signed her first record deal. I had to sign for her because she was underage. This was the publishing deal and the record deal.
Patricia: Was EMI the first record deal she had?
Mitch: No, Universal was the record deal or Island Records which is part of Universal. Emi were the publishers.
Patricia: So, when this was all happening, how did you feel? Were you excited?
Patricia: Kvelling is right. You must have been so proud.
Mitch: Surreal. Sometimes, what you do is naturally limit your expectations. I remember her first record deal she received an advance of £250,000. At the time they were giving millions to songs and she was only offered £250,000 and she did have offers like that but Amy made all her own decisions. I never made her decisions for her. She said she was going with Island records because Island is not like a pop label. They nurture their artists. She didn’t want to have to bring out an album every 6-9 months. She wanted to relax and take it slow.
Patricia: It really sounds like she had her head screwed on straight.
Mitch: Every decision she made, and the ones I disagreed with always ended up to be the right ones.
Patricia: She sounds very level headed.
Mitch: Yes, but also resolute, she was very resolute. When she made her mind up she was like granite. She didn’t budge an inch. So, back to the £250,000. One of the things is her money wasn’t a good mix. She could have just started blowing it.
Patricia: You’re right, not good for most young person to have that kind of money.
Mitch: So I said to her “what we are going to do with the money is buy you an apartment” so this way we got that out of the way. It cost £160,000 in Camden Sound.
Patricia: She must have been so excited, her first apartment.
Mitch: Yes, she was so excited! This was her place. We paid cash and no one could take it away from her. Actually, I live in that apartment now. Well, I have two apartments. One in the north of London and to get into town with traffic is a real problem. So, when we need to be in town we stay there. It’s a lovely pied-à-Terre. She never wanted me to hear her songs because some of them, the lyrics were kind of racy. Do you know some of her songs?
Patricia: Some of them.
Mitch: Well, one of the songs, you will have to excuse me but it says: “The only time I hold your hand is to get the angle right” and I said to her “Why do you have to say that” and she would say “now you know why I don’t read you the lyrics.”
Patricia: I would have probably said the same thing as you!
Mitch: I mean some things were shocking but I would laugh about it too. I started reading some of the lyrics and listening to the songs which she did co-write some of them and I didn’t even know she could read and write music. That doesn’t mean I was a delinquent father.
Patricia: Well, of course not! Sometimes you really don’t know their talent unless it’s always been right in front of you. or…” and she would say “Dad! Don’t you understand……?” The thing is she didn’t think it was a big deal and she didn’t think she had a great talent. Sometimes we could be arguing, like father and daughter do and she would walk out of the room, write it down, come back , ask where we were and that conversation would appear in a song. For instance, Rehab.
Patricia: I was just going to ask you about that song. Did she write that while you were discussing her going to rehab?
Mitch: No, what happened was that day she had a bout with drinking. Now, she never had a drinking problem but like a lot of young people she would sometimes go out and get hammered. She wasn’t drinking every day.
Patricia: So, let’s back up. When she first started out she wasn’t really doing drugs?
Mitch: She was smoking pot.
Patricia: So, in between her first starting to write music and becoming famous, when did she first start using drugs?
Mitch: What sort of drugs?
Patricia: The heroin and all of that
Mitch: Right after Back to Black came out and her boyfriend Blake reappeared.
Patricia: Oh…okay, so now tell me about rehab
Mitch: It was about 2004-2005. She just broke up with her boyfriend and she fell and banged her head. Her manager at the time wanted her to go for help but Amy said she didn’t need help. When she drank, she drank a lot but she wasn’t drinking every day. They came to my house in the country and they said they were taking her to rehab and I said “Amy doesn’t need rehab, she’s fine.” And she puts that in the song- not my daddy thinks I’m ok but the exact words “my daddy says I’m fine”. She ended up going there and came back 3 hours later. They told her she would need to be there for 17 days, and that’s in the song too- I ain’t got 17 days. The guy just wanted to talk about himself. She was able to take a conversation and put it into a song. I didn’t appreciate it until afterwards but I realize now how brilliant she was. She was my little kid and she was really a genius. My ex-wife Janice’s family was all geniuses. I am talking physicists, rocket scientists- brilliant and Amy took after them. Janice, who is now a pharmacist, was studying advanced mathematics when Amy was 10. You know the mathematics with the squiggles. I couldn’t even understand the question and Amy was doing this with Janice.
Patricia: She sounds like she was a very bright girl.
Mitch: Very Bright.
Patricia: I know you’re doing some wonderful things in Amy’s memory. You started the Amy Winehouse Foundation. Can you tell our readers a little about that?
Mitch: Well, after Amy died, I was on the plane coming home from New York. I had in my mind the Amy Winehouse Foundation and kids- Amy loved kids. When I touched down in London I sat down with my ex-wife Janice, my wife Jane, Amy’s brother Alex and the rest of the family and I said we could either pull the covers over our heads or we could do something worthwhile. They were all in agreement. At the start we had no money but I had written my book, and I had income from shows I had done which I still do, so all that money went into the foundation. I think it was like a million and a half pounds which is like 2 million US dollars. That was our seed money. We started helping children’s hospices which is heartbreaking and a lot of music therapy. Amy had an eating disorder so we upgraded a website for an eating disorder charity called Beats.
Patricia: When did she have an eating disorder?
Mitch: During this period as well which obviously exacerbated all the other problems.
Patricia: When she was doing drugs or when she was drinking?
Mitch: When she was drinking it started to simmer down. She started eating better. If you look at pictures in 2010-2011, she looks great. In 2007-2008 she looked awful.
Patricia: What other projects?
Mitch: Amy’s Resilience Program which is a school project.
They are in over 100 schools in the UK. It’s a drug and alcohol awareness and prevention program for secondary schools. We received a 4.3 pound grant from the big lottery. There’s nothing like it at all in the UK. It gives young people the information they need and a platform to speak about issue that are affecting them. The program is delivered by people who are in recovery so you’re talking about people they can relate to. It’s not their parents, teachers or grandparents who they wouldn’t feel comfortable opening up to. The program is evaluated by the University of Bath in the UK and Harvard University in the US. The evaluations have been absolutely incredible. The results show that we have been helping many, many people. We have a project called Amy’s Yard which is working with disadvantaged children through music, we have Amy’s Place which is the first women only recovery house in London and will be opening shortly. We are very excited for that! We do some strategic grant giving as well. There the Havens Hospice, which is a children’s hospice. Can you believe it’s the only one? They added a new wing and we paid for the music room which will be known as the Amy Winehouse Music Room. Music is very powerful and soothing. We have something similar at the Cerebral Palsy center.
Patricia: Wow, you really are doing quite a lot. Are you doing anything in the United States?
Mitch: I don’t know if many people realize but although Amy was born in the UK, her mother is originally from Brooklyn, NY. She always had an affinity to Brooklyn so we worked with the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music. We awarded them $25,000 to finance scholarships for teenage jazz musicians. The money will go to defray the expenses of needy children accepted into the academy’s Teen Jazz Program. In Florida we are working with the Dreyfoos School of the Arts which is in West Palm Beach, a very affluent area but there are a lot of very needy kids that come from all over South Florida. We are providing the hardship fund which would be used to assist students with lessons and travel to competitions. We had a fund raiser not too long ago and will be presenting them with a check for $50,000.
We would like Amy’s name on one of their buildings. We would like the music room to be called the Amy Winehouse Music Center. Amy loved Florida. She loved Miami. It would mean a lot to her if we were doing things in Florida and New York.
Patricia: And from what I read she loved to do for other people and was quite generous before she passed. I am sure she is smiling down on you now.
Mitch: I hope so. I believe in life after death. I have been to Psychics. I went to a Psychic a couple weeks ago. I was told very, very good stuff. Things no one would have known about.
Patricia: I have done that myself too.
Mitch: Of course you have. I have to tell you a brief story. Every now and then I get a feeling she is sitting on my bed and it freaks me out a bit. The night before I went to the Psychic I was lying on my left side in bed and I felt like something came through my window and entered my body. Like an electric drill, not an electric shock. Like my whole body was vibrating and I was awake. I was like, “what is this”? I wasn’t in any pain or anything. So, I went to this Psychic who I had to wait 9 months to see and one of the things she said to me was “Amy wants you to know that she came to you last night while you were in bed at 5:02.
Patricia: Oh my god!!
Mitch: My clock didn’t say 5:02; my clock said 5:05
Patricia: Oh my god how she knew…
Mitch: She said you would have felt her energy. I said “Well, now let me tell you what happened” and she said “that was Amy”
Patricia: That is an amazing story. Tell me, what would be your advice for families trying to cope with a family member in active addiction?
Mitch: What can I say? I think you will get contradictory advice from experts. Some will say do tough love, which I couldn’t do. My daughter suffered from an illness. God forbid she suffered from an illness such as cancer, what would you do? Nobody chooses to become an addict.
Patricia- It’s a disease.
Mitch: That’s right. It’s a disease. We were told about tough love from some of my distant relatives and as I said before, something worked because she was clean of drugs for 3 years before she died. I think you have to take the middle way. You have to let them know they are loved and cared for, but equally you can’t empower them to continue using. You have to let them know how they are affecting the family. You know, you hear stories how kids steal from their parents to buy drugs and alcohol but Amy didn’t have to do that. She had plenty of money that she didn’t need to do that.
Patricia: Do you feel that enabled her to do more drugs?
Mitch: Yes. People would say “oh, well you just need to stop her money, it’s easy…just stop her money” but you can’t just stop an adult’s money without proving she’s incompetent or incoherent.
Patricia: Right. You can’t just take their rights away. It really is a dilemma for parents.
Mitch: At one point we tried to have her sectioned but in London she has to be a threat to herself or someone else and you can’t just section them because they take drugs or their high.
Patricia: It’s the same way in Florida. I do believe though as a parent there should be something we are able to do.
Mitch: I agree, I agree.
Patricia: I mean these hippa laws are crazy. If as a parent you know your child is killing themselves with drugs or alcohol, as a parent we should have certain rights.
Mitch: Yes, but unfortunately there is little you can do. We couldn’t take her money away or stop it. The truth is, I really don’t have any advice because there really is none. What works for some people doesn’t always work for others. When Amy was struggling with alcohol and I was looking for answers there was no one to help me. The person who gave me the best advice was Amy herself. She said” Dad, remember how it was with the drugs? That’s how it’s going to be with the alcohol.” There will be long periods when I don’t drink and short periods when I do drink and those periods when I don’t drink will become longer and longer and those periods when I do drink will become shorter and shorter. I’m learning dad” I said “Amy, those seizures you have when you drink too much” and she said “Don’t worry, I am not going to die”. A few months before she died there was a situation where she was on skype with a friend of hers in NY who saw her have a seizure. She was in a hotel and he called me. Had he not called me she would have died then but we were able to get to her and help her.
Patricia: What happened the night she died?
Mitch: She was in her room at 2 in the morning playing the drums and singing and a security officer said the neighbors were complaining. She wasn’t purposely drinking herself to death like some people thought. You don’t purposely drink yourself to death. You can throw yourself in front of a train but you don’t drink yourself to death. She was having a nice evening and making noise and now it was time to go to sleep. Unfortunately, she had a seizure and didn’t wake up.
Patricia: So, it may not have even been the alcohol level….
Mitch: Oh, it was. The alcohol level was extremely high.
Patricia: What would you like to say to the other families out there that have lost a loved one through drugs or alcohol?
Mitch: Don’t blame yourselves unless it’s your fault. There are people that struggle with drugs and alcohol because they come from an abusive family but that wasn’t my family or your family. Is there anything you could reproach yourself about? What could you have done different or better for your son? Is it your responsibility that your son passed away?
Patricia: No, you’re right. We did everything we knew how to do……. And we did the best we knew how.
Mitch: Right, and that’s it. Of course you do the best you could. It’s human nature to wonder what you could have done differently. Did you see the film Amy?
Mitch: This guy was doing Q & A’s about what bad parents Janis and I were. He talks about what he would have done.
Patricia: Well, it’s very easy for other people to tell you what they would have done. My mother would say you have to tell him this and that and sure I have to tell him, but the bottom line is you can’t tell them anything especially when they are actively using. It’s like talking to the wall. They aren’t listening and they will do what they want until they themselves are ready to stop. It’s very easy for people who have no clue to tell you what they think you should do.
Mitch: And she was responsible for herself, your son was responsible for himself. When they were ready they would have stopped and it didn’t matter what you said. Amy died from a seizure caused by too much drinking.
Patricia: What would you like to see happen in this world regarding addiction?
Mitch: That’s a good question. I would like addiction treated as an illness, to be treated like every other disease because it certainly is. In the US you don’t have the National Health Service but in England we do. It’s the finest institution in the world. If you have a heart attack, need a new heart or bypass, there is no problem. You can stay home and recuperate as long as it takes but if you’re a drug addict- forget it. You are left to die. If you can’t pay for it, forget it. We put people through treatment that can’t afford it. There is something like 300,000 people that we know about that need rehab. There are no beds for them. What are they supposed to do? So, if their drug of choice is heroin they pump them up with methadone for 20 years. They substitute one drug for another.
Patricia: Do you agree with that? I know I don’t agree.
Mitch: No, of course I don’t agree with it. They need a program for rehabilitation. We have 18 employees, 14 which are in recovery and they are the most resilient people. They do a great job with our school program and are a pleasure to employ. Nobody chooses to be an addict and why they should be stigmatized is terrible. We still have this attitude in the UK and US that it’s shameful to be an addict.
Patricia: And that’s why it’s so important for you to keep doing what you’re doing.
Mitch: Yes, and you as well. Your magazine is an amazing source of information.
Patricia: Thank you. We all need to work together to reduce the stigma. It has been such a pleasure speaking to you.