It may still be a little early for Mitch Winehouse’s book, which has been rushed into stores less than a year after his daughter, singer Amy Winehouse, died of alcohol poisoning. But title aside, the book isn’t about Amy Winehouse so much as what it was like to be her father. Amy, My Daughter doesn’t credit any ghost writer or “as told to” co-author, indicating Winehouse may have actually written it himself: The book often reads like an extension of the sometimes brash and combative public statements he issued whenever his daughter was in the hospital or in seclusion, as if he felt it was his job to manage the image problems she herself didn’t seem to care about.
If writing the book helped him deal with his grief, that’s wonderful, but it may not have been such a great idea to publish it, even as a charitable enterprise. (The book jacket says all proceeds go to the Amy Winehouse Foundation, which seeks to “provide help, support, or care for young people” in need.) Winehouse isn’t exploiting his daughter’s memory, but he may be allowing himself to be exploited a bit. Amy, My Daughter is an angry book, and among those he’s angriest at are the British tabloids that turned Amy’s tailspin into gossipy entertainment while telling scurrilous lies about her—and, not incidentally, about him. One principal villain is the now-defunct News Of The World, which served as a mouthpiece for the Winehouses’ hated in-laws, until Rupert Murdoch shut the paper down as a gesture in the still-ongoing phone-hacking scandal besieging his media empire. In England, Winehouse’s book has been the recipient of a lot of free ink in such papers as The Guardian and the Daily Mail, which have taken the chance to remind their readers that Murdoch-owned papers are a cancer on society.
With many biographies, the early sections on subjects’ lives before they became famous are the price to be paid for the interesting stuff. Amy, My Daughter is the rare book about the life of a famous person that might have benefited from a more lingering look at the subject’s childhood. Winehouse offers a loving but sketchy picture of a smart, pleasure-seeking, music-loving young girl who was bored at school and eager to get on with living life on her own terms. (He also fumbles about, awkwardly explaining his divorce from Amy’s mother, trying to make his leaving her for another woman sound like a natural, inevitable development, with no one at fault.) By page 30, Amy is 19 and her music career is already on the launching pad; half a dozen pages later, she’s on her way to Miami to record her first album, Frank. By page 53, Winehouse has already recorded his dismay over Amy’s marijuana use, and writes “her regular drinking habits were worrying me.” With that, the pattern is set for the rest of the book.
Once Blake Fielder-Civil—junkie, boyfriend-turned-husband, and son-in-law from hell—enters the picture, the happier memories are mostly crowded out by trips to court and to the emergency room, hideous tabloid headlines, and arguments about rehab, including some in which, by his own telling, Winehouse does not come across as the most proactive father. (He writes that the line “My daddy thinks I’m fine,” from Amy’s hit song “Rehab,” is taken from his actual contribution to a discussion about whether she needed help.) There are some bright moments, and some weirdly funny ones, such as Amy regaining consciousness in a hospital bed and requesting food from KFC. (Others ride the difficult-to-qualify line between funny and cringe-worthy, such as Amy performing at Nelson Mandela’s birthday party and singing, to the tune of “Free Nelson Mandela,” “Free Blakey, my fella.”) But at one point in 2008, author and BBC broadcaster Clive James, who described Amy as having “a talent from heaven,” wrote of her latest run-in with the law that “there was a new note detectable [in the press coverage], as of a farce finally being recognised as an incipient tragedy. If there was ever any fun to be had from reading about her troubles, the point has been reached where there is no fun left even in writing about them.” If James despaired at the thought of writing about the events of Amy’s last few years on earth, there’s no way Mitch Winehouse can be expected to do much with them.
Because Amy died before augmenting her talent with a capacity for irony and distance, the small body of work she left behind is built on a deeply felt core of intense romantic emotion. According to Winehouse, his daughter had enough songs left over from the sessions for Frank to record a quick follow-up, but she wasn’t interested in recording those songs; as she put it, the relationship she’d been writing about had ended, so they didn’t mean anything to her anymore. For his part, Winehouse says he can no longer listen to her album Back To Black, inspired by Fielder-Civil, because he knows the songs are “all about the biggest low-life scumbag that God ever put breath into.” That’s a father talking, and he has a right. But for obvious reasons, he can’t begin to address one of the biggest mysteries his daughter left behind: What is the unbeatable attraction of a man like that for a woman like Amy Winehouse, and how much of it has to do with her need to explore whatever new experiences would translate into material for her art?
Winehouse appreciates his daughter’s talent and dotes on it, but he has neither the writing ability nor the objectivity to delve into the questions James was nipping at when he wrote, “Can’t the same force that made her so brilliant give her strength?” (He added, “a gift on that scale is not possessed by its owner, but does all the possessing. Maybe that’s what she’s afraid of. When people say that you have a duty to your talent, they all too often mean you have a duty to them… The duty of the greatly talented is to life itself, because what they do is the consecration of life.”) Winehouse’s book may be valuable to other parents of drug addicts and alcoholics, who can take comfort in knowing that someone else has felt their pain. Readers interested in the more specialized issues raised by Amy Winehouse’s life will have to look elsewhere.