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By Chas Newkey-Burden
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2008 Chas Newkey-Burden
All rights reserved.
Born to be Wild?
It was once said of Amy Winehouse, 'She often strikes as a personality born slightly out of time.' She was born on 14 September 1983, in Southgate, north London. Less than ten miles from central London and within the borough of Enfield, Southgate is adjacent to the North Circular Road. Other famous – and not so famous – people to have been born in Southgate over the years include Conservative Party legend Norman Tebbit and S Club 7 singer Rachel Stevens.
Many of the families who live within the redbrick houses of Southgate are Jewish. Jewish people have lived in the Enfield area since 1750 but it was between World Wars One and Two that many Jewish families moved from east to north London. By the time of the Swinging Sixties, around 280,000 Jews were living in north London. There are now five synagogues and three Jewish cemeteries within easy reach of Southgate.
Although there are photographs of Amy dressed up in costume for the Jewish festival of Purim, hers was not an especially religious family. 'We didn't grow up religious. I'm just a real family girl. I come from a big family. I think it's important to have your family around you, to be close to your family. I'm very lucky I have a mum and dad.'
Zeddy Lawrence, editor of Jewish News, says, 'She's been happy to talk about her Jewish identity. I don't know that she's milked her Jewishness that much, to be honest. She's not ashamed of mentioning that she's Jewish or talking about that, but there are very few interviews where the Jewish thing has come out.
'As far as the Jewish community goes, I think we were very excited when she first came on the scene. We wondered who this Jewish pop star was. There are very few of them about apart from Rachel Stevens, who didn't have much credibility because she was in S Club 7. Stevens was just good-looking with a nice pair of breasts, if you'll excuse me for saying that. She has talent, I suppose, but she was very much a pop princess.
'But in terms of a Jewish artist, I think it had been a long time since there was anyone like that. I can't remember the last credible Jewish artist in England. Amy came across as a credible artist, so there was a lot of excitement in the community because of that. I think since then she's fallen out of favour a lot because of her behaviour.'
Amy says she didn't enjoy going to cheder classes – the traditional elementary school teaching the basics of Judaism and the Hebrew language. 'Every week I'd say "I don't want to go, Dad, please don't make me go," she says. 'He was so soppy he often let me off. I never learnt anything about being Jewish when I went anyway.' However, she does attend synagogue on Yom Kippur and observes the Passover festival. 'Being Jewish to me is about being together as a real family,' she concludes. 'It's not about lighting candles and saying a brocha.
'I'm not religious at all. I think faith is something that gives you strength. I believe in fate and I believe that things happen for a reason but I don't think that there's a high power, necessarily. I believe in karma very much, though. There are so many rude people around and they're the people that don't have any real friends. And relationships with people – with your mum, your nan, your dog – are what you get the most happiness in life from. Apart from shoes and bags.'
Family girl Amy was brought up in a neat, detached home by her parents Mitchell and Janis. Mitchell Winehouse, known as Mitch, was a taxi driver and amateur singer. He was a big fan of artists such as Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra and the sounds of these men's music filled the house as Amy grew up. 'My dad's great,' says Amy. 'He's like the karaoke Sinatra. He has a CD in his cab of all the backing tracks. He could be a lounge act, he's that good.'
Mitch's mother, too, had links with music. She had once dated the legendary musician and jazz club owner Ronnie Scott. However, the relationship hit an impenetrable Catch 22. 'She wouldn't have sex with him until they married, and he wanted to marry her but wouldn't unless they had sex before 'cos he didn't know whether he would enjoy himself. So he went off.'
Mitchell, in defending his daughter, once said, 'My daughter isn't drug-crazed. Even when I was a young man I dabbled – what young person hasn't?' He adds, 'What Amy writes is true to life, and sometimes it's painful. "What Is It About Men?" was fair enough. She didn't lie about it – she wrote, "All the shit my mother went through." It was true. I did put her mother through a lot of shit. But I was only unfaithful to her once.'
However, she is keen to stress that she received lots of love and affection from her father. 'When I was little, if I walked into a room where my dad was, I'd get kissed and cuddled by him. He was the same with my mum when they were still together. Because he was so like that, she was less so.' She has also said that she is 'a lot like my dad. We're both the sort of characters who believe it's important to get stuff done and to be honest with people.'
Mitchell remembers singing along with Amy when she was a child. He would begin singing a song – Frank Sinatra's 'I Only Have Eyes for You', for instance – and then leave occasional lines out, allowing Amy to fill the gaps. 'Mitchell and Amy were close,' remembers her mother Janis. 'Her father would sing Sinatra to her and, because he always sang, she was always singing, even in school. Her teachers had to tell her to stop doing it in lessons.' Janis, who took an Open University science degree before studying at the London School of Pharmacy, also had musical connections: her brothers were professional jazz musicians. The couple had moved from a cramped two-bedroom flat to a thirties semi to a pretty three-bedroom Victorian terrace in Southgate.
There they had their first child, Alex, and then, four years later, Amy. 'Amy was a beautiful child – always busy, always curious,' remembers Janis. Scare stories about Amy's chaotic lifestyle now regularly fill the newspapers and as a child she had two memorable brushes with disaster: as a toddler she nearly choked on Cellophane while sitting in her pram, and she once went missing in the local park. One of Amy's early memories is having a crush on the children's television presenter Philip Schofield. She used to urge her mother to leave her father and marry Schofield instead.
Amy also enjoyed being with her grandmother, who introduced Amy and her brother to grooming. 'God rest her soul, she pretty much trained me and my brother. He'd give her a pedicure and I'd do her nails and her hair,' said Amy. On hearing this, her husband Blake joked, 'It might be quite emasculating for a young boy of eight to be pedicuring his grandmother.'
Her nan was clearly a big influence on Amy. When asked about her phobias, she said, 'I don't think I'm scared of anything. I'm not scared of snakes or spiders or anything. But I am scared of my nan. She's little, but she's a frightening person.' Not that after-school television and beauty training from her nan were Amy's only joys. 'I really liked school, I liked learning,' she recalls, adding, 'but I suppose if you don't feel like an outsider, you never do anything out of the box, do you? So I must have felt like an outsider a bit. But it's not a sob story.'
Asked whether they can cite any childhood influences on Amy, Mitchell points to Janis. 'The influence comes from my ex-wife's family ... there are some excellent musicians in there. But it's more what we listened to at home: Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington.' As for Janis, she passes the credit back to Mitchell. 'Like any parent with talented children I'm hugely proud of their achievements but can honestly say I've never pushed or cajoled them into show business. I just want them to be happy. I'm not in awe of greatness and don't take special credit for the way their talents have risen to the surface.'
Janis confirms, 'It's always been her dream to be a singer. That was all she ever wanted. She was always singing around the house.' She would sing 'I Will Survive' by Gloria Gaynor while lying in the bath. Neighbours, too, remember the early Amy Winehouse performances – and her fledgling cheek! Paul Nesbitt lived near the Winehouse family. He said, 'When I moved in, Amy popped her head out of her bedroom window and started singing with a microphone. She was talented. But she was a bit naughty. There was a bald copper who lived opposite and Amy would shout "slaphead" at him. She'd hold parties when her mum had gone out.'
Her brother Alex, too, was a huge music fan and therefore a big influence on Amy's development in the field. She says, 'As a little kid I was too shy to sing and my brother was the one standing on a chair in his school uniform and doing his Frank Sinatra.' His ability on the guitar inspired Amy to learn. 'He taught himself, so I took inspiration for teaching myself from him and he showed me a couple of things,' she has said. 'He was into jazz music when he was eighteen and I was fourteen and I'd hear Thelonious Monk, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughn and EElla Fitzgerald; and I learnt to sing by listening,' she says.
Her first guitar was a Fender Stratocaster 'It's my favourite guitar,' she said many years later. 'It's classic, it looks good and it sounds beautiful. It really lends itself to anything.' However, she has also awarded the 'favourite guitar' tag to another model. 'The Gretch White Falcon is my favourite guitar of all time. It's beautiful. There's this great picture of a falcon on the scratch plate.'
Young Amy was eventually to step out of Alex's musical shadow. 'When I was about nine, I did it,' she recalls. '"Sing!" my nana would shout. "And smile!" But I still needed to hold a fan to my face for "Eternal Flame": "Close your eyes, give me your hand ..."'
Amy's best friend is Juliette Ashby. As children the pair would play a game. 'She was Pepsi and I was Shirley, the backing girls for Wham!. I think we clicked because we were both a bit off-key.' This soon led the pair to form their own double-act called Sweet 'n' Sour. 'Me and my friend loved Salt-N-Pepa,' she explains. 'So we formed a band called Sweet 'n' Sour. We had a tune called "Spinderella", which was great ... but it was a long time ago.'
Salt-N-Pepa were more than mere pop stars to the young Amy. 'My first real role models were Salt-N-Pepa,' she says. 'They were real women who weren't afraid to talk about men, and they got what they wanted and talked about girls they didn't like. That was always really cool.'
More traditional pop girls had held little appeal for Amy. 'I liked forward-thinking hip-hop like Mos Def, and conscious stuff like Nas,' she said. 'You know how there's always one artist who makes you realise what it means to be an artist? I was into Kylie Minogue and Madonna, and then I discovered Salt-N-Pepa, and I realised there are real women making music.' As well as 'Spinderella', Sweet 'n' Sour's other song titles included 'Who Are the Glam Chicks (Us)?' and 'Boys (Who Needs Them?)', the latter of which was a precocious sign of themes to come.
Amy recalls, 'There was jazz but hip-hop was running through me, too. When I was nine or ten, me and my friends all loved En Vogue.' However it was at the age of thirteen that one of Amy's key musical moments occurred. One day she heard 'Leader of the Pack', by the Shangri-Las and fell in love with the girl band's sound. More than anything, this moment pushed her towards a career in music herself. One of America's leading girl groups of the 1960s, the Shangri-Las performed songs that were concerned with lost love and other teenage dramas. As well as 'Leader of the Pack', their other well-known songs include 'Remember (Walking in the Sand)' (later covered by rockers Aerosmith), 'Out in the Streets' (covered by Blondie), and the war romance classic 'Long Live Our Love'.
As well as the sounds of jazz music filling the house, visitors were always coming and going and it was a happy household for Amy initially. Her schooldays were filled with fun, and it was at the age of four that Amy first met her friend Juliette Ashby at Osidge Primary School. The school's website nowadays has a mini-manifesto on its homepage. Among its policies are 'We recognise that children are individuals and have different needs.' Well, Amy and Juliette were definitely individuals from the start. They would egg each other on to do naughty things. 'We were a bit nutty,' recalls Ashby, 'and we were always in trouble.' They would therefore often find themselves at the school reception desk, where pupils were sent if they had misbehaved. One day, as they stood at the desk, they told a male pupil that if he didn't pull his pants down that they would no longer remain friends with him. The schoolboy duly obliged and Ashby recalls that incident as the one that made them truly bond. The friendship remains strong to this day but there were difficult moments back in the school days. Ashby claims she once made Amy a friendship brooch but that her friend ungratefully threw it in a sandpit.
'She's an idiot – I never did that,' counters Amy. 'She was the one with the upper hand. Juliette always had strawberry shoelaces in her bag, and you knew you were flavour of the day if she offered you one.' Ashby admits that their friendship has at times been tested. 'Like when she acts like a dickhead and I have to pick her up, which is more or less all the time.'
Even so, Ashby utterly trusts her friend. 'We both know that we'd rescue each other from a burning building if we had to. We've got that understanding. You can rely on your friends to be there when your family have totally washed their hands of you.'
One of their favourite tricks involved one of the pair running from the classroom in floods of tears, whereupon the other would say that they'd have to go out and comfort her. 'And then we'd just sit in a room somewhere, laughing for the rest of the lesson,' says Ashby. Little surprise, then, that teachers would try to split the pair up. Indeed, once they progressed to secondary school, even the girls' mothers pleaded with the school to not let their girls sit together. Consequently, they hardly saw each other between the ages of thirteen and fifteen. 'I was a proper little shit,' admits Amy. 'I used to bunk off school and get my boyfriend round. My mum used to come home from work at lunchtime and we'd be lying around in dressing gowns!
'I was cute up to the age of about five but then I got naughty. I was very naughty. Very, very, very naughty. When everyone else went out for first play we went through all their lunchboxes and ate all their crisps. And, when they came in from play, half of their lunches would be missing. I grew out of it by the time I was about nine, though.'
When Janis wrote an open letter to her daughter through the pages of the News of the World in 2007, she spoke of Amy's childhood:
Even when you were only a rosy-cheeked five-year-old singing into a hairbrush in front of the mirror, you had a will as stubborn as a mule. Do you remember? We couldn't ever get you to see things from any angle other than your own. You could swear day was night and Heaven help anyone who tried to disagree.
You were never a wayward daughter but you always had a strong will and a mind of your own – qualities your father and I were so proud of. You were well brought up, you had a keen sense of right from wrong and you understood the values we always impressed on you as a family. But you would never be pressurised or influenced into doing something if your heart wasn't in it.
Do you remember those Decembers long ago when I used to swaddle you in a thick winter coat? I used to wrap you up and give you a kiss on the nose before you went out to play in the cold. 'Don't worry about me Ma, I'll be fine!' you used to laugh. But, like any mother, of course I worried.
Amy's naughtiness came from boredom at school. She felt smothered and frustrated by the regimen of education. 'I didn't like being told what to do,' she shrugs, the scowl returning to her face. 'I was on report all the time. It gets to you after a while, having to sign a piece of paper after every lesson. So I left.'
By this time, Amy had endured the painful experience of watching her parents split up. 'We never argued,' Janis remembers of the circumstances leading to the split. 'We'd had a very agreeable marriage but he was never there. He was ... away a lot, but for a long time there was also another woman, Jane, who became his second wife. I think Mitchell would have liked to have both of us but I wasn't happy to do that.'
For any child of nine, to watch their parents split up would be almost unbearably difficult. For Amy, the experience was typically painful and her mother believes that this has influenced Amy's music. 'People talk a lot about the anger in Amy's songs,' said Janis. 'I think a lot of it was that her father wasn't there. Now he's trying to make up for that and he's spending more time with her, but what he's doing now is what he should have been doing then.'
Interestingly, a live performance at Shepherds Bush Empire once saw Amy spend a lot of time during the show gazing up at Blake, who was in the circle to the right of the stage. As she sang lines about his infidelities, she fixed her focus on him. However, she also spun round and sang a few of the lines at her father Mitch, who was in the circle to the left of the stage. Nowadays, Amy sniffs, 'My dad was shady. He moved house every two years – I've no idea what he was running from.'
Excerpted from Amy Winehouse by Chas Newkey-Burden. Copyright © 2008 Chas Newkey-Burden. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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