My friend Chris' mum is a huge T-Rex fan. Every year she goes to the site where Marc Bolan crashed his car and lays flowers, shares memories with other fans and reminds herself how much she loved him. I've always admired this dedication to someone she never met but is completely part of who she is.
For most women this kind of fandom starts with some sort of boy band or front man. I grew up at a time when a phone line was opened to console Take That fans when Robbie left and teenage girls wailed in the streets over Boyzone. My friend had an almost unhealthy obsession with Tim Burgess, so much so she camped outside what she thought was his house for three nights only to be told he'd never lived there and would she kindly move on or they would have to call the police.
Apart from a brief fad flirtation with Scott from 5ive and the obligatory lust of Leonardo DiCaprio in Romeo+Juliet, I had never really experienced that kind of full on consuming obsession. Until I discovered Amy Winehouse. I was on the way back from my sister's ill fated university open day in Newcastle. I had behaved badly and understandably she wasn't speaking to me by the time we got the hot train home so I put my headphones in and put on Frank. Jo Whiley had played Amy's single on her Radio 1 show and I'd bought the album solely on the weight of "yours is a familiar face but that don't make your place safe in my bed." Listening to Frank on that train home I found a best friend, a little soulmate. Here was a girl who was my age, going through everything I was. All the vulnerability, sexuality, the darkness, the hilarity, the terror and the thrill of being 19 was all here. By the end of my second year at university every girl in my shared house had a copy of it.
The first time I saw Amy live was at the Brecon Jazz Festival in 2004. We ran into the tent to find a lot of middle aged John Lewis shoppers neatly sat on plastic chairs in rows. We charged down to the front and spent the whole night singing along too loudly and dancing. She pointed to us from the stage, "I like these girls." As soon as she went off I tore the set list from the stage and ran to get a photo. She signed the set list "I <3 U, Amy." My obsession was in overdrive. After that I collected posters, postcards, stickers, t shirts and bought the album again so I could stick the artwork on the wall.
In late 2006 a clip appeared on amywinehouse.com. There she sat with the beehive, tattoos, the batwing eyeliner and the single line "They tried to make me go to rehab" played on a loop. By the time time Back to Black came out I was working at a small radio station in Macclesfield and they got sent it a few weeks before release. I squealed so loud the sales team thought I had a hernia. I put it on in the studio then in the car going home and then all night. I listened to it over and over and there she was again, now we were 22, knowing everything I was feeling saying all the things I couldn't explain.
The second time I met Amy was at SXSW the following year. I visibly shook going over to her and started saying about Brecon and how we'd been dancing when no one else was and I'd still got the setlist and did she remember? Her eyes darted from me the floor and she chewed furiously and cut me off saying "yeah I remember, yeah yeah I remember, do you want a picture?" Maybe it was because she was just about to play a showcase for a new album and she was nervous or that she didn't really need this girl rabbiting on about a gig years ago, but she was different, she was altered. Physically she was completely transformed but she was also distracted and absent.
I saw Amy play live five times more after that. Once in Manchester then Brighton on the Back to Black tour, then twice at Glastonbury and the final time was the disastrous Bestival appearance in 2008. We waited over an hour for her to come on stage and by the time she did she could barely stand. Her eyes rolled, she sat on the stage drinking and I had to leave. I just couldn't watch her being so awful when I knew she was brilliant. The easiest thing to do was to get angry with her. Why didn't she care? Why wasn't she trying? She was so wonderful and she was just fucking it all up with drugs and Blake and we couldn't understand it.
I was on a train when I found out Amy had died. I've only just come to appreciate the beauty that it was on a train where I first really found her. I didn't cry until I got home and then cried and cried. She'd died and there would be no more music, no more toothy laughter and no more Amy. The next day I sat and wrote a letter. I was amazed how much I wanted to say to her. I wrote "You Should Be Stronger Than Me" over and over and stuck the photos I had with her on the envelope and took it up to her Camden house.
I carried on listening to the albums over and over. I bought Lioness when it came out and played her songs on the radio whenever I could. I got angry and frustrated she was gone. A year later I thought, there should be a new Amy album now. She had been the soundtrack and mentor of my late teens/ early twenties and I had thought she'd be there into my thirties, forties and beyond. I got cross and I got sad and put her pictures on my wall but eventually, slowly but inevitably, things moved on. Like my restless 19 year old self, Amy became more and more of a memory. I knew I would always love her but it wasn't in the same burning way anymore. I couldn't feel her with me any longer.
A few months ago when I heard they were making a film about her life I felt excited and terribly nervous. I'd seen Asif Kapadia's previous film Senna about the life of the Formula 1 driver so I knew it would be done beautifully but I was scared what old feelings it would bring up and what buttons it would press. I sort of felt like I'd let Amy down moving on from her.
Convinced I would sob throughout and without the foresight to bring tissues, I grabbed a load of those rough brown napkins from the cinema bar on the way in. We sat in the dark watching the incredible footage of a young curvy Amy and listening to the accounts by her friends of how funny and brilliant she was. In the first half of the film she's driving around doing interviews, promoting Frank, playing little shows, doing her make up in toilets, getting her own flat. It was the same girl I'd met at Brecon Jazz, hair down laughing all the time. Then her friend's voice came over and said at that point she moved to Camden, that's where things started to change.
The next shot of Amy we saw the tattoos, the beehive and the eyeliner were all there but she wasn't. The change was so clear it was overwhelming. She was drinking, not eating, she was with Blake, she was struggling to write the new album and that was it, that was the moment she went from Brecon Jazz Amy to SXSW.
The film documents the story of what happened next, about how she got married, went in and out of rehab, was surrounded by paparazzi but also how she outgrew Back to Black but was still playing it live. She was sick of it. She was tired of reliving it and still playing Rehab over and over when it didn't mean anything to her anymore. That feeling led up to the shambolic Bestival performance. Suddenly everything made sense and rather than being angry with her I was angry for her.
That was the main feeling I came out of the film with, the frustration of what was allowed to happen to her. There are so many moments watching it you think, why is he there now? Why is she being told to do this? Why didn't they hire someone to take care of that? I interviewed the film's director Asif Kapadia on my radio show ahead of the film's release, he said "what we do is show where people just started making decisions that in the end, were not good for her."
There's a lot of discussion how unethical it is for people to go to rehab together but Amy and Blake were found somewhere that would take them. There is a heartbreaking moment when Blake is teasing her to sing Rehab. She smiles and winces before saying softly, "I don't mind it here." Three days later were the infamous pictures of her and Blake covered in blood walking the streets of Camden.
What does remain the same is Amy. Despite being knocked about by everything she remains completely true and genuine. She was funny and smart and clever throughout. I know a lot of reviews have mentioned her amazing facial reaction when being compared to Dido in an interview and also the tour she does round her holiday apartment pretending she is the housekeeper. My favourite moment was during the Grammys, Justin Timberlake is the nomination before her and she turns to her band incredulously asking "he called his record What Goes Around Comes Around?!"
She was there all along, she just got lost. Amy has really made me understand that. She was coming back to us, she was back on her feet and there were plans for new music and babies right before she died. Kapadia said "once people see the film they realise she was amazing and special and we should have looked after her." We really should have.
Amy is out in cinemas nationwide. Sarah's full interview with Asif Kapadia and Nick Shymansky on heat radio can be found here.Suggest a correction