It’s hot. Mitch Winehouse wants green tea. Something healthy. He’s in an immaculate suit with silk pocket handkerchief, clutching his stomach and grimacing when he thinks no one is looking. Events take their toll. The former cab driver is on a tight schedule, being driven from meeting to meeting by his manager: meetings about his new book, Amy, My Daughter; about his new charity, The Amy Winehouse Foundation; about the family legacy. A few weeks ago, he was singing at venues in Germany. Now he is off to the States. There are deals to be done, projects to be funded, myths to be sustained.
Not quite a year ago, on July 23 2011, his 27-year-old daughter, the singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse, was found dead on her bed at her Camden home having consumed a fatal quantity of alcohol. The tragedy of her decline, her destructive addictions played out in tabloid newspaper headlines, is Shakespearean in scale but we only have Mitch and his three ghostwriters to tell it. “They’ve caught my voice,” he says. But they have caught nothing of his chutzpah or costermonger East End accent. If James Cagney and Barbara Windsor had a love-child, his name would be Mitchell Winehouse.
This is his Angels with Dirty Faces moment: a chance, aged 61, to pour the £1m-plus advance from his book and royalties from his crooning activities straight into the foundation established to help young people in memory of Amy. A chance to smooth out a narrative shattered by years of trauma. It’s not a moment to slow down.
Mitch’s relationship with the daughter he describes as his “best friend”– never the best admission for a parent – is the focus of the book. Amy’s mother Janis (he left her for his current wife Jane when Amy was nine) disappears from the pages. “I know the book seems like I was there on my own and I regret that,” he says. Has Janis read the book? There’s a pause. “I sent her the book and I wrote a personal message about what a great mother she’s been and she phoned me yesterday and thanked me for that. She was upset and ... she’s going to be in bits so it’s probably going to take her two days to read the book.” He’s uncomfortable. Janis hasn’t read it.
I mention one chapter in which he describes finding Amy having a drug-induced seizure. He calls the paramedics. He then telephones his wife Jane, not Janis. “Is that in the book?” Winehouse asks. “Shit. There was a reason for that, I thought she could die. I thought the call to Janis should be either, she’s had a seizure and she’s OK or that she’s had a seizure and she’s dead. I didn’t want to call her and say the paramedics are here, they’re working on her and it’s touch and go – I hope she understands.”
It’s hard to see how she wouldn’t. They have been through too much. The book is a catalogue of exhausting life-and-death struggles, with Mitch centre-stage, trying to hold on to a child who is slipping away. Only he can’t see that. The fact Amy managed to kick drug addiction in 2008 meant he trusted she would also conquer alcohol addiction. Even now, he believes she was recovering and her death was an accident.
The ghostwriters recreate the Amy we think we know from Mitch’s experience and the existing newspaper stories: a loving, exceptionally talented girl with a mischievous streak, an occasionally foul mouth and flying fists, trying to turn her troubled life around and devoted to Daddy. Here and there, from within the leaden text – “Amy’s too-short life was a roller-coaster ride; I’m going to tell you about all of it” – Amy’s authentic words break free.
Here is the application Amy made to the Sylvia Young Stage School at the age of 12 without her parents’ knowledge. Mitch only found it shortly before the book was written: “All my life I have been loud, to the point of being told to shut up. The only reason I have had to be this loud is because you have to scream to be heard in my family. My family? Yes, you read it right. My mum’s side is perfectly fine, my dad’s family are the singing, dancing, all nutty musical extravaganza. I’ve been told I was gifted with a lovely voice and I guess my dad’s to blame for that. Although unlike my dad, and his background and ancestors, I want to do something with the talents I’ve been ‘blessed with’. My dad is content to sing loudly in his office and sell windows.”
At the same age, Amy sends her father a birthday card of Elvis Presley, on which she’s added the thought-bubble “Wish I could sing like you Mitchell”, and signs it, “Daddy, I love you lots although I don’t always show it. Your favourite walking car crash of a daughter.”
The prescience of it stops you in your tracks. Why was she so hard on herself, so young? “I don’t know,” Mitch tells me. “When she was young, she was still my little girl and I’d take her out to buy clothes and I’d say, ‘Amy don’t do that!’ As she got older, we became equals, she was still my daughter but we had grown up together.”
Had they? He admits the words to her song, “What Is It About Men?”, suggest he hadn’t realised quite what she had experienced through the marriage break-up: “Understand, once he was a family man/ So surely I would never, ever go through it first hand/ Emulate all the shit my mother hated/ I can’t help but demonstrate my Freudian fate.”
“The song wasn’t all about me,” Mitch says, side-stepping the fact that it is Amy saying history repeats itself. “It’s just brilliant and absolutely and totally and completely pertinent. I always thought I was a good father in terms of giving my children love. Janis would say I spoiled them terribly, which I did. I used to work at night and I’d come home and wake them up and they wouldn’t go back to sleep because I wanted to play with them.” Janis developed symptoms of multiple sclerosis when her children were small, the effects becoming more evident in her fifties. There’s no escaping the sense of a woman doing her best to cope while the father of her children moved further and further away from her.
Shortly before she died, Amy reminded Mitch about a school essay she’d had to write on the life of someone important to her. She chose her father. He told her he’d been the youngest person to climb Everest, had played for Spurs and had performed the world’s first heart transplant with his assistant Dr Christiaan Barnard. She believed him, with embarrassing consequences: “I was expecting some nice remarks about her imagination and sense of humour, but instead the teacher wrote me a note saying, ‘Your daughter is deluded and needs help.’”
Amy’s short life delivered phenomenal highs – two critically acclaimed albums, Frank and Back to Black, five Grammys, a Brit Award and three Ivor Novello Awards. Born in 1983 in Enfield, north London, she continued to live with her mother and brother Alex after her parents’ marriage ended. By the age of 11, she was displaying sleep problems and her behaviour meant she changed school often. She failed to complete courses at the Sylvia Young Theatre School and The Brit School in Croydon. In July 2000 she became a vocalist with the National Youth Jazz orchestra and three years later, aged 18, she had a record deal.
This promise also delivered phenomenal lows, which were recorded in a tabloid frenzy and centred around her marriage to drug addict Blake Fielder-Civil in 2007 and his imprisonment a year later charged with trying to pervert the course of justice and grievous bodily harm. They divorced in 2009. Mitch believes there was a genuine but toxic love between the two: “Eighty per cent of female addicts are drawn in to it by their male partners ... often so the man can get money. He needed to control her. He couldn’t control his own addiction, so he’d control Amy’s addiction. She used to say, ‘But Dad, he takes the pain away...’” Did he understand the source of her pain? “No, it’s a mystery. I knew that she loved Blake and it was easy to confuse drug dependency with love, that control and coercion.”
Week after week, the horrors of their relationship were captured in the press. There would be Mitch, defending yet exposing his daughter one minute then dueting on stage with her the next. In his twenties he had been a semi-professional singer. He released an album, Rush of Love, in 2011: “There were aspects of those interviews I regret ... I wasn’t in it for self-aggrandisement, I was doing it because I wanted people to understand Amy was a victim of her circumstances.” Was her phone hacked? “Yes.” Did that bother you? “No, they hacked the house phone and it wasn’t even connected.” Were you paid for stories? He shakes his head.
There were ugly scenes. Fights between Amy and Blake. Mitch battling with drug dealers. There’s no doubt she adored her father. Both were thrilled Tony Bennett wanted to record Mitch’s favourite song, “Body and Soul”, with her. There’s a surreal intensity about the playing out of all these highs and lows in the formulaic pages of the book and it somehow seems natural that, as Mitch tells it, Amy was sending him messages shortly after she died. He’d been in New York when her security guard called Mitch to break the news. “As I was told that Amy had passed away, this is what happened: Amy Winehouse Foundation, Amy Winehouse Foundation, Amy Winehouse Foundation. Children. Horses. These were the things that she loved. She was giving me these messages. Coming back on the plane I was as cool as a cucumber and thinking, this is what we’ve got to do. Trenton my manager is inconsolable and I’m just writing things down.” Two months later, he was announcing the launch of the charity on Piers Morgan Tonight on CNN.
He chairs two branches of the charity, one here and one in the US. Jane, Janis and son Alex, and their respective partners, are all trustees. Any money for the family comes not from the charity but the Amy Winehouse estate. In America, activity is focused on music therapy in New Orleans; here, funding goes towards hospices, post-rehab schemes for young people and addiction awareness education. Their aim is to give £500,000 to relevant projects in the first year and Mitch is involved in every decision.
There are people who describe him as overbearing and egotistical, almost competing with his daughter for attention during her lifetime. Someone once wrote that he had abandoned his cab and acquired chatshows as a vehicle instead. “Well, they might have had a point,” he mutters. Who can know where the truth lies or if there is one truth? He sips his tea as we talk to some recipients of his funding in a café off Holloway Road. The Pilion Trust finds work, shelter and education for homeless youngsters and the team know Mitch and his family well. What’s happening on the ground is real.
I see a tired man doing his best, who would prefer to keep busy rather than stop and reflect. “They can say what they like about me ... I know what we’re doing and that’s the important thing.”
Mitch had been trying to sell his book, a history of the Winehouse family, before Amy died. There was limited interest from publishers. Colourful though his Russian Jewish ancestors were – a cousin became a friend of the American comedy duo Abbott and Costello, his mother dated jazzman Ronnie Scott – would such a book sell? Amy’s death changed all that, securing a rewrite, advances from HarperCollins in the UK and US, and sales worldwide.
Does he never stop? “I look back on my life and I was lazy. I don’t want to make a speech, but in this country there are thousands and thousands and thousands of disadvantaged young people. We can fix it, we can fix all of it.”
Fixing himself is trickier. “But let me tell you something, you do recover. With some psychiatric help, I can think about Amy now without crying. My image of Amy when I was thinking about her, and that is all the time, was of her lying in the morgue looking peaceful and I can think about that now without breaking down. I now think of her as she was – as most people didn’t know her – as lively, vivacious with this incredible sense of humour, brilliance. She made me laugh so much I’ve got a hernia, but I’ve been so busy I haven’t had time to have it fixed.” He doesn’t laugh.
Hidden in the book’s shadows is Mitch the boy. He liked to escape from school to read in the library. He enjoyed football but his father, also a taxi driver, was often working when he played and by his own admission, he was “too chubby” to have taken things further. He is in awe of the men in his family, seeing something remarkable in the DNA that was passed through him to Amy. His own father died when he was 16: “The problem in those days was that my uncles, they were all wonderful men on both sides but they didn’t really understand about the depths of people’s feelings as we do today. You wouldn’t say to somebody now who is grieving, stop crying, you are the man of the family now, stop crying.”
Does he have regrets? “I did everything I could ... what else could I do other than locking her up in a room and you can’t do that, though there were people who thought I should have. I don’t feel responsible for what happened to Amy.”
The last few months of her life are stark. In May, her doctor, Christina Romete, handed Mitch a letter stating that Amy was in immediate danger of death. She had drunk herself into a coma on May 17 and, against medical advice, had within 24 hours discharged herself from the London Clinic where she was being treated. In June, she appeared stumbling and incoherent at a concert in Belgrade. In July, she was dead. We will never have her story, other than in her beautiful, terrible lyrics and a few glimpses of her writing as a child.
The day before she died, her mother and doctor had both seen Amy and noted she was tipsy. Her security guard kept an eye on her. He told the inquest she had been drinking. At 2am he’d told her to keep the noise down – she was singing and playing drums. There’s something deeply sad about a woman being told what to do in her own home by an employee. In the morning, he looked in on her and thought she was asleep. That afternoon, he tried to rouse her but she was dead. Her childhood friend Tyler was asleep elsewhere in the house. Her boyfriend, the film director Reg Traviss, was supposed to come round that night but hadn’t made it.
“People were talking about her state of mind at that time. Her state of mind when I saw her on the Thursday was fantastic,” explains Mitch. “Reg and I are buddies and you can’t talk to him about it because, you know... he doesn’t blame himself now. He’s busy. He works the most incredible hours as a film director and Amy knew that and she might sleep during the day and he might not get round to her until four o’clock in the morning.”
Wasn’t the doctor’s warning echoing in his ears? “We knew she was moving towards abstinence and that was the faith, that was the typical pattern. She hadn’t drunk like that for months and months and months.” Who did she turn to that night? I ask. (Newspapers including the Daily Mirror reported in August 2011 that Amy’s final text message was to her friend Kristian Marr.) Do you know who she texted? He’s abrupt: “No. Don’t have a clue.”
In a further twist, the coroner at the inquest later resigned for reasons unconnected with Amy’s case. The family could have appealed: “If we wanted to challenge the verdict we could have but we didn’t want to do that. It was death by misadventure ... which is the correct verdict and we’re happy with that.”
What has Mitch learnt in this past, relentless year? “I’ve learnt a lot about charities. I’ve learnt I have a strong family. I’ve learnt everything. I’ve surprised myself.” And, he adds, “I’ve learnt that I’m a good person”.
‘Amy, My Daughter’ is published by HarperCollins (£20). All author proceeds will go to The Amy Winehouse Foundation, www.amywinehousefoundation.org