The last time I met Mitch Winehouse, his daughter was alive and on the road, or so he believed, to recovery. That was at the end of 2009, and he had agreed to be interviewed to promote a TV documentary, called My Daughter Amy. Now, three years on, it is coming up for the sad anniversary of his daughter’s death, aged 27, when she was found at her home in Camden, north London, after drinking fatal quantities of alcohol.
We first meet again, briefly, at the screening of an Arena special – Amy Winehouse – the Day She Came to Dingle – along with Amy’s family, friends and well-wishers, who have been invited to see the film, which is, in part, a concert performed by the singer in 2006 in front of an audience of just 80 people, in a modest church in the small Irish fishing village of Dingle, County Kerry.
To have her returned to us, in a sense, just before she became a huge, international star is something to be savoured. Part of Amy’s tragedy is that there was barely a breath between the onset of her fame and her swift decline. She, herself, in the interviews that thread through the film, is a delight: polite, thoughtful and funny. It leaves you in no doubt of the musical intelligence of Amy Winehouse.
But the film, of course, is bittersweet. If your heart soars at hearing those songs again, then it is also pierced by the maddening waste of Amy’s talent and life. It’s even harder to imagine the collective anguish of her family, who are sitting behind me: Mitch with his wife, Jane, and, behind them, Amy’s mother, Janis, and Amy’s boyfriend, at the time of her death, the filmmaker Reg Traviss. (The week before the screening, he’d hit the headlines after being charged with two counts of rape.)
A few days later, and Mitch drives up to the recording studios in Kentish Town, where we are to do our interview, sitting in the semi-dark, on a pair of slightly clapped-out swivel daddy’s girl chairs, propped against the mixing equipment.
So how did he find the film? “Of course, for the first five minutes seeing Amy cavorting about on stage – it was very tough and I was crying, but when I calmed down, I loved every minute of it. It was superb,” he says. “I could clearly see she was enjoying being there and I’ve never heard her sing that well. She was just brilliant. I mean, I always knew she was a good singer, but I was so busy running after her and pulling her out of trouble and telling her off and taking her here, there and everywhere… Looking at that [footage] I realised that there’s a lot I didn’t know about Amy.
“And one of the things I didn’t know about her was what an incredible genius she was. Which is strange – because I’m her dad, so I should know that, shouldn’t I? But because I was so close to her, I didn’t fully get it – and now, unfortunately, it’s taken Amy’s passing for me to understand that.”
He tells me that he talks often to Tony Bennett (who was the last singer to do a live recording with Amy, the Body and Soul duet) about his daughter, “And he goes, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Amy Winehouse", not in any particular order, and he considers Amy to be one of the greatest female singers of all time. And now, after watching the Dingle film, I’m beginning to understand what he’s talking about.”
Amy, My Daughter, Mitch’s self-explanatory book, starts out as a rather jolly romp but becomes anything but; the anguish of a parent having to witness the descent of his child into drug and then alcohol addiction, augmented in his case by seeing those dreadful images splashed all across the newspapers, makes for harrowing reading. The mind-numbing tedium of the repeated assurances that she was dealing with her problems, only to relapse, must have been soul-destroying.
The birthday cards that are reprinted in the book, from Amy to her dad, are also revealing. On her 12th birthday, she signs off “from your favourite walking car crash of a daughter”; presumably an echo of one of his complaints to her (she was always a wild child), but, still, it shows her savviness from an early age. A later card illustrates a slightly crueler side to her, but also helps to explain why she had “Daddy’s girl” tattooed on her arm: “Thanks for passing your sense of style on to me, cos I’d look like Alex [her brother] if I took after Mum. Don’t tell either of them I said that.”