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.”
The book was written with the help of a very old friend of the family, Paul Sassienie, based on Mitch’s reminiscences spoken into a dictaphone. The two men have known each other for 50 years. The actual process of talking, he says, was fine, because he could stop at any time, “but when I had to read it back after the first draft, it killed me. I managed to read it all, but it was very difficult.” When he’s telling me about how he and his daughter would listen to records together and compare Billie, Ella, Dinah and the way their individual voices and vocal styles lent such distinctive qualities to their songs – I ask him if that’s one of the things he misses. “I miss everything about her,” he says.
I also ask him a question, warning him that it might sound harsh, whether there were times, in the depths of her drug addiction, when he thought it might have been a relief for everyone if she wasn’t around any more; she seemed such a soul in distress.
“You are joking, aren’t you?” he says, looking a bit like Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday. Well, I mean, some people do say that. “I’ve never said that.” And you never thought it? “No,” he says. “People get the impression that when she was taking drugs she was taking them every day and the book might give that impression but I saw her every day and she wasn’t always high or down. There were times when she seemed perfectly normal and there were times when she wasn’t, when you couldn’t get a word out of her.
“My family has always been the same way, and we regarded Amy as being ill. Sick. And when someone in my family is ill, we don’t run away from them. Or wish they were dead. We gather around them, we take them out, we bring food, we sit with them and talk. It was exactly the same with Amy. We all thought that Amy was ill. Nobody thought, ‘You’re a bloody junkie. You brought this on yourself. No one told you to do it.’
“We all understood very early on that Amy was a victim of circumstances – basically, of [ex-husband] Blake [FielderCivil] – and she was ill and we understood what was going on.”
Mitch always seems to want to accentuate the positive where Amy’s self-destructive habits were concerned. He believes she was on her way to recovery, and that the periods between her binge drinking were getting longer: “It was the pattern of someone who was moving towards abstinence.” He is not given to being analytical and so has no idea what precipitated her benders: “Could have been anything; could have been nothing.”
He doesn’t blame anyone for Amy’s death. Not her friend, Tyler James, recently a contestant on The Voice UK, who was living with her at the time, nor Andrew, the security guard who found her: “He would throw himself in front of a bullet for Amy. You know, it was just one of those things. It’s not as though she was on suicide watch or anything like that so what on earth can you do?”
As for Fielder-Civil, who introduced Amy to class-A drugs, he says: “Of course, I don’t blame Blake. He’s not responsible for Amy’s passing. He loved her and she certainly loved him, then. He was a charming guy, extremely intelligent and creative, but also extremely manipulative and controlling.”
When I last spoke to Mitch, he had been suffering from panic attacks. After Amy’s death, he went to see a psychiatrist who said that he was suffering not from depression, but from post-traumatic stress syndrome: “It was flashbacks, just like I’d been in combat; it was the recurring image of seeing Amy in the mortuary where she was perfectly beautiful, like she was asleep – but I don’t want that image.”
Together with his shrink, they worked on replacing that image with ones of Amy laughing which is something she did a lot, even in the dark times. She made her dad laugh so much, indeed, that he tried to bar her from the hospital when he was in stitches after having a gall bladder removed. But she got in, told too many literally side-splittingly funny stories, and her poor father had to be stitched up again. He says he is still suffering from a hernia as a result of laughing too much with her in St Lucia.
He says his psychiatrist told him that what caused greater impact on his health was not Amy’s death, but her illness. “Every night I’d go to bed with the phone next to me – I couldn’t sleep with my [second] wife, Jane – and I was thinking to myself, ‘Tonight’s the night – she’s going to die tonight,’ and the phone would ring and I’d go, ‘Yeah? Yeah?’ and Amy would say, ‘Da-a-ad, when you come round tomorrow…’ And I’d say, ‘Amy, it’s f***ing three o clock in the morning!’ Or security would ring and say, ‘She’s out and there’s a problem,’ and I’m – bang – I’m gone, I’m in the cab, I’m away, I’m there.
“But here’s the thing: however bad it was, and it was terrible, I’d take it all back right now. Give me my daughter back. I take all that s***, all the phone calls in the middle of the night, all the drug dealers – give it back. I want it back. I want my daughter right now.
“But the illness, with its endless anticipating, was more traumatic because when Amy passed – that was it. Done. Now I can go to sleep. Of course I think about her, but I know I’m not going to get a phone call at four o clock in the morning saying there’s a problem.”
On the anniversary of Amy’s death, on 23 July, Mitch will be going to her house in Camden (which is up for sale, but doesn’t have a buyer yet), to say a few prayers, and then on to Jazz after Dark, in Soho, which was his daughter’s favourite club: “And all our family and friends will be there, and all Amy’s friends will be there, and there will be lots of tears and lots of laughter and we’ll spend the evening talking about Amy.”
Arena: Amy Winehouse – the Day She Came to Dingle is on BBC4 tonight at 10:00pm
Amy Winehouse – Singer is on Wednesday at 10pm on Radio 2