I Rejected Amy Winehouse – And It Was The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me
Everyone seems to have an Amy Winehouse story. Not always a terribly inspiring one. As the release nears of Asif Kapadia’s controversial new documentary about her short life and painful death, friends are crawling out of the woodwork to speak of how they helped to protect her, family bask in their blood-association and critics are competing to say who first identified her genius.
Well, I have a confession to make. I really do have an Amy Winehouse story that, I’m afraid to admit, says more about me than it does her. About why we should never take things at face value, about the importance of taking risks and why we shouldn’t always strive for conformity.
This is an Amy story before the fame and drugs that ruined her, before the sycophants and leeches conspired to push her over the edge after a tragically short career that saw her release just two — admittedly wonderful — albums.
When we met, Amy must have been in her late teens, possibly 20, living in Southgate and getting occasional singing gigs having graduated from the Sylvia Young stage school. She was nowhere near the star she was to become.
It’s a story that I think says something about why failure is often far more interesting and instructive than success, and the dangers of a risk-averse society encouraging the bland and meaningless to rise effortlessly to the top. Failure teaches you what the true components of attaining success are. Hard work, tenacity, desire, ambition and brains, of course. But what failure most teaches you is that, more than anything, success is down to luck. And the best way of finding that luck is to take risks.
We don’t work in an environment of certainty or indeed logic. If we don’t take risks, if we don’t tempt failure, we won’t fulfil potentials. We might “get by” in playing safe but we won’t succeed.
That’s one of the most valuable characteristics of our digital age and the fearless start-up economy. “It’s a risk, who knows if it’ll work — sod it, let’s do it anyway.” How ironic that the 21st century’s most formidable risk-takers are not to be found among creatives but are the geeks and financiers who were once derided as boring.
Anyway, back to Amy. Many years ago, I worked for an editor who demanded that everything be done in a certain way, every idea needed to conform to the newsroom sausage factory. And the editor thought it worked because it meant the paper had a solid identity, it didn’t risk alienating readers. The unexpected was excised. It must have been around 2002. I was an eager young newspaper executive helping to run the features department, which included the arts sections. And, one day, one of my most trusted music freelancers phoned me to ask me to take a risk on a neighbour of his. ‘‘Grant, you’ve got to meet her,’’ he said, in a breathless manner that I’d never heard in his laconic drawl before.
“She’s a bit weird but her voice is the most incredible thing you’ve ever heard. She’s just starting out and needs a break. Maybe a little press coverage.” Yeah, yeah, I thought. This is a newspaper not a tear-stained X Factor audition. Anyway, against my better judgment, I invited this crazed freelancer and his weird neighbour into the office for a quick coffee. The journalist came to me because of my North London Jewish background, similar to the amateur singer he wanted to help turn into a star, or at least introduce her to people in the media who could recognise talent when they saw it. Her family had been in the business, he told me, it’s in her blood. “Except this one has got the best voice of the lot of them.”
It was obvious the moment I clapped eyes on her that her Jewishness was indeed striking — and almost certainly a handicap.
Though not the only handicap. This mumbling teenager was a little overweight, with bushy black hair that hung over her morose chubby face like a dank curtain, she was shy to the point of boring, wore what looked like men’s clothes and, worst of all, sang jazz.
“Sorry love, it’s just not going to happen,” I wanted to say in my best Simon Cowell voice. ‘‘No one’s going to take a risk on you.”
I nodded politely, probably said one or two hugely patronising things that made me look more important than I was, and gulped my coffee down to return to the proper work of finding real stories. I can’t honestly recall to this day if she said anything to me. If she did, I’m sure I wore my best “interested” face.
After a few minutes, I smiled, shook hands and politely took the girl’s lovingly-constructed homemade CD back to my desk and, knowing that my editor would never countenance giving precious space in the newspaper to a chubby, jazz-singing non-entity — and would publicly humiliate me for even suggesting it — I nonchalantly threw the girl’s gift in the bin. My finely tuned instincts, coupled with a fear of suggesting something a little different, persuaded me she was not a risk worth taking. I’m reminded of that incident every time my daughter plays her albums over and over again, and I struggle to admit to her that I dismissively chucked her namesake’s homemade, personally annotated CD in the bin that afternoon because I didn’t have the energy or nerve to take a risk.
I had been conditioned to perform my role in a certain way — the creativity, danger, excitement had been removed. And I was a lesser journalist for it. I was also a complete and utter fool.
It’s taken me a while to realise, but success isn’t just measured by titles, numbers of underlings, occasional pats on the back and a generous expense account. It’s measured by how alive we feel.
And you only really get that electric feeling when you’re either taking a risk or watching that risk pay off. Some business ideas might not work, some approaches may not even get off the ground but unless we are prepared to fail — or not be scared to fail — we won’t find that crucial bit of luck that puffs out our chests so we cross the finishing line first.
It pays to be different. If we all sang from the same songbook what a dull place we’d live in. I’m pretty sure Amy could have told you that. Though perhaps it cost her in the end.