Russell Brand on His Friend Amy Winehouse: Talent is No Salvation

“When you love someone who suffers from the disease of addiction you await the phone call,” Russell Brand wrote in a eulogy for Amy Winehouse posted on his website on Sunday.

“The sincere hope is that the call will be from the addict themselves, telling you they’ve had enough, that they’re ready to stop, ready to try something new,” said Brand, himself no stranger to the perils of addiction.

“Of course, though, you fear the other call, the sad nocturnal chime from a friend or relative telling you it’s too late, she’s gone,” he continues. “Frustratingly it’s not a call you can ever make; it must be received. It is impossible to intervene.”

At first, it may sound as though Brand is saying that there’s nothing that anyone can do to help an addict. Far from it. That’s actually not what he’s saying at all.

Despite the fact that Brand calls his piece “To Amy,” it’s clear that it’s not really addressed to Winehouse, but to practically everyone else. Brand offers his friendship with Winehouse, his own substance abuse history, his opinions about the so-called “27 Club,” and even his views of the nature of artistic talent, as a way of combating what he sees as the myths that will emerge as a result of the singer’s death.

Brand writes that he knew Winehouse for years: “When I first met her around Camden she was just some twit in a pink satin jacket shuffling round bars with mutual friends.” It wasn’t until he first heard her sing − almost by accident, it appears — that he realized how wrong he’d been to dismiss her.

Filled with “the awe that envelops when witnessing a genius,” Brand finally recognized “that voice, a voice that seemed not to come from her but from somewhere beyond even Billie and Ella, from the font of all greatness. A voice that was filled with such power and pain that it was at once entirely human yet laced with the divine.”

Brand got to know Winehouse better. He interviewed her on television and radio. He saw how the public viewed the demon, the disease, the two of the shared. “Amy increasingly became defined by her addiction,” he writes. “Our media though is more interested in tragedy than talent, so the ink began to defect from praising her gift to chronicling her downfall.”

Brand’s eulogy is about where this approach has led. Two days after her death, the natural reaction, the sentiment we see in almost every comment about Winehouse, is: how could this happen? Couldn’t someone have done something to prevent it?

“Whether this tragedy was preventable or not is now irrelevant,” Brand answers sadly. “It is not preventable today.” However, Brand believes that her death was unnecessary and that because of her talent she will become mythologized along with the long line of artists “whose unnecessary deaths have been retrospectively romanticised.”

There’s probably a tendency to believe that talent can act as a salvation, or at least that those with outsized abilities have an extra tool in their arsenal to fight their addictions. But Brand’s point appears to be that it’s the disease that prevents the talented, like anyone else, from being able to use those tools.

“Not all addicts have Amy’s incredible talent. Or Kurt’s or Jimi’s or Janis’s,” Brand concludes. “Some people just get the affliction. All we can do is adapt the way we view this condition, not as a crime or a romantic affectation but as a disease that will kill. We need to review the way society treats addicts, not as criminals but as sick people in need of care.”