TORONTO - Grammy-winning neo-soul songstress Amy Winehouse was happy, healthy and perhaps even ready to start a family just before she died, says her father Mitch Winehouse.
The talented but troubled crooner died of alcohol poisoning on July 11, 2011. The elder Winehouse has just published "Amy, My Daughter," an emotionally wrenching account of the powerhouse vocalist's fatal inability to overcome substance abuse issues.
But Mitch Winehouse says the most tragic part of his daughter's death lies in the fact that she was in the midst of a stunning recovery just before she relapsed. She had been off hard drugs for 18 months, she was finally in a healthy relationship and she was sober for nearly six weeks before ultimately drinking herself to death.
"We were hopeful," Winehouse told The Canadian Press in a telephone interview this week.
"I've been well-chronicled in saying that had Amy died in 2007 or 2008 ... I'd have said: 'Fair enough, she was very sick.' To die when she did — I mean, it's a ridiculous thing to say that someone who died was healthy but ... she was healthy. That's what makes it so tough. We really felt that we were in the clear.
"I'm not saying that the last 18 months of her life (were) all glamorous and lovely," he added. "There were times when she was depressed and there were times when she was drinking too much, but there were some great times in there as well (when) she wasn't drinking.
"That's the message I want to get across to people. She was not in turmoil. She was happy. And that's important to me."
And that's a part of the reason Winehouse wrote this book. He wanted to "set the record straight."
While his daughter enjoyed one of the most stunningly swift ascensions in recent pop music history — shooting to international stardom on the strength of her deep, textured vocals, confessional songwriting and distinctively retro style — her booze-and-drug-fuelled meltdown came just as quickly, and her promising career dissolved under the pressure of legal woes, toxic relationships and bizarre public behaviour.
So when she died at 27, some mourned and others sneeringly hopped to conclusions about the cause of the beehived Brit's demise.
"There were so many misconceptions after Amy passed away — that she took her own life, that she died of a drugs overdose, these kinds of things," said Mitch, who argued against such claims at the time but wasn't vindicated until a coroner's inquest found that she was killed alcohol.
"Nobody believed me. They thought it was all the delusional rantings of a grief-stricken father. But everyone knows now that that was true."
It's less than a year since Amy died, and it's clear the wounds still feel fresh to her father. Even as he laments that he's had a long day of interviews, one can't help but notice his voice crack as he describes his daughter as an "incredible person, obviously extremely talented but a lovely, lovely girl," someone who was strong but with "an obvious weakness."
And yet, he didn't want to sugarcoat the issues she had.
"There's no point in trying to airbrush that out of history," he said. "It happened, everyone knew that it happened, and if I left that out of the book, people were gonna know it was a sham."
So "Amy, My Daughter" balances precariously between tender, even doting portrayals of the immensely talented, corrosively witty and even sweetly naive soul who tattooed "Daddy's Girl" on her left arm, and sometimes exhausting accounts of the arrests, relapses and embarrassing quarrels that derailed her career.
He includes childhood Father's Day cards penned Amy, quotes sweet text messages she dashed off and recounts the way she vulnerably sought her parents' approval even toward the end of her life. contrast, readers can begin to feel the frustration that seized Winehouse's family with each aborted trip to rehab, each successive retreat back into the depths of addiction.
In all, one gets the sense that what should have been a halcyon period for the Winehouse clan — when 2006's stunning sophomore statement "Back to Black" topped charts around the world — wasn't actually a very happy time.
"On the one hand, you had this incredible success — and all the good stuff that went along with it — and then on the other hand, a few months later, we're battling, these two families are fighting each other, and I'm trying to protect Amy," Mitch said.
"It all kind of happened at the same time."
The battles that he refers to mostly revolved around Winehouse's troubled ex-husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, whose family clashed with Winehouse's at every turn during their wildly careening relationship.
In his book, Mitch lays most of the blame for his daughter's deteriorating condition on Fielder-Civil, whom he calls "the biggest low-life scumbag that God ever put breath into." He blames Fielder-Civil for introducing his daughter to hard drugs, for dragging her down with his legal problems and for blocking the family's every attempt to get Winehouse sober.
That rocky relationship inspired the gut-punch breakup screeds on "Back to Black." As she approached the end of her life, Amy continued her heavy drinking in part to steel her nerves because performing those songs became a painful ritual, says Mitch.
To Amy, writing those songs felt like "cutting off an arm," he said. So as her father sees it, the album became an unhappy side effect of a poisonous relationship.
"Amy was reluctant to sing (those songs) because it took her back to a place where she'd moved away from," he said. "'Back to Black' is about her not seeing Blake and then sinking into depression, so move it forward three years ... after she wrote those songs, she doesn't want to sing the songs anymore.
"So I think her stage fright," he added, "was as much to do with having to sing those songs more than anything else."
For over a year prior to her death, Winehouse was in a relationship with British film director Reg Traviss.
Mitch says that, toward the end, Amy would have preferred to sing songs about her new muse. Traviss remains close with her family, and Mitch still imagines the bright future the couple would have shared.
"They would certainly have got married. They would certainly have had children," he said. "I want people to know she'd moved beyond Blake."
Of course, Winehouse never did get the chance to sing songs about Traviss. In the book, Mitch writes that his daughter was working on tunes influenced reggae and '60s girl groups.
He doesn't know why she embarked on her final drinking binge, though he said the relapse was "typical," indicative of the usual pattern of somebody who is moving "closer to abstinence."
He thinks she was happy even on the night she died, when the last person to see her alive was a security guard responding to complaints that she was noisily banging away on a drumset and disturbing her neighbours.
"She didn't know she was going to die, obviously," he said. "That means a lot to me, because the thought of her being miserable and dying is horrible. It's a little bit more bearable thinking that she was happy."
Meanwhile, Mitch Winehouse himself has long been a controversial figure. He was persistently visible as his daughter generated a seemingly unending string of negative press, and he sometimes seemed to carry a temperamental, erratic presence of his own — in the book, he describes a brawl with the Fielder-Civil family that ended with the elder Winehouse fighting with his pants around his ankles.
He also tried to promote a singing career, giving some the impression he was piggybacking on his daughter's accomplishments. The former taxi driver now devotes his time to the Amy Winehouse Foundation, a charity that seeks to feed disadvantaged young people and support drug-rehabilitation programs.
All the author's proceeds from "Amy, My Daughter" will go to the foundation. But Mitch Winehouse is still bracing for criticism.
"People still say I'm lining my own pockets," he said.
"I'm a licensed taxi driver in London ... and that's what I still drive, I'm not driving a Rolls Royce. I'm not living in Mayfair in a penthouse suite. We just do the best that we can.
"All I know is, we're feeding 60 kids every day a hot meal, homeless kids, we're helping kids all over," he added.
"Buy the book, give us the money, enable us to help young people. They can say what they like about me. I don't care."