The late, great Amy Winehouse is remembered in a new book by the person closest to her - best friend, "twin flame" Tyler James. He talks with Joanna Mathers about the real Amy.
The girl is 12 but looks about 9. She's tiny, with a cascade of dark hair, her small frame lost within a school uniform. The boy (13) is tall, brainy, insecure, and riddled with acne.
He's seen her in class but not socially. Neither of them can dance. But they can sing.
It's 1996. Inside Sylvia Young's Theatre School in Marble Arch, London, the two kids have been partnered to record a version of Happy Birthday for their teacher's mum. The small girl is up first. She opens her mouth and exhales genius. He can't believe what he's hearing.
"She was singing like a 40-year-old jazz veteran who drinks three bottles of whiskey and smokes 50 Marlborough Reds a day ... her voice was something else, like Nina Simone or Dinah Washington."
Afterwards, they walk out of class together.
"Who the f*** are you? Your voice is absolutely sick!" the boy blurts, awkwardly.
She shoots back, bullet fast. "Your voice is absolutely mental."
The girl is Amy Winehouse. The boy is Tyler James. This is the beginning of their story. We all know the end.
It's 10.30am in Central London and Tyler James is struggling to get phone reception in his apartment. The line crackles and fades: he's gone for a minute, then he's back. "I've moved outside to Leicester Square. Next to the big cinema, you know the place. Luckily there's no one around."
James is doing the media rounds for his new book, My Amy, a paean to his princess, Amy Winehouse. Inseparable friends from first meeting until harrowing end, My Amy is a tender portrait of a fierce, brave, loyal, lost and utterly compelling young woman.
James lived with Winehouse for all of her adult life. He was there when she bought her (in)famous Camden apartment — a one-bedroom flat atop a mews called Jeffrey's Place.
They day-drank in local pubs together: The Good Mixer, where she'd down Sambuca shots and kick hard-drinking geezers' collective ass at pool, and Old Blue Last, where she met Blake Fielder-Civil. James and Winehouse became addicted together, travelled together, and he was one of the people who found her dead in the Camden Square house they shared, on July 23, 2011.
She was 27.
James reveals that he's never had the chance to talk about his best friend publicly. Noise and hysteria, gossip, and tabloids ("she's a junkie", "she's a freak", "she's starving herself") have dominated the narrative. The real Winehouse erased from view.
The book, he says, has been simmering for a while. It's something he had to do.
"I always knew I would write about her. I had an instinct to protect her, from when we first met. I wanted to share what really happened and to address those misconceptions. She wasn't just a loudmouth, a rowdy girl. The Amy I met was a geek, a nerd, someone who would sit and do crosswords every day."
The connection between them was "spiritual". Their love transcended romance: "She was my wife, my sister, my mum, my twin flame."
Their shared experience is lovingly wrought throughout the 330 pages of My Amy. By turns tender and brutal, it's unflinching ("I have no filter," James laughs), aching and joyful.
Winehouse's alcoholism, drug abuse and bulimia are intrinsic to her cultural mythos ... the haggard spectre, staggering on stage. But her early years, before the superstardom, have been largely ignored. James wants to remedy this.
In My Amy the early 2000s (just before and after she released her debut, Frank) are drenched in wonder.
The pair had left performing arts school and had been picked up by recording labels. Sharing the Jeffrey's Place apartment, they created a headquarters for a glorious urban bohemianism.
The apartment was a mirror of her character. The living room was adorned with vintage Vogue covers, family pix, and fashion spreads, bookshelves packed with Hunter S. Thompson and Charles Bukowski.
In the morning, Winehouse would buy fresh flowers from a Camden flower store, drink coffee and spend hours under sunbed lamps. And at night she'd perform.
"It was an incredible time for both of us. We toured together. She'd stand and watch me on stage while I performed, then I'd watch her. I wish it could have stayed like that forever."
But she was too clever and too talented for this modicum of success. And then came Blake.
"Blake was chaos."
Winehouse was smitten from the moment she met Fielder-Civil. She'd always loved gangster mythology, idealised hard men who lived by their wits and fists. In addition, she had major issues around her absent father — a taxi driver with a gift of the gab.
Fielder-Civil fulfilled both roles. James writes: "[Blake was] charming, handsome, dishevelled, did coke in the toilets, was a bit of a wrong 'un, and knew how to fight ... the sort of man who, if another man said something dodgy to his woman in the pub, would knock them out."
Their relationship was underpinned by simmering tension, fuelled by drugs, alcohol, and violence. Fielder-Civil was possibly Winehouse's most lethal addiction, one she could never really break.
Her monumental masterwork, Back to Black was a heartbreak album, inspired by Fielder-Civil and written after their first break-up. It garnered critical and commercial acclaim; and brought back her man.
Before the album, Fielder-Civil had dumped Winehouse for a woman he'd been seeing when they met. After the success of Back to Black, he came scurrying back. James recalls the reunion, at the video shoot for You Know I'm No Good.
"He was overwhelmed," writes James. "[And he was saying] 'Faaacking hell, Tyler, this is serious, can you believe it? And she wrote all these songs about me? I should be asking for royalties ... '"
Winehouse's subsequent downwards spiral is documented with sickening clarity in My Amy. But however low she went, James always felt that she could recover.
"She got clean many times, people forget that. She was strong. She was getting things back together before she died ... She didn't have a death wish, that wasn't her problem at all. A death wish is not the same thing as alcoholism, addiction and not having what she really needed, which was normality."
Fame, in the end, was her biggest problem, James believes. He says that more than anything, she wanted freedom. For her, fame was the quintessential gilded cage.
After Winehouse died, James was cast adrift. "I didn't want to live without her ... there was a way out and I'd be with her. I was going to end my life."
Each day after her passing was hell. Getting up, getting dressed, going through the motions of life.
"I was so traumatised for five years after she died. I wasn't living. I needed things to change. I thought of Amy and how she was always making notes and writing in her diary. I felt like she was saying, 'Write it down, Tyler. Write a book.'"
One day, four years ago, he started.
"I wrote about the day she died. It was awful, I was screaming, crying into my pillow. I punched a hole in the wall; it's still there. When I finally fell asleep that night, I was a total mess. But I woke the next day with a sense of release."
He is still grieving about his twin soul. He has a tattoo of her name above his heart that he touches when he talks about her. But now, a decade later, there is also something else.
"[Despite] all of the madness and all of the trauma she put me through, I still love the bones of her. I just do.
"And I am grateful, I am so grateful to have known that little nutter. Because no one else knew her like I did. I am the luckiest boy in the world."
My Amy, by Tyler James (Macmillan, $40)