Back to Black, Amy Winehouse

2007 was the Year of Crazy Bitchez: Britney cut off her hair; Lindsay got busted for DUI (twice) and drugs and went to rehab a few times; Amy Winehouse was on the cover of Rolling Stone and making headlines for out-of-control fuckery; and I was right there with them, getting drunk every Friday and Saturday nights and all days Sunday with the gays, and drinking myself stupid at home alone the nights I wasn’t out.  I never did drugs, never got busted, never shaved my head, but I was having an equally hot mess of a year. Amy Rolling Stone

That was the year I bought Amy’s superb second album, Back to Black.  “Rehab” was the song, of course, that everyone loved the most, and we would play it on the jukebox on Sundays at Club Argos.  The whole bar full of hot gay men and little old me would sing every word at the tops of our lungs as we did shots and guzzled beer.  We didn’t think there was anything wrong with it, of course.  And for most people, there was no irony about it.

 I first saw Amy on David Letterman’s show in 2007.  Wow.  Who looked like that?  Who sang like that?  And in that tiny body!  I was very impressed.  The fact that she was singing about not wanting to go to rehab made it even better.  At that point I was drinking heavily but did not consider it a problem.  Everyone I knew drank a lot, so it seemed normal.  Plus I am Serbian, and how can I be Serbian if I do not drink?  I wondered if Amy sang this song to be funny, or if she really did have a problem that she refused to get help for. 

I was a high roller in the bars and I looked at this as my anthem.  I never had to pay for a drink, as my BFF at the time always enabled me to get wasted as fast as possible, and he made sure I stayed that way as long as I wanted.  Before he came along I definitely drank a lot, but the level of drama that occurred while I was drinking reached its zenith in 2007.  He created most of the drama.  I was struggling financially (a theme throughout my adult life), but when I found out about all of his lying and cheating on his boyfriend, well, I just couldn’t handle it.  We had been best friends for three years, and I thought I could trust him with everything.  He never said one true thing to me, I realized.  Fuck.  Might as well drink. 


I’m gonna, I’m gonna lose my baby

So I always keep a bottle near


We were just friends, of course, but I felt like he was cheating on me.  Not only did he erase any trust I had in him, but when he cheated on his boyfriend with a guy we had become friends with recently it reminded me of a similar situation I was in the year before where I was (unknowingly) the other woman.  In that situation I did get a chance to confront the guy I was fooling around with, but since I was about to graduate from college in a few months I did not allow the drama to consume me.  So I don’t think I really dealt with it, at least, I had no time to really mourn for that relationship.  So when my BFF did what he did I flipped the fuck out, and things were never the same between us.


So all this stuff left me wondering What kind of fuckery is this?  A year and a half of trying to work things out with my friend finally ended when I broke it off for good.  I had been trying to get my shit together, and he was half-assed trying to get his shit together (eating disorder, depression, etc.).  I was more dedicated to changing for the better, and I could not make him come along with me.  He was dragging me down, I realized, and I could not be around him and stay sober.  When I stopped drinking he really could not process it, and he took it as a personal rejection.  It’s sad when your best friend cannot support your attempt at being happy and healthy.


I’m sure there were plenty of people in Amy’s life who wanted her to get it together, but she did have vultures around her who wanted her to stay a hot mess.  I know how many “friends” I lost when I stopped going to the bars all the time.  And it was difficult for me to get away from the party life.  It’s fucking fun!  I was popular and everyone was excited to see me, eager to talk to me and drink with me.  I always felt like a celebrity.  Maybe that was all in my drunken head, but for 13 years I was The Center of It All. 


I was drunk so much of the time that I do not remember how I felt about every song on this album.  I know that I loved it and played it a lot, but I have listened more closely to the lyrics since I got sober in 2008, and especially in the past year since Amy died.  What I love about this album is how many different styles there are on it.  “Rehab” is funky and fun; “You Know I’m No Good” is sexy and naughty; “Me & Mr. Jones” is hard core bad girl shit; “Back to Black” is amazing and old school.  Her first album, Frank, is a jazz album.  Back to Black showcases Amy’s love of 60’s soul and girl groups.  “Tears Dry on Their Own” could have been sung by Dionne Warwick!  Brilliant.  Amy’s lyrics are sophisticated and flowing; her phrasing is spot on and a joy to listen to.  In Mitch Winehouse’s book about his daughter, he writes that she studied Sarah Vaughan’s voice and wanted to know how she could sing like that, too.  You really do hear her influences here, and not just the jazz legends.  It’s fun to listen to for that alone.


Amy was the real deal.  She was who she was, she fucked shit up, she wrote amazing songs, and she loved her family.  She had many broken hearts over the years.  She did her man wrong, too.  She was passionate about everything, and she had to be extreme, even when she was doing something bad.  I understand that.


He left no time to regret

Kept his dick wet

With his same old safe bet…

You went back to what you knew,

So far removed from all that we went through

And I tread a troubled track,

My odds are stacked,

I’ll go back to black.


Yeah, gurl, you know what’s up!  Who hasn’t been that girl?  Ugh.  We all go through it, but some of us are able to move past it.  I was in a situation like that with a guy who was “in the process” of breaking up with his girlfriend when we started fooling around.  They finally broke up, and four months later they got back together.  At least I helped him keep his dick wet.


I shouldn’t play myself again,

I should just be my own best friend,

Not fuck myself in the head with stupid men.


And it’s pretty much been like that for me for the past 7 years.  I was a hot mess so I attracted hot messes.  Now I have it together, but I work 7 days a week and have no money or energy to go out and do anything, so I am not tempted by stupid—or intelligent—men.  Amy’s track record with men parallels my own.  I totally understand her obsession with boys who are bad for her.  The drama can be fun, in a super fucked up way.  I don’t like that shit anymore, but I still understand the attraction.


When I found out that Amy passed away, my first reaction was anger.  I was out of town with my family at an anniversary party, and suddenly my mother remembered that she had heard earlier that day that Amy died.  “That’s not a surprise,” I replied.  This was just 5 weeks after her disastrous performance in Belgrade, Serbia, where my people booed her off the stage.  When that hit the news I posted an article about it on Facebook with the caption, “When a bunch of Serbians think you drink too much, you have a problem!”  I was sober for more than 3 years at that time, and it pissed me off that Amy wasted herself like that.  Most of the time I have been a fan I have been sober, but I do often think of how much fun we would have had together back in my drinkin’ days.  But I despised her addiction, and I started really seeing how close I was to ending up with the same fate. 


The next day I listened to Back to Black in the car as I drove to and from work.  I started crying as soon as “Rehab” started.  It was very difficult to listen to this album, and as I listened to it over and over today I felt the same way.  I felt so sad that Amy could not stay sober.  It was not clear what had happened to her at that point, as her family was saying she had been sober and maybe died from shock because she quit cold turkey.  No matter what, it was not a shock but still very sad to see someone so young die like that.


That’s when I really delved into all the things we had in common.  I wondered why she couldn’t keep it together when she did get sober, and why I could.  I struggled, of course, but I made it through.  The first season of Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew began when I decided to stop drinking for a while, so I kind of felt like I was in rehab with Mary Carey and Jeff Conaway and Brigitte Nielsen.  When they finally revealed that Amy died of alcohol poisoning (“death by misadventure” as the British so cleverly call it) I was not surprised that she had no drugs in her system, but it really affected me to know that I had been just as drunk many times and did not die.  I was having a big drunken party a few nights after James Brown died in 2006, and it also happened to be the same night Saddam Hussein was executed.  When I heard about Saddam I announced that we should do shots to celebrate.  My friend brought a bottle of Jack Daniels for me, so I cracked it open and shared a few shots with friends before I drank the rest of the bottle myself.  Yeah, it was a ridiculous night.  At one point I started to blast James Brown’s “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud” and singing and dancing along with Brother James.  When I fell down more than I few times because I could no longer manage to be upright, my friends put me to bed and cleaned my apartment before they left.  They checked on me every ten minutes to make sure I was still breathing, and they left around 2AM.


I woke up around 8AM and went to the bathroom.  I did not look in the mirror.  An hour later I had to pee again, but before I got out of bed I could tell that my eyes were kind of puffy.  That was normal after I night of drinking (or, as I called it back then, a night).  But this time I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror.  Holy fucking shit!  My right eyebrow was up to my hairline and there was a black puncture would in the corner.  I had scratches on my face and body, and I was really sore.  I looked and felt like I had been beaten up.  WTF happened? 


Friends started calling me to make sure all was well, and they did not know how I got the black eye.  They said I was fine when they left.  What I pieced together was that I must have gotten up to go the bathroom after they left, and I fell against the nightstand when getting back into bed.  That’s how I got the puncture by my eye.  A friend who was at the party took me to the ER, and we were laughing (though it hurt my eye!) the whole time about how ridiculous this was.  I was wearing his mirrored sunglasses and a neck brace while being wheeled back to give a urine sample (or, as I told the guy, a shot of Jack in a plastic cup).  They told me that if I had come in a few hours earlier they would have stitched up that wound by my eye, but that it was starting to heal.  That black eye stayed with me for a few weeks.  It especially sucked because I lost my job a few days later. 


So 2007 started out with a black eye, literally.  I didn’t touch Jack Daniels for three months (but when I tried to do a shot of Jack with a drag queen that night it just did not taste right anymore), but I only abstained from booze in general for a few days, maybe a week.  Almost losing an eye was not enough to make me stop, or even slow it down.  I drank heavily for another year before I had had enough.


I think about that night when I think about Amy.  I could have died.  I could have lost an eye.  Anything could have happened.  And that would have been such a waste.  One of the things I think about most when I look back at my party days is how much time I wasted.  Being drunk and slutty and popular was my priority.  I had goals, but I did nothing to work toward them.  Amy always knew she wanted to be a singer.  I always knew I wanted to be a writer.  She achieved ridiculous amounts of success doing what she loved.  I wrote like crazy in my twenties but never got anywhere with it.  I did have some success as a freelance (emphasis on free) writer in my early thirties, but I never spent much time writing in general.  I thought I was living.  All I was doing was running from my insecurities.  I think that’s what Amy did.  She was outgoing in a way, but she did have a very obvious vulnerable side that I think she needed substances to help her overcome.  I drank at first to get past my social anxiety.  Then I drank because I was expected to.  Then I just felt the needed to punish myself for the mysterious guilt I always felt.  It was fun for a few years, not gonna lie.  But drinking until you pass out at home alone every night is not fun.  It’s pathetic.  Luckily, I never had a physical addiction to it, but it would have ended up there eventually.


Amy had a great childhood.  She always enjoyed being the center of attention.  She loved her family.  She was creative and funny.  All things I can relate to.  So why did things go so terribly wrong?  That’s not for any of us to figure out.  Everyone makes decisions, good or bad, and they cannot always explain why.  I am constantly trying to analyze my own shit, but I’m not sure it’s useful anymore.  It was while I was in therapy and I was trying to stop drinking and trying to get out of that bad relationship with my best friend.  In the years since I have had many epiphanies about my past, and though I immediately feel like I should write them down (that’s the kind of shit I love to keep track of), I decide to just understand and let go.  


Amy never thought rehab or therapy could help her.  I never thought it would help me either, but therapy did a lot of good for me. 


I don’t never want to drink again,

I just, ohh, I just need a friend.

I’m not gonna spend ten weeks,

Have everyone think I’m on the mend.

It’s not just my pride,

It’s just till these tears have dried.


I get that.  Nobody wants to look weak.  But getting help is not weak.  If only Amy had seen it that way…


Her first album is different in so many ways, but not better or worse.  I like them equally, but depending on my mood I may prefer one over the other.  The first one has a lot of sexiness and playfulness.  This one has some heavy shit, but some of it is funny. 


What kind of fuckery are you?

Side from Sammy you’re my best black Jew.


Really?  How awesome is that?  Oy. 


With Frank it’s easier to separate Amy’s public image from her music.  Back to Black has some drug and alcohol references that make it more difficult to not picture Amy with her makeup smeared, bright red cuts on her arms, and bra hanging out.  I hate that that is what people think of when they hear her name.  Some people were so hateful when she died, posting nasty things online about her addictions.  I wish people would remember that she was someone’s daughter, sister, and friend.  Celebrities are not special.  They have lives like the rest of us.  They have the exact same problems we do.  And just as often as the rest of us, they cannot overcome their problems.  Elvis was a drug addict.  Jim Morrison.  Kurt Cobain.  So many talented, celebrated people died because of drugs and alcohol.  Why be so negative about them as people when they die?  They had problems.  But they also had family and friends who loved them.


Amy reminds me of why I stopped drinking, even though I stopped three years before she died.  I am glad I was able to get it together.  And I am glad that I have her music to keep me company while I write.  Back to Black is one of my favorite albums of all time.  Every song speaks to me.  There are few artists who can sell millions and really affect people that way—I mean, there is a lot of shite out there, and I know it means something to someone.  But how many of those artists are lyricists who can really sing a song?  Almost none.  Amy wrote very personal songs that I understand and love.  For that reason, she is an inspiration.

2 thoughts on “Back to Black, Amy Winehouse

  1. Pingback: Happy birthday, What I Like Is Sounds! | What I Like Is Sounds

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