Amy Winehouse’s ‘Back To Black’ Was A Magical Yet Haunting Foreshadowing
Pretend for a moment Amy Jade Winehouse’s ending isn’t documented, that she never joined the wretched 27 club and her downward spiral—south of the musical greatness she so effortlessly dwelled in—didn’t begin as tabloid fodder and later morph into sadness and grief by fans and music lovers the world over.
Make believe the beehive, winged black eyeshadow and tattoos weren’t sold for profit as mock Halloween costumes the year she passed, and instead is just an outward declaration of her respect for singers of yesteryear, as well as her individuality from the littered pop-music scene.
Think back to the first time you heard her booming voice; full of color, texture and layers and that moment you assumed Amy was surely a jazzy, bluesy black girl from a jazzy, bluesy black town past the Mason Dixon, and not a white chick from North London.
Pretend that Amy finally worked on that third album and that Back To Black wasn’t her final goodbye.
Pretend… just for a moment.
Amy’s first and only top 10 U.S. hit would also become an eery reminder of what could’ve saved her. The Mark Ronson-produced and autobiographically written “Rehab” is Amy being the stubborn mule she is. On the doo-wop influenced track she sings matter-of-factly of her defiance—not pride—in refusing to enter a treatment facility stating she doesn’t have 70 days when all she really needs is the wise words and melodies from Donnie Hathaway to cure her blues. And on top of her conviction, she believes she’s justified because after all, her father thinks she’s fine.
The insanely sticky single made Winehouse and Ronson the industry’s newest darlings. Radio couldn’t get enough of “Rehab” and David Letterman invited the singer and her fleet of black men background singers to his late night show back in March of 2007. “Rehab” would later become her lyrical suicide note we all placed in our spam folder when sh*t was sweet, and then went digging to find for clues when we learned of her heartbreaking, yet unsurprising death. “Rehab” (no pun intended) was the perfect cocktail. It was honest, fun, tongue-and-cheek and sounded like you finally found the original song that had been sampled by an unworthy artist. It gave you Motown vinyl feels with its robust horns, rhythmic claps and rolling drum patterns. Amy created pop music, yes, in the sense that it was popular, but there was nothing artificial about the sound she developed, or the addiction that enveloped her.
I told ya I was trouble/Yeah you know that I’m no good.
When fans heard the lyrics to Back To Black’s second single “You Know I’m No Good,” listeners should’ve taken heed because Amy knew Amy better than we knew Amy. Even while singing of cheating on her beloved Blake, the man whose name is tattooed over a pocket square right above her left breast, we were enticed. We wanted more of the trouble she sang of because whenever Amy sang—whether it be of her drug addiction and alcoholism, or the f**kery caused by Mr. Jones (a song aptly titled “Me & Mr. Jones” rumored to be about her friendship with Nas)—it made us crave her. We’d all like to believe we’re responsible, emotionally intelligent human beings, but fire, temptation and pain are bigger aphrodisiacs then we’re willing to admit, and Amy’s voice kept all of us aroused.
Somehow Ronson, Amy and Salaam Remi, the album’s second producer, decided 2006 wasn’t a suitable time to be in musically and transported all of us to a place where live instrumentation was dominant, and like lap dogs panting at the sight of our owner, we followed.
The album’s first real left turn comes with “Just Friends.” While the horns are still palpable on the track and throughout the entire 34 minute album, the heavy island influence is new to the listener’s ears. It isn’t overwhelming, though. Remi somehow fits it quite snuggly into the pocket and theme of the entire project, but you can’t help but feel like you’re in Negril, where Jamaican men beg the DJ to replay the chuunnne. While Remi is tight lipped about his relationship with Amy, he still keeps her close with a photo of the two embracing that sits on top of his office desk.
Amy doesn’t opt for the big Celine, Whitney or Mariah riffs. Instead her power is demonstrated in the slight tremors of her voice, the cascading notes that fall from her mouth like sweet rice grains and the overall depth of her voice. Amy’s voice stains you like red wine. Once you hear it, you can’t un-hear it.
One I wished, I never played/Oh, what a mess we made/And now the final frame/love is a losing game
Perhaps the album’s most relatable track and proper ballad is “Love Is A Losing Game.” With her rich voice that echoed of hopelessness and defeat, Amy describes the hurt and anguish one experiences when your love affair expires. Maybe Amy was singing of the break up between her and Blake, or spoke to a friend and interpreted their turmoil, but either way Amy sang away the salt in our wounds on the days when we could manage the separation, and then punctured what we thought were healed wounds with her soulful voice on other days. Amy could do that, love you then hurt you and all she had to do was stand in front of a microphone.
At the 50th annual Grammy awards, Amy walked away with Record of the Year beating out Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable” and Rihanna and Jay Z’s “Umbrella” along with Song of The Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for “Rehab.” The elder statesmen of the evening, Herbie Hancock, took home album of the year with his River: The Joni Letters. But it’s all to the good, the world was convinced. Amy had “it.” Whatever “it” is, she owned it and freely let her fans bask in it. But despite our pretending and our unhealthy belief that good art can only be spawned from a self-destructive artist, this good time with good music would only last for so long.
Amy began to forget the words to songs she wrote. She was visibly intoxicated, stumbling on stage or just completely out of it. Amy—already a tiny Jewish girl before the drugs and alcohol—started to look frail, weathered and worn. Unflattering photos of her began to litter the Internet and our once bluesy beloved chanteuse was now drowning in her own personal hell. She was losing the battle of addiction, and all we did was sit on the sidelines and watch, laugh, judge and shake our heads.
On July 23, 2011, Amy’s bodyguard found the singer in her bed unresponsive. According to reports, the 27-year-old died from alcohol poisoning. The “Rehab” she sung about and refused to go to was now a sick facetious joke. It was no longer in good taste to sing or hear the song. It was a horrible told-you-so laid to bed atop professional musical production.
Amy’s rise and death allowed for other artists to have an easier transition to fame. Adele, Lilly Allen and others were all given a chance and not mocked before singing a single note because of Amy and Back To Black. The TRL generation now accepted beautiful rhythm and blues could come from across the pond. As a fan, would I rather have Amy here than savor the last record she offered and surmise about her future greatness? Of course, but death, as permanent, dark and scary as it is, is alluring and once again, Amy ever the seductress trumped us all.
Maybe it’s better this way, y’know? Are we emotionally advanced as a society to truly appreciate great talents while they’re still alive? Or do they only merit their rightful praise once they’re gone and we can’t critique their work, tear them apart and try to connect the dots of their personal woes made public with their lyrical content? Back To Black still sounds like nothing we’ve heard to date and it’s 10 years old. We didn’t deserve Amy’s voice.
She told us she was no good and we didn’t believe her. Yet despite the talent, the hearty voice and the wild troubled soul, maybe Amy knew her time with us would be short. After all, she did name her final album Back to Black.