Tuesday, July 26, 2011


The Song: "Rehab"
The Singer/Songwriter: Amy Winehouse

Amy Winehouse died Saturday. This song has been running around in my head ever since. Maybe that's not surprising, since it was probably her biggest hit, and the one most likely to be on permanent replay when her name was all over the news. But to be more accurate about things, "Rehab" has been in my head from the moment I first heard it. Sometimes, your brain just ticks off the box for "unforgettably great" when you are introduced to a piece of art, and that's what happened here.

You can feel the song's magic right from the very beginning. The low drone of the electric piano paired with the energetic handclaps, that deep, butterscotch voice which has no business coming out of a tiny Jewish girl from London, and of course, that marvelous opening line that conveys a novel's worth of information in 14 words:

They tried to make me go to rehab but I said 'no, no, no'
Yes I've been black but when I come back you'll know know know
I ain't got the time and if my daddy thinks I'm fine
He's tried to make me go to rehab but I won't go go go

If my good friends at Songfacts are to be believed, the lyrics to "Rehab" are as literal as they come. After some public incidents of drunkenness, Winehouse's management company urged her to seek treatment. Her father, however, said she was just depressed following a failed love affair, and that it was more than natural for a sad girl to seek some solace in the bottle. In any event, she went to a clinic, found the whole thing stupid, and left after a few days. And then she wrote a song about it.

It's that last part that leads people to throw around words like "brilliant" and even "genius" when talking about the lost talent of Amy Winehouse. Lots of people follow the old maxim to "write what you know." (Many of them start blogs.) But it's the ability to avoid whiny navel-gazing and instead get people to sing along with your troubles that marks a truly talented individual. Is "daddy" really her father? Is it actually her screwed-up, enabling failure of a husband? Her supplier? Part of what makes this such a great set of lyrics is that you don't really care.

I'd rather be at home with Ray
I ain't got seventeen days
Cause there's nothing
There's nothing you can teach me
That I can't learn from Mr. Hathaway

Case in point: Both Songfacts and Wikipedia insist that "Ray" and "Mr. Hathaway" refer to singers Ray Charles (who battled a serious drug addiction but overcame it) and Donny Hathaway (who battled severe depression and did not overcome it). And I suppose that makes sense. But...why? Does she mean she wants to sit at home and listen to Ray Charles records? Does she feel like, because they're in similar straits, Ray Charles is always with her? Confusing matters is the fact that, in concert, she often replaced "Ray" with "Blake", which is the name of the aforementioned toxic individual she married and maintained a codependent relationship with even as he paved the way for her to deeper levels of alcohol and drug abuse. Maybe "Ray" is just someone who won't judge her. And it's pretty clear that people like that were in short supply for Amy Winehouse.

I didn't get a lot in class
But I know it don't come in a shot glass

They tried to make me go to rehab but I said 'no, no, no'
Yes I've been black but when I come back you'll know know know
I ain't got the time and if my daddy thinks I'm fine
He's tried to make me go to rehab but I won't go go go

I want to take a quick moment to recognize the invaluable contribution of Winehouse's producer, Mark Ronson. I've watched several clips of her performing "Rehab" live, and while some are certainly better than others (and I have no interest in the schadenfreude of viewing her miserable final performance in Belgrade a month ago), I don't think any of them hold a candle to the studio version, and I think Ronson deserves the credit for that. One of the reviews cited in the Wikipedia article says his production "references four decades worth of soul music without once ripping it off". On the recording, Winehouse is backed by the funk/retro-soul combo The Dap-Kings, and Ronson employs them like a caged tiger, using just enough brass hits and honks from a booming baritone sax to demonstrate their potential power, but never quite letting them bust loose. Then he surrounds them with a string section that is also yearning to move beyond the tension of long, repeated notes, and a set of dancing chimes that, considering the eventual fate of the singer, now sound like church bells pealing at a funeral. Winehouse's voice is a fantastic instrument, and the song is undeniably hers, but Ronson gives it a setting that makes the tune transcendent.

The man said "why d'you think you here"
I said "I got no idea
I'm gonna, I'm gonna lose my baby
So I always keep a bottle near"
He said "I just think you're depressed,
Kiss me, yeah baby, and go rest"

Probably the funniest -- and saddest -- lyrics in the whole song. Having never been in a drug rehabilitation clinic myself, I nevertheless have no problem imagining the doctor opening up the interview with that question. It's a classic passive-aggressive, no-good-response-exists kind of question, and if you're feeling like you've been pressured into the situation where you have to answer it, Amy's response -- "Beats me" -- is about the best you can do.

Of course, it's what comes next that changes the whole tone of the conversation, and possibly the song. You go straight from the powerless lament that she's losing the one she loves to the very active response to drink away the problem. Here's where we get a real snapshot of the equation of life that governs Amy Winehouse's brain, and what leads us all to feel fairly certain that her early death was probably inevitable.

(As I write this, the exact cause of death is undetermined, and early reports suggest that no drugs or alcohol were found on the scene, and that she had been very conscientious as of late. On the other hand, I read an article that quoted her father as saying her lungs could not work at full capacity due to her past heavy cocaine use. So drugs may not have killed Amy Winehouse, but it's not a stretch to say that they didn't help.)

They tried to make me go to rehab but I said 'no, no, no'
Yes I've been black but when I come back you'll know know know

I don't ever wanna drink again
I just ooh 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 'til these tears have dried

My initial reaction, upon seeing that Amy Winehouse had died, was that this was about the least surprising thing I could imagine. After all, everything about her suggested she was racing towards a premature end. It's a story I feel like I've seen before. But in the days that followed, I've just felt sad. On a plane flight on Sunday, I listened to Back to Black straight through, and the fact is that it is a damn good album. And regardless of how carelessly and dangerously she lived, setting aside that drug addicts eventually have no one to answer to but themselves, ignoring the way the music business and fame industrial complex just chews up and spits out its stars...it just seems a terrible shame that someone with that much talent couldn't pull it together to share a little more.

Then again, she said herself that we couldn't make her.

They tried to make me go to rehab but I said 'no, no, no'
Yes I've been black but when I come back you'll know know know
I ain't got the time and if my daddy thinks I'm fine
He's tried to make me go to rehab but I won't go go go

Fun Fact: I had a lot of fun ripping on the Grammys when I discussed how "Up, Up and Away" won Record of the Year in 1967, but the voters really got it right when they gave "Rehab" the same award in 2008. (Not so much when they also named her Best New Artist, this after her second album, and about five years after she released her first.) Odd, then, that the Grammys gave us an opportunity to witness what is almost certainly the most emotionally-conflicted -- and possibly the most emblematic -- moment of Amy Winehouse's short life.

For those of you who can't or choose not to watch this clip, know that it's the moment when "Rehab" is announced as the Record of the Year (by recovered drug addicts Tony Bennett and Natalie Cole, interestingly enough). It is heartwrenching to watch as an eternity seems to go by between the moment when Amy Winehouse hears her name and the moment when she finally is able to move. It's reasonable to assume that the time lag between Los Angeles and London (where she was because legal troubles prevented her from entering the United States) is partially responsible for the lapse in recognition, but then you see everyone else in the studio going bonkers while she stares at the monitor, uncomprehending, thoroughly unsure what to feel. She reaches for the microphone stand, can't find it, and for a few seconds, she stands there all alone, surrounded by joy, yet unable to tell the difference between triumph and terror. And I doubt that she ever figured it out.