David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 165: Amy Winehouse (Back To Black)

July 19, 2022

Is there anything better than a library sale -- books, DVDs, CDs, all for a buck?

Yes, there is one thing better. Being able to get into the sale before anyone else and getting first dibs. That's what happened when my librarian weeded out the media materials for this year. One has to have some privileges as a chief academic officer.

I actually stared at Amy Winehouse's Back To Black in the pile of CDs and thought about it for awhile. In retrospect, I thought about it way too long.

Somehow I had gone almost 20 years knowing of Amy Winehouse, but never once consciously hearing one of her songs. While it's very likely I have never heard one, as I have rarely listened to pop music in 20 years, given how well-known she has been, both in life and later in death, I will assume my ears a few times missed one of her songs in the background.

Seeing Back To Black staring at me for a $1.00 should have been a no-brainer. I did hesitate, but succumbed, fully expecting to go home and hear something entirely different than what I got.

What was I expecting? I hate to admit that I am not even sure. My points of reference were as if from a 15th century map of the world. Something Liz Phair-like? Ani DiFranco? In those cases, my expectations were tied to artists I also barely knew. Maybe Poe? She was an artist I knew quite well, but could only listen to in spurts. I certainly sensed with Winehouse something dark in terms of mood, and assumed the music would reflect it.

So, you can imagine my surprise when I listen to the CD only to be transported back to Martha and the Vandellas, Tammi Terrell, and The Supremes. "Me And Mr. Jones" updates Billy Paul's "Me And Mrs. Jones," while "Rehab" name-drops Ray Charles. The vocals are sultry as hell. Classic Motown was clearly relocated to London Town. Winehouse even had the look to confirm it: Ronnie Spector was back.

More surprising were the lyrics, the girl groups of the 1960s getting a proper snogging into the 21st century: "I'm gonna lose my baby/so I keep my bottle near ("Rehab"); "Then you notice little carpet burns/my stomach drops and my gut churns ("You Know I Am No Good"); "Nowdays you don't mean dick to me" ("Me And Mr. Jones"); "I'll be some next man's other lover soon" ("My Tears Dry On Their Own"). Especially given her vocal sultriness, all of these songs made me smile, smirk, even perhaps leer, but the title track floored me.

The lyrics alternate between savage imagery revealing the dysfunctional relationship at the heart of the song and the attempt to maintain self-control in the face of all being lost.

"He left no time to regret/kept his dick wet."  O.k., now that's an opening. Please allow me to introduce myself, I am Amy Winehouse. I read the news today, and oh boy, we have a challenger.

Later, "you love blow and I love puff/and life is like a pipe." There you go. Sounds like a couple made for each other.

Yet, Winehouse does her best to survive: "me and my head high/and my tears dry/get on without my guy." In the next stanza, she admits "I tread a troubled track/My odds are stacked."

However, all of that bravado is erased by that stunning chorus:

"We only said goodbye with words/

I died a million times/

You go back to her/

And I go back to us/

And later the "us" is replaced by blackness, at first as the music simply drops, allowing her to mourn repeatedly, "black."

All of this set to a frolicking beat, tolling of bells, sweeping synthesizers and a supporting cast of 30 some musicians. The end result is a pop song as dramatic as anything from the last 50 years.  Why hadn't I been paying attention?

"What kind of fuckery is this?" Winehouse asks her lover on "Me And Mr. Jones," "you made me miss the Slick Rick gig." I have the same thought about missing Winehouse all these years, except that I only have myself to blame for such idiocy.

Better late than never, I suppose. Thank God my library weeded this from the collection and I used my privilege to "shop" early.

Or, and I shudder to think this, given its lyrical content, maybe Back To Black has been banned, and the decision was less about weeding and more about staying funded. Didn't I see it next to the audiobook for And Tango Makes Three

Winehouse, Amy. "Back To Black. Back To Black. Universal, 2006. Link here.

Day 164: Bob Dylan "Brownsville Girl"

Day 166: Modern English "I Melt With You"

Unfinished list here.