A Thank You to Amy Winehouse and Back to Black for Providing Low Cost Therapy

A QUICK WORD FROM THE MMA POET. Hello readers, it’s been a minute. I’m back and sorry to my MMA readers but unfortunately this not a fight piece. As some of you may know, I have an abnormal love of music and this is something I’ve been meaning to write for awhile. As you will momentarily read, Amy’s sophomore album meant quite a bit for me and having just passed the ten year mark of its release I wanted to pay my respect. I am now quite intent in immersing myself in writing and this was my first piece in months, apologies if this piece seems kind of choppy and long but I needed to write this and I hope if any of you have heard this album you can appreciate it, if you haven’t I hope this piece may entice you to seek it out and hit play. I put a link at the very bottom of the page, if anyone was kind and generous enough for a donation. This was a very draining piece to write and any reading and/or feedback is tremendously appreciated but if you’re in the giving mood, some change, a dollar or two, whatever you may spare would be very helpful. Juice, aka the MMA Poet is here to stay, if you’re a new reader, hope you stay locked and to my MMA kin, stay tuned more pieces are definitely in the works but I hope you can appreciate this.

If eyes are the windows to the soul then music is the soul’s sustenance. So much more can be told about what kind of music a person listens to than what their job, their friends or what their political beliefs might be. Music trends are a curious thing, it seems like any hot song or artist at a current moment has a degree of luck or magic attached to it, but when an artist hits it big and is deserving of the attention the notch of criticism seems to be cranked to its highest level.

There is usually some sort of melancholy associated when someone is busking. A bad musician doing it can elicit pity or laughter, a great musician usually brings a sort of wonder and disappointment with society because only you and a handful of pedestrians are being exposed to this talent.

Amy Winehouse was the world’s most successful and well-known street performer for a few short years. This is not an insult to Winehouse, the street performer comparison is apt not because of her unapologetic, veracious temperament but because her life was a spectacle, and just as a street performer will only enter one’s life for only a few brief moments, we were subjected to Winehouse’s beautifully fragmented existence for a blink of music’s history.

Although “Rehab” was not Winehouse’s first single, nor even the first single off her classic album Back to Black, it was undisputedly her biggest and most successful single. It almost seems a bit off color to play the song today because the track is practically a premonition of Winehouse’s untimely death; it’s not just the touchstone of Winehouse’s music career but one of the most important songs of the past 25 years.

There has been great songs that have been produced in the past quarter century but how many were so reflective of the artist’s being? Their pain, their conflict, their joy. “Rehab” was a legitimate chart topper, kids in high school were singing it like it was the new Beyoncé track. The binary status quo of making honest music or entertaining music has existed since the invention of the radio, but “Rehab” might be the song that single-handedly turned that dichotomous relationship on its head.

What is it about “Rehab” that caught people’s attention so strongly? Perhaps because it was thunderous from the onset. “They tried to make me go to rehab I said no, no, no.” That’s definitely a way to get the ears to perk up. An electric piano and jazzy snare drums? Definitely unconventional, but the song is a melding of madness, brashness and hopeless optimism and the choice of melodies further personifies Winehouse’s insouciance and prolificness.

The piano and drums are immediately joined by the horns and bass after the introductory chorus and it adds an element of 1920’s extravagance to the required denial and carelessness of Winehouse’s substance abuse. The strings in conjunction with the bells in the second stanza of the song add to it’s regretful undertones while still maintaining it’s mild exuberance. “Rehab” could’ve been just a sad diary entry of a song that caught the attention of some depressives and music snobs but it caught on because it embodied what Amy Winehouse was to the very core of her essence – unrelenting. “Rehab” wasn’t shoved into our ear canals and forced upon us to be liked but it was not going to be denied. The song was real, it was hurtful, it was maddening but it’s fearlessness commanded respect.

This is not meant to harp on the one song that propelled Winehouse on to the world stage, it is all to well known and spoken about, this is about what the album symbolized to a young kid getting thrust into the ugly truths of the world at a vulnerable juncture in his life. Very few albums have struck a chord in me like Back to Black did and the debut single off that album “You Know I’m No Good”, was the catalyst for my initial interest in the English songstress.

Although “Rehab” was the magnum opus of Winehouse’s work, “You Know I’m No Good” has to be considered one of Winehouse’s crowning achievements, not just because it is her second most recognized song but it is a song that illustrates another well-known dimension of her destructive tendencies – infidelity. This may all so far just seems like a slam against Winehouse and the negative aspects of her personality but a person who was as blunt in her life and career as Amy was, it is only appropriate that in paying homage to not gloss over the ugly parts.

The opening bass line and hip-hop influenced drum beat let you know that this was unlike anything you’d heard in awhile. As Winehouse’s soulful voice describes her man questioning her whereabouts, the bass and drums keep grooving as if she was not just describing an anxiety-laden interrogation. Winehouse’s trademark “don’t give a fuck” attitude is on full display in the four minute track, but it ends with an almost comical twist. Feeling her man was as responsible for her infidelities if not more.

The first two opening tracks are the most visceral, but Back to Black takes some more simple and unconventional routes through Winehouse’s psyche. Me and Mr. Jones is Winehouse at her sassiest. The follow-up to “You Know I’m No Good” is just another example of Amy being Amy. Winehouse balances fury with an upbeat jazzy rhythm and some well-placed back-up singers to make the track a delicate but complex taste of the displeased girlfriend.

“Just Friends” is a beautifully solemn track that really starts to get to the core of Winehouse’s soul. It is the first peek into Winehouse’s sensitive and sympathetic side. The instrumentals are very appropriate, present but not overbearing. Winehouse is more mellow and soft than in the previous tracks and her voice exudes the lament and guilt of a regretful mistress.

The unenviable spot of being stuck with an old love and a partner. Trying to maintain a friendship when sexual tensions cannot be corralled is a tricky situation but Winehouse does not illustrate the scenario humorously, she brazenly explains the dangers of said situation and why it is not worth it for the man to put himself in that position with a woman like her, and being fully aware that the notion of remaining friends is all but futile.

The title track “Back to Black” is perhaps the most bombastic on the album. One of the simplest tracks on the album but it is calming as it is unnerving. It doesn’t hold the hypnotic tempo of a “Just Friends” or “Rehab”, it is stripped down and loud. It is a patient song and burns slow like the cigarette Winehouse assuredly left in her ashtray while recording the album. You can almost smell the smoke as you hear it and hear the clinking of ice and pouring of whiskey in the rocks glass. The strings are ever present in the track and Winehouse sings slowly, as if enunciating to a child. Winehouse is paying homage to her sanctuary, the black. Blackout drunk, blackened emotions, hollow valleys and the never-ending road of despair.

Five songs in and most music lovers might tell you that the album is excellent; that was not my take. My favorite music was seldom loved upon first listen. Frankly, Back to Black seemed a bit dull to me on first listen, but I knew it was imperative for me to listen once more and 17 minutes into the record I found what I needed.

“Love Is a Losing Game” is not a track I liked, it is not one I wanted to hear, but with the album case in my hand as an 18-year old kid who had just recently been through his first breakup, I knew I had to hear the track with that title. From the initial snare hit I knew, this is necessary. I read and read the lyrics and listened to the track religiously for minutes if not hours on end. It wasn’t a song to me, it wasn’t even a remarkable poem, it was my life. I laid in amazement, as if she wrote that song for me, as if I was the only human on Earth that could relate to it. It then hit me, Amy wrote this from her own experience, she felt this terrible emotion I’m currently feeling and captured it perfectly in a two and a half minute song. This was the beginning of my love for Amy Winehouse, as melancholy and heart-wrenching as that track was to hear, it was also necessary for me to hear and I may have not recouped from that time as well as I did without it.

“Tears Dry on Their Own” is a classic amongst Winehouse fans. It is the quintessential Winehouse song that does not sound like Amy Winehouse. Getting over a man? Letting go of the past? Having a bit of hope or optimism? Yes, it is Winehouse, no different than any of her previous tracks. It is the purity of Winehouse’s voice and lyrics that allow this non-conforming track to fit perfectly on Back to Black.

“Wake Up Alone” however is a smack right back to the gloom. Maybe not as depressing or poetic as “Love Is a Losing Game” but just as impactful on the heavy-hearted. The anxiety of battling with your thoughts and emotions through the day only to be greeted with the hurt in the morning. As poignant a song as she’d ever written cause it is a universal feeling of endless hopelessness. As the play count on the song grows, the missing of Winehouse grows stronger.

All of Winehouse’s songs are obviously rooted in love, but to call any of her songs love songs would be quite a stretch, but “Some Unholy War” is actually a beautifully crafted love song. Winehouse’s version of Bonnie and Clyde and honestly, what could be more appropriate?

Back to Black concludes with “He Can Only Hold Her,” an unheralded classic. Amy was never one to mince words, usually it was brutal honesty with herself, but “He Can Only Hold Her” is a warning of what damage a man can inflict on a woman. Winehouse, the unfaithful, boozing hopeless romantic closes out her masterpiece with an ode about what true heartlessness means. From the honest, good guy to the possessive jerk, the proposition that your woman no longer feels anything for you is as ghastly an emotion that one can imagine. Hold her, hug her, tell her you love her, nothing will come of it, the ship has sailed and she is on to another. It is a battle cry for any and all women who’ve ever been wronged or hurt, you do have power and it is more hurtful than almost anything a male can muster.

In one of the most honest lyrics ever recorded “So he tries to pacify her, cause what’s inside her never dies,” Winehouse is saying yes, of course I can’t stop loving you, but YOUR love doesn’t mean anything to me anymore and I cannot reciprocate this feeling.

Amy Winehouse was not just a brilliant lyricist and musician but she was a sanctuary for the heartbroken and helpless. Rock’s “27 Club” got a serious member in 2011, but with every passing year Winehouse’s death seems all the more tragic because her influence becomes more front and center as time passes by.

It has now been a decade since Back to Black was released. The effect this album had on my life cannot be adequately described. Back to Black was my 12 steps to recovering from a broken heart. A young kid getting hurt by some stupid high school relationship? Who cares!

Unfortunately for the person writing this it happened, and it felt like the world was falling down around me. What solace can a high school senior take in hearing this depressed British woman sing these jazzy tunes? Turns out it was only this alcoholic, manic depressive that could help.

Music has always been pretty therapeutic for me, except for this moment in time. Music did nothing for me. The girl I was with and I listened to a lot of music and I introduced her to many of my favorite songs and artists. Trying to listen to music as an escape was the absolute worst idea, it didn’t allow for an escape it was all just a reminder. I felt helpless, alone, afraid that no one could understand me, would understand me or even bother to listen. I needed something new and I stumbled across Back to Black, which I honestly only listened to because of curiosity and good word of mouth.

I forced myself to listen to this album and what came out of repetitive listens was a clearer mind and soul. “Love Is a Losing Game” was the equivalent of a psychedelic experience, and the album was necessary therapy for me.

One aspect of Back to Black that is very overlooked is the track listing. Unusual for a non-concept album to have any kind of meaningful order of its songs but the dichotomy of the first two opening tracks and the last two closing tracks shows the depth of Winehouse’s lyrical profile and what she was all about. Substance abuse, bad relationships, undying love and extinguished love; not exactly the perfect picture of normalcy and glamor, but the album still had tremendous success despite it.

Back to Black is an album that made millions of people love Amy Winehouse. It wasn’t a great look to be a Winehouse fan back when she was alive and it isn’t even now. She was not Kurt Cobain or Jim Morrison but to Winehouse fans she is that legendary rock star. The ten tracks on Back to Black are from the bowels of our worst emotions but it is not a senseless waste of pessimism and self pity, it was Amy’s therapy, it was my therapy. I went black, I was black inside, felt like I had blank face, I related to all those feelings, even the substance abuse. Although I had yet to try any drugs at that point, I felt withdrawn. My ex-girlfriend was my fix and she was gone, but in hearing Amy’s voice I felt hope.

Back to Black vanquished my sadness, perhaps not entirely but enough to get me to feel and hope again. There is a reason why anytime I encounter an Amy Winehouse fan I feel like I’ve met a long lost sibling, we are cut from the same cloth. Nobody listens to Amy Winehouse because it’s cool to do so, many to this day feel like her early demise was all but guaranteed and there’s no reason to praise or feel pity on this incorrigible addict, I understand those sentiments but this album is something that is only be truly appreciated by the fellow fuck-ups and misfits.

Amy brought candidness in a world that was turning to auto-tune, there’s never a doubt that had she not met her premature death, she would still be belting out those old school tunes.

To Amy Winehouse, this is for you. To the fans, never forget what this album meant for you. To the gods of music, thank you for the short time we were blessed with her presence. Until the next lifetime, I expect to see us in a sulky street corner listening to Ms. Winehouse sing all her new and old tunes acapella.


(for a donation; paypal.me/VictorVargas)

The Album that Changed My View on Music.

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(TENSION TOUR 2013. Taken at Nine Inch Nails’ show at Staples Center, Los Angeles, California, on November 8, 2013)

There are moments in our lives we will never forget. The first love, first heartbreak, family deaths, first child, but I will never forget the moment my view on music was changed forever.

This week holds a very special date to yours truly, May 3rd is the tenth anniversary of Nine Inch Nails’ fourth full-length album With Teeth. Nine Inch Nails released With Teeth after a six year hiatus. The Fragile,  the album prior to With Teeth, was a double LP filled with diversity and a much different vibe than Nine Inch Nails previous album, the all-time classic, The Downward Spiral. With Teeth would be referred to in today’s age as a “return to form” or a “back to basics” style album, but Nine Inch Nails has never been one to form with the mold.

Pretty Hate Machine, the debut album from Nine Inch Nails was a revolution for industrial rock. Industrial rock, a blend of hard rock and electronica, that was widely considered as a joke by most people at one point was popularized by this band. Repetitive, looping beats, combined with ear shattering guitar riffs and screaming guttural lyrics were the prime ingredients of industrial music, needless to say those elements were not ones that were gonna propel the genre or the artists forward. Nine Inch Nails flipped all of that on its head and put all of those criticisms to rest with the release of their debut album. Adding several pop elements and adding some emphasis to the electronic aspect of to the traditional elements of industrial music, frontman Trent Reznor made industrial music much more palatable for the masses.

I was unaware of any of this history or even of the band’s makeup when I first heard With Teeth. I knew of Nine Inch Nails since I was about nine years old, I got into music at a very young age and I remember seeing a Nine Inch Nails performance on television during the 1999 Video Music Awards. The song was The Fragile, from the same titled album, and although I had no idea who they were, I sensed that it was a big performance and that this might be a band I like in the future.

I remember shortly after With Teeth came out, I went to a friend’s house and saw the album on his desk. My friend had apparently traded CDs with someone and was recommending the album to them, I wanted to ask him about it, but never did. A few weeks later, I kept getting an itch to listen to the album. I had heard “The Hand that Feeds” and got kind of obsessed with it, even though the track had been released as a single for some time, it caught my ear and I fell in love with the riff and the lyrics.

I finally bought the album and began listening. The first listen was pretty strange, I sat and listened to it as if it was a movie, alone in my room in absolute complete silence. The first track “All the Love in the World” was a bit odd at first, kinda long, very heavy on the electronic beats and samples, but it started growing on me towards the end. Once I heard the second track I knew I was in for a treat, “You Know What You Are?” was much more in my wheel house. Loud, angry, aggressive, with double petal bass drum beats and roaring guitars. Once I heard Trent yell, “DON’T YOU FUCKING KNOW WHAT YOU ARE?!” I knew this could be an album that I listen to for awhile. The following track “The Collector” was in the same vein as the previous; loud, in your face, unforgiving. “The Hand that Feeds” was one of my favorite songs during that time, and after a few dozen listens, it only cemented it’s place of all-time favorite tracks. “Love is Not Enough” was a song that although I liked at the time, came to mean something much more important to me a few years later. “Every Day is Exactly the Same,” just from the title, I knew I would like it, and sure enough, I did. The lyrics seemed like a journal entry of my life at that point, and I began to feel some adoration toward Trent as a writer. The title track “With Teeth” was simultaneously the most quintessential of Nine Inch Nails songs and the most different, traditional Nine Inch Nails rhythms with atypical instrumentation. “Only,” the second single off the record, a plea from a self destructive mental patient, amused me with my strange fascination for the insane. “Only,” also quickly became one of my favorite tracks. The offbeat Trent Reznor take on punk rock, “Getting Smaller” was another descent into my angry adolescent taste. “Sunspots” a soft, yet chaotic breed of Reznor angst caught my attention for almost unknown reasons. “The Line Begins to Blur,” a sort of return to the melancholy sounds of The Fragile. “Beside You in Time” was the one and only song I could never get into, just too repetitive for me, but it didn’t matter because it was made up and then some, with the last track of the album.

Had With Teeth ended with “Beside You in Time,” it would’ve been a good solid album that I may hear a few times a month, but the last track changed my view of Nine Inch Nails forever. “Right Where It Belongs” is the final track on the album, and it also happens to be my favorite song of all-time, a full decade later, “Right Where It Belongs” remains my favorite song ever and I still see no evidence of it changing. I have yet to hear any song as thought provoking as this. I have said ad nauseum to anyone that I’ve shown that song to that “it is the only song that you’ll ever hear that’ll make you happy if you’re sad, and make you sad if you’re happy,” I have yet to hear one person who disagrees with this statement. One five minute song of Trent Reznor asking haunting and uncomfortable questions changed everything for me.

Prior to becoming a Nine Inch Nails fan, I was a purist. I listened to mostly rock music, a little bit of hip-hop, and little of anything else. My favorite band was, and still is, Rage Against the Machine, and the one thing I loved and respected about them was that they never used any type of samples or synthesizers in their music. Being that Rage was my favorite band, I looked down at any rock group who used drum machines and synthesizers, in fact, I was almost insulted by them. How? How could a “rock band” use synthesizers and computer programs to create music? In my purist perspective, it was shameful, almost blasphemous to a point, that all changed after I listened to With Teeth. I became a huge Nine Inch Nails fan and I quickly began reading up on the band’s history and began searching for their album catalog. Once I found out that Nine Inch Nails was not an actual band, but a one man group comprised exclusively of Trent Reznor, my mind was blown.

I liked With Teeth, I really did, but learning that Nine Inch Nails was basically a rock experiment of a genius producer and musician, made me a die-hard Nine Inch Nails fan, and it rewired every idea I had about music. I listened to hip-hop, I enjoyed some electronic music as well, so why couldn’t I enjoy the music of Nine Inch Nails? Over some stupid holier than thou ideas of music? Trent Reznor is an incredibly talented musician, I was cognizant of that, but with my dumb stance on musical purity, I would not be able to acknowledge it or accept it, so I rejected my own ideas.

Music was now actually music to me. I no longer judged songs for their lack of acoustics or voice changing effects. A pop song can be catchy and still be good, a rap song can be nonsensical, and still make you want to dance. I became accepting and I became a music fan, genres were just perforated pages from the same book now, as far as I was concerned.

If it wasn’t for Trent Reznor creating that album, I would’ve been stuck in my ancient, idiotic way of thinking. If With Teeth was done in the style of Pretty Hate Machine, I would’ve never become a big Nine Inch Nails fan. It had to be mean, in your face, aggressive rock, for me to finally appreciate it. Once Nine Inch Nails opened that door to the music universe I climbed in and never looked back. I bought every album that Nine Inch Nails ever came out with over the next few years, and my musical variety expanded as well. Without Nine Inch Nails, I would’ve never listened to artists like Amy Winehouse, whose Back to Black album also helped me through some difficulties during a period in my life. Björk, Portishead, Frank Turner, Neon Trees, Lauryn Hill, Bebé, Honeyhoney and many more would not have been introduced to me, if it wasn’t for With Teeth. To Trent Reznor, and every other person who worked on that album I just want to say, thank you, from the bottom of my heart and every part of my soul, thank you for changing my life.