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A Rehab Playlist for Amy Winehouse

amywjpeg.jpgI admit I was predisposed to dislike British soul chanteuse Amy Winehouse’s new album Back to Black until I finally listened to it. How could the future of R&B lie with a troubled diva who vaguely resembles a goth version of Barbarella-era Jane Fonda? But appearances can be deceptive. I played Back to Black right after my beloved Chess Sisters of Soul anthology, and while it’s not in the Chess league, it sounded surprisingly good. Winehouse’s voice comes somewhere between the two Ettas—the powerhouse belting of Etta James, and the sultrier shadings of Etta Jones, whose “Don’t Go to Strangers” she has covered in a live duet with Modfather Paul Weller. And while Winehouse isn’t going to set the world on fire with her lyrics, it’s hard for me not to love someone who sings, in the catchy Ghostface Killah collaboration “You Know That I’m No Good,” that “by the time I’m out the door/ you tear me down like Roger Moore.”

With Winehouse tossing f-bombs like a drunken sailor and name-dropping Slick Rick and Nas (aka “Mr. Jones”) alongside Donny Hathaway, nobody would confuse her with a Ronette or a Vandella. But at its core, Back to Black fulfills its promise of delivering sweet soul music that is both contemporary and classic. Best of all may be the haunting title track, which updates the Phil Spector-style Wall of Sound to lethal effect.

Still, I have to wonder about a young star whose biggest hit has her saying “no, no, no” to rehab because she can learn everything she needs from Ray Charles records. Yeah, that’ll straighten her out. I’m going out on a limb, but maybe Amy Winehouse resists rehab because she thinks it would have a boring soundtrack. With that in mind, I’ve compiled a twelve-step playlist that might help her stick it out next time.

Step One: Bessie Smith, “Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer”

Nobody has ever been down and out quite this convincingly. The title meal in this song isn’t just the perfect point of contrast with the “highbrow” crowd Smith barbecues in her version of Wesley Wilson’s classic. It’s also what the central character, Hannah Brown, wants to have for breakfast. Bessie tweaked the last chorus of Wilson’s lyrics so that Ms. Brown also gets to imbibe in “reefer and a gang of gin.” Billie Holiday and Nina Simone recorded wonderful versions of this song, but Bessie Smith’s is arguably the earthiest.

Step Two: Johnny Cash, “Sunday Morning Coming Down”

Johnny outdoes Wesley Wilson and Bessie Smith by having a beer for breakfast and another one for dessert. As the band plays a loping shuffle, Johnny stumbles through a morning walk past the playground and the Sunday School. He finally manages to wake up and smell the…fried chicken! Best line: “I fumbled in my closet through my clothes/ and found my cleanest dirty shirt.”

Step Three: Pogues, “Boys from the County Hell”

If alcoholism were an organized religion, Shane MacGowan would be its Pope. But the wily Irishman, whom his website accurately describes as a “man of many words and few teeth,” is more of a chronicler than a prophet for the drunk and disorderly. In this one, from the Pogues’ debut Red Roses for Me, our tour guide knocks off ten pints, roughs up his bastard of a landlord, introduces us to his severely dysfunctional family, and ends up in the gutter eating entrails with his fellow would-be Irish poets. It’s enough to make you want to drink milk.

Step Four: Ted Hawkins, “There Stands the Glass”

Webb Pierce’s “There Stands the Glass” is a classic song about drinking as self-medication (“fill it up to the brim/ till my troubles go dim/ it’s my first one today”). There are many versions of this song, but my favorite comes from Ted Hawkins, a longtime busker on California’s Venice Beach boardwalk who had one of the twentieth century’s great forgotten soul voices. Combining the sweetness of Sam Cooke and the sandpaper of Otis Redding, Hawkins distills the loneliness that drives the song; the drink is “the first one today,” but you know there will be many more.


Step Five: Palace Brothers, “(I Was Drunk at the) Pulpit”

sbosch34.jpgLike Gram Parsons before him, but in a much more ragged manner, Will Oldham walks the fine line between the church and the “palace of sin.” If “Pulpit” were a painting, it would be one of those twisted Hieronymus Bosch canvases where odd characters keep climbing out of the woodwork and tormenting your hangover. The preacher pulls a little bottle from the pocket in his sleeve and unleashes a torrent of fear, anger, blasphemy, and bodily fluids.


Step Six: Tom Waits, “Cold Cold Ground”

You could fill a whole compilation with Tom Waits songs based on the observations of hopeless drunks. While the obvious choice to some would have been the earlier, jokier “The Piano Has Been Drinking,” it’s no rehab song. “Cold Cold Ground” comes from 1987, during the fertile period in which Waits absorbed poetry from Brecht to Beefheart, and emerged as our generation’s answer to Walt Whitman. I give extra points to this live version, which begins with a great rap about how bad days grow like weeds in a garden.

Step Seven: Snoop Dogg, “Gin and Juice”

This one has often been misinterpreted as a laid-back party anthem, perhaps because Snoop spends the whole song describing a party and intoning the words “laid back.” But I think it’s more like a slow-motion train wreck. Gin, properly used, is a fine spirit for making martinis, or if you really must, a gimlet, which actually works much better with vodka. But mixed with juice, gin is vile—really vile. Even worse, Snoop subjects the party to the barely drinkable Seagram’s before Dr. Dre finally shows up with Tanqueray. Remarkably, despite drink selections that would be enough to turn any normal person into Carrie Nation, the ladies do not leave. Let’s face it—if you or I started a party with drinks like this, the boys would’ve ended up alone on the sofa watching Star Trek reruns.


Step Eight: Richard and Linda Thompson, “Down Where the Drunkards Roll”

engbud.jpegListening to Linda Thompson’s crystalline voice describing old school rogues who dress up in green velvet and silver buckles, you could be forgiven for thinking that you’re in for a polite little dose of middling folk rock. But once the keg of wine starts flowing, there’s enough drama to make a gangsta blush, set to Richard Thompson’s peerless guitar playing. When you get through the parade of double-crossed lovers, drifters, gamblers and sailors, Jesus Christ shows up for some action, and you’re not really sure if he’s a drunk pretending to be Jesus or the real thing.


Step Nine: X, “When Our Love Passed Out on the Couch”

There’s a myth that drinking can improve your love life. It turns out that it’s not so good, not by a long shot. This second-generation punk classic from X’s best album, Wild Gift, develops the central theme addressed decades earlier in Loretta Lynn’s “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind).” But since the frustrated lovers in X’s song sound like they have real feelings for each other, they give you more reason to care.


Step Ten: Warren Zevon, “Detox Mansion”

In rehab, you will meet interesting people and learn valuable skills (“I’m raking leaves with Liza/ Me and Liz clean up the yard”). You will learn to do your own laundry. You will enjoy every sandwich.


Step Eleven: Magnetic Fields, “Love is Like a Bottle of Gin”

This song shows that even witty, erudite city-dwellers who listen to NPR and sip fancy espresso drinks in cafes are capable of getting drunk out of their minds and feeling sorry for themselves (“it turns a genius into an ass,” as Stephin Merritt no doubt knows from personal experience). Merritt is a shade too clever for his own good, but has the common sense to recognize that, although love is like a bottle of gin, “a bottle of gin is not like love.”


Step Twelve: George Jones: “The King is Gone (So Are You)”

150px-fred_flintstone.jpgThink drinking won’t make you look ridiculous? Consider the case of George Jones, who wrecks himself and loses most of his “countrypolitian” sophistication once his woman leaves him with little to speak of except for a really small table. He pulls up a piece of the floor, breaks the seal on a Jim Beam decanter that “looks like Elvis,” and pours shots into a Flintstones jelly jar. “I pulled the head off Elvis/ filled Fred up to his pelvis/ yabba dabba do, the king is gone, and so are you.”


Anyone out there still drinking after that onslaught? We hope that this playlist, Stuck Between Stations’ first (and perhaps only) foray into the self-help business, achieves some constructive good for Amy Winehouse or even for you. If there are other rehab-worthy songs we should have included, let us know.

From → Cut-Out Bin

  1. shacker permalink

    Something from Pete Townshend’s Empty Glass? Oh, wait, Townshend was serious about rehab in a way that Exene was not. Which probably means Pete doesn’t count… (One can’t *really* want to get on the wagon and still make soul music, can one?)

  2. shacker permalink

    Just heard a chilling rehab song: Committed to Park View by Porter Wagoner. Hmm… maybe it’s a cover of a Johnny Cash song. Anyway, absolutely chilling.

    There’s a girl in 307,coming down on thorazine
    And a superstar’s ex-drummer trying to kick benzedrine

  3. Oh, and what list of this nature would be complete without Stew’s “Rehab”?

    Inspiration lyric:

    > when she got out of rehab for the twenty-second time
    > her new take on life was very deep and empty
    > she traded mainline for online then she took up web design
    > now she’s paid in full and blows the horn of plenty
    > once she said “hey listen baby I ain’t gonna lie
    > there just ain’t nothing I like more than getting high”
    > and funny how the hypocrites who took the time to sob
    > seem to not mind a junkie with a well paying job
    > when she got out of re-hab for the twenty-second time
    > she was very very very very very very very very very very very optimistic
    > very very very very very very very very very very very optimistic

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