The Tao of Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black. T’ai Hsu: The Great Nothing

Good writers have something to say. Great writers say it beautifully. Geniuses forge a whole sense of what it means to be human and alive and in a state of constantly dying in degrees while living in years.

Sometimes it is the ones that have moved on to the next bardo young that have had the most to say when they were alive, as if they knew they only had a limited amount of time to get across the things that try to make it into our world, but most of the time fail to be heard, let alone transmitted. They are that innocent uncarved block that instead of the experience of learning react honestly from the heart to the pain of living and the suffering of uncertainty, putting their most vulnerable moments onto tape so that the listener knows both that they are not alone, and that those who are not so adept at self expression, can borrow words which pinpoint exactly how they feel. This is why songs of love and love lost are so popular: it is both the most beautiful and the most excruciating of human emotion. The 27 Club are the philosophers of the modern age. They are our guide to living, to surviving, to romance and love and all that infinite variety of human experience that comes in between living and death.

Back to Black sees Amy put forth her Tao: the sum of her suffering and experience, and yes, her unbridled joy, that flows from her songs, as free as a river. Amy’s voice flows, her notes go to places that only the inspired knows that they can travel. She might have learnt everything she needed from Donnie Hathaway, but there is a whole army of wronged women who learnt everything they needed to know from Amy Winehouse. The effortlessness of her singing betrays the joy of the presumed happy perfect unknown mingled with thehe pain of her present reality. The honey is not so sweet once it is being eaten, instead all the joy comes from a place of small pleasures, and future promises.

Back to Black, returning to the emptiness of the Great Nothing, what the Buddhists call t’ai hsu, is a big concept for a tiny woman with a big voice and only 23 years behind her, yet she produced one of the greatest collections of songs ever written, and forever put her own brand of comfort and joy, rage and desolation into the ether.

Lesson #1 Your Daddy ain’t always right.

You might need to sober up, even if you don’t want to go to rehab to do so, but no one can live at that intensity of ‘derangement of the senses’ for an extended amount of time.

The proof was in Amy’s eventual untimely death. This is Amy’s insurance policy and her little self-depreciating joke. It is the knife she has left to stick in those who told her she didn’t have the time to go clean up, and who persuaded her that she was ‘fine’, instead of honestly telling her that it all had gone a bit too far.

Amy clearly knew she needed a break from the bottle and the bag. It was her little joke. The whole world could see that she needed to head off to rehab, and were very unkind about it at the time, but a rock star needs swagger and a little joke more than the rest of us mere mortals do. Might as well get the rumors out of the way in the first track.

If you think you don’t need to go to rehab…you probably do.

And you don’t have the time NOT to go, because Amy proved that shit will cut your time off short if you don’t get your shit together.

Your daddy isn’t always right.

Learning how to deal with fame and the music industry from Mr Hathaway, possibly was not the healthiest thing in the world. He was found dead on the sidewalk, from presumed suicide, after jumping (or falling) from the 15th floor of New York’s Essex House Hotel. Lesson to the music industry vultures – when your artist tells you she is ‘learning from Mr. Hathaway…perhaps find out what happened to the supremely talented Donnie Hathaway before recording the hit and ignoring the shit it says. She was basically threatening suicide and not one soul took her seriously. Instead it shot to number 1 and the world sang alone.

And just because you are better doesn’t mean that hurting you was ok in the first place or that you weren’t really injured and damaged by the actions that caused the pain in the first place…and

Not forgiving hurts the grudge holder the most…

You don’t need to go to Rehab if you have ‘got it’ by yourself. Want to detox in the warm sun of a Carribean island without being brainwashed by mostly well-meaning but ultimately useless agents of the rehab industry? Well, then you better get your shit under control without them. Amy made mistakes and wrote about them. You might like her pretty songs, and you want to sing along, as fellow 27 club member Kurt Cobain once sang in Smells Like Teen Spirit, but do you really hear her?

Amy’s tongue in cheek refusal to go to Rehab has us uneasily feeling like it might not be the worst idea for her. Her ‘daddy’ says she’s ‘fine’, giving her yet another excuse to carry on drinking and whatever else gave her both the inspiration and the relief from the emotional pain she was in. She claims to ‘not have the time’, but considering her time was cut so short, she did not have the time not to. Amy is nothing but self-aware. The entire song is tongue in cheek. She knows she has to go, but the fact is she doesn’t want to. She is drinking, she says, because her relationship (with the absolutely appalling and unsupportive Bad Blake) is falling apart, but the real truth is yet to be sung.

Amy doesn’t want to keep drinking, but she is lonely and damnit, she is not going to go to rehab and have everyone think everything is now fine. Her pain is too intense, her suffering needs to be heard. She cannot possibly have everyone thinking she is ‘on the mend’ as if they do it simply means that everything that causes her pain is now forgiven. It is so intense it is unrecoverable, it is not something that can be forgiven. Her pain validates her suffering, and her expression of it is her screaming that it was not and is not ok. She can’t recover and have her torturers think that it was not so bad after all. Amy is not ready to forgive, so not ready to recover.

I don’t ever want to drink again
I just, ooh, I just need a friend
I’m not gonna spend ten weeks
And have everyone think I’m on the mend


Amy admits ‘yes, I’ve been black, but when I come back…’….and here we are back to black once again, in the malestrom of emotions and pain and suffering. But if yer daddy says it is ok, well, it is alright then…or not. People say stupid things like “I think you are just depressed’. You can hear the laughter in her voice when she sings ‘yeah, baby, and the rest!’ The second part of the lesson is ‘people are dumb but Amy is not.’ She knows that knowledge doesn’t come in a shot glass. She knows her daddy will say what she wants to hear. She knows she ‘just needs a friend’, and that it is not ‘just her pride’ and that she can put her pretty foot down and say ‘no no no’ even if she should have been saying ‘yes yes yes’. Power to do the wrong thing for yourself is a basic human right, and Amy had that power.

She made it clear that she partly was not going to let people off so easy by going to rehab, because if she went to rehab then everyone would dismiss her pain as resolved and she is not ready to let them off the hook so easy: not ready to let go of her pain or suffering. The trouble was the person it all hurt most, was Amy. Amy, the girl who to some was more golden cash cow than suffering young woman, and was not given the time or the encouragement to ‘go to rehab’. Let go of pain, it isn’t healthy to hold onto it is perhaps not something anyone can teach anyone else, but it remains an essential truth, nevertheless. What matters so much to the person in pain, to the Amy’s of this world, matters not so much to everyone else. They don’t care whether people hurt or not.

Lesson # 2 “I cheated myself like I knew I would…” (You Know I’m No Good, Back to Black, Amy Winehouse, Track 2)

What is said…and what is left unsaid…Amy had the power and the self knowledge, using it to painfully examine herself and her relationships. If we enter into the realm of romantic relationships we might as well get to the cheating heart of the matter. Cheating on some useless man that leads you to lay there bored and unsatisfied with some ‘ex-boy’, thinking ‘this is where my buzzer goes’ is cheating yourself. Dating some guy who ‘tears men down like Roger Moore’ outside some scuzzy bar is cheating yourself. Cheating on some fucker that cheated on you, can only leave you asking ‘who really stuck the knife in first’, yet it is all cheating. It is cheating at love, cheating at life, cheating yourself out of happiness, and being cheated out of happiness. Listen to Amy – don’t be cheated out of how things should be, and don’t cheat yourself either, even if you know you are ‘no good’ and he or she or them or it is ‘no good’, it is no good to know it if you don’t act on the knowledge that leads to happiness. (See Lesson #7: Be your own best friend!)

Lesson #3 Always ask “what kinda fuckery is this?” (Me and Mr. Jones, Back to Black Amy Winehouse, Track 3)

You know, even if he makes you miss the Slick Rick gig, and you claim he ‘don’t mean dick to you’, the truth is you might well love him, even when you don’t think you do. Like Dylan once sang ‘something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?” Love might be a losing game, but it is a game nevertheless. It is better to quit the fuckery and get real about love, and life and who is Mr. Right that you should say ‘yes yes yes’ to….

Someone is always going to be fucking someone else over, or else you will play yourself out of happiness. Listen to Amy, and quit the fuckery. If Mr. Destiny is waiting at your doorstep go greet him and kiss the future hello and the past pain goodbye. There will always be another gig to go to, even if it is not Slick Rick.

Lesson #4 Choose your friends wisely….especially if you have been drinking (Just Friends, Back to Black, Amy Winehouse)

From the other side of the sheets…singing the guilty song of the ‘other woman’, wondering not about Mr. Jones and his girls and his kisses, but back to the same old cheating games. Hiding in the evenings, softened by Tanqueray gin, and bougie Fever Tree tonic water, there is no time for friendship, only the same tired games of stealing love from the corners it hides in when someone is meant to be with someone else. Be your own best friend, and realize it is all an illusion, a thrilling game of ‘pick me’ and missing the real friendship of a man you will miss the Slick Rick gig for. That man is not your friend, but instead the temptation that will only drag you under. Ask yourself who your friends really are. Is this what friends do? Because….rule number 5 kicks in fast and hard….

Lesson #5 They will always go back to what they know and leave you to go back to black

Now…it is all well and good talking about the games people play and shows that Mr. Jones made you miss, but it is time to get real, so listen to Aunty Amy and Aunty Detroit. There is one truth for young women who live fully and deeply and completely, and burn brighter than these dickshit men will ever understand: they will always go back to what they know and they will leave you to go back to nothingness. Nothing is what they will give you. Everything is what they will take from you, and when you are drained and used up and your ‘tears dry’, they will leave your heart in a box, buried in a cemetery, with a key thrown in the dirt, that door locked forever more, and they will only cry for themselves, not for you. They will leave your heart black and cold and dead.

You know that order you always go to at the fast food joint, when you are drunk and tired and starving hungry, that ‘chips and pita’? That is the woman they chose to be with, to commit to, whilst using and needing that energy that comes from the eternal void that makes great art. They are vampires of the worst sort. Chips and pita bread is not fine dining, it is not rich or complicated, but it fills the belly, and makes you feel at home, comfortable. Safe. Amy was never ‘chips and pita’, Amy was a full tasting menu at the coolest Italian joint in Queens. Amy was puff the magic song writer. This man was blow, either of the coke or the job variety – addicting, empty and demanding and purely one sided.

That blackness that the soul returns to might seem empty, but it is the fountain of all creation and feeling. It exists at an intensity that these gobblers of chips and pita bread can only dream of, and go hunting to get close to, because they cannot live there themselves. All that the Amy’s of this world want is love and devotion, like a tempestuous little goddess, drawing down pennies from heaven right into their crack pipes. She was a tiny penny rolling up the walls inside that pipe, travelling through the underworld, and drawing out inspiration.

That little goddess in the garden of darkness knows inspiration, that there is something more than words, than that empty nothingness of ‘goodbye’, and that only saying goodbye with words, means so very little, but then so very little is what these emotional vampires are capable of, that is why they are drawn to ‘so very much’.

Amy was a vessel for the shekinah, that manifestation of the great divine. She transcended time and space and love and hatred, she existed and experienced and, yes, lost. She lost so hard, so fast, so totally, that to hear Back to Black is to listen to the death cry of the dove of the shekinah. It is fitting she threw her own funeral procession, buried her own heart, just like she let her tears dry on their own.

The voice of the divine cries out to be heard, whilst the human soul cries out for love, and the frail body dies for lack of it: sending everything back to black, back to the home of the divine, back to the great void, back to …nothing which really is everything, if you can only be bright enough to shine a light so you can see in the dark.

In short….fuck the fuckers. Do what I didn’t do fast enough. Do what Amy didn’t get a chance to do. If you are part of that feminine divine being drained of your creativity by some emotional creativity vampire, let those tears dry on their own, be your own best friend, and walk away with your ‘head held high’. Go watch Slick Rick. Go hang with Hathaway. Go rest your head in the arms of Mr Jack D and Ms Tanqueray. Go watch that penny become your soul sliding up the walls of a pipe full of good stuff. Go get yours. Let them get theirs: it is only right and fitting.

Sitting there, crying on the floor for some red headed boy or some souff Lundun wide boy ain’t gonna sell records, or make books appear. Throw a death party…then live…and maybe go hit up Mr. Jones.

Lesson #6 Being Bad is Exhilarating. That is why it is addictive (Tears Dry on their Own, Back to Black, Amy Winehouse)

Some songs sound like bottled sunshine. They are so bright and so full of energy and that high that they can light up the darkest winter afternoon. It is not as if there is not an addictive buzz to those hotel afternoons with some married man that you know you shouldn’t be messing with. But the tao of Amy Winehouse demands you understand why you ‘fuck youself in the head with stupid men’. She sung ‘You know I’m no good’, but this is not such a rare thing. . . . at least if you are not who you should be with, when and where. Everything has a place and time, except love does not abide by these rules of the game. Love is not fair. It cheats. Fate has its thumb on the scale and the God’s laugh at our little losing battles.

Cheating yourself feels so good because you are proving that mean little inner voice right that you ‘are no good’ and gives you an excuse for failing like you always were terrified that you would. Being the other woman feels so good, being an aid to cheating, simple because it is addictive to be chosen, to be special, for someone else to see you for who you are and want to come over to your side of the bed. Being the one who cheats feels so damn good because it is like a shield: it proves don’t need a soul and you are an island. It is revenge for the expected ultimate betrayal. Those afternoon hotel rooms, waiting in the room for that man witha ring on his finger to show up, are so artificially fun, so joyful, one of the best buzzes, like a shot to the arm of the finest Columbia has to offer, an anesthetic to the pain of being rejected by yourself more than anything else, but you don’t need that devils bargain, you can put on Amy and enjoy the twisted thrill of the cheat without risking your body and soul and more importantly your heart.

Walking away from a close relationship with the bottle or the spike or the pipe is an addiction for sure, but is there rehab for a broken heart and a soul that needs to be loved? The only rehab is Donnie Hathaway, Amy Winehouse and that self destructive proof of ‘no good-ness’. Amy is the rehab for that self destruction and that heart and head fucked up by these men who covet but don’t love.

Lesson #7 Sometimes you need to Wake up Alone (Wake up Alone, Back to Black, Amy Winehouse)

When there is no outside comfort, and no one to mop up the tears, and you would rather clean the house than drink, there is a quiet contentment that comes from that feeling of power over your own fate. Waking up alone is one thing, but going to sleep alone is another sadder prospect. The bravado of, “Ill be some man’s other woman soon” melts in the blackness of night. In the light of a new day, there is still the hope of being with him come the night, but in the still of the evening, alone, it is easier to be weak.

Lesson #8 Don’t underestimate the power of a woman . . . Especially if that woman is Amy Winehouse. (Unholy War, Back to Black, Amy Winehouse)

Men might think they can fight, but they have nothing on a woman who has picked herself up off a kitchen floor and decided to fight in some unholy war for a man who isn’t even the right man anyhow….”It’s you I’m fighting for’ sings Amy, “I refuse to let him go”. Waiting for the blow, the coke-man to arrive for the thing that binds them together, that instrument of the mutual addiction, Amy is both dignified with her guitar case, and also moving with the darkness that consumes her.

If, if my man is fighting some unholy war And I will stand beside you But who you dying for?

B, I would have died too I’d have liked to

If my man was fighting Some unholy war If my man was fighting

Unholy War, Amy Winehouse

Sometimes the darkness tells the truth, and from Back to Black, Amy spoke her truth. She was willing to fight the booze, the drugs, the unholy war for her Bad Bad Blake, and even die for it…and the girl was not lying, and made good her promise. If you have a soldier, like Amy, it’s best to take them seriously.

Lesson #9 They can only hold you…they cannot keep you (He Can Only Hold Her, Back to Black, Amy Winehouse)

“He can only hold her for so long…the lights are on, but no one’s home’, she’s just not there. It is not a state of powerlessness. Seeking to avoid that pain of going to bed alone, she takes her bottle or her bag along with her and removes her spark from his sphere of influence. Take that! Huh! How do these emotional vampires like them eggs? From the darkness, from the void of creation, from that place where the light has gone from but where all light comes, the soul returns.

You are freer than you think you are….

It is scant comfort, but nevertheless, it is comfort that these men cannot hold onto these little goddesses of creation like Amy forever. In the end, winning happens by default because….

Lesson #10 I can get mine….and you get yours

Priorities straight and heads high, girls! “It got me addicted..did more than any dick did” Amy sings with swagger and grace. Men are all well and good, but when it ain’t even your man smoking all your weed, and a girl has needs, there needs to be proper restitution! There is something even more addictive and comforting than any man, and I’m not sure it’s weed, but horses for courses, and Amy’s for pipe-filling bag-related comforts.

Amy found her way around the traps that are set for bright and beautiful, for brilliant and talented women by men who would seek to leech off them and use them, even if those exits involved bottles and little glassine baggies. Exiting temporarily is one thing, but Amy took herself back to the void, back to the black, back to the source which give us Amy in the first place. Permanently. Yet she is here, haunting these tracks, walking these lines and telling her tales on the men who hide in hotel rooms, manipulating their little cheating addictive detours from happiness. Can you hear her? Can you understand her tao, her ‘way’, her lessons on how not to love and how to escape and how, by way of the loss of her wars, unholy as they may have been, how to survive yours? Is she your Donnie Hathaway? Is she your guide to comfort? Is the sacrifice of the heart of Amy Winehouse, enough? It should be. It was priceless.


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