Amy Winehouse, You Know I’m No Good: the meaning of the lyrics

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This story is part of the book:
Mama Mia Let Me Go!
A journey through the most intriguing lyrics and stories in rock music

Buy it on Amazon

Do you remember Amy Winehouse when she was alive? Every day, dozens of virtual bouquets of flowers are placed in the comments under her songs online, the elegies that are periodically published on the Internet cry out their anguish at the fate that stopped a brilliant artist in her tracks. But the eccentric girl herself, her unique, distinct voice; do you remember them?

I listened to this song again recently, quite by chance. The song was released and found popularity in 2007, but I never listened to it with any real attention. Perhaps I had been negatively influenced by the storyline that ultimately led to her premature death. But I clearly didn’t realise how relevant it was. You Know I’m No Good, waiting for me among my Youtube recommendations, stands out from the pack with the intensity of its feelings.

Amy Winehouse - You Know I'm No Good

The album from which it comes, Back to Black, had launched Amy to huge success, lauded as being among the greatest British musicians. She became the first British artist to win 5 Grammy Awards in one night on February 10th, 2008, when the album won Best Pop Vocal album. With a sale of 3,580,000 copies in the UK alone, it is now the second best-selling album in the country in the 21st century, and the thirteenth ever.

At that time, Amy met Blake Fielder, the man who would marry her, and with whom she was so deeply in love – but who she betrayed. It happened after a long battle with eating disorders and nights ruined by the excesses. “You Know I’m No Good”, she writes in the message bottled within the album, which also contains Rehab, her well-known refusal to accept treatment for her alcohol addiction.

But we’re not here to focus on the story of Amy and her early death. Instead, let’s investigate the song that she gave us, an example of beauty and immortal sensibility. “I’m No Good” reflects the betrayal and perhaps even her last alcoholic relapse. “I’m sorry, I’m trying hard”, she seems to tell us, “but I told you I am like this.” Everyone wanted a better Amy. Perhaps what she was asking was just to be loved as she was.

Meet you dowstairs in the bar and hurt,
Your rolled up sleeves in your skull t-shirt,
You say ‘What did you do with him today?’,
And sniffed me out like I was Tanqueray

A few details are enough to recreate the scene: he meets her to talk about what happened. He tries to keep calm because he doesn’t want to get carried away by her latest betrayal. But it’s not easy, and he tries to smell her, to check for the smell of another, as if smelling a bottle of gin to check that it’s pure. And she knows how he feels.

‘Cause you’re my fella my guy,
Hand me your Stella and fly,
By the time I’m out the door,
You tear men down like Roger Moore

She doesn’t want to show that she is sorry or weaken herself. He acts like James Bond: stolid and collected; and she as a lover who will not apologise for anything. The request for forgiveness emerges only afterwards, but even then, it’s not explicit.

I cheated myself,
Like I knew I would,
I told you I was trouble,
You know that I’m no good

“I’m not a good girl, I’m not like you expected me to be”: she can’t ask for forgiveness, she doesn’t say she’s sorry. Instead, she tries to reason that the only person she has cheated, is “herself”. She loves him, but she feels that she is the one who has been screwed.

Upstairs in bed with my ex boy,
He’s in a place but I can’t get joy,
Thinking on you in the final throes,
This is when my buzzer goes,
Run out to meet you, chips and pitta,
You say ‘when we married’,
’cause you’re not bitter,
‘There’ll be none of him no more’,
I cried for you on the kitchen floor


She’s really in love, she writes in the second verse: Yes, she wanted to betray him, but even at the moment of betrayal, she was thinking of him. And without giving any explanation, she runs to meet him.

The very next scene, there they are, chatting and eating (the detail of the chips creates, with very few words, the notion that it’s one of their regular conversations). She knows who she wants, and she is grateful that he didn’t leave. They are back together; they can leave this incident behind.

The singer-songwriter is wonderful at creating a climax with music and words, and she saves it for the last stanza, making it even more empathetic. She thinks back to her conversations, afraid that he will change his mind, and sad for having disappointed him again.

Sweet reunion Jamaica and Spain,
We’re like how we were again,
I’m in the tub, you on the seat,
Lick your lips as I soap my feet,
Then you notice like carpet burn,
My stomach drop and my guts churn,
You shrug and it’s the worst,
Who truly stuck the knife in first

Jamaica and Spain – smoke and alcohol. She takes a bath he is with her. Everything is fine, but he sees the tell-tail signs and senses that it has happened again. As if the temperature has suddenly plunged, the two stop talking. Once again, he says nothing; he doesn’t disclose what he thinks. He’s as proud as she is, wounded by the deliberate show of indifference. It was all right, but now it’s over. Who’s hurting who now?

It is a story of pride. It is the stream of consciousness of a girl who keeps her fears locked away and is unable to apologise. But she’s asking to be loved. The words we don’t say are often the most important; the phrases that are stuck between the heart and the throat, are often the hardest to express.

Even if I can’t say what I should, the lyrics seems to say, please understand. Even if I can’t apologise, forgive me. I am also the one who pursues you, asking that we stay together; the one who smiles when you make plans for us; the one who is afraid of being better.

Behind a mask that wants to be strong, a request for forgiveness and help is hidden. I betrayed you but I ran to you immediately: don’t leave me, help me change. Loving and forgiving is not easy, and it is even more difficult to let yourself be loved and forgiven, because it is difficult to accept such magnanimity. But at the end of the day, what remains is the hope of being rescued and welcomed.

Amy comes back, every time, with a bag of chips or a bottle of beer. She has no words to say; she cried in secret. She lets him take her back, she lets him forgive her. She wants to be helped to change, even if she will then feel indebted afterwards. Maybe that’s what love really is: the feeling of being wrong, accepting that we are not perfect, then starting over again, together.

Amy Winehouse (14 Sep 1983 – 23 Jul 2011)

This story is part of the book:
Mama Mia Let Me Go!
A journey through the most intriguing lyrics and stories in rock music

Buy it on Amazon

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