10 (More) of the Greatest Songs About Recovery
We gave our picks for the 10 greatest songs about recovery back in 2012 and you’ve given us plenty of feedback since. Here is our second take on the subject, from the iconic to the obscure.
Staind, “It’s Been Awhile”
Lead singer Aaron Lewis has never publicly admitted to having an addiction problem, but the lyrics to the band’s 2001 hit song “It’s Been Awhile” sparked plenty of speculation that he had kicked a previous cocaine habit. Singing from the standpoint of someone who is now clean, Lewis reflects back on life as a former addict, singing, “it’s been a while since I could say that I wasn’t addicted /and it’s been a while since I could love myself as well.” The song peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard charts, but Lewis acknowledged that the stories fans told him afterwards about their own struggles with addiction became difficult to listen to. “I couldn’t deal with all the letters and the constant barrage of horror stories that these fans had been through in their lives, and they all feel the need to tell me their story when they write me a letter,” he said in 2011. “I couldn’t read the letters anymore. I couldn’t go outside and sign autographs anymore … I really had to introvert and just kind of escape it all for awhile.”
Eminem, “Going Through Changes”
The rapper’s journey into sobriety from a pill addiction that nearly killed him is the primary theme off his 2010 album Recovery, but many fans believe his track “Going Through Changes” is his best song on the subject. Using a sample off Ozzy Osbourne’s hit song “Changes” for the hook, Eminem raps about his addiction and a depression that left him “debating on leaving this world this evening.” He acknowledges that “you can’t stop with these pills and you’ve fallen off with your skills/your own fans are laughing at you,” before admitting that “inside I’m dying/I’m finally realizing I need help/I can’t do it by myself.” Eminem also opened up about his battle with addiction that led to taking 20 pills per day, as well as his nearly fatal overdose, in last year’s documentary How To Make Money Selling Drugs. "I had to regain motor skills, I had to regain talking skills. It’s been a learning process [and] I’m growing,” he said. "I couldn't believe that anybody could be naturally happy without being on something. So I would say to anybody, ‘It does get better.’”
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, “Starting Over”
On the second to last track off their 2012 album The Heist, Macklemore (a.k.a. Ben Haggerty) raps about relapsing and the consequences that have come from it. Talking about his date of sobriety, “a 8/10/08 that now has been changed,” Macklemore laments about “those three-plus years I was so proud of/then I threw them all away for two Stryofoam cups,” before thinking about “the trust that I once built that has been betrayed.” But rather than slip further, the rapper gets back on his program and finds himself “back on that meeting on the East side,” believing that “if I can be an example of getting sober/then I can be an example of starting over.” After getting clean from drugs and alcohol in August 2008, Macklemore admitted last March that fame made it difficult to follow the same routines that enabled him to keep his sobriety. "It's been a struggle the past year," he said. "It's very important to go into the rooms of AA, smell the shitty coffee and be reminded that without sobriety, I would have no career."
In this power ballad from 1993, frontman Steven Tyler sings about his troubled life and drug abuse after the band’s initial split. Co-written with songwriter Richie Supa, Tyler sings about the depths of his addiction and how he was “so sick and tired of living a lie/I was wishing that I would die.” But after going to rehab and getting clean, he declares that “it’s amazing with the blink of an eye you finally see the light/it’s amazing when the moment arrives that you know you’ll be all right.” The song was penned for the kids at the Caron Foundation, where Tyler entered treatment and gained sobriety in 1986. Although he relapsed on prescription drugs in 2006, the Aerosmith frontman told Dr. Oz last September that he is now three years sober. “I did it so much I couldn’t stop, and then I had to ask myself and face myself to see why couldn’t I stop,” he said. “My sobriety cost me nothing less than everything. It’s serious when you lose your kids, your wife, your band, your job…and you’ll never understand why, because you’re an addict.”
Aimee Mann, “Wise Up”
One of many songs by Mann featured in the 1999 film Magnolia, many of her fans believe that the song is about reaching the breaking point of an addiction. Mann sings that “when you first began it/you got what you want/now you can hardly stand it,” telling the addict that “by now you know it’s not going to stop/till you wise up” and urging them to “just give up.” Although Mann has never had a substance problem herself, drug addiction has remained a common theme in many of her songs. “What [people] don't understand is there are other factors that contribute to you taking drugs in the first place,” she said in a November 2002 interview. "If I'd been a slightly different kind of person I would have gone, 'Fuck it, I've got to get through this. I've got to play this show—where's the speed?' I certainly understand how it happens.”
Lynyrd Skynyrd, “That Smell”
The southern rock band released this song in 1977, which was composed while the band had been drinking and doing a variety of drugs. Although the writing process wouldn’t seem to spark many thoughts related to sobriety and recovery, lead singer Ronnie Van Zant said he wanted the song to serve as a warning about reckless drug and alcohol use. The year before, guitarist Gary Rossington miraculously survived slamming his car into a tree after getting behind the wheel drunk and high. Singing that addiction is “one hell of a price for you to get your kicks,” Van Zant’s lyrics appear to be speaking directly to Rossington by referencing the car crash and plainly telling him to “look what’s going on inside you... the smell of death surrounds you.” He explained the inspiration for writing “That Smell” was because he had a "creepy feeling things were going against us, so I thought I'd write a morbid song (as a warning).” Just three days after the album was released, a plane crash killed several members of the band, including Van Zant.
Beth Hart, “Leave The Light On”
A former Star Search winner who achieved a top 40 hit in 1999 with “L.A. Song,” Hart’s drug and alcohol use spiraled out of control after her first taste of mainstream success. But after getting sober, the lead single off her 2003 album Leave The Light On highlighted some of the earlier traumas that led to her addiction. Singing about how she “cut myself just to feel alive” at age 17 and was “on the run from from myself, from myself and everyone” at age 21, she laments that “I ain’t that bad, I’m just messed up/I ain’t that sad but I’m sad enough.” Finally having enough of the pain in her life, Hart belts out in the hook that “I wanna love and I wanna live/I don’t know much about it and I never did/I don’t know what to do, can the damage be undone/I swore to God I’d never be what I’ve become.” In a 2003 interview, Hart acknowledged being humbled by her addiction. “Success scared me to death, and I dealt with fear all of my life with drugs and alcohol. But instead of making me feel better this time, it wiped me out,” she said. “I was drinking every day, unbelievable amounts of alcohol. I felt guilty. I had all these things—a good family, a career in music—and I was pissing it away. It was a vicious circle. I didn't know how to get out of it, and I didn't even know if I wanted to get out of it.”
A Perfect Circle, “Gravity”
One of the songs off their 2003 concept album Thirteenth Step, which addresses the different perspectives and aspects of addiction, “Gravity” addresses the process of surrendering to an addiction. Lead singer Maynard James Keenan sings that he is “dizzy and clearly unable to let this go,” asking for help to “calm these hands before they snare another pill” and vowing he is “surrendering myself to gravity and the unknown/catch me, heal me, lift me back up to the sun/I choose to live.” On the band’s DVD Amotion, Keenan explained that he had never personally struggled with addiction and drew lyrical inspiration from those around him who had including Alice In Chains lead singer Layne Staley, who died in 2002 from his drug problem. “I have a lot of friends who've gone through a lot of these situations,” he said. “Some of the songs are sung from the perspective of the actual drug, from the perspective of someone who has realized that they have an issue or a problem, also from the perspective of a person who realizes that if they don't do something they're going to die, a song from the perspective of a person who is in denial about a loved one, dying right before their eyes.”
Warren Zevon, “Detox Mansion”
With lyrics that seem to be cribbed directly from diaries of his own personal rehab experience, Zevon sings about his time in Detox Mansion, “up here on Rehab Mountain.” He talks about his daily routine in treatment that includes “doing my own laundry" and “therapy and lectures, we play golf in the afternoon.” Although he seems to be appreciative of the sober life, Zevon also admits that he is “dying to tell my story for all my friends to read.” After being dropped by his record label in 1984, Zevon slipped into serious alcoholism before entering a Minnesota rehab in 1984, eventually retreating from the music business for several years to kick his addictions once and for all. “Detox Mansion” came from his 2002 album Genius, the final release of his career; he was diagnosed with inoperable abdominal cancer and died the following year. His wife, Crystal, chronicled his life and heavy substance abuse in the 2007 book I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon.
Rehab, “It Don’t Matter”
Southern band Rehab was formed in part by Jason Buford and Danny “Boone” Alexander, two recovering addicts who met in rehab and bonded over their love of music. Their 2000 album Southern Discomfort featured the top 15 single “It Don’t Matter,” which many fans believe to be a call-and-answer to the depths of addiction and ultimately seeing the light. As Buford raps about “another day of feeling nothing and trying to find something/I guess it’s back to huffing paint and model glue,” Boone asks God to “please show me that silver lining/cause I’ve heard tale and I’m not well/my head’s full of hell and this world’s a jail.” He eventually surrenders to “let my pain into the air/cause everything good’s over there and everything here is hard to bear.” Several other songs off the album also address addiction and recovery including “My Addiction,” “Drinkin’ Problem” and “Sittin’ At A Bar.”
McCarton Ackerman is a regular contributor to The Fix. He last wrote about Bishop Ron Gibson's journey from the Crips to the church
Picking the best songs about addiction is an impossible challenge. The most influential and iconic figures in music, from the Rolling Stones to Bob Dylan to The Velvet Underground, have covered the subject so magnificently that it’s easy to forget that there are many current artists who are tackling the topic as well. But over the last decade (give or take a few years), some highly unlikely acts have written songs about addiction and recovery that are, variously, funny, provocative, and heartbreaking. These excellent recent songs aren't classics, but might just deserve to be.