The 10 Greatest Songs About Recovery
From Jane's Addiction to Metallica, these bands have penned and performed spectacular—if not always positive—songs about overcoming heroin, alcohol, and everything in between.
The Eagles, “One Day At a Time”
Eagles lead singer Joe Walsh indulged in plenty of the rocker excess and drug use synonymous with the 1970s music scene when his band first got big (“Life in the Fast Lane,” anyone?) but he’s been singing quite a different tune for quite a while now. And no song epitomizes that more than “One Day At a Time,” the pop-rock ditty from the Eagles’ 2005 live DVD Farewell 1 Tour—Live From Melbourne. Lyrics like “I finally got around to admit that I was the problem, when I used to put the blame on everyone’s shoulders but mine” sound like they might have even been cribbed from a recent AA meeting. The tune’s gist: Walsh admits his powerlessness (“I got down on my knees and said hey, I just can’t go on living this way”), declares that he’s gotten help from a Higher Power and now plans to learn how to live one day at a time. Art, of course, imitated life: Walsh allegedly kicked his own drug and alcohol habit after visiting Australia and New Zealand in 1994 and has supposedly not only been clean and sober ever since but has also offered to help Australian Premier of Victoria John Brumby tackle the country’s drug problems.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Under the Bridge”
What lead singer Anthony Kiedis originally perceived to be an overly emotional poem that he felt reluctant to show to his bandmates ended up becoming one the biggest singles of his band’s career—not to mention one of the quintessential songs about addiction and recovery. Kiedis supposedly wrote “Under the Bridge” when he was three years sober in an effort to describe the impact that drugs had on his life and how his sobriety was negatively impacting his relationship with his bandmates, leading him to believe that his only companion was the city of Los Angeles (“Sometimes I feel like my only friend is the city I live in, the city of angels”). “I felt an unspoken bond between me and my city,” Kiedis said in his 2004 autobiography Scar Tissue. “I'd spent so much time wandering through the streets of LA and hiking through the Hollywood Hills that I sensed there was a nonhuman entity, maybe the spirit of the hills and the city, who had me in her sights and was looking after me." The song appeared on their 1992 album Blood Sugar Sex Magik and ended up reaching number two on the Billboard charts, catapulting the Chili Peppers into the mainstream. Kiedis, meanwhile, bounced in and out of treatment facilities for years before reportedly kicking his heroin addiction for good in December 2000.
Not every song about rehab and recovery is in support of it.
Lynyrd Skynyrd, “That Smell”
Southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd were notorious for their hard-partying ways and this song, from their 1977 album Street Survivors, is about the fateful night when their excess went too far. Lead singer Ronnie Van Zant and guitarist Allen Collins wrote the tune about the evening when Skynyrd guitarist Gary Rossington drunkenly crashed his car into a tree and then a house, garnering injuries so severe that the band had to postpone their 1977 tour. Afterwards, Van Zant and Collins allegedly ordered Rossington to clean up his act and then banned drugs and alcohol from the dressing rooms. But no amount of self-policing could save them and the song’s references to death (“Angel of darkness is upon you, stuck a needle in your arm”) proved to be creepily prescient in light of the fact that Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and backup singer Cassie Gaines were all killed in a plane crash just a few days after their tour started. Though the rest of the band has continued to tour with new members in the decades since then, Rossington remains plagued by issues with alcohol.
Billy Joel, “Captain Jack”
While the lyrics from this song off of Joel’s 1973 album Piano Man appear, at first glance, to be pro drugs (“Captain Jack will get you by tonight, just a little push and you’ll be smiling”), Joel has gone to great lengths to insist that it’s actually an anti-drug medley meant to inspire recovery and show how unglamorous drug use really is. Joel wrote the song in 1971 while sitting in his Long Island apartment and noticing teenagers outside his window who were scoring heroin off a dealer named Captain Jack. "What's so horrible about an affluent young white teenager's life that he's got to shoot heroin?” Joel wrote in his 2007 autobiography. “It's really a song about what I consider to be a pathetic loser kind of lifestyle. I've been accused of, 'Oh, this song promotes drug use and masturbation.' No, no, no. Listen to the song. This guy is a loser.” Joel went on to have over two-dozen top 10 hits and would later wage some addiction battles of his own.
Saint Vitus, “Dying Inside”
The members of doom-metal band Saint Vitus have made no secret of their drug use, but this song is one of the rare tracks from the group that focus on wanting to actually break free from the addictive cycle. From their 1986 album Born Too Late, Scott “Wino” Weinrich sings about reaching rock bottom with alcohol (“I can’t control my addiction, I’ve tried time and time again”) before declaring that he is dying inside. The album went on to become their best-selling to date, and Saint Vitus are now preparing to release their first album in 17 years. Alas, although Weinrich has had extended periods of sobriety from drugs and alcohol over the years, he is, apparently, on the losing end of the battle these days.
Amy Winehouse, “Rehab”
Not every song about rehab and recovery is in support of it. The beehive-d songstress, who died of alcohol poisoning, sadly, last July, stormed onto the international music scene with this single off her 2006 album Back to Black. The song relayed quite clearly her staunch refusal to attend rehab (“They tried to make me go to rehab, I said no, no, no”) despite the insistence of her management team, whom she later fired. “I literally walked in and walked out,” Winehouse said in a 2006 interview. “When it was suggested to me, I went to see the guy at the center for 10 minutes just so I could say to the record company that I went.” The song ended up cracking the top 10 in eight different countries as Winehouse’s Motown-style groove drew comparisons to R&B legends like Etta James and Ella Fitzgerald. Unfortunately, “Rehab” eventually became more associated with endless tabloid punch lines as Winehouse’s own life fell apart.
Blue October, “Hate Me”
After toiling away for over a decade, Houston rock band Blue October finally broke through in 2006 with this angst-y single off their Foiled album. The song starts with an actual answering machine message the mother of lead singer Justin Furstenfeld left her son at the height of his drug addiction and then launches into one of Furstenfeld’s trademark spoken word/music fusions where he attempts to make amends to those people he’d hurt through his addiction (“The one thing that always tore us apart is the one thing that I won’t touch again”). “When you’re in a low place, you don’t really think about other people and it’s basically an apology...to people I’ve hurt in the past and asking for forgiveness,” Furstenfeld said in a 2006 promotional video for the song). “Hate Me” went on to hit the Top 10 in both the US and Canada, but subsequent singles and albums failed to bring the band similar success. While Furstenfeld has allegedly remained sober since 2004, he has also been open about his battle with mental illness and his 2009 mental breakdown forced the band to cancel most of their tour that year.
Metallica, “Master of Puppets”
The second track off of Metallica’s 1986 album of the same name speaks directly to all the drugs the band did during their meteoric rise to fame. Unlike the shorter, high-speed songs often associated with the band, this nearly nine-minute track also features a long midway instrumental section. “’Master of Puppets’ pretty much deals with drugs,” lead singer James Hetfield has said. “How things get switched around, instead of you controlling what you’re doing and taking, it’s drugs controlling you.” The album went on to sell over six million copies and the song is regarded as one of the greatest metal tracks of all time. Far more significantly, the master and puppet roles in the bandmates’ own lives have clearly switched places: Hetfield entered rehab 15 years after writing the song and has supposedly remained sober ever since while drummer Lars Ulrich quit cocaine in 2008.
John Lennon, “Cold Turkey”
Released in 1969, this single—the second non-Beatles song for John Lennon after "Give Peace a Chance"—focused directly on his experience coming down off heroin (“Thirty-six hours rolling in pain, praying to someone, free me again”), which both he and wife Yoko Ono became addicted to the year before. Several of the songs off the Beatles’ White Album refer to his drug use—something Lennon blamed on the treatment that Ono received from his bandmates and other Beatles affiliates. “People like Peter Brown in our office, he comes down and shakes my hand and doesn’t even say hello to her,” Lennon said in 1971. “We took H because of what the Beatles and their pals were doing to us. They didn’t set down to do it, but things came out of that period and I don’t forget.” Crowd response to the song was muted at shows and it ended up tanking on the charts, peaking at number 30 in the US and number 14 in the UK.
Jane’s Addiction, “Jane Says”
Appearing as a live track on the band’s 1987 debut album before being re-recorded for their 1988 follow-up, Nothing’s Shocking, “Jane Says” is an autobiographical track about a woman named Jane Bainter, a management consultant who lived with lead singer Perry Farrell and a dozen others in a group house in West Hollywood in 1984. Apparently, the lyrics are true to life: the real Jane had both a heroin habit she was always “gonna kick tomorrow” and an abusive boyfriend (the “Sergio” she says she’s “done with”); she also talked endlessly about saving for a trip to Europe (“I’m going away to Spain, when I get my money saved”). “Jane was an intellectual and knew how to act aristocratic, even with a needle and a spoon on the table,” Farrell has said. The song cracked the Top 10 on the Billboard Modern Rock tracks chart and the album ultimately went platinum. As for Bainter, she kicked her drug habit in 1993—and even, eventually, made it to Spain.
McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer currently residing in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Time Out New York, The Huffington Post, abcnews.com and usopen.org, among others. He has also written about Carré Otis and Celebrity Rehab, among other topics, for The Fix.
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.