The 10 Greatest U2 Singles (Part Nine)

2. Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own
“My father was a very strict man but his severity was wasted on me.  He was a good father in all the ways you could reasonably expect but we clashed a lot.”  Bono from U2 By U2
In the early morning hours of August 21st, 2001, the cancer in Bob Hewson’s old body finally claimed him.  His youngest son was there by his bedside in an Irish hospital during his final moments.  His voice reduced to a whisper because of Parkinson’s disease, Bob had one last thing to say.  His son wanted to know if he needed anything and even called in a nurse for assistance.  As they both put their ears to his mouth, out came Bob’s reply:  “Would you ever fuck off and get me out of here.  This place is a prison cell.  I want to go home.”  It was a difficult end to a difficult relationship.
When Iris Hewson, Bob’s wife and Bono’s mother, died shortly after the sudden death of Bono’s maternal grandfather in 1974, “there was just three men living on their own in a house.  That is all it was then, it ceased being a home.  It was just a house, with three men killing each other slowly, not knowing what to do with our sense of loss and just taking it out on each other.  Things could get to a very, very high pitch,” Bono told Neil McCormick in U2 By U2.
But in truth, the former Paul Hewson was a troublemaker from the very beginning.  He cried constantly as a baby, and throughout his childhood, he was capable of sudden, intense violence.  There’s a famous story about him getting kicked out of high school for throwing dry dog shit at a Spanish teacher while she was eating her lunch.  It’s no wonder his first nickname was The Antichrist.
At some point during the Popmart tour of the late 1990s, Bono had this song idea that he worked on with The Edge.  It was meant to be an honest, warts-and-all tribute to his father.  He called it Tough after the opening lyric.  According to The Edge, however, “there was something that wasn’t quite right.”  During the sessions for the follow-up to Pop, it was presented to the rest of U2.  “When we played it together as a band it was a bit cloying, so it didn’t end up going on All That You Can’t Leave Behind.”
After being rejected for that album, Bono continued to tinker with it.  Three days after his father succumbed to cancer, he performed a rough version of the song during his funeral.  It would take another three years to finish it properly.
“It had a very traditional feel in its original form and so we spent a lot of time trying to find a different setting for it, a way of retaining the strong melodies but just changing the harmonic content to try and make it a little more special.  I think it was on its third or fourth rewrite when [producer] Steve [Lillywhite] pointed out that it didn’t really have a chorus, it needed an extra bit, a bridge to lift it to the chorus line, and Bono sang that falsetto piece on the spot,” Adam Clayton remembered in U2 By U2.
The song’s emotional high point arrives near the end.  It is the moment when Bono pays the ultimate tribute to his father by thanking him for sharing his love of music with him, specifically opera.
“This man gave me my voice – my singing voice and the attitude I would need to defend it. He didn’t fill my little head with big ideas. He filled my big head with little ideas. It was protection as he saw it. There began a headlock that continued for some time,” he declared at Bob’s funeral in 2001, as reported by The Irish Examiner.
He further explained himself in U2 By U2:
“He was a beautiful tenor who would stand there in front of the speakers, conducting the music with my mother’s knitting needles.  I remember the look on his face, just lost to music.  For some reason, he never imagined music might be handed down through the DNA like his bad back and quick temper.  I asked him years later, ‘What are the things you regret the most?’  He said, ‘Not being able to play music.”
“It’s so odd, it’s the thing I can’t figure out.  It was almost like my father’s whole attitude was: don’t dream.  This was his unspoken and sometimes spoken advice.  To dream is to be disappointed, that was the running theme, and I think that was perhaps because he had given up his dreams.  So he didn’t want me to fill my head with mine.”
“I think the seeds of ambition were sown, paradoxically by this repression of the spirit.  If you keep telling somebody not to do something then that might just be what they become driven to do.  Megalomania might have started right there…Of course, I didn’t know what it was I was actually going to say or play, but the world was going to have to listen.  Which, of course, is really psychological shorthand for ‘my father would have to listen’.”
In 1993, he told Rolling Stone Magazine, “I really, really enjoy opera now, ’cause he used to listen to it all the time. He’d just kind of throw you something like that.”
Larry Mullen Jr. summed up their relationship best in U2 By U2:
“Having heard all the stories of life in the Hewson household, when you saw the two of them together it was kind of funny.  He always saw Bono as his kid.  He didn’t see the rock star.  It was like, ‘He’s my son, he deserves a clip around the ear.’  That’s the way he behaved around Bono.  And although he may not have said it to Bono, he took real pride in what the band were doing.  But he also really enjoyed sticking the boot in, just because he could, with a snigger.”
Tough ended up being renamed Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own after the chorus.  It was a major smash in the United Kingdom where it hit number one.  It was the only time two consecutive U2 singles (Vertigo being the other one, in this case) hit the top of the charts there, according to Wikipedia.  It would later win two Grammys, one of which was for Song Of The Year.
How do you pay tribute to a man you never really knew and had a hard time getting along with?  That was the challenge for Bono in writing this single.  At its heart, it’s a love song soaked in bitterness and regret.  Throughout, there are lost opportunites for openness (“And it’s you when I don’t pick up the phone”) and plenty of frustration over the lack of civility (“We fight all the time”) and normal father-son conversations (“I know that we don’t talk/I’m sick of it all”).
It’s a one-way communication between Paul and Bob Hewson with Paul doing all the talking.  It’s the rock star shedding all of his protective layers reaching out to the most important man in his life while in his most vulnerable state.  For an Irishman, it is the most courageous act.
Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own is an extraordinarily moving song.  It is rare for me to openly weep while listening to any kind of music, but Bono’s words, his vocals, the arrangement of the track and U2’s first-rate playing break you down rather easily.  There are many instances where you are literally fighting back tears and utterly failing.  Your eyes turn red, you feel freshly made water running down your cheeks and you’re trying not to be louder than the song that put you in this state in the first place.  It is U2 at their cinematic best.  You feel a sense of release when it’s over.  It’s great sonic therapy.
There have been occasions where I’ve wept through the entire 5 minutes and 4 seconds and it’s uncertain now what kind of emotional state I was in before pressing play.  You certainly don’t need to be particularly susceptible in order for its sweeping emotional power to affect you deeply.  But the part that always gets me is the middle eight section that leads up to the moment where Bono pays his father the ultimate compliment.  (“You’re the reason why the opera is in me.”)  It is so pitch perfect you wish Bob was still alive to hear it.
The song is also remarkable for not mentioning the words “cancer” or “love” at any time even though it is clearly about both.  This was Bono’s way of finding closure with his father as he stubbornly and cantankerously battled the diseases that were ravaging his body.  It’s about him reaching out in a sincere way, hoping to find reception from a man who normally revelled in giving him a hard time about everything.
Using simple, direct language, he dissects their relationship.  “We’re the same soul”, he sweetly sings as he explains why they always fight.  And then there’s this passage that would make his father proud.  (“I don’t need to hear you say/That if we weren’t so alike/You’d like me a whole lot more”)  Right in the middle of his beautiful musical eulogy he injects a dose of Bob’s black humour.  He would’ve enjoyed that.  He loved to take the piss out of his son, regardless of his increasing stature in the music business.
Late in the song, during its emotional apex, a sense of abandonment is expressed.  (“Don’t leave me here alone”)  Reality is hitting home and Bono is desperately trying to cope.  (“And it’s you that makes it hard to let go”)
Like Mofo, Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own is one of their lost singles, criminally overlooked despite its Grammy victories.  (Incredibly, it peaked at #97 on Billboard’s Hot 100 Singles Chart.)  As the years go by, it will grow in stature.  Filmmakers will find a place for it in their films.  Families will request it be played during funerals for the fathers they lost.  It is that special kind of song that helps you understand the complexity of the father-son relationship in straightforward terms.  You can’t help but relate it to your own life.  Maybe that’s where the tears come from, that sense of quiet recognition about the essence of the father-son dynamic that Bono so brilliantly captures with his lyrics.  Or maybe it’s just the story of Bob and Paul Hewson that gets to you.
Whatever it is, a strong case can be made for Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own being their greatest all-time single.  For me, however, there’s only one other song in their growing catalogue of greatness that tops it.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, August 6, 2007
10:10 p.m.
Published in: on August 6, 2007 at 10:10 pm  Leave a Comment  

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