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This week’s entrant in the 200 Sad Songs series is Bonnie Raitt’s break-up/never there banger, the soundtrack to a thousand brews swilled in a thousand hopeless truckstops, I Can’t Make You Love Me.
Nashville-based songwriter Mike Reid was thumbing through a local paper when a story caught his eye. A man was arrested after getting drunk and shooting holes in his ex-girlfriend’s car, which is the Southern version of the “final nail in the coffin” analogy. Upon sentencing, the judge asked him if he had learned anything from the fall out, to which he said, “I learned, Your Honour, that you can’t make a woman love you if she don’t.” Ding, ding ding!
Not surprisingly, the two guys who penned the song – Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin – traditionally wrote country songs, and their first instinct with this bad boy was to speed it up and record it bluegrass-style. Soon realising the use of a time machine would be the only way to appeal to actual fans of bluegrass, they slowed the song down, noticed its considerable weight, and approached three big-hitters in the big voice, big hair, big emotion game at the time: Bette Midler, Linda Ronstadt, and finally Bonnie Raitt. Luckily Raitt was both keen to record the song, and the very best choice of the three, with Ronstadt being too gutsy a vocalist, and Milder often treading through treacle.
Te emotion in Raitt’s one-take performance was so raw and perfect that she couldn’t get close to it on subsequent takes, and so her very first recorded run at the vocal is the very version you’re listening to now in that Uber you’re paying far too much for. You know you can ask him to change the channel, right? (Don’t though, this song is great.)
Also on The Big Smoke
- 200 Sad Songs: #194 Bob Dylan – If you see her, say hello (1975)
- 200 Sad Songs: #195 Belinda Carlisle – Summer Rain (1990)
- 200 Sad Songs: #196 No Doubt – Don’t Speak (1995)
I first heard the aforementioned “Your Honour” tale on a segment of This American Life in which Starlee Kine details – upon other things – the powerful comfort of simple, otherwise cheesy, break-up lyrics when you are going through a split yourself. This song has these lines in droves. Detailing one last night together after she finally gives up on her relationship, Bonnie’s pleas are both pathetic and strong – she knows he doesn’t love her, but she doesn’t care, she just wants one final night where it feels like he does – even if she has to actively block any sign that indicates this simply isn’t the case. This night is for her though – which is where the strength crawls in – it’s for her to get through things, for her to achieve closure. She doesn’t even want him to patronise and pretend, just to be there in body if not in spirit while she deals with all of this.
Aside from the chorus, the start of the second verse contains the saddest part: “I’ll close my eyes, then I won’t see, the love you don’t feel when you’re holding me.” She can’t see it, but she can feel it, though. And more than that, she knows it to be true, and she knows that it is completely outside her realm of power to do anything about it.
The one glimpse of hope comes with the fact that she is determined not to string things on past that night. “Morning will come, and I’ll do what’s right: just give me till then to give up this fight. And I will give up this fight.”
Don’t worry, Bonnie, everything looks better in the morning.