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U2 Unleashes Duende At Grammys
'Sometimes You Can't Make it On Your Own' -- the year's best song
David Kootnikoff (kaspian)     Print Article 
Published 2006-02-11 11:07 (KST)   
No band in the universe is as big as U2. U2 is so big -- the joke goes -- that when Bono wants to change a light bulb all he has to do is hold it and the world revolves around him. Indeed, few bands blur the line between rapture and corn quite the way the Sonic Leprechaun and his Irish Soul Men can at their bombastic worst.

The year's best song
©2006 Universal
But the other night when the lads pulled in Grammys for album and song of the year for "How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" and "Sometimes You Can't Make it on Your Own," respectively, they proved once again that they're the biggest band on the planet.

At their best, U2 achieves what very few artists in any genre can: they create work with a sustained intensity that transforms the particular into the universal. U2 has that rare ability to communicate what the late Spanish writer, Frederico Garcia Lorca called "duende"; that "mysterious power which everyone senses and no philosopher explains."

Popularly associated with flamenco, the concept of duende was imported into the south of Spain centuries ago by the Roma people, and has since migrated over to the English language. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary gives its meaning as "the power to attract through personal magnetism and charm," but it's much more than that.

In 1933, Lorca gave his famous lecture, La Teoria y Juego del Duende (The Play and Theory of the Duende) in Buenos Aires detailing his conception of duende:

Lorca's search for duende
©2006 NewDirect
"I have heard an old master guitarist say: 'Duende is not in the throat; duende surges up from the soles of the feet.' Which means it is not a matter of ability, but of real live form; of blood; of ancient culture; of creative action."

I like to think my own relationship to music is based on this concept of "duende," something visceral...guts over brains. I've never cared if something is cool or popular, only if it moves me or not.

This has led to some bruising clashes with certain aficionados when I claim, for example, that Bob Dylan's so-called "gospel" period beginning in the late 70s cuts far deeper than his fabled mid-60s output. The "Bobbynazis" roil and flail, but I'm not one to surrender such subjective peccadilloes easily. Of course, that's the beauty of art -- its impact lies in the heart of the beholder.

So it is with U2. These days the band's earnest intentions can seem as uncool as Napoleon Dynamite's retro-geek is cool. But as Miles Davis once so elegantly riffed, "So what?" -- my gut tells me a different story.

In the aftermath of the late 70s (post) punk explosion, U2 shifted the paradigm; it was cool enough to care, to believe that music could do more than just inspire gobs of lagered fury and actually change the world. I didn't know it at the time, but I was responding to the exuberance of what could be, the limitless possibilities inherent in what Lorca called "newly created things," the power that U2 embodied...and still does.

Their last release, "How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb" doesn't break any new ground technically, but it's the strongest, most consistent album of their career. Like every U2 album, it has moments that soar above anything recorded by their peers REM or Oasis, for example.

"Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own" is one of them. The band connects with an emotional power, a power that "surges up from the soles of the feet" with the velocity of an accelerating rocket. Written for Bono's late father Bob Hewson, (the "atomic bomb" of the album's title, according to Bono) who died in 2001, the song manages to uncover a condensed kernel of human pathos recognizable to anyone who has suffered the loss of a loved one:

And it's you when I look in the mirror
And it's you that makes it hard to let go
Sometimes you can't make it on your own

Last year, while I was trying to make sense of the song's emotional impact, a student of mine was suddenly murdered by a triad gang in Hong Kong. His father, a police officer, was beginning to cause some very dangerous people enough anxiety for them to unleash their wrath on his one and only son. That loss was devastating, and it opened me up to the song's raw power.

As Bono says on the album's accompanying DVD, "a song can change the world . . . it can change the temperature in the room." While listening to it again and again, I could feel my heart leap into my throat with the force of a Molotov cocktail bathing my senses in incandescent waves of euphoria. I was overtaken with rapture, a caesura captured in time.

As with other U2 songs like "Bad," "Without Or Without You," or "One," "Sometimes" is a smoldering ballad that gradually intensifies until finally breaking into a transcendent crescendo:

Can you hear me when I sing?
You're the reason I sing
You're the reason why the opera is in me

It's an explosive confession that raises the room temperature, melting away any distance between audience and performer. And for Bono's father who apparently loved opera, it's a fitting tribute.

Producer Chris Thomas, who has worked with everyone from the Beatles to the Sex Pistols, doesn't intrude or impose any formulas upon the song's trajectory. The structure feels organic, soulful and modern.

"Sometimes" is a mournful song, but it's not a tome of despair. As with gospel-blues, the raw passion of Bono's voice elevates the music above grief and into the realm of catharsis. "Keening" is how the Irish dramatist JM Synge, referred to this kind of expression. Lorca identified it in the "deep song" of his country's folk music:

"It is truly deep, deeper than all the wells and seas in the world, much deeper
than the present heart that creates it or the voice that sings it, because it is
almost infinite . . . It comes from the first sob and the first kiss."

Few other bands come close to these dizzy heights. "Sometimes" is pure duende.

Lorca also said "with duende it is easier to love and understand, and one can be sure of being loved and understood." U2 acknowledges that "tonight," as in other moments, weakness may overcome strength, but that's OK -- everyone has those moments, sometimes.

It's in this realization that "Sometimes" crosses from the particular to the universal, cutting deep into the heart's core to pull out an emotional response that has nothing to do with Bono's father, but everything to do with our shared vulnerability as fragile living beings.

Music of this caliber and class feels as primal as shelter and food. Thanks to U2 for keeping duende alive in their sound. All we can do is listen.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter David Kootnikoff

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