"I don't want people coming to me, or the group, as some sort of God substitute or guru-like goons because I can look at myself in the mirror and just laugh."
Like a Song: All I Want Is You
December 13, 2007
[Ed. note: This is the eleventh in a series of personal essays by the @U2 staff about songs and/or albums that have had great meaning or impact in our lives.]
How hard can this be?
I've been asking myself that question over and over since I offered to write this -- more than two months ago.
How hard can this be?
The brilliant and attractive people at @U2 have been writing essays about how a single U2 song affects, changes, fulfills them -- makes them feel or remember or grow.
A single U2 song and a single U2 fan. What could be simpler than jotting down a few feelings and memories and reasons why a piece of music can enter one's soul? I find myself feeling a certain protectiveness over the song I'm going to attempt to describe here, ALL I WANT IS YOU, the least romantic love song ever written. I didn't want any of the other fine folks at @U2 taking my song and telling me what it means to them. Because it means so much to me. We belong to each other, that song and I.
We U2 fans sometimes think that we have ownership over our band -- that they owe us something: new material, ticket scans into the heart, a better fan club. It's a dangerous game to play. After all, how many times have they let us down? I mean, really let us down?
So after I volunteered and was given a deadline (which has long since passed), I found myself wondering just what the hell to do now.
How hard can this be?
1) I remember where I was when I first heard ALL I WANT IS YOU.... This is called the nostalgia angle.
2) The lyrics to ALL I WANT IS YOU make me think of.... The lyrical angle.
3) When I hear the first notes of ALL I WANT IS YOU I'm transported.... The music-fills-my-soul way to go.
All of these are important -- at least to me. Maybe I can just tell it like a story, like the song is a living, breathing thing that speaks to me, because it sort of is.
Before I heard ALL I WANT IS YOU, my favorite U2 song was WITH OR WITHOUT YOU. And not because it was their first worldwide smash. I'm an old guy. My first U2 show was in 1984. The popularity of WITH OR WITHOUT YOU simply legitimized my fervor, made my fanaticism understandable to outsiders, made my parents and I sing along to same song on the radio.
I was 20 when WITH OR WITHOUT YOU was released to radio. I was one of the guys at school who knew music, who had the biggest record collection, who scrimped and saved money to go to the shows, who worked at the cool record store. I was ready to find the song that would define me. The lyrics that got me -- that I thought were written about me -- were:
And you give yourself away I can't live with or without you
When you're a college student who thinks that your every thought is worthy of study, your every pitter patter crush that turns to obsession that turns to lust that turns to love that turns ugly and into heartbreak is the single most important instance of human love ever recorded, a song that seems to speak to the futility of love and life seems just about perfect.
Even if you stay with me forever, I can't live. And if you leave me, well, forget it. I can't live like that either.
Probably the most emo song U2's ever done.
How could this song be topped? Impossible.
It's 1988. I graduate from a well-thought-of West Coast university that I can assure you wouldn't accept me if I were to apply today, and use some of my graduation money to drive my limping 1980 VW Rabbit (nicknamed "Gunga Din") around the U.S. and A. I have no career, no job prospects, few close friends, but hundreds of acquaintances. My goal: to see America and to figure out what I'm supposed to do with my life.
The trip couldn't be better. Forced by solitude to speak to strangers, I give rides to people, stay in youth hostels, visit landmarks both awe-inspiring and tacky. I make my way east. In October of 1988 I'm just outside of Boston, Mass., at a family friend's house. I become their fourth child, stay up late with the mother watching Dukakis v. Bush, go to bonfires with the college-age kids, and see historical Boston.
I also purchase RATTLE AND HUM on Oct. 10, 1988, at the Tower Records in Boston. On cassette -- the better to listen in my car, which was equipped with an Alpine stereo camouflaged by a fake cover that made it appear to be a stock AM radio from the Volkswagen Company. There were no CD players in cars in 1988. I popped out Public Enemy, and put in U2. I'm sure I played it straight through.
The mix of live and studio songs was fun. I wondered what Bono had done to his voice for VAN DIEMEN'S LAND. I stared for a long time at the cover art. Bono spotlighting on Edge.
It was the 17th song.
Fast-forward to Halloween 1988. I am in a youth hostel in New York City, right by the Chelsea Hotel. I am the only American. On the way to my bargain standing-room-only tickets for a hot new Broadway musical called PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, I pass a Times Square movie theater marquee that declares in lights, RATTLE AND HUM PREMIERE. There are spotlights and red carpets and photographers. I don't stay. My feet are sore as I stand and surrender to the music of the night. I walk past the same theater on the way back to the hostel. The carpet is gone, the spotlights off. I find out later that the band was there.
I will have near misses with the band several more times on this trip. I will sign my name in a guest book directly below Bono's at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was shot in the early evening, April 4. I had missed the band this time by seven hours.
It was the last song on the album.
It is Nov. 4, 1988. I am 22 years old now. I am at the first matinee showing of a new concert film called RATTLE AND HUM. I have walked to this theater from the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia with my best friend. We sit toward the back. There are 15 others in the theater, if my memory from 19 years ago serves me right. We see the Paramount logo, we hear Bono talk about Charles Manson, we go from black and white to color and back again. We see angry Bono, the Southwest, the Tempe show I assured my friends would never sell out even at $5 per ticket, we see, on the big screen, the red background for STREETS. We smile and politely sing along; so do others. We see Graceland, hear Larry speak, listen to the studio songs played over a travelogue. But we don't hear ALL I WANT IS YOU. There is a rousing version of PRIDE, in black and white, which Bono finishes on his back, and as the band walks off stage, with a crane shot following Bono, the strumming begins.
The credits begin.
A couple of things happen. One: because the song is played over the credits, I can make up whatever visual story I want to about the song. Later, I'll picture a little person and a beach-front circus, but for now, I'm left with whatever I want to go along with the song.
Another thing that happens in our movie theater is that most people leave because it's the credits. Guil and I stay to hear the song, as do a couple of others. As most of the crowd leaves, we begin, all of us, to sing a bit louder. The sound level in the theater is loud and we can't really be heard, so we all sing even louder. The strangers who just watched the best band in the world on a huge screen at the height of their power, we are singing along.
And I don't think it's a coincidence that everyone left and singing is male. Because I believe that ALL I WANT IS YOU is a song by a boy, meant for boys to understand. In fact, I believe that it was written for me to be felt by me toward every woman I've ever loved.
[The strumming begins, Bono whispers.]
You say you want diamonds on a ring of gold
She wants riches. Women are surely worth gold and diamonds. Love is surely worth riches. Every love I've ever had has been worth everything I've ever had.
You say you want your story to remain untold
She wants secrets. She doesn't want to let me know her -- I mean, really know her. I have no secrets from her -- she knows everything about me. I look forward to my story being told to her. She is less sure about me than I am about her.
[The first hint of a string section]
But all the promises we make from the cradle to the grave
Although we may talk about millions of things, say millions of things, lie to each other in a million ways, I need you to know something.
When all I want is you
I only need you. The song could end here. The point has been made. You want assurances of my love for you -- tangible things, expensive and valuable things -- and since I can't possibly put a value on you, I need you to know that ALL I WANT IS YOU. Not food, not money, not fame. Just you. You would be enough. You would make me perfect. This is either the most romantic thing Bono's ever written, or it's the most obsession-laced stalker song he's ever written. I'm not sure which, and sometimes I go back and forth during a single listen. I chuckle when I hear that couples choose to have this song played at their weddings.
[Strings in the background. Then Edge's simple, yet soul-searing little melody line. Larry comes in with a simple rat a tat tat.]
You say you'll give me a highway with no one on it Treasure just to look upon it All the riches in the night
She thinks I need riches as well. She thinks she's not enough for me. What's a highway or treasure when love -- true, deep, embarrassingly honest love -- is available?
You say you'll give me eyes in a moon of blindness A river in a time of dryness A harbor in the tempest
These all sound good. But they're all unnecessary. I'd take blindness, drought, and a punishing storm, if I also got you.
[Strumming and Edge plucking, Larry and Adam playing faster, Bono singing louder over the symphony that's snuck up on us from way, way back.]
But all the promises we make from the cradle to the grave When all I want is you
You can say you'll give me all of these things, but all I need, all I want, all I have to have is you.
[Strings and Larry only]
You say you want your love to work out right To last with me through the night
You don't think our love will last. I could not be more positive that it will. It will only get stronger. I'll see to it.
You say you want diamonds on a ring of gold Your story to remain untold
More pleading now. Your resolve is failing. These sound hollow as they come out of your mouth.
[Edge is back now, Adam is prominent, Larry keeps us going. Bono is somehow quietly yelling.]
Your love not to grow cold
Is there anything worse than love growing cold? I can keep you warm. This should be the least of your worries.
All the promises we break from the cradle to the grave
Now we're breaking promises. We can't always tell the truth to each other. But I'll try to always be honest. All I need is you.
When all I want is you
[Strings fighting with Edge now. Adam wants a piece as well.]
You All I want is you All I want is you All I want is you
In case you don't get it, all I want is you. Can't you understand me? You're everything I need. But, I fear, I'm not everything you need. I'm not everything you want. You want me and some other kind of insurance. You want me and gold, secrets, assurances of passion, protection, nourishment, freedom, and the guarantee that my heart will never leave you. I can't possibly measure up to all that. I'm not sure I deserve you. I'm not sure I deserve anyone.
Why can't you simplify it? Like I have.
All I Want Is You. And because of this, throughout my life, my heart will break open and spill out over and over and over again.
[Bono's voice is ragged, scratching, almost out of power. He can barely find the strength to continue on. But he's got to repeat it over and over. You, All I Want Is You... Then he's done. And there is 2:45 left in the song. An eternity without Bono.]
[Edge is doing that thing Edge does: a non-guitar solo guitar solo.]
[Larry is drumming more quickly, Adam is playing the heartbeat of the song.]
[At 1:55 left, we lose Adam. It's Edge strumming, Larry drumming, and those magnificent strings.]
[1:25 left in the song and no members of U2 remain playing. Has this ever happened before? Thank you Van Dyke Parks. Whoever you are.]
I believe that ALL I WANT IS YOU is U2's most literal song. My oldest U2 friend and I have spoken often about Bono's lyrics. He claims that every time Bono sings the word "you," he is directing his comments toward God. That's the genius of Bono (and the United States Constitution): They are open to a ridiculously wide interpretation. I think that even my friend would have to agree that in this one case, "you" means a lover.
A man is singing to a woman. The man loves the woman. Completely. Without reservation. With no caveats or conditions. The same cannot be said for the woman.
When this song is tuned down for a live performance, into a key that everyone can master, and the crowd sings along at the end, I'm here to say that next to the Streets opening, a live crowd singing "You, all I want is, you" is the closest I've ever gotten to feeling that I was in the presence of God.
When I speak to "music people," be it Radioheads or Pearl Jammers or anyone else who has been chosen by music, sometimes against their will, to spread the gospel of rhythm and melody, I often ask them a simple question. What is your specific empowerment music?
The music I always play in those instances? April 20, 2001. San Jose, California. STAY into ALL I WANT IS YOU into WHERE THE STREETS HAVE NO NAME. I've played that trifecta before first dates, impossible day-long exams, half-marathons, my wedding, job interviews, doctor's appointments, holidays with the family, and it gets me out of every rough patch I've experienced since that show.
How hard can it be to jot down a few notes about an important song?
Next to impossible.
© @U2, 2007.