A 2003 special edition of Q magazine listed the 1001 Best Songs Ever. At #1 was U2’s “One.” The then eleven-year-old single was also named Song of the Year by the readers of Rolling Stone in their 1992 year-end issue.
Deciding whether or not “One” is the best song ever is too stressful on this writer, who has been spending several years trying to compile his 100 Greatest Albums list. But I can say this – there are very few songs that still make me cry after hearing them 4,304 times. “One” is one.
Perhaps you’ve heard the song 4,304 times but never paid close attention to the words. Bono, who wrote the lyrics, said the song is about the father/son relationship. Let’s explore this. Let’s say the son is gay and the father is a religious man who chooses to interpret the Bible as saying God thinks homosexuality is a sin. The father was not supportive of his son when his son came out to him. Now the son has AIDS. He told his father. “One” is the son expressing to his dad the emotions about their relationship previously bottled up.
The song opens with the son asking his dad if the anger he had towards his son upon learning he was gay has subsided any. “Is it getting better or do you feel the same?,” he asks. Bitter about his father’s previous rejection, he makes a dig at the man’s homophobic feelings – “Will it make it easier on you now? You’ve got someone to blame.”
“You say ‘one love, one life.’” The one acceptable love is of the heterosexual variety and you have only one life in which to find it.
The son is angry and bitter, but mostly hurt. He asks his dad “Did I disappoint you or leave a bad taste in your mouth?” That line is followed by the indictment “You act like you never had love and you want me to go without.” Would a father really prefer his son not find love than find love with another man? I know that happens but I find that incomprehensible. How can a parent be that way toward their own child? That chokes me up.
Knowing he has AIDS and feeling the clock is ticking, the son is looking to not rehash the old wounds between the two of them. “Well it’s too late tonight to drag the past out into the light.” This is followed by the first time Bono sings the line “We’re one but we’re not the same.” In this case, it means we are of the same family, but we’re very different as people. “We get to carry each other, carry each other.” That is what families do. Parents are supposed to take care of their children and children should take care of their parents.
Now that the son is living with AIDS is his father expecting him to apologize for the life he led and tell the dad he was right? “Have you come here for forgiveness? Have you come to raise the dead? Have you come here to play Jesus to the lepers in your head?”
We already see the child is angry and hurt, but the next lines really drive it home. “Did I ask too much? More than a lot? You gave me nothing; now it’s all I got.” The son just wanted his father’s love and support, but his father refused to give it. The line “We’re one but we’re not the same” is repeated, but now it is followed by “We hurt each other, then we do it again.” This is the cycle of their adult relationship.
The son’s fury at his dad using religion to justify his intolerance is expressed in the next verse. “You say love is a temple, love a higher law,” followed shortly after by the son’s incredibly painful accusation “You ask me to enter but then you make me crawl.”
The song/conversation ends with the sentiment that one must be true to one’s self and not live according to someone else’s beliefs. This is aimed not at this one father, but at all human beings. “One life – you got to do what you should. One life with each other. Sisters, brothers.”
Bono told Los Angeles Times writer Robert Hilburn “I had a lot of things going on in my head at the time, about forgiveness, about father and son angst…It is a song about coming together, but it’s not the old hippie idea of ‘Let’s all live together.’ It is, in fact, the opposite. It’s saying, ‘We are one, but we’re not the same.’ It’s not saying we even want to get along, but that we have to get along together in this world if it is to survive. It’s a reminder that we have no choice.”
“One” was the third single released from U2’s Achtung Baby album, presently #26 in my Top Albums list. The band’s royalties from sales of the single were donated to AIDS research organizations for each country in which the single was released.
The photograph used on the single’s cover was taken by openly-gay HIV-positive artist David Wojnarowicz. Per the liner notes, it depicts “how Indians hunted buffalo by causing them to run off cliffs.” Wojnarowicz related to the buffalo. He died of complications from AIDS in 1992. He was 37.
Today Bono turns 54. Grab a couple of tissues and give another listen
to “One,” which kicks off today’s playlist.