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I Can’t Live: The Ballad of ‘Without You’

Reynaldo Pagsolingan Jr.

By: Reynaldo Pagsolingan Jr. | Squeeze | Published August 7, 2017 | Updated August 16, 2017

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I was commuting my way home to the province when Spotify played a song that I haven’t heard for quite some time. The track started with a dramatically slow piano arrangement, foreboding a heartbreaking story that was about to blast my eardrums.

No, I can’t forget this evening
or your face as you were leaving,
but I guess that’s just the way the story goes

I instantly recognized Mariah Carey’s breathy vocals.

The song is Without You, an original by the British rock band Badfinger made popular by Harry Nilsson in 1972 and by Carey in the 1990s. It is one of the most recognizable ballads out there, being performed repeatedly in a variety of amateur and reality singing competitions. It even spawned a viral version called Ken Lee, and we have the garbled interpretation of Valentina Hasan from the Bulgarian show Music Idol to thank for that.

The resonance of the song is undeniably powerful. Carey’s voice and delivery provided a nuanced interpretation of the first few lines of the song that got me thinking of the night I broke up with my ex. However, I imagined that the lyrics were being sung to me, not the other way around. Although it was me who initiated the breakup, I was offered the night before a ‘cool-off’ arrangement. I thought it was unfair, so I decided to end the relationship to have some sort of self-preservation.

You always smile,
But in your eyes your sorrow shows
Yes, it shows

The lyrics, as each line was being delivered, reminded me of my situation back in those days. It has been a trainwreck of a relationship before it even became official. You see, the relationship was born out of a secret affair. I thought it was going to work because I was in love. But I was paranoid because I constantly felt I was also going to be cheated on. Still, I was willing to work it out, until a pseudo break-up proposal came my way. Aray.

No, I can’t forget tomorrow
When I think of all my sorrow
When I had you there, but then I let you go
And now it’s only fair that I should let you know
What you should know

The song fits the made-up narrative that was playing in my head. The drama behind the situation of a person regretting letting go of a former partner gave me a feeling of validation, although I have to admit the effect was misplaced.

THE TROUBLE WITH THE CHORUS

Anyway, as the track began to crescendo to the chorus, I flexed my jaw to prepare for an inaudilbe singing because, you know, the stranger I’m sitting with inside the bus was sleeping soundly.

I can’t live if living is without you
I can’t live, I can’t live anymore
I can’t live if living is without you
I can’t live, I can’t give anymore

To my dismay, I suddenly felt annoyed when the chorus finished. I didn’t realize before how whiny and weak it was lyric-wise.

The story-telling of the verses was efficient in evoking delicate sentimentality with the longing feeling for someone whose love was shortchanged because of lack of hindsight. But with the chorus, I thought the song went overboard with the repetitive confession of not being able to live without the person that was driven away because the situation became difficult. It is safe to assume that it was the case, because you wouldn’t break up with your partner because it was all smooth-sailing and fun.

It’s like the song cries and is suicidal because it cannot own up to its decision.

I know the song appeals to a lot of people, but come on, you cannot tell me the chorus is not whiny, annoying and deserving of its dramatic longing, no matter how catchy the melody is. It would have been so much better if it is more like the chorus of Bonnie Raitt’s I Can’t Make You Love Me, which is an outright confession as well but expressed with dignity.

THE SAD FATE OF TWO SONGWRITERS

In my search for the roots of the song, I discovered the tragic history of its songwriters – Badfinger members Tom Evans and Pete Ham.

The song first emerged from the hands of Ham who then titled it If It’s Love, but he thought it lacked a strong chorus. Later on, Evans would complete Without You with a chorus straight out of his love life. After his wife left him, unknown if permanently, he went to his friend named Karen and told her “She’s left me. I need her back. I can’t live without her.”

The song wasn’t a hit for their 1970 No Dice album, and was never released in Europe and North America. After No Dice, according to Financial Times, the band wanted to get away from simple pop songs, but found themselves diving into the darker waters of human despair.

Evans and Ham committed suicide in separate incidents. Ham hanged himself in 1975, while Evans killed himself in similar fashion in 1983. Evans ended his life due to a row over songwriting royalties for Without You. Meanwhile, Ham took his life after suffering from depression due to financial troubles among other things. It was also reported that what triggered the suicide was an argument with bandmate Joey Molland over the royalties for the song.

I kind of felt bad berating the chorus of Without You after finding out about the tragic turn of events that transpired after the conception of the song. Having recorded by more than 100 artists over decades, Ham and Evans would have been delighted to earn more money from royalties, especially when Carey made it a global hit in 1994. It makes me wonder what would happen if their disputes over songwriting royalties were fixed. Was it an issue with accountants, taxmen, or managers that made it difficult for them to get their rightful dues? We’ll never know.

On the other hand, if you are looking for an alternative for the chorus, here’s Hasan’s 2008 version:

Ken lee
Tolibu dibu douchoo
Ken lee
Ken lee meju more
Ken lee
Tolibu dibu douchoo
Ken lee
Ken lee meju more

I didn’t like it either. Ham and Evans must have wept from their graves nine years ago.

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