One Thousand Words on Torch Songs

I am, without a doubt, the least romantic person I know.

It’s not that I don’t believe that love exists. I know it exists. I just think it’s more about friendship, trust and a good partnership than it’s about swooning and “I can’t go on without you.”

I remember one of my philosophy professors in college telling us that love isn’t “I can’t live without you” but is “I’m strong enough to live without you.” I always liked that. It’s real life love, not hallmark cards and romantic comedy love.

Maybe I’m just too practical for romance.

I think love at first sight is more about a chemical reaction than love. How can you possibly love someone when you don’t know them?

Sexual attraction at first sight? That makes sense because it’s physical. It’s the body sending a message to our brain so we’ll procreate.

I also don’t believe in soul mates, although I have always kind of liked Plato’s theory of love.

It’s just as arrogant to think there is only one person out there for us as it is to assume we’re the only intelligent life in the universe. We’re not that special.

Lastly, and I’m not going to make a lot of friends with this statement, but I think big weddings are a complete waste of money.

I can understand having a party, celebrating with some friends. Having a nice meal, a little music. But spending thousands upon thousands of dollars on a fancy dress you’ll never wear again and a band and a caterer and a photographer and so on? I’m too frugal for all that.

So why am I waxing eloquent about my unromantic nature, and probably alienating every person out there who has ever thought they were in love? It’s so you’ll be even more shocked when I say that this completely practical, sensible, unsentimental person loves torch songs.

Merriam Webster defines a torch song as “a popular sentimental song of unrequited love” but they are so much more than that. They are tragic songs of unreciprocated love and passion, sung slowly and painfully.

How do I reconcile my love of torch songs to being romance non-believer? They are like a good novel. I might not believe everything that happens, but I suspend my disbelief because I’m enjoying the reading, or in this case listening, experience.

And torch songs are really about more about desperation than love, anyway. The hopelessness the songs embody is compelling.

All that said, here’s my list of the five best torch songs of all time, countdown style.

#5 “I Can’t Make You Love Me” by Bonnie Raitt
Torchiest Lyric: “I’ll close my eyes, then I won’t see the love you don’t feel when you’re holding me.”

Bonnie Raitt sounds good no matter what she’s singing. And she’s amazing on the guitar too. Sadly the only time she’s ever appeared at the performing arts center I manage was when she was touring with the John Edwards campaign. I often wonder if she regrets that endorsement.

“I Can’t Make You Love Me” is the stereotypical torch song scenario, done just right. She loves him. He doesn’t love her. She’s finally realized it, but wants one more night to pretend that he does love her.

Makes you want to sing too, doesn’t it? Or cry.

#4 “You Don’t Know Me” by Ray Charles and Diana Krall
Torchiest Lyric: “You give your hand to me and then you say ‘good bye’ and I watch you walk away beside the lucky guy”

Lots of people have recorded this song and Ray Charles’s solo version is probably the most well known. But I love the duet with Diana Krall, probably because even though I tend to listen to more male musicians, torch songs seems to be more effective when sung by a woman (#2 on this list aside). And Diana Krall is a great singer.

What I like best about this torch song is the friendship that exists between the singer and the one s/he loves. The singer longs for more but the object of their affection is oblivious.

It does the “so close and yet so far away” thing better than Hall and Oates.

#3 “Crazy” by Patsy Cline
Torchiest lyric: “I knew you’d love me as long as you wanted and then someday you’d leave me for somebody new.”

Patsy Cline is the queen of torch songs. They may be more country style than jazz, but almost every single one of her tunes is about love gone to hell.

And her voice. It’s passionate and so damn tragic. Sigh.

#2 “At This Moment” by Billy Vera and the Beaters

Torchiest Lyrics: “If you’d stay I’d subtract twenty years from my life.”

“At This Moment” is the exception to the rule that woman are better torch song singers.

The story it paints is so vivid and painful. The woman he loves is standing before him saying that she doesn’t love him anymore. During the song. Right in front of our very eyes. Or that’s the way it seems anyway.

Of course the plaintive sax solo helps. And the fact that Billy Vera sings the hell out of it, with all those high notes and dramatic pauses.

#1 “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me” by Dusty Springfield
Torchiest Lyric: “Left alone with just a memory. Life seems dead and so unreal. All that’s left is loneliness. There’s nothing left to feel.”

This is the more perfect torch song ever performed, bar none.

First there’s the lead in with the solo trumpet. Then it’s almost orchestral. And, after a brief pause, Dusty Springfield’s voice comes in alone with just the right touch of melancholy.

And the lyrics. “I have to follow you and beg you to come home” and “you don’t have to stay forever, I will understand”? Could this woman debase herself any further? It’s practically a suicide note set to music.

This song is so great it makes me want to believe in love. Almost.


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