’60 Songs That Explain the 90s’: Bonnie Raitt Knows Love (and Heartbreak)

Grungy. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall”. 90s music was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era and why is it still important? 60 songs that explain the 90s is back for 30 more episodes to try and answer those questions. Join Alarm Music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla walks through the soundtrack of his youth, one song (and one embarrassing anecdote) at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. In Episode 63 of 60 songs that explain the 90s—yes, you read that right – we’re breaking down Bonnie Raitt’s timeless “I Can’t Make You Love Me”.

Bonnie Raitt was born in Burbank, California in 1949. She released her first album, titled Bonnie Raitt, in 1971, when she was 21 years old. Then she released eight more records. Let’s call this phase 1. But from the start of phase 1 my boy could Bonnie Raitt sing the bejesus from the word love.

But you can’t sing the bejesus from the word love like that if love hasn’t already kicked your ass plenty of times.

It’s from his debut album. It’s an old blues ballad called “Since I Fell for You”. He reigns. Do you know the song “Get Yourself Another Fool” by Sam Cooke? At Sam Cooke’s night beat record. Look in that one. Incredible. At 21, Bonnie is already beginning to function at this level of poise, gravity, and pathos. Bonnie Raitt’s Phase 1 includes nine records in 15 years. No huge hit albums. No singles in small groups. Just a stable and healthy career that lasted for quite a while, bolstered by the fact that one day she would write a song – it’s actually the last song on her 10th album, which will officially kick off phase 2 – titled “The Road’s My Middle Name.”

Bonnie “The Road” Raitt. Pull out some solid records and ride your ass around. This is Bonnie’s fundamental idea. Another founding idea: flexibility. She’s a blues singer, and a rock singer, and arguably a jazz singer, and sometimes a country singer, and eventually a successful pop singer. But for the first decade and a half, without any outrageous pop successes, she took advantage of what she would later call “a side career” to make pop in a genre she once described to stereogum like this: “There’s a format that always plays me, that they’ve called 10 different names over the years.” And then she lists some of those names: roots music. Americana. AOR: Album-oriented rock. It can be folkloric. It can be folk rock. She can be southern rock. Honorary Southern Rock. Yeah. Don’t dwell on all of this. Don’t be like me. Focus on balance, gravity, pathos, hard-earned wisdom. Focus on his voice.

It’s a song that Bonnie wrote called “Nothing Seems to Matter”. Dope “Maggie May” vibes here. It’s on his second album, give it up, from 1972, which begins with another song Bonnie wrote called “Give It Up or Let Me Go”. the let me go is crucial. Do not waste my time is a central theme of Bonnie Raitt’s love songs, notably, but the slightly risque nature of the phrase give it up Also worth noting I guess.

If Bonnie Raitt first caught your eye in the late 80s or early 90s – which seems to be the case for millions of people, some of whom were Grammy voters – then it could very well be that your first impression of her was as a 40-year veteran rock star on, like, her 11th album. Bonnie was one of the big comeback stories of that era, though she jokes that to call it a comeback implies she was once a big star. But one of the real joys of taking a deep dive into Bonnie Raitt now, basking in Phase 1, is discovering her as a younger person, probably much wilder, like a flamethrower in her twenties in the 1970s trying to drink various old blues legends under the table, and succeeding.

This song is called “Guilty”. From his third album, I take my timein 1973. A melancholic horn section followed Bonnie Raitt everywhere she went for most of the ’70s, just in case she broke into the bathroom singing or something.

I hope she shared the cocaine with the horn section. She probably did. She seems like a super nice woman. The silvery white streak, in Bonnie’s hair – if you’re anything like me, you even hear the name Bonnie Raitt and imagine her wrapped in this elegant roaring campfire of dark red hair, with a silvery white streak in the middle , to the right? She says that streak started to appear naturally when she was 24, and in 1981 the streak was stretching out as the red faded, so she started dyeing her hair, but around the streak, to protect her, because as she said Parade magazine once, “I was told that means you were kissed by an angel.” That white stripe is a bit on the nose, as the metaphors say, isn’t it? For a young, instant classic blues singer, for an old soul, for a masterful songwriter who had just hit her mid-twenties. It is as if she were manifesting this sequence. His fourth album, Floor lamps, from 1974, is the one with its cover of “Angel From Montgomery” by John Prine. God’s goodness.

Listen, John Prine is John Prine, and I’m not going to sit here and tell you anyone can walk out – John Prine John Prine, but I think Bonnie Raitt sings these lines with a singularly electrifying sense of exasperation .

So apparently this time around I’m not inclined to inundate you with other artists and other songs, for whimsical and discursive purposes, and I’m trying to honor my impulse not to give in to my impulses usual whimsical speeches, but I may be quite fascinated by Phase 1 Bonnie Raitt. We should speed this up. Allow me, however, to briefly draw your attention to his fifth album, from 1975, titled Welcome plate. First of all, the Welcome plate the cover of the album does indeed feature an exuberant Bonnie Raitt sliding through marble, and I tell you now, with affection, that her slippery form is terrible, as if she were far ahead of marble, which incidentally seems to have a incorrect form – the sides are much longer than regulations – and his leg is way too high, as if trying to punch the receiver in the face. Terrific sliding shape, great album cover. And maybe she’s trying to sting the receiver because the receiver is the gentleman she directs the heartbroken love song “My First Night Alone Without You” to.

Heartbroken piano love songs being kind of a Bonnie Raitt specialty, at this point, if you go for it, you know, the foreshadowing. The pain in her head could also be caused by whiskey or cocaine, or the concussion she received from slipping badly on home plate.

It’s still weird to have zero digressions, aren’t they? Is it also streamlined? Do you know this show? If so, do you feel like you clicked on the wrong thing? You are right. How about another American icon of the caliber Bonnie Raitt, with a career parallel to hers, just for reference, just to see what that double helix looks like? Let’s try this. Another deified singer-songwriter. Another old blues-infused soul without making it all pompous and Blueshammer-y. Also from California. Born in Pomona. Is it close ! Bonnie is from Burbank. It’s like a 40 minute drive! This is probably not the case. That’s exactly what Google Maps says. It’s probably like four hours. (My editor chimed in here to say, “Only a madman would do this drive.” There you go. Come to me with all your questions about LA geography.) Whatever. It doesn’t matter how long the trip takes. It will go very well.

Do you recognize this voice? Nope? Yeah, I don’t blame you. OKAY. Look how well it actually works. Also born in 1949. He is less than a month younger than Bonnie Raitt. Also started filming around 1971. Alright, we do. This guy. This guy who also seems to be dealing with a “My first night alone without you” type situation.

Tom Waits’ first studio album is called Closure hour, from 1973, he sits in front of a dimly lit piano, looking historically pensive and poetic, a mood and lighting scheme very similar to that of Bonnie Raitt on the cover of her debut album, except that she smiles; if you’re willing to put a bed and a piano in the same room, you can imagine that they’re actually sitting in the same room, and Bonnie is lying there, somewhat amused, listening to her morose pal Tom pensively playing the piano . But let’s not insist on this comparison. This song is called “Martha”. It’s the best heartbroken piano ballad of the 1970s. It’s the “I can’t make you love me” of its day.

To listen to the full episode, click here, and make sure to follow on Spotify and return every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

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Grace D. Erickson