A loyal reader, J.E., wrote that ‘Your selections of late have been lacking in joy.’
Oh yeah? Oh yeah?? Okay, I admit that I don’t enjoy most of the music I listen to. Not that I couldn’t. I can manipulate my pleasures quicker than Pavlov’s pooch. Get buoyant with Eli & the 13th Confession, or weird with Mal Waldron & Steve Lacy, or transcendent with Astral Weeks, or profoundly introspective with Bill Evans’ Village Vanguard, or clinically depressed with James Taylor’s first. Just flip ‘em on the turntable, I’m there. My problem is that I spend so much of my time, often most of my time, listening to music I don’t know or don’t like. Have you ever noticed that people like The Familiar in music? Given the choice, they’ll always listen to something they know well. As opposed to film (“Oh, I saw that”) or TV (“Reruns, all they have is reruns”) or books (“No thanks, I think I read that already, I’m not sure.”) I haven’t quite figured out how normal people become exposed to new music, if they only listen to music they already know. If anyone out there knows the answer to that one, please let me know me. But Jeff, what does he subject himself to? Obscure Brazilians, 3rd rate college a cappella, demented free jazz violinists. Or to music that he’s tried, and tried, and just doesn’t like– but he knows he’s missing something, so he goes back and tries again. Beethoven. Cecil Taylor. Oscar Peterson. Neil Young. Best of American Idol. (Just kidding about the last one.)
Well, last week, I was driving home from an out-of-town recording session. It went well, and my adrenalin was pumping, and I was feeling pretty damn chipper. I had a pile of CDs with me for the car, and I chose the funnest one of the bunch—”Smokey Robinson & The Miracles 16 All-Time Hits”. You know, the compilation on the Starlife/Cuchesse label from Luxembourg, $1.99 in your local supermarket?
And I was having so much fun that I skipped through ‘You Really Got a Hold on Me‘ (1962, covered by the Liverpool garage band The Beatles a year later), Mickey’s Monkey (1963), even the sublime Ooh Baby Baby (1965), Going to a Go-Go (1965), Tears of a Clown (1970). The one I settled on was ‘The Tracks of My Tears’, 1965, which certainly needs no introduction, explanation or comment by me.
Just listen to it like a 17-year old burger-flipping cretin out on the town Saturday night, overdosing on hormones, bopping down the boulevard, bouncing in the driver’s seat, pounding the steering wheel in time, shouting out “Take a goo-ood look at my face!” Just like I did last Wednesday night.
Back in 1966, I had the good fortune to see Smokey Robinson and the Miracles in concert. It was at EdinboroStateTeachers College in Edinboro, Pennsylvania, about 30 miles south of Erie and 30 miles north of Meadville, where I was wasting a year at AlleghenyCollege. I’m not too sure today what I was doing there in the mountains or northwestern Pennsylvania, but even less sure what those hundreds of budding white-bread teachers were doing at a Miracles gig. Methinks they weren’t too deeply into the Motown idiom. It’s a pretty insular area, way up in the mountains, off the beaten track. Town elders in Meadville liked to brag that they avoided the Great Depression—they had a zipper factory, and people always need zippers, so they just locked the city gates, didn’t let any newspapers in and continued manufacturing their zippers.
This probably isn’t the place to tell you what I was doing in Edinboro that night, but I sure was happy to have the chance to see Smokey. I had been listening a lot to The Miracles on the jukebox at a “Jimmy’s Bar & Grill”, which had a pretty relaxed attitude about legal drinking age regulations, down in the black section of Meadville. Which wasn’t too large, as you might guess.
Anyway, these EdinboroStateTeachers College students were pretty quiet and subdued (I hadn’t seen any of them down at Jimmy’s, so I guess the music wasn’t too familiar to them). Even I, who did know the canon by heart, was restraining myself, clapping politely at the end of each of the Greatest Hits. But when Marv Tarplin broke into that divine guitar riff that opens ‘The Tracks of My Tears’, I let out with a spontaneous roar of “Yeah!!”, and Smokey waved at me and smiled in appreciation. I venture to guess that neither Smokey nor I ever returned to Edinboro.
Smokey was born in 1940. His 1960 single “Shop Around” was the first major chart success for The Miracles. The song was also Motown’s first million selling hit single.
Smokey was a central figure at Berry Gordy’s Motown—leader of The Miracles in the 1960s, a soloist ever since, creating 37 Top 40 hits; writer and producer of countless Motown classics, including ‘Since I Lost My Baby’, ‘My Girl’ and ‘My Guy’; and a longtime vice-president of the organization. Bob Dylan famously called him ‘America‘s greatest living poet’.
He married the Miracle chick singer Claudette Rogers, with whom he had a son (Berry) and daughter (Tamla). In the 1980s he succumbed to a cocaine addiction, but was dramatically cured at a religious service.
The musical backing of the track was done by The Funk Brothers. Never heard of them, right? They were the Motown house band, and “played on more number one hits than the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, Elvis, and the Beatles combined…” (that’s from the fine documentary film “Standing in the Shadows of Motown“). You can hear what the song sounds like without The Funk Brothers, in this a cappella version.
I’m not going to analyze or dissect the song itself. There’s nothing I could say about it that would enhance the enjoyment of it, mine or yours. I’ll just ask one question—how is it that a song so patently sad can make you feel so happy? So just stick it in your car’s CD player, go out into the country, step on the gas, crank up the volume to a teenage level, and get joyful.