Friday, March 11, 2016

The Slyest Rhymes and the Sharpest Suits

[well - Comcast manged to stop me from posting this this mogrning - but it's still Friday! And Smokey can bring as much happiness in the evening as the morning, right? So here we are.]

I'm in a complicated stretch of my band of the month series - Bowie last month, and one of these days I am going to have to essay Dylan - big, complicated artists that I have a somewhat uneasy relationship with, people I have been avoiding because they deserve attention, but I haven't always had the emotional or biographical connections I have with most fo these people. What can I say?

This month is not like that. This month I am going to write about a much more direct pleasure - the man I think might be the best songwriter of the rock era, and possessor of one of the best voices as well - Mr. William "Smokey" Robinson Jr. Sometimes, Motown artists can be victims of their own success - all over the radio, and the silly, oldies stations (when I was growing up - now, oldies are Nirvana and Ice Cube), trotted out during fundraiser week for PBS to do smile and mime some dance moves from 1962, covered by everybody, from Mick and Keef and Bob and Jerry down to every wedding band ever, all this repetition reducing the songs to pretty melodies and clever turns of phrase, and memories of the perfection of the original harmonies... You take it for granted. The Motown songs seem to suffer a bit more from this than, say, Stax Volt, or funk artists - maybe because they were prettier, smoother, slicker - maybe because the artists weren't as confrontational. (Do you ever take James Brown for granted? maybe as a celebrity - but now matter how many times you hear it, doesn't Sex Machine or Cold Sweat just bowl you over? right?) Maybe - they are slicker, a bit safer, a bit easier to absorb into nostalgia and sentimentality. Maybe.

I have to fight this, sometimes; not with Smokey though. All the things that made Motown's music great, he has - and he has himself, as well. His songs are just a little bit better (whether he sang them or someone else did): the melodies a bit more surprising, a bit more beautiful - and his words, always, sharp as the sharpest steel. Stories, emotions, atmosphere, he gets with great precision - it's not just the famous lines (when it's cold outside, I have the month of May), it's the gems buried in the middle of songs, not quite throwaways - most every taxi that you flag.... He's worthy of Cole Porter: she may be cute, she's just a substitute, because you are the permanent one... if good looks was a minute, you know you coulda been an hour... sweetness was only heartache's camouflage... in order to shield my pride I try to cover this hurt with a show of gladness... I've got so much honey the bees envy me...

They're good. And he had a voice to match. I won't say his is the best - Motown didn't lack for great voices - but he had an almost perfect voice for his songs. His high sweet falsetto, his emotionalism, his intimate tone, inhabit the songs, make them live. They are miniature dramas, carefully crafted, deeply felt, and performed with total conviction. And given musical settings worthy of them. I don't want to underrate the music. The records themselves are glorious - first rate musicians, brilliant arrangements, the sharp, clean production. All Motown records were spectacular productions, but the Miracles songs certainly. They are as memorable for the musical parts - the guitars on Tracks of My Tears (and many others, but that one is particularly famous); drum intro on Going to a Go Go - as as the vocals and words. Marv Tarplin, especially, was an integral part of the band, his guitars shaping many of their songs. They are sonic masterpieces.

And so it is. I can listen to Smokey all day and all night. For a top 10 - it's tempting to work in some of the songs he wrote for other people, but I won't (in this list). I will include some solo work.

1. Tracks of My Tears [there's not much better, anywhere.]
2. I Second that Emotion
3. Tears of a Clown
4. The Love I saw in you was Just a Mirage
5. Going to a Go Go
6. Cuisin'
7. Oooh Baby Baby
8. You've Really Got a Hold On Me
9. More Love
10. Shop Around

Video? It's harder to find good live video of the Miracles - the technology is more primitive, and good live television frm the early 60s is rare. And besides that - they were very much a recording act. It's hard to match their production on stage, and their sound depends, an awful lot, on their sound. That's true of quite a lot of the 60s acts - the Beatles certainly, the Stones even for a while (though they shifted gears with Beggar's Banquet, went back to a more live sound.) So these tend to be pantomime performances - but I think they give a good idea of what the Miracles were actually like live. The sounds, the look, the subtle choreography.... Here is a very cool run through of Tracks of My Tears, black and white minimalism:

And what might be an even more minimalist, cusp of the 70s abstract color set, for Tears of a Clown:

Here, on the other hand, while we still have a cool, minimalist set, we get Smokey and the band performing Second That Emoption live - no slouches:

From the 70s, here's Smokey solo, with Cruisin':

Meanwhile - to get in some of the material he wrote for other people - here are the Temptations, doing both My Girl & The Way You Do the Things You Do:

And the first Smokey Robinson song I remember hearing - Linda Ronstadt singing Tracks of My Tears, and doing complete justice to it. She had a pretty magnificent set of pipes herself, and knew how to get inside a song:

And finally, the source of the title of this post, ABC and Martin Fry's tribute to the great man - a pretty nifty song itself:

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