Friday, February 19, 2021

The genius of Smokey

Smokey Robinson turns 81 today. If you get the chance, watch Hitsville: The Making of Motown (originally aired on Showtime, it's free on Prime until the end of this month). The documentary's a joy to watch, an inspiring story of personal and civic pride, discipline, camaraderie, courage, and master songwriters, cut through with humor. Among the many highlights for me were the studio breakdowns of "My Girl" and "What's Going On" and the far-too-brief footage of the electrifying Levi Stubs onstage, but the whole story's fascinating and moving. I wish it were twice as long. Smokey and Berry Gordy are the central players in the film, the center around which all of the musicians and songwriters orbit, and it's a blast to see them bs-ing, mock quarreling, and generally holding forth, if not revealing all. It's a must watch.

There are so many indelible songs of Smokey's, or those that he pitched in on, to choose from to celebrate today: but to my ears "The Tears of a Clown" is as close to perfect as a pop song gets. Stevie Wonder and producer Hank Cosby wrote the melody and arrangement, which glides between childlike circus wonder and four-on-the-floor dance propulsion, and brought the material to Smokey who, vibing on the calliope mood, wrote the lyrics. The song closes the Miracles' 1967 album Make It Happen, but wouldn't enjoy prominence for another three years until released as a single in England in July of 1970, where it rose to the top of the UK Singles Chart; always keen to exploit any commercial possibility, Motown recognized their error and re-released the song in the States, where it hit #1 on both the Billboard and the R&B Singles Chart.

And where it duly entered jukeboxes in nearly every bar. I fondly recall in the late 1980s sitting with my buddy John in The Union, our favorite joint in Athens, Ohio, feeding dollar after dollar after dollar into the jukebox, playing "Tears of a Clown" again and again, marveling at the production, the singing, the band, the tight yet somehow fluid arrangement wherein Smokey, effortlessly moving from chorus to verses, sings a fun song about sad stuff, that eternal game. The Union of course, was always loud, but the jukebox was loud, too, and yet we puzzled over the lines in the bridge—we couldn't make them out. We were steeped enough in the song's argument and metaphors, the story it was telling, that our ears were tuned, but drunken epiphanies as to what Smokey was singing were always just beyond us. In those pre-Internet, pre-smartphone days, we really had to work, relying on guesses shouted at each other over the din, on well-oiled hypotheses, squinting our eyes in the smoke as we listened as if that would somehow help, or gabbing our friends and strangers by their collars, jovially desperate for their help. It felt like—it was—a fun game we looked forward to each time, Smokey, smiling, winking his gold-green eyes at us, just beyond our reach: What am I singing? One night, it just clicked for us, we simply heard it, the lyric as clear and sweet as air. And when we heard it, we collapsed in the simple beauty of it—the rhyme, the image, the from-left-field reference that—of course!—made perfect sense!
Just like Pagliacci did
I try to keep my sadness hid
Smiling in the public eye
But in my lonely room I cry
Right there is the genius of Smokey Robinson, a line made infinitely rich with a smart simile sung on top of a lilting melody carrying both joy and agony, the Miracles singing "The Great Pretender" behind him knowingly and pityingly. It's all so simple and simply perfect that I wonder how I ever missed it the first time.

Happy Birthday, Smokey.

Image of Smokey Robinson on the front porch of the Motown Studio, Detroit, Michigan, 1967 via Pinterest

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Moving On: Super Rock '88

And the old Super Rock™ footage keeps surfacing....

Here's a full Fleshtones show from June of 1988, not, as the title says, from May of '87 (and that sure as hell ain't Fred Smith on "basse" and "chant"!) [Note: the video info was corrected after I posted this.] This show from Lyon, France dates from Robert Warren's final days in the band—his last show would be a few weeks later. Gordon Spaeth would depart in October. An era coming to a close, for sure.

The camera roams enthusiastically, but unfortunately the sound sucks. Setlist:

Let’s Go in ‘69
I Was a Teenage Zombie
Morgus the Magnificent
Return to the Haunted House
Long Green
Way Down South
Stop Fooling Around (part)
The Dreg
I See the Light
It’ll Be Me
Nothing’s Ever Gonna Bring Me Down
Let it Rock
I Got a Line on You
American Beat
Whatever Makes You Happy
Roman Gods

First encore:
The Lonely Bull
The Turn On Song
Return of the Leather Kings
The Theme from “The Vindicators”

Second encore:
Tiger Man
Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby
I’m Moving On

Doors, windows

DeKalb and Ogle Counties, Illinois

Sunday, February 14, 2021


Amy and I have never been a Valentine's Day Couple; we generally ignore it. In the COVID era of compromised intimacies and cautious physical distancing, I'm reminded of a time nearly thirty years ago when we experienced a surprise intrusion into our lives on a February 14 evening.

We were asleep in our home in Athens, Ohio. At three in the morning we were awakened by a loud banging on our front door. We opened it to find a young guy—student-aged—wearing a desperate look. There'd been freezing rain and sleet that night, as I recall, and when he gestured over his shoulder I saw that he'd driven his car off the road and flipped it over on its top in our front yard, into a ditch. Disoriented and in shock, he'd staggered to our front door. We invited him and he sat on our couch, his shoes and lower legs soaking wet. He stunk of alcohol. Trembling, he told us that his girlfriend had broken up with him that night—or she'd rebuffed him or ignored him, I can't remember, and I'm not sure even he was clear about it—and he'd driven out of town in a miserable state. Nearly all roads leading out of Athens end up winding, in places precariously, through hilly country; at that time we lived several miles west of town on a major state route but a curvy one; he'd hit a rough patch and, wasted, lost control of his car and it careened onto our lawn where it sat, having spun to a rest. Amazingly, he wasn't hurt, just badly shaken up, in agony over the state of affairs with his girl. Sobbing, he cycled over and over again through intense anger, bitter sadness, and boozy, shell-shocked glumness. Amy made some hot chocolate, and as we waited for the police he calmed down a bit. The tow truck arrived swiftly, and we watched from our window as his car was pulled from the ditch. 

A couple of days later, the doorbell rang. We opened it to find our boy again, hung over but cleaned up, wearing a contrite, bashful expression. He was clutching a basket of fruit; just behind him his mother stood looking stern and twice as embarrassed as her son. We accepted the basket and his gratitude for our having taken him in. We said, Of course. He offered a hand, and we shook. The whole thing seemed pre-staged by his mother, whose insistence that he visit us again, contritely, we felt was unnecessary yet also very moving. The tough, lucky lesson the kid was learning was nearly visible over his sorry head. 

For the remaining time we lived in Athens, I thought of him nearly every time I approached our house. A year or so after we moved friend of ours flipped his car in nearly the same stretch of road, emerging relatively unscathed; in retrospect, winding State Route 56 feels a bit cursed. But what has really stuck with me all of these years later is the way a Valentines Day went horribly wrong, the dark, desperate anti-sentiment you don't see in the Hallmark cards, commercials, and TV movies. To this day I can smell the booze on the guy, and his despondency. The features of his face are slipping from memory, but not his sobbing tears and shoulder-slumped pose of defeat on our couch. He was lucky, and no doubt recalls the crash, if in a blur, and the morning after reconciliation, far more vividly, in some blend of shame, bafflement, and gratitude. His car, spun onto its back in our yard in the dark: the flip side of Valentine's Day.

"sad anthropomorphic heart tattoo" via Pinterest

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Talking 'bout the Star-Club

In case you missed it the first time around, Nathan Wilcox at the Let It Roll podcast is re-airing the 2019 conversation we had about Jerry Lee Lewis and his Live at the Star-Club album.