Smokey Robinson, Storyteller

Sep 24, 2011 by     2 Comments    Posted under: Brian Wrote This, Nonfiction, On Writing
One of my favorite writers is Smokey Robinson. He doesn’t write novels or screenplays. But for a great short story that can be told in three and a half minutes (with an instrumental bridge, no less) you can’t do better.

Smokey is huge. I can’t think of another songwriter/performer who’s had a bigger impact on pop culture. Yes, I’m a fairly intense Springsteen fan, but Smokey … Smokey was the guy who looked at Berry Gordy one day and said, “You oughtta start a record label.” And not only did he record on Motown, with the Miracles, but he helped shape it, as vice president and by writing for many of the acts. He then launched a solo career on top of it.

Shop Around

[Spoken] When I became of age my mother called me to her side
She said ‘son you’re growing up now, pretty soon
You’ll take a bride’…
[Sung] And then she said…
‘Just because you’ve become a young man, now,
There’s still some things that you don’t understand, now,
Before you ask some girl for her hand now,
Keep your freedom for as long as you can now,
My mama told me, “You better shop around”

There are plenty of great songs out there that he didn’t write. But here are some that he did:

Shop Around. Tears of a Clown. I Second That Emotion. You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me. Tracks of My Tears. The Way You Do the Things You Do*. Ain’t That Peculiar. One Heartbeat. Just to See Her Again. Tell Me Tomorrow. Cruisin’. Being With You. The man wrote My Girl, for chrissake.

(*awesome video right here.)

The first thing to love about Smokey, besides that high, pure voice, is his way with words. As I type this, Shop Around is playing on my stereo, so let’s just take that.

It helps if you’re listening to it (or watching it on YouTube), but the way those little rhymes pile up and play off each other … a fine precursor to the brilliance of The Tracks of My Tears, which really explores the agony of lost love.

The Tracks of My Tears

Outside I’m masquerading,
Inside my hope is fading,
Just a clown since you put me down,
My smile is my make-up I wear since my breakup with you.
So take a good look at my face,
You’ll see my smile looks out of place,
If you look closer, it’s easy to trace
The tracks of my tears

But that’s not what makes Smokey awesome—not the rhymes, not the melodies (it should be noted that he often cowrote with other musicians, so the brilliant melodies were surely a collaborative effort). It’s the way he makes a song a story by grounding it in a single moment. There are a lot of songs about a guy playing the field or resisting romantic commitment—Robinson’s is grounded in a moment of rather surprising advice from a young man’s mother.

There are so many songs about broken-hearted lovers that you could make a years-long playlist without any repeats. But Smokey brings you to the moment when you’re forced out in public and have to hold your shit together. That awful isolation and agony. You ever have to go to work the day after your girlfriend left, or your marriage broke up? Yeah, that’s a hell of a moment, huh?

Who’s Loving You

When I had you here, I treated you bad and wrong my dear.
And since, girl, since you went away,
Don’t you know I sit around with my head hanging down,
And I wonder who is loving you.

Take a look at Who’s Loving You, a hit that’s not quite as celebrated as songs like My Girl and Tears of a Clown. (For a jaw-dropping performance, check out Terence Trent D’Arby’s cover). It’s another song about lost love, but check out those deceptively simple lyrics. It’s not just “I miss you babe” and “I want you back” and “You mean the world to me.” It’s grounded in regret—the singer knows he deserved to lose her—and it’s centered on that lonely room, where he sits alone with the agonizing thought that she’s moved on, that someone has taken his place. There are few feelings quite that awful, whether the source is betrayal or a clean breakup. Robinson gives us such a specific image, and such a specific aspect of regret, that sick feeling of knowing your loved one is with someone else.

Being With You

I don’t care what they think about me
and I don’t care what they say.
I don’t care what they think if you’re leaving,
I’m gonna beg you to stay.
I don’t care if they start to avoid me,
I don’t care what they do.
I don’t care about anything else
but being with you

Honey don’t go, don’t leave this scene,
Be out of the picture and off of the screen.
Don’t let them say “we told you so,”
Don’t tell me you love me and then let me go.

I heard the warning voice from friends and my relations,
They told me all about your heart-break reputation.

People can change, they always do.
Haven’t they noticed the changes in you?
Or can it be that like love, I am blind?
Do I want it so much ’til it’s all in my mind?
One thing I know for sure is really really real:
I never felt before the way you make me feel.

I don’t care about anything else but being with you,
Being with you …

Look at Being With You, which verse by verse explores a relationship crumbling by focusing on the concerned judgments that surround a fool in love. The guy is head over heels for a girl that everyone else can see is wrong, and he’s got a choice between love and dignity, and he’s choosin’ love. Maybe I relate to this song because I’ve taken that situation from habit to lifestyle to self-parody, but even so—indisputably awesome, and it’s a song mostly relegated these days to your “Quiet Storm” soft-hits radio format. (A format named, incidentally, for a great Smokey song.)

And is it all heartbreak and woe? Hell no. “I love you and I’m so miserable” is only one side of the pop music coin. Smokey also takes the flip side “I love you and I’m so happy” and nails it to the moments that make it unforgettable. Here’s some Cruisin’:

“Babe, tonight belongs to us / Everything’s right, do what you must / And inch by inch we get closer and closer / To every little part of each other / Ooh, babe, yes / Let the music take your mind, babe / Just release and you would find / You’re gonna fly away, glad you’re going way / I love it when we’re cruisin’ together.”

There’s a million songs about getting to that first time with the object of one’s affection, but how many consider the music that sets the mood in those moments (while making that music anew)?

One Heartbeat has less of that specificity, with its opening verse singing about taking love slowly, one heartbeat at a time. You might mistake “love” in that sentiment as a stand-in for “sex,” as it so often is. But then there’s one verse of crystaline specificity:

We paint a picture walkin’ down the street / Leaves are fallin’, baby, so are we / Hand in hand, that’s the way it should be / How could somethin’ so easy make me feel so complete?

That’s so goddamn sweet I’m misting up a little here. Romantic walks, granted, aren’t the most original image, but I love the way he slips that killer “so are we” in there.

The Love I Saw In You
Is Just a Mirage

There you were beautiful
The promise of love was written on your face
You led me on with untrue kisses
You held me captured in your false embrace

Quicker than I could bat an eye
Seems you were telling me goodbye
Just a minute ago your love was here
All of a sudden it seemed to disappear
Sweetness was only heartache’s camouflage
The love I saw in you was just a mirage

You promised that happiness we’ll ever share
But all I have are memories of love that was never there

We used to meet in romantic places
You gave the illusion that your love was real
Now all that’s left are lipstick traces
From the kisses you only pretended to feel

And now our meeting you avoid
And so my world you have destroyed
Just a minute ago your love was here
All of a sudden it seemed to disappear
The way you wrecked my life was like sabotage
The love I saw in you was just a mirage

You brought me up just to throw me down
you love me and my dreams shattered all on your ground

You only filled me with despair
By showing love that wasn’t there
Just like the desert shows a thirsty man
A green oasis where there’s only sand
You lured me into something I should have dodged
The love I saw in you was just a mirage

To you I gave true love from deep within
You made me hungry for your love
When it was not deeper than your skin

Just like the desert shows a thirsty man
A green oasis where there’s only sand
You lured me into, into something I should have dodged
The love I saw in you was just a mirage

As someone who writes, I take inspiration from Smokey. Sure, when you’re writing prose, you’re focused into specificity. Never mind the specificity of “in the room thinking about her with another man,” you’ve gotta describe the goddamned room, too. But the lesson of Smokey for any writer is to find the relatable emotion, ground it in specific moments, and pretty much throw out everything extraneous. And then there’s just his obvious love of the way words play together.  It’s invigorating.

I saw Smokey a couple of years ago at the gorgeous Art Deco temple that is Oakland’s Paramount Theater. Smokey was 69 years old and put on an awesome show. There were so many familiar songs, but only one I didn’t recognize. It has since become one of my favorites, because there are so many great lines, such a fine use of language and rhythm. It’s from 1967, late in his decade with the Miracles, and it’s awesome. “Sweetness was only heartache’s camouflage,” he sings. “The love I saw in you was just a mirage.” Or how about: “Now all that’s left are lipstick traces / From the kisses you only pretended to feel.”

Or look at that last verse, the oasis line.

It’s an amazing song–a beautiful melody, and he has a great stripped-down arrangement these days, but the lyrics are so sharply angry.  The singer’s bitterness at apparent betrayal is relentless.

So let me leave you with those lyrics, and with a YouTube video. This was recorded in 2008 (I saw him in January ’09).  Not a great visual, here, but you can tell how he owns a crowd, and still has that amazing voice at, in this video, 68.

I’m spending a chilly autumn evening with three CDs’ worth of Smokey, solo and miraculous. There are worse ways to spend an evening, and not many better writers for company.


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2 Comments + Add Comment

  • I was very excited to see this knowing that, if singer/songwriters are on your radar for the website, a post about the great American poet, John Mellencamp, must be coming up! Regardless if that post ever materializes, I really enjoyed this one.

  • Mellencamp … Interesting. I’ve always liked his work, and yeah, he’s a very good writer. Or I could just do a post about Kenny Aronoff’s drums. I don’t know if I’d be prepared to give an overview to Mellencamp’s entire body of work, but Scarecrow is such a stunning album, such a singular, unified work, I ought to give that a fresh listen and really dive in. LitSketch–like DJs and artists at cons, we take requests!

    But I’ve got something else music-oriented in mind that I’ll do in the next couple of days … so check back!

    (And thanks for commenting!)