The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Friday, October 04, 2002

Wasn't Smokey Robinson's the most asexual voice in all of Motown? Marvin Gaye aspired to a similar satyred unification with the Other ("it's too late for 'you and me'"?) but his visions were always firmly and unambiguously emanating from a very specific male viewpoint - whereas Smokey at his most ethereal could be every man, every woman, every faun if he so wished.

And yet Smokey's was also the most varied voice in all of Motown - capable of compassion, hurt, irony, selflessness and ecstasy. All underscored by one of the most expressive and astute marriages of words and music in the last half-century, so important that the Beatles would have been lesser without his example (and exactly how pissed off would Smokey have been to read William Mann in the Times praising "Not A Second Time" for its Beethovenian harmonies, when all John and Paul had done was to appropriate one of Smokey's trademark chord changes?). Prince couldn't have happened without him; nor could D'Angelo (as the latter's cover of "Cruisin'" on Brown Sugar reminds us).

A new 2CD, 52-track compilation, Ooh Baby Baby: The Anthology, by Smokey and the Miracles, has just come my way. It covers the years from the Miracles' doo-wop beginnings in 1958, through to their Motown heyday, and leaves the story in 1972, when Smokey left to go to LA and launch what remains a woefully undervalued solo career. As with Hot Chocolate in the UK, it remains a scandal that the Miracles are remembered for maybe half-a-dozen hits which every schoolboy knows, while the rest of their astonishing back catalogue stays relatively neglected.

The early doo-wop sides are divine. "(You Can) Depend On Me" is sung by Smokey with such an apostolic grace; this is the reverse of Levi Stubbs' more overly passionate, but no less felt, declaration of faith in "Reach Out I'll Be There." Smokey will stand by you, will protect and embrace you; listening to him, you feel that nothing can ever harm you, that pain will never penetrate you. It is an aural Pieta. It is a holy incantation worthy to stand beside the Impressions' ""I'm So Proud" or the extraordinary pre-dub aura of the Flamingoes' "I Only Have Eyes For You." Yet on the next track "Who's Lovin' You" Smokey, without altering any of his tone or approach, suddenly sounds lost, bereaved, bemused that the Other has not reciprocated his offer of protection. It is as desolate in its search as Alan Vega on the astonishing post-9/11 finale of Suicide's forthcoming masterpiece American Supreme.

And yet, just as life seems on the verge of slipping away, along comes a reassertion of the Self, a demotion of the importance of the exclusivity of "the Other," in "Shop Around." And the music instantly becomes ecstatic in its expectations; similarly songs like "You Can't Let The Boy (Overpower) The Man In You." But when an actual "Other" materialises, we become more meditative and also more carnal - "You Really Got A Hold On Me," "A Love She Can Count On," "Would I Love You." Sometimes Smokey is satisfied to lose himself in the potency of music alone: "Mickey's Monkey," the extraordinary forward propulsion of "Goin' To A Go-Go" (Gaye on drums, with that same slightly ominous beat heard on "Dancing In The Street" and finally becoming unambiguously ominous on "Grapevine"). And yet there's doubt, too: hear Smokey's rarely unleashed, and therefore far more potent when it arrives, squeals and yells on the live workout "I've Been Good To You," as well as the unspoken dread in "Baby Don't You Go," where he simply imagines what would happen if the Other left him, but with such intensity you wonder whether there's an "if" involved at all. Finally, of course, the split happens, but here there's still no overt bitterness; in "My Girl Has Gone" Smokey continues to wish her all the best, loves her enough to want her to remain happy with someone else - a display of selflessness to stand beside "Make It Easy On Yourself" (either firm as in Jerry Butler, or resigned but accepting as in Scott Walker).

Smokey keeps coming back to the theme of pretence; most obviously in "Tracks Of My Tears" and its rewrite "Tears Of A Clown." Of either there is nothing to add to the millions of words already existing in relation to them, except to note the half-tempo, slightly out-of-synch horn lines which shadow the chorus in "Tracks Of My Tears" (see also "You Are My Sunshine" by Russell and Jordan, discussed below); the reality behind the facade.

The lazy thing to do is generally to write off the Miracles hence, and pay no attention to their subsequent work. In fact, the only problem with this new Anthology is that their extraordinary 1967 album Make It Happen seems under-represented. Good to see "More Love" - perhaps the most heartfelt of all Smokey's "positive" songs - here as well as the proto-raga "The Love I Saw In You Was Just A Mirage." But the phenomenal six-song sequence which closes MIH as an emotional descent really has to be heard in sequence - we need to have "After You Have Put Back The Pieces (I'll Still Have A Broken Heart)" and "It's A Good Feeling." The sequence ends with "Tears Of A Clown" and in this context, as a terminal threnody, it destroys the listener. Happily MIH is available as a twofer with the almost as good Special Occasiona lbum. Hear the woozy Sgt Pepper brass on the latter's title track (so much less contrived than, say, Shakira's "Underneath Your Clothes") and travel further to its excoriating triple whammy of an ending ("Your Mother's Only Daughter," "Much Better Off" and "You Only Build Me Up To Tear Me Down"), none of which sadly appears on here. But we do have the ominous, stop-start "Yester Love," the irresistible "Choosy Beggar" (a jibe at "Ain't Too Proud To Beg"/David Ruffin?) and "(Come Round Here) I'm The One You Need" where Smokey tries to do a Four Tops, but ends up sounding even more childlike.

And there's also now a cynicism in his work. Listen to "Baby Baby Don't Cry" where he pretends to commiserate with the Other after an unsuitable romance, but really is ecstatic that it hasn't worked out, that ergo he has another chance, and is subtly tearing the Other to bits with his words. And sonically this was in its own undemonstrative way every bit the parallel of what Whitfield was doing with the Temptations at the time. Hear the sudden aggressiveness of Marv Tarplin's guitar on "Doggone Right," hear the oddly mixed percussion asides on "Point It Out" which sound as though Smokey is stealthily trepanning your skull. Hear above all the fantastic, why-wasn't-it-a-single "Here I Go Again," with its weird chordal slides, its askew strings, the totally unexplained mandolins which enter midway. It is what "Just My Imagination" would have sounded like had its drink been fully spiked.

Hear also "Who's Gonna Take The Blame" (30 years before "We Need A Resolution"), a lament for/admonishment to a childhood friend now turned prostitute which is nevertheless evidently more meant than Diana Ross' "Love Child" and consequently knocks it out of the moral ballpark. The deceleratijng plea of the guitar on the seductive "When Sundown Comes." The bizarre uptempo interpretation of "Abraham, Martin and John" which attempts to reclaim the sentiments of the song from sentimentality and tries to use them to forge a way forward. Notably, when Tom Clay did his landmark 1971 proto-sampling "What The World Needs Now/AM&J" single, he treated the latter song as the Miracles had done.

Right. Now we need an equally exhaustive survey of Smokey's solo work - and the Miracles, who with Billy Griffin as lead singer certainly did not evaporate after "Love Machine." Now then, a Smokey solo track listing - "Just My Soul Responding" (has "Happy Birthday To You" ever sounded more menacing?), "Cruisin'," "Just To See Her," "Tell Me Tomorrow," "...And I Don't Love You"...

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