Smokey Robinson Is a Miracle

I’m not sure why I haven’t written at length about Smokey Robinson before. I began this as a column devoted to buttonholing readers with my own impassioned enthusiasms for artists I felt were overlooked, taken for granted or not understood the way I felt they needed to be understood. Ones I thought deserved to be written about regardless of peg, timing, or upcoming product release tie-in. Smokey Robinson has always occupied a special niche in my pantheon of singer-songwriters, as singer, as songwriter, as phenomenon, as Miracle, as miracle. I guess that’s it, that’s why I haven’t devoted a column to him before: because I feared I just wouldn’t be able to do justice to his miraculous gift. But now there’s a product, there’s a peg, there’s a new Miracles compilation album out from Motown, The Ultimate Collection , and I can’t stop listening to it, can’t stop thinking about it. It’s not wildly different from other Miracles collections, but it gives you a chronology of which songs were released when, a chronology that focused my attention on the thrilling trilogy of songs that were the Miracles’ very first releases: “Bad Girl,” “Way Over There” and “You Can Depend on Me.” Songs you’ve probably never heard of if you’re only familiar with Smokey from his post-“Tracks of My Tears” superhits era, songs that, heard together, represent a revelation about the emotional power of his work, the degree to which he is one of the great innovators in American popular music, and something else-his courage as an artist.

It’s not that I’m alone in recognizing the uniqueness and greatness of Smokey Robinson. No less a personage than Bob Dylan once called him America’s greatest poet, and however hyperbolic that might sound, attention must be paid. Particularly when so much knee-jerk reverence is given to the composers of the so-called “standards” of the 30’s and 40’s, so many of them so wildly overrated, if you ask me, so many of which pale (in every way) by comparison with the genius of the Motown School. The Pulitzer committee just gave a special posthumous lifetime achievement award to George Gershwin; well deserved, no doubt, but Gershwin doesn’t lack for recognition. Someday, hopefully before he’s dead, there’ll be one for Smokey Robinson.

Part of the reason Mr. Robinson doesn’t get the respect he deserves is the deceptive ease with which he works his magic, the esoteric songwriter alchemy that transmutes the otherwise familiar rhetoric of the moon-June songwriting idiom into something else, something rich and strange. Take a song like “My Girl,” which he wrote for the Temptations, in which, yes, he rhymes “cloudy day” with “month of May.” If you try to dissect it on the page, you can never quite explain the way it rises to that moment of shimmering transcendence the first time you hear the incantatory phrase “My Girl.” I mean, people have been writing about their girls for centuries, but not until Smokey Robinson had anyone given the two words “My Girl” such immense, emotive power.

Or take another one, like “The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage,” which, if you put a gun to my head and forced me to choose, might be my single fave of the post-“Tracks of My Tears” period. Again, if you look at it under a microscope, there’s no wild Dylanesque innovation, no self-congratulatory Sondheimesque sophistication, but by the time you get to the chorus-“Just like a 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”-it reaches some astonishing level beyond heartbreak, more like the emotional equivalent of earthquake .

It’s almost a conjurer’s trick: He conjures with the familiar clichés of songwriting that in other hands might seem old hat, and pulls one rabbit after another out of that hat. He does it almost self-consciously in “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” which is a song that both sends up similes and somehow reaffirms their power afresh. I mean, “I’m holding you so tight/ You coulda been a handle” and “The way you swept me off my feet/ You could have been a broom” are comic but earnest at the same time, playing with the transformative power of poetic diction-the polysemous word-magic of simile that can turn anything into anything in the hands of a magician like Smokey.

But it’s not just the words that make the miracle. It’s not just the thrilling, bewitching melodies, not the haunting echo-chamber melodrama of the Motown arrangements. It’s that voice, that eerie, insinuating male soprano. Somehow it feels wrong to call it a falsetto; nothing seems false about it. It’s up there in a feminine vocal range, yet it doesn’t seem at all effeminate. We’re used to it now, but if you listen to it and imagine hearing it for the first time, it’s undeniably and radically strange , undeniably an invention of genius.

What’s the deal with that voice? Its only precedent is the late great Frankie Lymon (of “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” fame), but Frankie Lymon’s voice sounded more like a voice that hadn’t yet broken. There were doo-wop falsetto riffs as precedent, but those were stylish, stagy, brief passages. While Smokey’s falsetto, or whatever you want to call it, is sustained throughout a song; he doesn’t break into it, he is it. He took those soaring falsetto sustains from doo-wop and created an entire persona out of them; an incredibly courageous thing to do, one that in other hands might sound silly or camp, but in Smokey’s attains a masculinity that transcends the usual suspects of signifiers. I don’t know how to explain it, but I felt it should have been the subject of several academic gender studies Ph.D. theses by now, because of the way it defies essentializing, subverts gender categories and redefines masculinity.

Strange as it still seems now, it must have been even stranger when it first was heard. Which is why I want to single out those first three releases from late 1959 and early 1960, “Bad Girl,” “Way Over There” and “You Can Depend on Me.” These are haunting ballads in which Smokey Robinson virtually reinvents the male torch song with the unearthly beauty of that shimmering soprano. You can get lost in these songs, in that voice, in the intensity of the radiant devotion for the women he conjures up, in the intensity and the urgency of the loss, the suffering he transmutes into art. Get this album, listen to these songs and tell me he doesn’t deserve, if not the Pulitzer Gershwin got, then a MacArthur Foundation genius grant.

2 Department of Good Causes. I never went to Woodstock and never wanted to (love the music, hate the crowds and the hype), so I never knew Hugh Romney, now known as Wavy Gravy (B.B. King gave him the name) in his most famous role as emcee and peacekeeper at that granola gang-bang (and later at Woodstock II as well). Instead I met him sometime afterward, when The Village Voice sent me to cover something called “the Medicine Ball Caravan,” a strange, strained, early attempt at exploiting alternative culture in which Warner Brothers financed and filmed a cross-country caravan of R.V.s and buses filled with self-consciously groovy hippies and Wavy’s Hog Farm Communards in order to make a film (edited by Martin Scorsese, in fact) that flopped miserably. I wrote critically about the Caravan, but I came to like Wavy for the way he embodied Early Beat and stand-up comic sensibilities amid the psychedelia, and my respect for him grew over the years as he became a man with a mission. He and his Hog Farmers parlayed their movie money into a bus-bound pilgrimage across Europe to the East, where they developed an ethic of service, feeding and building housing for destitute villagers. It was there Wavy discovered the cause that has consumed him ever since: restoring sight to people with reversible blindness.

Along with some doctor friends, some World Health Organization veterans, Wavy created the Seva Foundation in 1978, which for two decades has been sending teams of doctors and health workers into villages in Nepal, India and elsewhere to perform the simple operations necessary to give sight back to people whose diseases and nutritional deprivation would otherwise have condemned them to a lifetime of darkness. These days, they restore sight to some 80,000 people a year. It’s a pure and beautiful thing, what the Seva Foundation does. Now Seva’s got a 20th birthday benefit coming up on May 15, and I’d encourage readers to send contributions to the Seva Foundation at 1786 Fifth Street, Berkeley, Calif. 94710 (800-223-7382; http://www.seva.org) as a salute to Mr. Gravy.

3 On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the paper’s founding, I’d like to recall my favorite New York Press story, in any case the one that helped me figure out what the Press was up to. It was a piece that ran about five years ago. As I recall, it began with the writer describing how he came upon an overflowing trash can in his Brooklyn neighborhood whose contents turned out to be the discarded papers of Dr. Maxwell Maltz, famous long ago in the 50’s (and still in print today) as the author of Psycho-Cybernetics, a best-selling guide to positive thinking, self-esteem and self-improvement which incorporated the lessons Dr. Maltz learned from his career as a pioneering plastic surgeon. The story consisted of the writer sifting through the Maltz detritus and meditating on the meaning of self-image and self-esteem in a celebrity-crazed, plastic surgery-obsessed culture. It was a brilliant, utterly unexpected linkage of the personal, the political and the philosophical, the kind of idiosyncratic wild-card personal journalism that had almost disappeared from the city’s media until New York Press came along. Giving a venue to this kind of work is not quite the same as restoring sight to the blind, but it is giving a voice to some talented writers who might not otherwise be heard.