Romance and Modernism: Smokey Robinson, My World: The Ultimate Collection

By Daniel Garrett

Smokey Robinson
My World: The Ultimate Collection
Motown/Universal Music Company, 2005

The work of William (Smokey) Robinson, like that of Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, and Stevie Wonder, is part of a late twentieth-century African-American modernism in popular music: confident, intelligent, lively, self-aware, sensitive, sensuous, topical, urban and urbane, it is the music of free individuals in modern society. Many of us grew up with Smokey, and what that means is that we can neglect to pay proper homage to him: his work can seem as present as green grass, as seductive as moon light, and who ever thanks the grass for just being there? Smokey Robinson’s anthology My World: The Definitive Collection
is a nice opportunity to consider his work and acknowledge his value. He is loved, respected; and these notes are a small part of my appreciation. Listening to My World: The Definitive Collection, I was surprised by some of the songs I knew and some of the songs I had forgotten and by how many of the songs seemed timeless. There are two new songs on the anthology—“My World” and “Fallin’”—and “My World” is a sweet, sensual dedication (“You’re my world”) and “Fallin’” has softly detailed guitar notes followed by the line “I’m falling in love with you,” an ageless declaration, supported with an observation of the singer’s heart palpitations and mind’s confusion. The bulk of the collection is made up of songs Smokey Robinson recorded alone and with the music group the Miracles, songs such as “Cruisin’,” “Just to See Her Again,” “The Tears of a Clown,” “The Tracks of My Tears,” “Being with You,” “Ooo Baby Baby,” and “One Heartbeat.”

Smokey Robinson’s music is not haunted or helmed in by gospel pieties, blues grievances, or social conflicts, but, instead, his music is the music of the open, questing spirit, the sensitive heart, the sensual body: a modern man, liberated, loving, and thoughtful. With the relaxed sound of guitar and strings, Smokey Robinson’s “Cruisin’,” from 1979, is like a smooth, tasty aphrodisiac, one that can be taken between acts of love, to extend the pleasure. Smokey’s high masculine voice, sensuous and intense, caressing and yearning, sings the J. George/L. Pardini song “Just to See Her Again,” with the line, “I would do anything, I would go anywhere, there’s nothing I wouldn’t do, just to see her again.” It is hard to believe he did not write the song, as he wrote many of his songs (and wrote songs that became successes for others)—and Smokey sounds so at one with the song “Just to See Her Again.” That is mellow music—with strings, drums, guitar; and there is a subtle erotic suggestion in the singer’s tone, and with that tone Smokey Robinson can say anything. Or can he?

“Ain’t too much sadder than the tears of a clown when there’s no one else around,” sings Smokey in “The Tears of A Clown,” which I had not known Robinson had written with Henry Cosby and Stevie Wonder. It is a cheery sad song. The contradictions of attraction are everywhere in the song “You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me,” which Mr. William Robinson performed with the Miracles: “You treat me badly, I love you madly. You really got a hold on me.” With piano, horns, and chorus, and a rhythm that is old-fashion (it does not matter), the song is wonderful: “don’t want to kiss you, but I need to.” The song captures easily and well how love can be a madness. “I want to split now, I can’t quit now. You really got a hold on me.”

On My World: The Definitive Collection, are the party-scene piece “Going to a Go-Go,” and “Mickey’s Monkey,” and “Shop Around.” The sadness disguised by an optimistic attitude is still discernible if one pays attention, and that is the subject of the ever-popular “The Tracks of My Tears.” That song—a 1965 single release later included on a 1967 album—includes the lines “Take a good look at my face. You’ll see my smile looks out of place. Look a little bit closer. It’s easy to trace the tracks of my tears.” It is a song that any one with a feeling heart, or an imagination, could understand and like. “Being with You,” another Smokey Robinson song that does not easily fit into any genre—it’s not rock and bears no relation to the blues, is the one in which Smokey sings in his ageless croon, “I don’t care about anything else but being with you.” That kind of obsession is romantic; and would sound insane spoken anywhere but in a song or other piece of art or entertainment (such as a film or novel). The ability to choose the object of one’s attention, to choose love, is as modern as anything, after centuries of forced and arranged marriages. The emphasis on one’s own feelings—one of the benefits and traps of contemporary individuality—has lengthened what might have been a minor literary and cultural movement, that of romanticism, and extended romanticism into what is nearly a world view. The truth is that when we care about something, it is easy to put other things out of our minds—to forget them, to neglect them. It might have been interesting if Smokey Robinson had let some of that real world effect into his work—and it is noteworthy that Robinson, unlike Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, or Diana Ross, was not inspired to pursue consistently social or political themes in his work.

Some of the songs on My World: The Definitive Collection do not impress me, but they add to the variety of the collection—and it is always good to hear what a beloved or favorite singer does beyond what is widely known: “Baby That’s Backatcha,” “Yester Love,” “Baby Come Close,” “Quiet Storm,” and “Let Me Be the Clock.” The songs that will raise smiles, and move feet to dance, or inspire memories of all kinds are likely to remain “I Second That Emotion,” “More Love,” “Ooo Baby Baby,” “I’ve Made Love to You a Thousand Times,” and “One Heartbeat.” In search of a dependable love, Robinson sings, “Maybe you’ll go away and never call, and a taste of honey is worse than none at all,” the most charming rhymes, in “I Second That Emotion.” He is, in song, a man who wants and is willing to make a commitment, and that goes against the common assumptions regarding the fickle male ever in search of a fresh conquest. Then: “My love will be so solid, it’ll take about a hundred lifetimes to live it down, wear it down, tear it down,” he promises in “More Love,” from the late 1960s. It takes great confidence and energy to make such a declaration; and it is a conviction that can create a delirium of desire, love, and pleasure. Who could ever sustain that acute, intense feeling for longer than a brief affair or a three or four minute song? Emotion, and imagination, and a will to leave behind the mundane: together, they can form belief. Thinking about a great love is much more interesting than thinking about filing reports, doing laundry, reading a book, paying taxes, doing charity work, or mastering the facts of international relations (or is it?); and, surely, it is quite seductive to hear from a person one finds attractive, “I’ve made love to you a thousand times, even if it’s only in my mind. I’ve made love to you a thousand ways, for a thousand nights, and a thousand days.” What was done by Smokey Robinson, and the motor town record company he was a part of in Detroit, Motown Records, was to give happiness a beat, and add some delicious rhymes to that. One has only to accept such gifts and praise the giver (and I do). Smokey Robinson sings in “One Heartbeat” the words “Hand in hand, that’s the way it should be. How can something so easy make me feel so complete?”

Daniel Garrett is currently a New York resident, and his work has appeared in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, The Compulsive Reader, Offscreen, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written about Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Neil Young, Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell, and other long-time performers, with commentaries appearing on the web pages of The Compulsive Reader.