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Smokey Robinson has been a trusted guide throughout my life. One of my fondest toddler memories is watching Sesame Street and learning about the letter U courtesy of Smokey's revamped-for-the-show "You Really Got a Hold on Me." The first CD I ever bought was a greatest-hits compilation of him and his Miracles. That recording was my bible of bliss through years of heartbreak and longing; needless to say, I still blast it, deep scratches and all. I even did a book report in eighth grade on his self-serving autobiography, and Smokey's scandal sheet earned me an A.
The man with the hypnotizing green eyes and sidereal voice should be your guide, too. With the possible exception of Neruda, Smokey better than anyone else documents humanity's all-time vexation: love. In his expert penmanship, the travails of the heart become a soundtrack to life—sometimes gladdening, sometimes saddening, always maddening.
Each Smokey song is a three-minute symphony of sorrow or elation about love backed by the melodic choruses, cracking drums, underrated guitar playing and ever-jangling tambourines of the Motown sound. His compositions thrive on the contradictions love creates: the sun is cold, love grows from pain, and smiles are really makeup to hide the pain of breakups. Bringing out the tenderness of each tune is Smokey's voice, a caressing falsetto that is impossible for any non-castrato to replicate. It trills around each phrase and metaphor, a raw slice of emotion delivered to your ears straight from his heart.
Smokey's love chronicling makes him one of the towering figures in American pop music. He helped America stave off the first wave of the British Invasion during the 1960s with musketballs of love fired by his Motown militia: the Temptations, Mary Wells, the Marvelettes, Marvin Gaye, and his Miracles. The Brits, in turn, went crazy for his craftsmanship, with both the Beatles ("You Really Got a Hold on Me") and the Rolling Stones ("Going to a Go-Go") remaking Smokey tunes.
His victories still resonate in today's music landscape. You can hear at least one Smokey-written song per hour on any oldies-radio playlist, whether it's the gender-idealizers of "My Girl" and "My Guy" or Smokey and the Miracles' odes to lacrimal glands such as "The Tears of a Clown" and "The Tracks of My Tears." And Smokey's "Quiet Storm" is the name or theme of seemingly every late-night slow-jam radio show in the country.
But since we live in a corporate-dominated radio world, some of Smokey's best work remains heard only by ardent Smokey-philes like me. Best amongst them is "The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage," a song that would bring tears to my ears if it ever played on KRTH-FM. It's the most beautiful song ever written about a woman who's a lying bitch. With the lead guitar sounding like an ever-winding jack-in-the-box, Smokey recounts in heartbreaking detail how the love of his life was a fraud.
"We used to meet in romantic places," Smokey cries. "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."
Most impressive is that Smokey rhymed three separate words with the notoriously difficult "mirage"—and made it work.
Sure, for today's audiences nursed on subtle expressions of devotion like "Hot in Herre," saying that you don't like someone, you love them seems passé. But I guarantee that if you give Smokey's lyrics in written form to your beloved, they'll start doing weird things like giving you flowers. Play those words with music, and they'll marry you immediately. There's a reason why Bob Dylan once called Smokey America's greatest living poet.
I don't care about Smokey's current career. After his run with the Miracles, Smokey embarked on a solo career that never quite matched his Motown heyday but still produced gems like "Cruisin'" and "The Agony and the Ecstasy." But today, his job consists of hosting a radio show on Hot FM 92.3 and living off his legacy and astronomical ticket prices (see below) for live performances. Fine by me. I wouldn't want him any other way.
Smokey Robinson performs at the Grove of Anaheim, 2200 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim, (714) 712-2700. Thurs., Sept. 19, 8:30 p.m. $67.50. All ages.