As a kid, I didn’t really know that contemporary music was a thing. I only ever listened to oldies, as that was the only music my parents ever listened to. I knew vaguely of Debbie Gibson, but she wasn’t the person I idolized. Actually, my first fan letter I ever sent was to Johnny Rivers. Who the heck is that you ask? He is the guy who sang “Secret Agent Man” amongst other things. And six-year-old me wanted Mr. Rivers to know I thought he was amazing.
My first concert? The Beach Boys, which is not embarrassing, but actually kind of awesome. I mean, they are the Beach Boys and this was when Full House was at its peak of popularity, so there was even some contemporary street cred to my choice. John Stamos didn’t show up and sing “Forever”, but it was still a great show.
Considering most of you understand I am 100 years old on the inside, this obsession with oldies music shouldn’t surprise you. I am going to be more excited to see Mickey Dolenz than I would seeing Mumford and Son not only because I enjoy the music more, but because there is a scarcity to seeing these folks now. Anyone with the funds and proximity to a big city can see major music acts these days.
I had to travel to Australia to see Angela Lansbury on the stage in “Driving Miss Daisy”, but it was worth the journey. In college, I met all sorts of contemporary film geniuses like Jon Favreau, Billy Bob Thornton, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Alexander Payne, but the best celebrity encounter I had? Serving meals at the Midnight Mission in Downtown LA and meeting the one and only Dick Van Dyke. Because these other people, being contemporary pop culture icons are present. You don’t see Dick Van Dyke places unless you seek him out. He’s not on Twitter, he is not on tour. So, in addition to being a great talent who has already stood the test of time and proven to be canonical, he is a scarce resource.
I know there is something to say for seeing people in their prime. I would much rather have seen The Monkees perform in 1967, but I had to settle for 2000. Sure, it will be nice to tell people that I saw Tim McGraw and Faith Hill perform together in their last show at the Venetian this past weekend, but the performance that will stand out to me is the show we saw before that.
Thanks to my awesome friend Elaine, I got to go see Tim and Faith, but we also got to see the 1000th Vegas performance of Human Nature, the Australian Motown tribute group that performs at The Venetian. The show was a lot of fun, as these very polished performers belted out some of my favorite oldies I grew up on.
Then they sang what might be one of my top three favorite songs of all times: The Tracks of My Tears. Smokey Robinson wrote this tune, then made it famous performing it with The Miracles.
What is remarkable about this song is that it sounds happy, but the visuals invoked by the lyrics are incredibly depressing. As Robinson explained to Adam Lambert on American Idol a few seasons back, the song came from an idea Robinson had one day: what if someone cried so much that, if you looked closely at their face, you could see where the tears had run down, over and over again.
This song about a guy faking it until he can make it after a rough break up is beautiful, heartbreaking, and makes me want to belt it in my car all at the same time. As someone whose job frequently requires them to put on a happy face even when I am not particularly happy, the imagery has always stuck with me. I don’t know about other people, but while I smile and nod, my mind is almost always racing about something, or several things really. There is usually some nagging negativity in there that tries to break through the facade.
Nowadays, with social media and this constant ability to put on a face, this song only strikes me as even more poignant, as people try to present some idealized version of themselves to cover up that they may be struggling on the inside. The fact Robinson belts it always gets me thinking that his lovesick musical protagonist simply couldn’t take bottling it up anymore and he burst, in this case into song.
As you can tell from the rant, this song just means a lot to me, so when the group began to sing, I smiled. When the second verse began and none other than Smokey himself strolled on to the stage to sing it, I gasped. Then I clapped. Then I cheered. Then I rushed to take pictures. Because there he was, 25 feet from me, singing a song that I have listened to thousands of times over the years.
Smokey Robinson doesn’t tour. He pops up on shows like Idol during Motown Week, then returns to semi-obscurity. But on this night, in this theater, he was there and I was present to witness it–like seeing a yeti or the Loch Ness monster. It may not be the spectacle of Tim and Faith, but it is, in 2014, a once in a lifetime type of opportunity that I rank among my favorite celebrity brush ins ever. So, while this is a song I typically find very sad, I will forever beam when I hear it thinking about the time I got to hear the man himself sing his masterpiece even if it was in 2014 and not 1966.
And now this song, which already meant so much, will mean even more. I can’t stop listening to it, be it originals or covers like this Adam Lambert version, which I consider to be the best performance in Americal Idol history:
It is haunting, this version. That is what all this old culture I love so much does to me though. It haunts me, leaving me craving those moments like last weekend where I get to see in person the artist I wanted to write a fan letter to because he came on the radio in my mom’s car on the way home from elementary school. They may be ghosts or past their prime, but these brushes with people like Smokey Robinson and Dick Van Dyke make me more grateful for my life and my experiences than a lot of other things these days.