The Infinite Jukebox: Smokey Robinson and The Miracles’ ‘The Tracks of my Tears’

Everybody has their maudlin song and ‘Tracks of my Tears’ is mine. It was the first single by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles to make the British chart, back in 1965 when it reached no 9, though needless to say I didn’t hear it then. But in the wake of ‘Tears of a clown’ reaching no. 1 in 1970 (the group’s only other UK top ten hit), a couple of re-issues made the top twenty and gradually I started to hear more classic Sixties Motown.
There was the wonderful ‘I Second That Emotion, an unusual song in that it’s about a relationship in which one party wants love and commitment and the other no more than the thrill of the kiss, but it’s the man who’s asking for more than just the chance of a one night stand.
And there was ‘The Tracks of my Tears’.
Musically, this and ‘Tears of a Clown’ are total opposites. The latter is a jaunty jolly tune, uptempo, hyperactive, full of carnival rhythm and buoyancy, whereas ‘Tracks of my Tears’ is slow, contemplative, blue. But lyrically they stand upon the same ground, the concealment of pain and loss by a cheerful countenance that is enforced by the singer’s desire not to publicly admit humiliation and hurt.
People say I’m the life of a party, cos I tell a joke or two. Although I might be laughing loud and hearty, deep inside I’m blue.
Why does that mean so much to me? Because it is me. The shy, nervous, inexperienced boy who had no idea how to talk to girls, least of all girls that I found attractive. The boy who kept falling in love with girls who never reciprocated, as much because they never noticed, were never told, than out of a lack of interest.
The one I did declare my feelings to, after she had gone away to University in London, sealed it for me, writing back in some confusion and surprise to effectively let me down gently. Her exact words, which I can remember 46 years later, talked of me ‘exchanging the mask of the clown for that of the lover’.
Smokey Robinson put it all into two lines when I couldn’t have summed it up in half a page, and singing it as well, with a cruel sweetness backed up by some of the softest do-dos ever laid down on vinyl.
Maybe I didn’t cry but I was in depression for twelve months, almost to the day. I have one abiding memory of that year, from March 1974 to March 1975, and that’s of sitting at the front on a 169/170 bus, returning from Droylsden or thereabouts, and rain pouring all down a window through which all I can see are sodium yellow smears. More often than not I’m writing a song-lyric. I haven’t kept many from that time.
Of course, the rest of the song doesn’t fit me at all. If you see me with another girl, seeming like I’m having fun: hah, that’s a laugh. There were no substitutes, cute or otherwise, just one lonely teenager heading into his twenties and still playing the clown to get people to look nicely at him.
And whenever I got to more than three drinks, this would always come into my mind and you might find me singing it, softly. My smile is my make-up I wear since my break-up with you.
That was Then, and Then was a long time ago. It’s only as I read what I am writing that I have realised for the first time that I was exposing myself even as I hid. Just by a tiny crack, but in describing ‘Tracks of my Tears’ as my maudlin song, I was trying to escape from my self-imposed strictures. I was admitting, obliquely, that there was something else deep inside, that I wasn’t as happy and bouncy and boisterous as I presented myself.
Sadly, there was no-one there to pick up that message. No girl quietly looking on, wondering how to get me to look in her direction. That would have required a love song of an entirely different kind. And it would have required me to have the nous to see. A very slim chance.
Maybe if it wasn’t so soft and beautiful a song, built on a melody that tried to suggest that it was almost worth being broken-hearted to come up with a song as good as this, but even so long after and those days a distant but still undisplaced memory, you can’t get me to subscribe to that theory.
This kind of lyric was a bit of a running theme with Smokey. It was the same idea that ran through ‘Tears of a Clown’, though the carnival beat further emphasised the discrepancy between the surface and the heartbreak, and the lesser known ‘My Smile is Just a Frown (Turned Upside Down)’ (which also uses the line abut Pagliacci, in identical words, hoed the same row.
But it’s in ‘The Tracks of my Tears’ that William ‘Smokey’ Robinson took this idea to its apex, for me at any rate. I don’t get drunk any more, I don’t get maudlin. But this is my maudlin song and it always will be. People say I’m the life of the party cause I tell a joke or two.
Or three, or four…

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