[The one and only Henry Rollins contributes a weekly column and far-reaching reportage to the music section of the LA Weekly. Look for your weekly Henry Rollins fix right here on West Coast Sound every week and make sure to tune in to Henry's KCRW radio show every Saturday evening, or online, or as a podcast, or however else you decided to listen to the most eclectic DJ on LA's airwaves.
These Magic Moments
One of the nice things about a favorite pop song is that it's an unconditional truce on judgment and musical snobbery. You like the song because you just do and there need not be any further criticism.
That said, a pop song can be evaluated by several criteria. Composition, arrangement, lyrics, melody, the singer, at least. But then, there's that indefinable thing that either escapes words or at least cannot be captured by your humble scribe here. There are songs that have the power to move you, over and over again. It is quite often difficult to pin down the exact reason, and that's what makes the pop songs you like have such an intoxicating effect.
Most people have some favorites that quickly come to mind. I say most because I remember clearly that there were never any records at my father's place; no music was listened to on the radio in the kitchen, and only sports and news in the car. My father did not rock. He just earned and hated. Don't end up like this man.
It very well could be that you will read through my short list and find the selections to be tremendously pedestrian and unimaginative. So be it. The pop songs that we like say a lot about us. Here's a little about me:
“This Magic Moment”: Composed by one of my absolute favorite songwriters, Doc Pomus, along with Mort Shulman. I prefer the classic version performed by Ben E. King and the Drifters in 1960. “This magic moment, so different and so new, was like any other, until I kissed you …” The swelling strings, King's aching, gritty vocal, often overloading the microphone, that great outro with lead vocal and backing vocal combining to push the song into the stratosphere is incredible. [Ed.'s note: There's an incredible cover of this song by Lou Reed, which David Lynch used for Lost Highway, a film featuring an appearance by a certain L.A. Weekly star columnist.]
“The Tracks of My Tears”: Written by Smokey Robinson, Pete Moore and Marv Tarplin, performed by the Miracles in 1965. What incredible arrangement and instrumentation. Smokey delivers one of the most impossibly stunning vocals ever recorded. It must have been one hell of a thing to have been there when they played back the final mix and listened to what has to be considered one of the best songs of all time. “My smile is my makeup I wear since my breakup with you.” Perfect! The way Smokey Robinson keeps coming back throughout the song, demanding that his gal take a long, hard look at what she's done to him: “So take a good look at my face/You'll see my smile looks out of place/If you look closer it's easy to trace/The tracks of my tears.” What a gift to the world this song is.
“I Only Have Eyes for You”: Written by Harry Warren and Al Dubin in 1934. My favorite version was recorded in 1959 by the Flamingoes. The hook of that two-part backing vocal playing off of the lead is sublime. This song contains perhaps some of my favorite lyrics ever: “I don't know if we're in a garden/Or on a crowded avenue …” How perfectly do these words capture that often too quickly fleeting feeling?
“Cupid”: Written by Sam Cooke. Hard to find a Sam Cooke vocal that you don't like. A very interesting arrangement on this song. Cooke puts the hook right at the top and grabs you immediately–genius. One of the greatest voices ever committed to tape. This song is fairly impossible to resist; it is just too well done not to marvel at.
We have time for one more mention, although it would be easy to keep this list going for quite a while. The pop genre has some of the brightest lights in music under its umbrella. It is not a genre I spend much time in, as my taste in music has veered toward the room-clearing “You're on your own, son,” variety over the last several years (see last week's column on outsider music). However, now and then, when I am in a somewhat less combative and furious state, I have time for the pop. I am not softening with age. I am calcifying.
And now, a song that I think contains some of the most irresistibly perfect and beautiful moments I have ever heard:
“Isn't She Lovely”: Written by Stevie Wonder. Released in 1976 on the Songs in the Key of Life album. Boundlessly jubilant and limitlessly ecstatic, this ode to a baby girl whom Stevie Wonder cannot see moistens my eyes just hearing it in my head. Stevie Wonder is truly one of the greatest musicians in the recorded history of music. Whenever I listen to one of his records, I can't believe that someone can be that good.
I know what you're thinking. These are not all pop songs. You could split hairs and bring up words like doo-wop and terms like soul or R&B, but I think pop music is what you want it to be–that's why it's pop. Until next week, y'all.