Somewhere, back through the mists of time, the first songwriter created the first song. And it is likely that they chose fractured love as their topic, giving them the first crack at a subject that, still to this day, is the most popular among composers everywhere. Everyone in their wake has to find a novel way to say something that’s been said a trillion times before. The best songwriters understand this conundrum and, instead of shrinking from the challenge, they embrace it.
Consider Smokey Robinson, who had this to say in an interview with Billboard in 1989: “Once I learned how to write songs, I recognized the fact that there are no new words. There are also no new notes on the piano or guitar. And there are really no new ideas. So you have to work within the framework of what’s been going on for thousands of years since language began. You have to work within that parameter. So the trick for me was to try and say the same thing differently.”
Of course, he said that knowing that he had accomplished that feat time and time again in his illustrious career, perhaps never so memorably than on “The Tracks Of My Tears,” his 1965 standout written with Marv Tarplin and Pete Moore and recorded with the luscious backing vocal assistance of the Miracles. The title metaphor now seems so obvious, but, had Robinson not come along to illuminate it for us, it might still be undiscovered.
“The Tracks Of My Tears” began with some simple guitar lines laid down by Tarplin, before Robinson tore at the lyrics with some assistance from Moore. The song sets up as a conversation between a woeful guy and his former flame, although we can’t be sure if she is actually listening, having moved on from him. In any case, he feels the urge to confess to her alone that the brave face he is wearing around in public is only a pantomime. The refrain lays it all on the line: “So take a good look at my face/You know my smile looks out of place/If you look closer it’s easy to trace/The tracks of my tears.”
In the verses, Robinson explains his ruse, the way he puts on an act to hide his sadness. “People say I’m the life of the party ‘cause I tell a joke or two/Although I might be laughing loud and hearty, deep inside I’m blue.” He even tries to distract from his sorrow by dating others, all to no avail: “Although she may be cute, she’s just a substitute/’Cause you’re the permanent one.” Legend has it that Pete Townsend was so impressed by the weaving of that unwieldy word into the lyrics that he was inspired to write The Who classic “Substitute.”
There is really no fault to be found with the original version of “The Tracks Of My Tears”, from the beautiful back-and-forth between the vocals of Robinson and his band, to the delicately moving arrangement, to the soulful groove laid down by The Funk Brothers, Motown’s ace instrumentalists. By the time it reaches its emotional peak as the middle eight gives way to the final chorus, chances are your face might have developed some tracks of its own.
“The Tracks Of My Tears” is such a sturdy construction that cover versions were inevitable and plentiful; both Johnny Rivers and Linda Ronstadt scored Top 40 hits with it. But how can anybody compare to Smokey Robinson’s silky falsetto on the original? And how can any songwriter find a new way to convey the visual manifestation of a broken heart any better?