20 December 2009

Golden Teardrops

As a further taster for the complete dialog (or, to me, dialogue) with Clarke, here is one of my posts from September 2000, attempting to describe the sensation of listening to the Flamingos' Golden Teardrops.


Sparked off by what you were saying about difficult records, I want to take one and play about with its significance for me.

Dave Marsh is a great model: a thousand mini-essays in The Heart and Soul of Rock'n'RolI, no set pattern: three lines about a 45 or two pages; a wholly personal memory or a discussion of the recording date - no rules: it's whatever you want to say about a record, the only idea being it'll make people want to search it out - the whole point of this notice board, after all. Cause the record isn't just the record; it's you - your memories – the group then and now: "Cohesive," as Jake (or Zeke) said.

And the song I want to talk about is ... Golden Teardrops. My major doowop thrill.

Odd as it may seem, it wasn't that accessible to me when I first heard it. On a poor quality oldies compilation, c.1978, with muddy sound and a dubbed on guitar (Veejay version). Adjoining tracks, like Sonny Knight's Confidential or the Spaniels' Baby It's You, seemed far better: I got the point. But this - this was Ink Spots territory, wasn't it? That guitar. The Harptones' I Almost lost my mind, also on the LP, that was emotion; the Flamingos seemed out of reach, unfocused, somehow. I couldn't take the whole thing in on one listen.

And if all this seems odd to Americans, remember I had a very limited frame of reference: doowop was the brightness of Frankie Lymon or (dare I say it?) the Diamonds' version of Little Darling. And it's what you were saying, Clarke, about not getting a record on first hearing.

I don't particularly recall a moment of piercing clarity. But at some point the elements made sense - tremulous falsetto, out-of-tune-sounding yet absolutely right lead, odd lyrics (why "a cottage by the sea"?) and above all that sense at the beginning that we're being ushered into a holy place, cavernous and echoing as a great cathedral, and then drawn together in a moment of collective stillness, as though calmly taking stock of the sadness in things (Iacrimae rerum, appropriately enough: "the tears in things") before there's a collective sigh - at what life is?- and Sollie McElroy comes up to testify or confess: "Swear to God I'll stray no more ..."

But it's too late: although at one point he addresses the lost love directly - "Darling, put away your tears," – the burden (and howl) of the song is about regret: all he can do is try to take in fully the time he hurt her enough to make her cry: the time, now gone, when he mattered to someone, and the knowledge bearing down upon him that he's going to be carrying that memory to the grave and beyond: "Until the end of time, And throughout eternity - " Golden Teardrops. Cried, by her, for him. And the rest of the group, or congregation, seem to grab him there - we're almost at the end of the song now - try to hold him in that moment when he feels the enormity of what he's done. Maybe the wisdom will last. Who knows? But the sad, sweet pain - he was once loved - undoubtedly will, if the falsetto that weaves in and out of the reiteration of that painful vision of her tears at the end is anything to go by.

I've said before that doowop lyrics don't matter that much: a peg for emotions. They'd be trite enough here if read on their own (Ditto Danny Boy.) But they give the group a clarity of focus that inspires them to a height they never quite attained on any other song, for me. If any of you reading this haven't heard Golden Teardrops, download a file, buy a CD (Rhino), do something. It is, quite simply, the loveliest and the saddest of all doowop records. In his autobiography Chaplin talks of the day music entered his soul, or words to that effect . Golden Teardrops, like Danny Boy, seeped into me on some unknown date. But I never tire of it and always hear it afresh; for me it holds the whole mystery of doowop: it's religious, it's secular, it's... beyond words, actually.

So much for stopping... but I've needed to say all this for years.


Online version of The Heart of Rock and Soul here, although Golden Teardrops is not included. Had it been, I probably wouldn't have attempted the above.

Bradford Cox of Deerhunter talks about Golden Teardrops in an interview with Gordon Campbell in the December 2009 issue of Werewolf.

The interview page contains a link to Golden Teardrops on youtube; if you have realplayer, however, I'd recommend the official Vee Jay website's The Moonglows Meet the Flamingos page for a much higher quality streamed version (as well as the rest of the Flamingos' Chance recordings, including their sublime September Song), plus a link to downloads of of Vee Jay material. Scroll down the same page and click on the album artwork to read Billy Vera's liner notes, which include what may be the last word on the song's origins.

Neither version of Golden Teardrops, sadly, is the one I first learnt to love, the 1961 reissue on Vee Jay with overdubbed guitar, which doesn't seem to be available on CD. Ah well, I still have my original cheapo Springboard International LP. And while trawling the net for an image of that album (Vol. 18 in Springboard's ORIGINAL OLDIES series) I came across a useful summary of the company's acquiring the rights to Vee Jay here as part of Mike Callahan and David Edwards' The Vee-Jay Story, which covers not only the history of this great company but the tangled tale of the many companies who licensed this material. (The home page of Mike Callahan's excellent Both Sides Now Publications website, here, from which The Vee-Jay Story is drawn, will point you towards more scrupulously researched record label discographies and histories as well as the Stereo Chat board, a highly addictive forum for the discussion of good and bad practice in the remastering of oldies for CD and of what does, and does not, constitute true stereo.)

More bizarrely, however, I happened across an account of French artist Francis Baudevin utilising one of those cheapo Springboard ORGINAL OLDIES LPs in his work for a current exhibition. If you happen to be in France, the show is on till December 23rd at 16 rue Duchefdelaville, 75013 Paris, but I have to warn you that a) it is not the ORIGINAL OLDIES volume which contains Golden Teardrops and b) the gallery's account of the artist's intentions made my eyes bleed - though it does make more sense when you see that, among other things, he's simply appropriated the basic geometric shapes used throughout the album covers in that series. Wonder how the original designer (if still around) would feel about such an unlikely compliment, four decades on?

Though I suppose you could say those original album covers (see below) were, if not masterpieces, then certainly ideally suited to the places where they were originally sold. And many years ago when I was an art student, a tutor told us that good design was all about an object's being fit for its intended purpose with nothing extraneous; he rhapsodised, by way of illustration, over a lock for a gate shaped out of a single piece of metal. But it did what was required; and those album covers, never intended for lesiurely perusal in a record shop, likewise performed their function perfectly, I'd imagine, in supermarkets and the like: same shapes, so you know it's the same series; different colours, so you know it's not the same volume you bought last week (or month, depending on your pocket money/wages); and the clincher, those all-important song titles and artist names prominently on the front cover as you move in for a closer inspection:

Suprising that Andy Warhol never cottoned on to their graphic potential before M. Baudevin - but then, maybe he already had the original Vee Jay albums. Or could it be, in fact, that Warhol was the brains behind the notorious theft of Lou Reed's entire doo wop collection, only to find warring sensations of guilt and delight serving both to check his enjoyment of the purloined discs and stifle creative stirrings in the area of doo wop-related graphics ever after, for fear of inadvertantly exposing the source of his inspiration to Lou? A case, you might say, of The Tell-Tale Heartbeats ...

The above puerility discharged, I couldn't resist checking the chronology of Reed meeting Warhol and getting his records pinched. To my surprise (as I presumed it happened long before the two met) I found that his records (and his Gretch guitar) were stolen while he was performing as part of Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable in New York in April 1966 - so it is technically possible that Warhol could have been the culprit, sneaking off to do the deed when Lou was safely onstage. Unless it was some earlier theft of the teenage Reed's records which I'd vaguely registered while surfing and he was forever dogged by ill luck in the matter of vinyl retention.

Either way, I would love to know which particular doo wop records he favoured, although I strongly suspect that Dion and the Belmonts' insouciant Love Came to Me would have been among them: at one point Dion gives a kind of laidback chuckle during the bridge ("Love makes me, uh, makes me feel so good") which makes me think of Sweet Jane.

Anyway, getting back to the point, after a fairly extensive search on the net, I haven't been able to find an image of ORIGINAL OLDIES Vol. 18 (Springboard SPB 2018), the one which turned me on to the Flamingos, nor M. Baudevin's Vol. 19, but here's another in the series which, like Vol. 20 above, you can click to savour in all its trashy glory:

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