Here’s a song that first saw the light of day in August—the 18th, in 1966, to be exact. We had the 45 at home, one of the bona fide Motown records in the house. Thus, one of my favorites from the prolific team of Holland-Dozier-Holland. They wrote other big hits for The Four Tops, and big hits for The Supremes, and others. But this track, with that haunting melody, which always sounded vaguely Indian to me—and why not, this was the year of “Paint It, Black” and sitars on The Beatles’ Revolver—is my fave. In the late Sixties at least, I knew today’s song better than I knew such songs by the Stones or The Beatles.
And the lead vocal by Levi Stubbs, almost shouted, seems so demanding, so compelling. It sounds like a guy who was way wound up before he ever got to the microphone. We can imagine him—if we want to pretend he is actually motivated by the words he’s singing—waiting to get a chance to proclaim from the radio to the ears of the woman who needs to know that he’ll “be there with a love that will shelter you,” a “love that will see you through.” That part gets to ride the great hook, preceded by that little outburst, “Ha!”
But, apart from that proud, insinuating melody, the part that grabbed my ears back when I heard this song as a kid was the urgency of the opening as the singer characterizes a kind of “no exit” situation: Now if you feel that you can't go on / Because all of your hope is gone / And your life is filled with much confusion / Until happiness is just an illusion / And your world around is crumbling down, darlin' . . . . Granted, those are easy, obvious rhymes, which is why that urgency is so important. Stubbs sounds like he means it, like he’s addressing the very despair his listener is feeling. Of course, that listener is figured as female and so, listening to the song as a guy, you wouldn’t expect to be interpellated by it. And yet—I know I, for one, was drawn to songs that articulated despair, making one feel that there wasn’t much to hope for and that confusion and illusion would be, necessarily, the order of the day.
So I do feel addressed by the song, even though we might suppose that we should be trying to be valiant and even chivalrous like the lyrics of the song. Calling upon someone to “reach out” might even be a life-saving gesture, a way to puncture the dark night of the soul that this addressee seems to be having. I guess one could say that this guy is awfully full of himself, as if “she” will need him and that’s all he’s waiting for. Then again, maybe it’s just more of that needing someone to bleed on, or cream on, or lean on, as we saw with Mick and the Stones a few days back. Or, as in another Sixties classic, “The Weight,” the sense of burden undertaken in the name of fellow feeling with others—and that may well be one of the characteristics I most associate with that time, as opposed to the “me decade” of the Seventies, and the every man for himself bluster of the Eighties. He sounds sincere about it, and soon we’re all ready to reach out, no?
The chugging rhythm track on the song helps to sustain that sense of being sustained by something, something that feels golden and mysterious—I get visions of Sultans and flying carpets and desert spaces where people shrink to insignificance—and of course one of the great strengths of all those Motown groups that Mr. Berry Gordy corralled was their ability to harmonize and create that shifting ground of voices over-lapping and buttressing and surrounding that makes the song feel like a unison commentary: “I’ll be there to always see you through / I’ll be there to love and cherish you,” as if the song itself—or music itself—can do those things. And why not? How else to puncture the anomie of the “loner, no love of your own,” the one whose “best just ain’t good enough”? The more I go on in this vein, the more I think the song would’ve been perfect for the feel-good soundtrack of The Big Chill (1983), which wisely showcased quite a few Motown tracks though not this one. The song speaks to that “hope that must have eluded Alex.” But maybe they didn’t use it because it was already used to great effect at the end of Cooley High (1975), about growing up in the Projects in Chicago.
Just look over your shoulder.