This essay was commissioned for Hive, a Longreads series about women and the music that has influenced them. It was edited by Danielle A. Jackson, who described the project in an introduction to the series.
I’m ashamed of how much I wish to remember—doubly ashamed because I know it’s impossible to remember everything. Life is too much for the mind to carry. But to me it’s always seemed wrong—a betrayal, even—not to try.
In the wake of a devastating breakup, I tell my therapist how M would sit up in bed by balancing his weight on the back of his hand, like a girl child. I was always worried he would hurt his wrist. The detail is neutral. It’s nothing. But this is what love does: it venerates, through close observation, the bits and pieces of a person that don’t add up to his public personality.
I wonder if I’m trying to use this detail to claim him as my private property. Intimacy comes with a kind of prestige—the right to say, with authority, we spent three years together. And yet the detail confers no ultimate knowledge: I saw him do what he did, but neither one of us really knew why he did it.
In her book about Cuban music, the scholar Alexandra Vazquez proposes a method—Listening In Detail—that privileges “interruptions that catch your ear, musical tics that stubbornly refuse to go away…things you might first dismiss as idiosyncrasies” but later return as haunting refrains. As in acupuncture, the detail wounds as it heals: it is a fine needle that activates a mysterious flare of energy lying dormant in an ordinary body.
“Listening in detail ignores those accusations” of doing too much with material “of seemingly little significance.” After all, this work-around, this patient ceaseless gleaning, is a strategy—an alternative approach “to the too-muchness of events” which can’t be taken in whole (if wholeness ever was). Vazquez acknowledges how women have often been the custodians of details, as we are often rendered details ourselves—inconvenient “bits of history that get skipped over or left unattended.”
I don’t want my part to get skipped over, but I still don’t know how to write directly about what went down between me and M. All I can do is worry a detail like an R&B singer worries a line.
For years I’ve cherished a clip of Smokey Robinson and Aretha Franklin singing on Soul Train. As far as I know, they weren’t lovers—they grew up together in Detroit—but lifelong friendship has its own romance, so it hurts where romance hurts to learn this clip is the only duet recorded between them.
When Aretha died, in August 2018, Smokey confessed his “regrets” to Rolling Stone. The wayward, homegrown harmonies they made were never tracked or mastered. There’s no album of duets to play on Sundays while we cook and clean. Loss forces us to mourn what might have been alongside what was. No one—especially not an artist like Aretha—exhausts her creativity in a lifetime, and we sigh, with Smokey, at that endlessly retreating horizon of possibility.
But mostly, Smokey’s grateful. He’s certain his friend’s voice—singing alone, without him—will touch people “who haven’t even been born yet.” For once there’s no doubt: she was, is, and “will be known” in ways most people—most Black women—weren’t, aren’t, and won’t be.
Of course, no one is ever known completely—not the friend, not the lover, perhaps least of all the star. A “deep cut” like the Soul Train duet marks the limits of our knowledge, beckons from the shadows like a woman smoking in a robe and wig cap glimpsed through a bedroom door. Deep cuts cut deep, find fresh blood in a familiar body of work. Sometimes they almost seem secret.
Fred Moten reminds us that Black music knows how to keep a secret “even in the midst of its intensely public and highly commodified dissemination.” And I’ve always felt that here. Though the Soul Train performance is live on television, there’s a privacy between the two soul savants that remains intact, play cousins at the piano bench bubbling with gentle banter.
Smokey is more extroverted, trading jokes with Don Cornelius, while Aretha keeps her smile halfway to herself. She responds to Don’s questions as if in reverie, invoking neighborhood landmarks in the North End of Detroit—“Belmont and Oakley, mmhmm, Boston Boulevard”—that mean nothing to those who don’t know the city. But the place names make a familiar music, like a verse or two of talking blues that embed her personal journey in her people’s Great Migration. Her details cue up an invisible ensemble.
But not all details will be spoken. She won’t let Smokey reveal exactly when they met—a diva’s vanity about age, to be sure, but also, I think, an impulse to keep that shared childhood between them. “Smokey,” she says softly, bumping his shoulder with hers while he fools for the cameras, as if calling him by a pet name she invented herself.
In 1979, Aretha Franklin had long ago secured her crown as Queen of Soul, but she hadn’t produced a Top 20 hit in five years. She was only 37, so it must have felt a little strange to let Don Cornelius honor her with a tribute episode. She had so much music left to make. The footage has an interstitial quality, as if no one is sure of the occasion or what it calls for.
“Normally,” says Don Cornelius, “I guess our audience would expect you to sing a medley… But as a change of pace I’d like to ask if you remember any of Smokey’s songs.” You can tell the request catches Aretha off guard—she sucks her teeth—but very quickly her mind picks up a melody and prepares the piano to receive it. The opening descent of “Ooo Baby Baby” begins before Don’s done talking—once triggered, the remembered music has its own momentum.
The original version recorded by The Miracles in 1965 is a little treacly for my taste. But on Soul Train, the yearning inside the song stands naked, stripped of strings and studio polish. Oooo, la la la la—Aretha knows how to make nonsense sound like language, like heartbreak’s mother tongue. Smokey lets her enter alone before his harmony comes in so smooth and low it’s hard to say exactly when.
Eventually Aretha begins to drop the lyrics behind the beat, as if the song’s a one-way train she doesn’t really want to catch. What a price to pay. Single words drift off, float—so much air in the “h” of the “what,” so much melismatic lingering over “pay.” If the piano were much slower we couldn’t call it rhythm.
Smokey takes the lead on the second verse, and his softness swells with the radiance of clouds seen from above. Bluesy ad-libs from Aretha, whose lower range keeps us half-tethered to the world we know. Her voice subtly registers the betrayal that underscores the song’s intoxicating apology.
The duet ends before I’m ready to let it go, a spiraling falsetto line falling from his lips, then hers, then his. Baby baby. Then it’s over. Shivers of baffled laughter.
Every detail in the Soul Train duet is worthy of study, but I like to run the clip back to a bit from the beginning—that first harmony—beauty so keen it even takes Aretha by surprise. She turns to Smokey, flirting:
“We should’ve been a duo!”
“I’m telling you, it’s not too late!”
Now that Aretha’s gone, it really is too late: the dream of a more extended collaboration has come and gone. But it feels foolish—greedy, even—to long for something better than what we have. Resigned to our own version of history, we allow ourselves a brief window into a parallel musical universe, one in which Aretha, Smokey, and the Soul Train audience are already mourning the many unsung songs that hummed around the singer even before she died. Around every living person, really.
I still wonder why they didn’t finish out the song’s third verse. Maybe Aretha stopped singing because it was too painful to sustain a sweetness she somehow knew wouldn’t be reprised. For me, the two-minute Soul Train swoon is a love story, compressed: how long can this feeling last? How long can the conditions for it hold?
Or maybe Aretha didn’t remember the words and wanted to spare them both embarrassment. Sometimes when you’ve loved someone a long time it’s easy to believe that nothing is forgotten. But all you really remember is the hook—ooo baby baby—and when you throw it out to sea, you never know what other memories you’ll catch, or fail to: shining, dark, dying.
I have a soft spot for aborted performances, for songs that don’t sing themselves all the way through. Labi Siffre’s “Bless the Telephone.” In a different mood, Rihanna’s “Birthday Cake.” Or the video clip of Stevie Nicks backstage in makeup and ribbons, rocking through the chorus of “Wild Heart” over and over til her voice has no higher ground to gain but silence:
Where is the reason / don’t blame it on me / blame it on my wild heart.
Incomplete performances feel more like life, which rarely offers closure. There’s only continuing—and, of course, the undisciplined desire for repetition.
M and I met at a Communist Valentine’s Day party, where we started out slow grinding to Ginuwine’s “Pony.” Music suffused our whole relationship. Together we hijacked house parties, haunted record stores, and lay in bed humming to a playlist of love songs so long we always fell asleep before it ended. We used to joke that we spent almost half our time together talking about R&B. But what could be better? We liked it that way.
Early on, I tried to seduce him with the Soul Train clip. I’d shared it with other lovers before, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to share it again. Isn’t that the way it is? There’s so much potential for humiliation in the repertoire of romantic gestures, the contaminated well where we all kneel to drink. I know there must have been refrains he repeated with me, and I feel a chill to think of the P-Funk playlist he put on the first night we slept together, the new scenes it might score.
But maybe repetition was part of the point—the familiar music transforming, for me, as it filled the vessel of a new body. Comparison allowed me to see more clearly the particularity of his response to those harmonies. I loved watching them pour through him for the first time; I was enchanted by the stillness of his attention, which seemed, at first, less tense and thirsty than my own.
Of course, I also hoped the shine of that music would fall on me, the messenger. I wanted to show him something new on the inside of what he already loved, so that the wilderness unfolding between us—the risk and animal need—would feel a little safer. A little softer. Smokey in his sky-blue sweater and Aretha in champagne lipstick, her hair brushed out in big waves.
Coming from a Black American family, M had a richer context for these artists than my previous partners. He had also cultivated, as I had, an autodidact’s devotion to the facts, as well as the feelings, of R&B. It’s easy to receive a fragment of celestial music like the Soul Train duet as a random blessing dispensed from on high, sublimely self-contained, and powerful enough to transcend the particulars of its making. But listening with M, I was soothed by his capacity to see the sublime as an effect that emerges from, rather than in spite of, history—the history of A People, yes, but also the history of little-p people, distinguished by recalcitrant details like “Mmhmm, Boston Boulevard.” We loved the Soul Train preamble—to us this social context seemed essential—and together we became part of the talk that cradled the song.
Just before we broke up, M and I decided to collaborate on an essay or correspondence about R&B. We hadn’t found a shape for it yet. But we had spent years writing in companionable silence at the kitchen table—sometimes one person’s line would show up in the other person’s publication. Imagining a more deliberate collaboration, I looked forward to the spontaneous pleasure I saw in the Soul Train duet, how two people deeply familiar with the voice of the other could still be surprised by the resonance between them in concert.
I think we were beginning to wonder what it might mean to render our long, private conversation for public consumption. To have “something to show for it.” I had always felt a little hidden by him—he told me he hoped to protect us from the racism he experienced as a public figure—so it meant a lot that he was willing to appear with me in writing, the form we practiced best if not the form we loved most.
Is it too late, now, for me and M? Too late to lay down the track where we talk about how spiritual doubt sweetens D’Angelo’s “Me and Those Dreamin’ Eyes of Mine,” then explodes into a desperate Job-like demand in Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know”?
Now I wonder if there was a tricky displacement in these exchanges, a way we tried to dance away fatal differences. I remember how he praised Deborah Cox for the moody disco beat of her free love: I don’t care bout your other girls / Just be good to me. All I could hear, I told him, was her abject bargaining. But it was still a bop, a rotation I couldn’t resist. He played me like a record til he’d worn my grooves down nearly to nothing. He was good to me, I reminded myself, singing along. And it’s true: he was. But just.
My friends warn me, wisely, against nostalgia for a relationship that involved such deep deception for so long. It’s true that I’m the one who broke up with M—when the tidal pull of what he would not tell me threatened to drown my trust even in myself. Other girls doesn’t begin to cover it. I felt he’d forced my hand.
Now, I find myself trying to extract another lesson from Fred Moten’s word on secrets in the performance of Black music. What does “the need… to hold something in reserve,” in the context of Black music, have to do with the lies men tell women? Maybe nothing. It’s not a question I know how to answer, but I can’t—don’t want to—escape its soundtrack.
“Ooo Baby Baby” is the kind of song that tries to smooth things over: Mistakes, I know I’ve made a few. But I’m only human, you’ve made mistakes too. It’s a familiar tactic, a false equivalence that nevertheless can’t be completely refuted. Sometimes I’m in the mood to tear through Smokey’s gauzy voice and take an inventory: who made what mistakes, and when, and why? The devil, like love, is in the details.
Many months after the breakup, we exchanged a few letters, trying to explain ourselves. But there’s no mathematics that can reliably provide a final tally of shared assets, debts, or potential reparations. M told me I’d “never really listened.” I countered that he’d ruined my ear, that I didn’t know how to listen through the distortion of his lies for the emotional truths he kept trying to make resonate—a deep, intermittent hum—the whole time.
Now, I’m less certain than I’ve ever been about what it really means to listen in detail. In the last letter, I told him I wanted to be able to hold it all—the feelings or intentions behind his words, the actual words he spoke, and their effects on me—without expecting those elements to always achieve perfect harmony. In A Lover’s Discourse—yes, it’s come to that—Roland Barthes is clear: “It is not true that the more you love, the better you understand.” Instead, you are overwhelmed by the “exaltation of loving someone unknown, someone who will remain so forever.” At least, it sounds like exaltation when the music’s on.
In an interview with AARP, Smokey Robinson describes his intimacy with Aretha Franklin in the emptiest possible terms: “we would talk for hours about nothing.” But we know what he means, don’t we? “Loving someone unknown,” as Barthes has it, also must involve loving something unknown, a shared life so large and various it becomes impossible to summarize. When we mourn—someone dead, or someone otherwise lost to us—we know “whom [we have] lost, but not what [we have] lost in him.” That’s Freud—theory keeps me cooler company when R&B feels too hot for my heart to handle.
It’s disconcerting, a little, that I can’t remember who first showed me the Soul Train clip. I’ve checked in with former lovers and other likely candidates, and they all deny responsibility. I’m beginning to wonder if I found it myself, following the feedback loop of YouTube’s algorithms. Maybe I am, like Paul D teaches Sethe in Beloved, my “own best thing.” In the end, I guess I’m writing the collaborative essay by myself.
In therapy again, I discuss my conviction that the past demands my loyalty. It’s really a kind of vanity: I don’t trust anyone to remember as fiercely as I do, so if I can’t hold on to what’s beautiful, I’m certain it will disappear. And yet, even the beauty of my own body often feels like too much to bear alone. I still drop geranium oil in the diffuser before bed, wake up the next morning and stand at the stove in my pink silk sleep set making eggs and greens. But without him watching me, I can’t quite absorb the care. Is it so wrong to want a witness?
I wonder how Aretha and Smokey would feel knowing how often I tune in to the deep cut of their primetime longterm love, numb though they must be to the exposures of stardom. Maybe they’d each feel differently.
Lately I’m stuck on a new detail, the moment when Don Cornelius asks Aretha where she and Smokey got to know each other: “And this was in what area of Detroit? Or do you wanna say?” He’s deferring, playfully, to the reticence he senses from Aretha, her coy refusal to reveal the friendship’s full mystery.
But Smokey sweeps them all up in the passion of his will to remember: “The North End of Detroit! If we don’t say it—this goes out to the North End of Detroit—we better say it!” This moment holds, for me, the tense play between two ways we think we might keep love safe: with secrets, or with song.
Of course, Smokey does not really disclose much about what they shared; like I said, he’d later sum up the lifelong conversation between them as “talking about nothing.” But he does insist on the fact of their friendship. He lets us know how much the lives of others—not just any others, but particular others—have honed his voice. What we hear in him is a collaboration. Has always been. We better say it.
I haven’t disclosed much, either, but I hope the details I’ve recorded can resonate like the duet—can make some kind of collective music out of love’s sublime silence.