in Obsessong

I don’t really have a reason for writing about this particular song other than the fact that I really like it, and that putting out less than 10 posts in a month just seems unacceptable.  Though I suppose we are approaching the dog days of August, and this is a song that tends to conjure up images of those long hot summer nights.  The kinds where a couple of lovelorn youngsters hook up at the local malt shop, go cruising around the town, end up making out at lover’s point, and ultimately die behind the wheel after Johnny swerves and crashes his dad’s Cadillac into a ditch.  Perhaps I should explain that last part.

Song: “I Only Have Eyes For You” by The Flamingos
Album: Single Only
Year: 1959
Written By: Harry Warren and Al Dubin

My Relationship With This Song

I’m sure like a lot of people, the first time I remember hearing this song was in the movie American Graffiti.  George Lucas’ ode to teenage nostalgia is peppered with all kinds of doo-wop and early rock/pop songs from the late 50’s, but there was something about “I Only Have Eyes For You” that always stuck out to me.  Every single song on that film’s fantastic soundtrack is decidedly upbeat and peppy, and thus reflected the film’s more innocent and carefree depiction of the American teenager.  However, this Flamingos ballad always seemed noticeably more wistful and downbeat, and is thusly used in a scene that’s a little more muted than the rest of the film, even if it is just another showcase for Charles Martin Smith’s impressive poindexterity.

My real fascination with this song didn’t really bloom until a couple years later, when I was in my first year of college and going through a brief Drifters phase.  This caused me to say to myself, “Hey!  Maybe I should start compiling an iTunes playlist of all the great doo-wop singles.  Yeah!”  But basically I got as far as downloading “I Only Have Eyes For You” and saying, “Nevermind.  Just having this song is good enough.”  Which looking back seems a bit strange, since “I Only Have Eyes For You” is almost completely outside the realm of the kinds of bouncy rhythms and happy-go-lucky harmonies that are a trademark of most doo-wop songs.

Reasons Why I Love This Song

“Doo-bop-sh-bop!”: Ok, so maybe this is a doo-wop song at heart.  After all, it’s hard to refer to it as anything else when the most repeated word in the song isn’t actually a word at all.  However, the silly repeated nonsense that is “doo-bop-sh-bop” isn’t really used in the same playful context as your typical nonsense pop-song words (i.e. “Be-Bop-A-Lula”, “Da Doo Ron Ron”).  In fact, it’s downright eerie the way these back-up vocals are used, and I think it all has to do with the ridiculous amounts of reverb that the vocals have been slathered in.  It’s the kind of thing that practically sends shivers down your spine.

That plunking piano part: I’m not the sure that the piano part is necessarily one of the most remarkable parts of this song, but I don’t think it would have the same effect without it.  While everything else in the song shifts and contorts into different smoky patterns as it goes along, the piano is the one constant, as it just keeps tapping along in that same staccato rhythm.  In some weird way it almost reminds me of a more mellowed out variation on Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho.  Which is one of many reasons that I can’t help but think that within the confines of this song, death is lurking somewhere around the corner.

How the chorus attempts to swallow you whole: This is where the reverb really takes over.  We only hear it in starts and stops on the verse, but when the chorus takes over, it really just hits you like a sea of melancholy.  I’m not really even sure what to make of the phrase “I only have eyes for you”, since back then I’m sure it seemed like just a nice little romantic thing to say to a girl, but now sounds just a wee bit stalker-y.  And because it’s being supported by those ghostly back-up vocals, it’s hard not to think that there’s something sinister going on here.

Death Surrounds It: As I’ve already alluded to (not so subtly), I’m constantly reminded of death when I hear this song.  I know it was probably intended to just be a pretty little ballad, but I can’t help but think that this song is about more than just a guy singing about his special someone.  Perhaps he’s singing to a lover that’s been recently killed, and he can’t force himself to move on to somebody else.  Or maybe it’s about a couple that were simultaneously killed in a car accident, while the man in the song is left to wait in purgatory.  After all, the lyrics make several allusions to the narrator not knowing where he is or what time of day it is.  Call me crazy, but this is just the kind of vibe I’ve always gotten.

So Much Reverb.  So Much:  In case I hadn’t made it clear already, “I Only Have Eyes For You” would not be nearly as mesmerizing if it weren’t for the way every little thing in this song (literally) echoes out of the speakers and in to your eardrums.  It’s hard for me to think of another song that uses reverb to create a sound that’s so otherworldly, and all in the context of a mere pop song.

Why I Will Continue To Love This Song

Because it’s probably the most haunting love song I’ve ever heard.  For me, “I Only Have Eyes For You” exists in some weird nether-region that I can’t quite explain, probably in the same general area as Robert Johnson’s eerily intimate recordings.  In fact, I think I’ve even tried to imagine that much like Johnson’s music, there was some sort of tragic, mythic element to the recording of “I Only Have Eyes For You”, like The Flamingos all died after recording the song or something.

But alas, that’s not what happened.  Instead, like practically every soul/doo-wop group of that era, The Flamingos have been around in different incarnations through the decades, with each founding member being systematically replaced by some other middle-aged black dude.  Which is a little disappointing, but considering all the crackpot theories I’ve already built around this song, some half-baked urban legend hardly even seems necessary.