One of my earliest memories is of sitting on my dad’s lap in the sun-dappled living room of our first house. The chair we sat in then rests worn in my room now, but even 15 years ago it still creaked like an old family relic. As we rocked, my dad sang “Summertime Blues” by The Who and I fell asleep peacefully to the dulcet tones incongruously paired with lyrics like, “Well, I’m gonna raise a fuss / I’m gonna raise a holler.” The first cassette I bought was by Bob Dylan, but the first band I fell completely in love with was The Who. Every morning, on the way to school, my mom and I would listen to Oldies 103.3 FM and my favorites were the Motown songs.
We never fought about music. My brother—who gave me fodder for an endless series of lovelorn mixtapes in middle school and the band names to make me look cool on Facebook in high school—got me listening to alternative music starting in seventh grade, and my drives to school changed for the next few years. My mom endured my obsessive love for Everclear’s “So Much for the Afterglow,” and as the school bus phased out short morning drives and introduced me to the majestic appeal of early mornings spent channeling the heartache and rage of others through my earbuds, I stopped listening to Motown.
In junior year of high school this changed in a matter of three minutes and 48 seconds. One day, as I waited for the bus in my mom’s car, I tired of the CD in the drive. When my rummaging turned up no sufficient alternatives, I turned on the radio and cycled, thanks to a well toned habit, to Oldies 103.3. The first song I heard was “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)” by The Temptations. Those few minutes were the closest I’ve ever gotten to having a Proustian moment.
The song begins with Eddie Willis’ solo guitar sliding placidly with a light tremolo effect. With each surge of the guitar and Bob Babbitt’s bemused bass, the snare drum hisses almost unintentionally. The song is undeniably recorded live, which is almost hard to believe because it is so perfectly played. It feels magically calm, peacefully together. When The Temptations strike their first three-part harmony, Babbitt locks into a warm bassline, and the horns strike a chord and fade. Otis Williams sings with soft-toned reverence as he sets the scene: “Each day through my window / I watch her as she passes by.” Williams tells of his joy at loving this distant woman: “Soon we’ll be married / And raise a family.” At each chorus, he reminds himself that she doesn’t know he exists: “It was just my imagination / Running away with me;” every chorus a resignation to the verse’s dreamy hope.
When The Temptations recorded the song, they knew they were coming to the end of something. In the section of the song when the narrator’s self-deceit gives, Paul Williams moans, “Every night on my knees I pray.” At the time, the pain of Williams’ sickle-cell anemia had driven him to alcoholism, and the group knew that soon they’d have to let him go. His voice is pure emotion on those notes, strained through a growing husk. Two years later, he’d take his own life with a shotgun. Eddie Kendricks felt he was constrained by the group and was moving towards a solo career. When Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong gave the group the song, The Temptations all knew it might well be their last.
It feels like a memory the first time you hear it. Dreamlike and faded, it ebbs from even the most compressed MP3 as if it’s worn with a thousand late-night spins under a dulling needle. The guitar tone is muted and distant like the orchestra’s French horn, throbbing and mumbling soothingly. Williams sings of loving a girl who will never know him, but the song is somehow not heartbroken. It’s as if, in producing this rapture, the love, while unrequited, is not unfulfilled. It’s almost humorous to hear the members of the group finish each other’s sentences as if they were all the same lovelorn dreamer, mournfully packed behind a windowpane and watching their love go by.
But it isn’t funny, or sad, or pained—it’s joyful. The song is a peaceful space where such love can flourish, and The Temptations sound as if they’re dreaming together, providing the harmonies that undergird each other’s reveries. Kendricks had to record his vocals separately because he was so mad at Williams that they couldn’t be around one another anymore, but on the record their overdubbed voices harmonize the way they did when they’d just begun. The song is bittersweet because their dreams of stardom are dissipating, but joyful because they’ve dreamed nonetheless.
—Columnist Benjamin Naddaff-Hafrey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.