This is my second guest appearance on One Song A Day. The first one, about why I’m So In Love with Curtis Mayfield, is over there.
Soul music, unlike any other form of pop music not made by Robert Smith, seems to take a uniquely perverse joy in celebrating the travails of love and desire by wrapping up misery and humiliation in euphoric melodies and upbeat dance grooves that still make girls just lose it even today. That was my first lesson in the power of The Isley Brothers.
I was in Amsterdam when I first heard ‘This Old Heart Of Mine’. I was wandering around the red light district during the day, not actually on anything (believe it or not), and I walked into this one bar, partially because I heard this track playing inside (it stood out amongst all the reggae playing in every other coffee house I walked past), but mostly because the girls dancing around behind the counter all looked amazing.
It was like a scene from Grease: a retro-looking bar, with young girls working there who could have all been models – not the walking-coat-rack runway kind, more in the model-slash-actress-slash-singer way. They were jumping around to this track, singing it to each other, and just generally ignoring the customers completely. I took in the scene: “These girls are amazing! They really like this song! This song is amazing!”. It was a formative moment during a formative journey through Europe that eventually led to me coming home and starting my band, The Ray Mann Three.
Up til then, I only knew The Isley Brothers for their ’70s funk standards like “Who’s That Lady”, their covers of “Summer Breeze” and “Lay Lady Lay”, and the soundtrack to the movie that made me believe George Clooney was legtimately cool, Out Of Sight. “This Old Heart Of Mine”, on the other hand, is from their ’60s Northern soul era, when the group was creating beat-pop gems that other acts, like The Beatles and The Yardbirds, would go on to cover (and have much more success with): happy, shiny, energetic, ecstatic – and, in the case of songs like ‘This Old Heart Of Mine’, totally sinister.
Just like Kylie’s ‘I Should Be So Lucky‘ (and Smokey Robinson’s ‘Just My Imagination‘ before it), the sheer joy of the music in completely belies the horrible pain the song is actually about: “This old heart of mine / been broke a thousand times / each time you break away / I think you’re gone to stay”. The chorus, complete with cheery falsetto “oohs” woven into the very fabric of the lyrics (that’s just cruel), is the most bitter of sweets: “I love yoooooou / This old heart darlin’ is weak for you” – it’s personal anguish hiding in plain sight. It gets worse – by the final verse, this guy is completely emasculated: “If you leave me a hundered times / A hundred times I’ll take you back / I’m yours whenever you want me / I’m not too proud to shout it”… ouch, right? All the single fellas: the “Old Heart” of the title is one that’s been yanked about so badly by its on-again/off-again paramour that it’s aged before its time. This song is like dancing on that heart’s (eventual) grave.
And yet, knowing all of this, whenever I hear this song, it still makes me feel really good. It’s not that I’m sadistic, or that I can’t relate to the heartbreak in the lyrics; it’s not that I’m insensitive to the pain Ron Isley is singing at me with everything he’s got; it’s simply that any sadness is transcended by the power of such a glorious pop tune. How can you not dance to it?
I asked the girls behind the counter what this song was. They all stopped dancing, stopped smiling, and gave me death stares. One of them told me, very flatly, the song and the band, and then turned back to the others, who had all suddenly found work to do. I went “Hmmm” and turned and walked right back out the door.
Guess they got that a lot.