The Masters of Goodbye

What is soul?

The camera zooms out slowly from a mirror-compounded chandelier refracting rainbows and settles into focus before expanding toward yet other chandeliers until finally descending on “The Girls” — as Motown founder Berry Gordy called them — together again for nearly the last time.

Ed Sullivan and his audience had seen them on this stage well over a dozen times since 1964, and Diana Ross—hunched and looking a little sedate behind heavy eyelids, despite her indefatigable showroom smile—seems to acknowledge their path with a hint of somber reflectiveness. By 1970 her gift for melodrama precedes her and she owns it. She must own it: it is the currency that will ensure her on-screen future. The other two Supremes, Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong, flank Ross in matching outfits that could pass for bronze but to me are more of a pumpkin orange. Ross is distinguished in luminous yellow-gold, standing at the summit of a platinum-silver cubic heap.

Do we find her, 50 years later, performing in the spirit of the actress she would soon become, or does she reflect the burden of her group? Is she regretful? Or does her gravity announce the promise welling up behind her, when Cindy and Mary cut through the soaring horns at 0:29 to finally relay the title of the song: Someday We’ll Be Together? This performance of Someday has 4.8 million views on YouTube, where I watch. I can and have and will watch it again and again, each performance lasting in the other’s succession as they pass into a numberless whole. But unlike other things I watch again and again on YouTube, this performance remains divinely remote unto itself each time it cycles through.

We like to think that some mixture of realpolitik and spiritual inertia killed the 60s—following the big assassinations, queue decadent footage of the Rolling Stones at Altamont or Jodorowsky’s El Topo. But watching The Supremes, it appears as though the 60s orchestrate their own demise. In this fantasy, an era that in fact was just beginning has the power to wave goodbye under the compulsion of its gentle will, exuding poise and mysterious allure.

 

I love the chandeliers and mirrors. Their over-blown magnificence seems broadcasted from an alternate state that gestures toward us as it drifts away. And so this feels like a final performance, but it isn’t— finality is simply the evening’s theme, more fluid and seductive than The End they have the power to defer. They’d sing from here one final time again, these pantsuits transformed like Cinderella’s carriage into gowns and the chandeliers no longer hanging from the ceiling but miniaturized into the exorbitant compositions hanging liquid from their ears.

***

It’s December 21st, 1969, and the Supremes have now become or have always been the masters of goodbye. Their planned obsolescence is bearing down on us more immediately now— In 1967 the group name was changed from The Supremes to Diana Ross and the Supremes and the change helped eject Florence Ballard from the group, ridding the Motown family of her volatility and willfulness. Cindy Birdsong took the stage as her look-alike replacement that same year. Per industry norm, the name change also signaled Ross’ future as a solo act. “Reflections” (“of the way life used to be”) was Ballard’s last hit single with the group she founded in 1959. Their name change from the Primettes was her invention— The Supremes was truly and uniquely hers to lose. And by the time they were reflecting on the way life used to be, that condition was affirmed.

The pomp and circumstance of December 21st 1969 begins with a brief interview:

Ed Sullivan: What is soul?

Diana Ross: Well, soul is kind of hard to describe. I think it’s everybody doing their own thing. I think you’ve been doing your own thing for 22 years on this show. [applause]

Thus Ed Sullivan is christened soulful by the genuine artifact whose real names they dare not say. Then he invites The Supremes to do their own “own thing.” That is, “a medley of their many hits,” no less than ten songs brushed gently against their passing grace in just over three minutes:

Baby Love
Stop! In the Name of Love
Come See About Me
My World Is Empty Without You
You Can’t Hurry Love
The Happening
You Keep Me Hanging On
Reflections
Love Child
I Hear a Symphony

Reducing these songs to their most elemental signatures not only saves (prime) time, and not only stuns us with the concentrated formula derived from what had tenderized us months and years before— the medley is also honest for its sheer economy, because it distills what works and disregards the rest. This central tenement of pop music was realized only sporadically in the previous decade, and Berry Gordy had the vision to pursue it from 1959 because he would not tolerate—as he could not afford—to release anything less than the hits we would live by. And if tonight is December 21st, 1969, as it remained throughout my 90s childhood, then that was ten years ago— both a blink of an eye and infinity away. In a certain narrow sense, then, this main-lined medley is something like the apex of Motown’s formal achievement.

But the pace is mechanical and relentless— “You Can’t Hurry Love” flashes by in eight seconds. Do we even have time to enjoy what was so precisely located as the very source of our enjoyment? And how is it that we can’t hurry love but can hurry through this song, when the two had seemed so innocently intertwined? And when performance degrades into rendition, what do we retain for the present but the spectral recent past, a turgid state of having happened? “There’s no there there,” Gertrude Stein said of her native Oakland. The Supremes stand one quick American flight removed from their native Detroit, but here it’s time, not space, that’s blank—we might say that there’s no now now.

I’ve seen these moves before. Despite was feels unprecedented as medley, there’s also a painstaking repetition—some would call it “professionalism”—to the hands and the sways and the totemic power of three. We’ve all seen these moves before, and the group knows it, and they know that we know it, but now it seems new for them to know that we know that they know that we know it, and so things feel just a little different now. The Girls precipitate nostalgia through gesture: a miraculous feat.

The Totemic Power of Three

Cholly Atkins, the head choreographer at Motown, defends his results against the increasingly-familiar charge of cookie-cutter homogeneity across Motown acts and within the acts themselves: “Everybody’s doing the same thing at the same time, but they’re doing it in their own way so you let them retain the one thing that they will think is very important, their individualism.”

They will think it is very important. One Supreme remains. Two others are nearly or completely gone.

* * *

It’s December 21st 1969 and “Someday We’ll Be Together”—the group’s final hit and the last American song of the 60s to reach #1 on the Billboard charts—is the evening’s crowning feature. It’s sung last, and in full. Cindy Birdsong was kidnapped earlier that month, and since then Motown has kept closer watch at their headquarters. She escaped by jumping out of a moving car onto the freeway, and so I wonder how she even made it here tonight. And I wonder how many others were wondering the same thing. Or more accurately, I wonder how few. Mary Wilson: “It was hard to know exactly what to feel.”

It’s December 21st 1969 and the Supremes have now become or have always been the masters of goodbye. If parting is sweet sorrow, their sweetness is a drug they have the genius to prolong. Its tragic companion is just the veneer—and that is the yet-rarer genius. This message seems to me the bitter locus of the song, and it’s no wonder I find it reaching out to me from the steel town of my childhood, where “oldies” hits were the lingua franca of an ageing (and predominately white when not avoidably Chicano) populace rooted dismally in a postwar confidence that had long before been replaced by industry recession. Ironically, by these 1990s the Supremes had begun or had always signified the town’s desperate claim to the preeminence of “the past” and all that that indicated beyond the radio. Detroit was burning loudly then, more silently today.

“Culture” is often the final pathetic holdout, and is perfectly suited for staging its own demise in order to keep hanging on. The Supremes had always known this by 1969—it’s evident in the way their dresses fall—and so too did the cob-webbed oldies of our car radio. And yet the hits remained Forever Gold. I took swimming lessons. I helped my mom sell snow cones from a truck in a parking lot so bright with midday that I almost squint to remember it.

* * *

“Someday we’ll be together…” This promise doesn’t seem to land, even then. And so to repeat the cognitive relay— they know that we know that they know that the promise of reunion is only the promise of show business and so only lasts through its duration on this stage. “How sad,” they concede. And how sad that they concede.

What is true for The Supremes in a future they can only pine for is also true for the song’s many other significations. Hope, in all its elegant composure, will not overcome the entropy built into the American machine, and the veil of disbelief in this physics is lifted— the Everybody Couple can’t weather their storm, DNC protesters in Chicago can’t challenge the authoritarian regimes surrounding them indefinitely, Cointelpro was decimating the Black Panthers just as this song was being sung.

And many American soldiers would never return from their measureless distance abroad. In the PBS series The Vietnam War, Roger Harris recalls hearing from his mother while serving with a Marine division in Vietnam: “‘I talk to God every day and you’re special. You’re coming back.’ And I said, Ma, everybody’s mother thinks they’re something special. I’m putting pieces of special people into bags.”

As of this writing, all three of the women comprising The Supremes in these performances remain alive. And yet nobody reaching out of time seems more aligned with the cult of the dead. Why? It could be because “Someday’s” poignancy lies in the expedience of its tragic negation, and the performance here depends on confirming this fact amidst the trappings of glamour.

We will not be together again someday. I tell you we will, but through a matrix that communicates what can’t be said. The heart of the matter is so devastatingly absent that we ourselves are hardly here, are in fact already gone.

* * *

Diana Ross and The Supremes gave their final farewell performance, after the other farewell performances, at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas on January 14, 1970. It can be heard on the live album Farewell. But I’d rather count Ed Sullivan, arguing that in that era the sensational reach of television lays greater claim to the sentimental truths of our collective consciousness. On television, event and artifact converge and conspire.

And so it’s strange to notice the details reality expunges. For instance, although we’re hearing the studio mix of the song in this performance (you didn’t think they were “actually” singing, did you?) the man you can usually hear in the background encouraging Diana on has disappeared. In abstracted audio-space, his gruff “you tell ‘em” lends a kind of mise-en-scène, at least upon repeated listening, whereas here he’s exchanged for what can be seen.

If you listen again, his extemporaneity seems odd to begin with, an intrusion of the studio’s living circumstances that might’ve remained on the cutting room floor just a few years earlier. That man is or was Johnny Bristol, who wrote “Someday We’ll Be Together” in 1961, alongside Jackey Beavers and Motown mainstay Harvey Fuqua. Bristol and Beavers recorded the song as “Johnny and Jackey.” According to Wikipedia, “Someday” was a moderate success in the Midwest but gained little notice elsewhere. That is, until the song was recovered and its content met with real-life goodbyes.

We’re left with that feeling of just a few years earlier. But though the group’s new situation arguably helped propel the song, its broader context was also a destabilizing force. In Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme, Mary Wilson recalls new, challenging questions encroaching upon the dream they were until they were reduced to a dream they only tried to be—timely questions, fair questions, questions that were already or have become unfair, or were becoming fairer all the time:

“How were our love lives? What kind of pajamas did we sleep in? What were our exact measurements? What did we think about the Vietnam War? The Black Power movement? And what was the truth behind Florence’s leaving the group?”

In an interview, Mary Wilson recalls that Ballard was raped in 1961 and then disappeared for weeks, just as the group was getting started. Wilson’s close friend, of course, was never the same again. Less than a year before her death in 1975 at the age of 32 Ballard made her very own final concert appearance, at a benefit for Joann Little, a black female prisoner who was charged with killing a prison guard who raped her. Would Ballard’s final performance, forever untelevised, expose the conflicts underneath a larger saga?

Florence Ballard, standing outside the comment thread

By one interpretation, the 60s that The Supremes helped define had also come to dismantle them, and December 21st 1969, for all its luxuriance, perhaps stands in for this version of reality. But there really are “alternative facts,” other 1960s robust in various locales and invisible to others. For a start, we shouldn’t forget that “The Girls” were sporting homemade dresses and fake pearls in their adolescent bedroom mirrors, glamorous long before others told them that they could be.

* * *

And then… in a way, it doesn’t end. Instead the girls seamlessly depart, as both the product and the product’s missing referent: In a wonder of camerawork and character movement, you don’t notice Mary and Cindy shimmy backward slowly as Diana shimmies slowly forward so that their repositioning doesn’t seem to happen until it’s complete and the stage has darkened. I’m reminded of passing clouds, how you’re not quite sure when exactly one becomes a Pegasus becoming the strong profile of an adult becoming the softer profile of a child on the wing.

Stars and galaxies replace them, and the performance—what I can watch—fades to black from here. Is there more captured on a tape reel somewhere, the girls shaking the producer’s hand, Ed loosening his bowtie as they all walk off-camera in silence and on their very own human feet? If there is, I hope I never see it. I’d rather this beauty yield to nothing less than its own phantasm. This phantasm, after all, fails to erase what it denies.

Spencer Everett does whatever it is anymore in New York. Sometimes he edits Resolving Host with Citron Kelly and Carmelle Safdie. He has often been thanked for submitting his work. 

 

Burns, Ken and Lynn Novick, creators. The Vietnam War. Florentine Films and WETA, 2017.

George, Nelson. Where Did Our Love Go?: the Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound. University of Illinois Press, 2007.

Wilson, Mary. Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme. St. Martins Pr., 1986.