Wednesday, July 2, 2014

One Song at a Time: "I Only Have Eyes for You"

The unique, sophisticated sound of the Flamingos captured my imagination as a teen.

The song: "I Only Have Eyes for You"
Artist: The Flamingos
Released: 1959

This will be a brief one, I promise. I just wanted to write about this song while the mood was still with me. And, yeah, it's another doo-wopper, a tune released only a year before the Passions' "I Only Want You," the song I wrote about yesterday. The titles are almost identical, I admit. If my goal with this feature was to bring you a diverse selection of songs from different genres, so far I'm not doing so hot. But you know what? This is my blog, and I'll write about what I damned well please.

The song "I Only Have Eyes for You" goes back to 1934, and it's been recorded by everyone from hell to breakfast (fuzzy-haired Artie Garfunkel had something of a hit with it in the 1970s), but the only waxing that really counts was the one done by the Flamingos in 1959. You've probably heard their version in a movie or playing on an oldies radio station or something like that, and it's tempting to lump this record in with all the other kitschy '50s detritus, like poodle skirts and hula hoops.

But "I Only Have Eyes for You" stands out from the pack. It's unlike most doo-wop and R&B from the era. It's different from just about everything. The Flamingos took a tune that was already a golden oldie by the time they got their hands on it, and they tore it down to the ground and rebuilt something beautiful and weird from the rubble. To me, the record still sounds like it was recorded tomorrow.

The lead singer really does seem to be in a dreamlike trance, so in love he's unsure of whether or not he's in a garden, and the other singers and musicians sound like they're recording in a different dimension altogether. I get chills every time.

If I can pin the greatness of the record on any one factor, I'd have to say it's one of the simplest things: those repeated piano triplets, what Stan Freberg disparagingly called "that clink clink clink jazz." Never has rock's infamous "clink clink clink" sound been so mysterious or so lovely.

My official blackmail photo.
"I Only Have Eyes for You" had probably been in the background of my life for years without my really noticing, but I can distinctly remember the very night that this recording became one of my all-time favorites.

It was the early 1990s, let's say '91 or '92, and I was a teenager in high school. In those days, one of the main driving forces in my life was marching band. Yeah, I was one of those kids. I was in it all four years -- halftime shows, pep rallies, those funny faux-military hats with the plumes on top, the Sgt. Pepper-esque tunics. That was my life. Hey, I'm not ashamed of it. Semper fi. 

Anyway, we were a competitive band, which meant that on the weekends during the fall, they'd load us onto school buses and take us to other towns in mid-Michigan for these big outdoor contests (usually called "invitationals"). On these busy Saturdays, we'd go to football stadiums at other schools and do our choreographed eight-minute halftime show. Other bands would do their eight-minute halftime shows, too, usually based around a particular theme or a composer. Along the way, a panel of very serious-looking judges would watch all these groups, rate them in a dizzying variety of nit-picky categories, and hand out trophies at the end of the night. It was all very scientific, I assure you.

These competitions took a long time to complete, as you might guess, and we were often very late getting back to the parking lot of our own high school. It would be cold and dark by then, and the kids who didn't have cars of their own would have their parents waiting to pick them up. (Poor parents! It was past midnight!) While the bus rides to the contests were pretty raucous, the bus rides home were quiet and contemplative. Everyone was pretty much zonked out by then. I can remember just staring out the window at all the traffic lights.

My only entertainment in those primitive days was an AM/FM cassette Walkman. One night, I realized I didn't have enough battery power left to play a tape, so I switched it to the "radio" function. At first, all I could get was static, but suddenly a song coalesced out of the chaos! It was "I Only Have Eyes for You" by the Flamingos, and I was hypnotized by it. It's one of those transcendent experiences you hope to have while listening to music, and I don't know that any record could affect the 38-year-old me the way that song affected the 15- or 16-year old me. Maybe I'm still hoping to replicate that feeling, twenty-plus years later.


  1. Hey, you had capes! My marching band uniform didn't have a cape. Totally jealous.

    Incidentally, my favorite use of this song is in Kenneth Anger's Rabbit's Moon.

    1. It's hard to see in the picture, but those are sashes draped over one shoulder. Not kidding. Only had 'em that one year, which would have been 1991.

      Haven't seen Rabbit's Moon but now would like to. Spoiler alert: I may have to write about another great 1950s doo-wop song and how it's perfectly, heartbreakingly used in a David Cronenberg movie. To name the movie or the song would give it away. You might have guessed it already.

    2. Considering how few Cronenberg films feature pop songs on the soundtrack, there's no need to guess, really. I look forward to reading about that.