Revisiting a Classic: “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”

“If you look closer, it’s easy to trace the tracks of my tears.” ~Smokey Robinson

In the 1930s American composer Jerome Kern and lyricist Otto Harbach wrote the heartbreaking song called “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” for their 1933 Broadway musical Roberta. Though sung on Broadway by Tamara Drasin, it was first recorded by Gertrude Niesen with orchestral direction by Frank Sinatra’s cousin Ray. It later went on to be recorded by a whole boatload of stars including Harry Belafonte, Connonball Adderly, Polly Bergen, Clifford Brown, Sarah Vaughn, Tommy Dorsey, Vic Damone, Nat King Cole, Cher, Judy Garland, Coleman Hawkins, Benny Goodman, Al Jolson, Glenn Miller and even Charlie Parker. And this is but a partial list. The list of lesser knowns is twice as long. The version we remember best, however, is the rendition by The Platters, ushering this song to the top of the charts in 1958.

Last night this song came to mind as I began reading a memoir by a writer friend and I wondered to myself, “What’s this song about?” For some reason whenever I heard this song I pictured the smoke being referred to as cigarette smoke. I never really listened to the words. I pictured a smoky room, and something tragic happens and the cigarette smoke swirls into the guy’s eyes. The song is much more than that when you finally dig into it.

In four concise verses a painful story emerges.

The narrator is a man in whom the flame of love has been burning in his heart, his chest cavity nearly bursting as he strives to contain it. His friends, in the first verse, ask him a question about his lover and how he was so certain the feeling he was feeling was mutual. Perhaps the very fact that this question is being asked should have been a clue for him.

They asked me how I knew
My true love was true
I of course replied
Something here inside
Can not be denied

Unfortunately his confidence is founded on his own subjective feelings. In the second verse our narrator listens as they continue, summing up that when you love this madly, this deeply, you really don’t always see things as they are because the smoke of that internal inferno gets in your eyes.

They said some day you’ll find
All who love are blind
When your heart’s on fire
You must realize
Smoke gets in your eyes

Who hasn’t seen this or personally experienced it? The young can be especially susceptible, but hope ignites hearts of all ages. In either case, the smoke rising up the firm that burns with clouds your vision to a certain extent.

The internal flame is a source of confirmation bias so that even though friends suggest things may not be as they appear, he laughs and dismisses their reactions… until reality forces him to acknowledge the truth.

So I chaffed them, and I gaily laughed
To think they would doubt our love
And yet today, my love has gone away
I am without my love

When the shadows fall away, when our storyteller finally sees things as they are, the picture is far different from what he imagined. This is one of life’s hardest moments, especially when the heart is tender and as yet unscarred.

Many a story has been told and song sung about life’s first major disillusionment. As the song ends we hear the words again about smoke getting in the eyes. It’s not a cigarette. It’s not a crowded room. The smoke this time comes from another source… a snuffed out flame that no longer burns.

Now laughing friends deride
Tears I cannot hide
So I smile and say
When a lovely flame dies
Smoke gets in your eyes

Smoke gets in your eyes

Hear the Platters’s version here:

If you’ve ever experienced this, there’s a measure of comfort in knowing you are not alone. More about the song can be found here on Wikipedia .

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon https://tinyurl.com/y3l9sfpj

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