People say believe half of what you see, son
And none of what you hear
But I can't help bein' confused
If it's true please tell me dear
Do you plan to let me go
For the other guy you loved before?
Don'tcha know I
Heard it through the grapevine
Not much longer would you be mine
Baby I heard it through the grapevine
Ooh I'm just about to lose my mind
- Heard It Through The Grapevine (sung by Marvin Gaye and written by Barrett Strong)
More than 73 years ago, Barrett Strong, as a singer, declared "Money (That's What I Want)" for the first hit single from the Motown empire.
What he actually wound up getting was musical immortality. As a songwriter.
Strong -- who passed away this past weekend, at the age of 81 in Detroit -- co-wrote some of Motown's most enduring hits, with a variety of collaborators but primarily the late Norman Whitfield. Those included "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" for Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight & the Pips, "War" for Edwin Starr, the Undisputed Truth's "Smiling Faces Sometimes" and a wealth of material for the Temptations -- "I Wish It Would Rain," "Just My Imagination," "Cloud Nine," "Psychedelic Shack" and "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," for which Strong shared a Grammy Award.
Hearing It Through the Grapevine
Barrett Strong's seminal hit song, "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" is considered by Rolling Stone's long-time music critic, David Marsh, and many others, as the #1 song written over the last 55 years:
"The song isn't a plea to save a love affair: it's Barrett Strong's essay on salvaging the human spirit. The record distills four hundred years of paranoia and talking drum gossip into three minutes and fifteen seconds of anguished soul-searching. The proof's as readily accessible as your next unexpected encounter on the radio with a fretful, self-absorbed vocal that makes the record a lost continent of music and emotion.
"How does something so familiar remain surprising for so many years? To begin with, Marvin Gaye plays out the singing with his characteristic amalgam of power and elegance, sophistication and instinct: now hoarse, now soaring, sometimes spitting out imprecations with frightening clarity, sometimes almost chanting in pure street slang, sometimes pleading at the edge of incoherence, twisting, shortening, and elongating syllables to capture emotions words can't define. And Gaye does this not just in a line or two or three but continuously. As a result, a song that's of absolutely stereotypical length creates a world that seems to last forever.
"The song is a triumph for writer Barrett Strong and producer Whitfield. The music and words begin with an obsessively reiterated electric piano figure. Its churchy chords are followed with a plain backbeat off the drum kit and a rattlesnake tambourine, then a chopping guitar and soaring strings. So Strong and Whitfield have created a masterpiece before Gaye ever strangles a note. The ultra percussive beat on the tambourine is the sound of the rumor reaching home; the rest of the record is about its consequences."
And consequences is the theme of this column.
"Strong's lyrics as Gaye sings is an internal dialogue. In the first half of the song, as the singer grabs at the truth, it seems less likely that he's actually staging a confrontation than that he's imagining one, weighing Strong's story he's heard against seemingly meaningless events that now assume the status of clues. By the middle verses, the shame and humiliation have overwhelmed him and all that's left is "you coulda told me yo'self," a claim on the past that's meaningful only because of what isn't being delivered in the present. Then, we find out that his lover's not only left him, but that she sneaked off with "the other guy (she) loved before," From this moment through to the end, a good forty-five seconds (which is an epoch in the time scale of a three-minute single), Gaye accepts the truth and enters into mourning.
"Even if that is how Whitfield and Strong conceived the lyric, it's the measure of the importance of records over songs that Gaye is the only singer who really gets to its heart. (Gladys Knight gave a journeyman rendition in which neither gossip nor grief seemed so significant, and Credence Clearwater Revival's was just overwrought: partly because it never catches a groove, but mostly because it takes too seriously the implied voodoo rhythms, as if Detroit were New Orleans)."
More Lessons Learned
In "Grapevine," though Marvin Gaye "rails against the facts, he knows they have him trapped. What makes Grapevine's most distinguished lines (written by Strong) -- "Losin' you would end my life, you see/Because you mean that much to me" -- so harrowing is that they come from the mouth of a man raised to believe in the literal fires of hell who now worships love.
"For Gaye [and Strong], being cheated out of his lover is a sign of heavenly condemnation. Gaye and Strong let their vice make a gospel leap for that first "you," then immediately brings it back into control, as if he's still struggling with how much she does mean to him."
Barrett Strong's words, in Grapevine -- repeated at the beginning of this column -- still ring true.
As do the consequences!:
"Believe Half of What You See and None of What You Hear"
You see, in music lyrics as in markets... Believe half of what you see and none of what you hear.
What's Going On?
There are simply too many made up narratives on the markets -- in an attempt to explain the daily market moves. These narratives are noise, rarely thought out and almost never facts-based.
They are a reaction to the notion that "price is truth." And, as the dear Divine Ms M, Helene Meisler, repeats in her mantra: Price has a way of influencing sentiment (and obscuring the facts).
Facts change and the markets are a dynamic in an ever-changing mosaic:
A year ago we were "told" by the pundits and "talking heads" that inflation would be transitory. The Fed, the gang that can't hit it straight, were in on it, predicting (one year out, like today!) that inflation would be only about 2.7% and that Fed Funds rate would be less than seventy basis points. Oops... and markets were pummeled over the next 12 months.
As the month of January (2023) progressed, stock price momentum accelerated to the upside and many are now convinced that a new bull market had commenced in the wake of impressive breadth thrusts and price action. (As I noted Monday, the action had became consensual -- typically a warning sign!)
But too few were focused on a changing market structure that was importantly influencing market direction as ETFs, quant strategies and products and now the speculation du jour, ODTE options, have likely become the tail that wags the market's dog. Defensively positioned CTAs, retail and hedge funds contributed to the market's swift advance over the last few weeks, with a heavy dose of FOMO (accumulating with every uptick).
Finally, the growing consensus acceptance that inflation had been licked became a fixture of the bullish cabal's narrative. (It was, for a while, my view as well and an important factor in why I expected a better first half ). Those bullish narratives continue even in the face of:
- A +29% rise in the price of gasoline over the last 45 days.
- Sugar has risen by +21% since October and is trading at an all-time high.
- Lumber is +32% year to date.
- Iron ore is +44% in three months.
- Copper is +10% year to date and +23% in the last three months.
- The price of corn is +21% from its lows.
Everybody thinks we're wrong
Oh, but who are they to judge us
Simply 'cause our hair is long
Oh, you know we've got to find a way
To bring some understanding here today
- Marvin Gaye, What's Going On?
Once again, for emphasis, bear witness to Barrett Strong's words contained in "I Heard It Through The Grapevine:"
"Believe Half of What You See and None of What You Hear"
Too often consensus has a foul odor.
Stay independent of view and be aware of... what's going on!
Above all dismiss made-up narratives that bend with the market's wind and are designed to fit into and to be compatible with the last tick of stock prices.
Keep their views away from your portfolios and from your children.
(This commentary originally appeared on Real Money Pro on Jan. 31. Click here to learn about this dynamic market information service for active traders and to receive Doug Kass's Daily Diary and columns each day from Paul Price, Bret Jensen and others.)