How Doug Aitken chose ‘I Only Have Eyes for You’

March 16, 2012

That song in Doug Aitken’s “Song 1” was written for the 1934 Busby Berkeley musical “Dames,” and was sung by Dick Powell to Ruby Keeler. It was a No. 2 hit for Ben Selvin that same year and in 1950 was recorded by Peggy Lee.

But it was the haunting 1959 version by the Flamingos, with its ominous countermelody and shoo-bop-shoo-bop punctuation that helped make “I Only Have Eyes for You” a pop standard. Their version, which only reached No. 11 on the charts, has been picked up in subsequent decades by such movies as “American Graffiti” and “The Right Stuff” and on endless oldies radio stations.

Art Garfunkel brought it to the top of the adult contemporary charts in a solo 1973 version. And it’s been recorded by everybody from Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra to Kenny Rogers, Rod Stewart and rock group Mercury Rev.

Now, to accompany his piece at the Hirshhorn Museum, “Song 1,” artist Aitken has commissioned dozens of other versions of the song from a roster that includes Beck, James Murphy, CFCF and Mountains with versions that will blend one into the next to accompany the projections on the museum’s facade over eight weeks.

“Any one of 1,000 songs could fit this role in this work,” Aitken says. “And I like that idea: that it could be anything. But in this case, ‘I Only Have Eyes for You’ is a starting point. And it’s as great as any great song. And it’s able to carry this work, I think.”

“It’s a pop standard, one that has a kind of mass memory in the public,” says Hirshhorn deputy director and chief curator Kerry Brougher.

Because of its many versions over the 78 years since it was written by composer Harry Warren and lyricist Al Dubin,“it means different things to different generations,” Brougher says. “It cuts across time and cuts across space. We all bring a shared memory to the piece.”

More than that, perhaps its shimmering lyrics speak to its use in a sculpture garden on a busy D.C. street:

I don’t know if we’re in a garden

Or on a crowded avenue

You are here, so am I

Maybe millions of people go by

But they all disappear from view

And I only have eyes for you

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