Not all our memories are happy ones. We all remember situations we regret, golden opportunities spurned for reasons that seemed to make sense at the time, choices taken that didn’t work out, decisions we made we wish we hadn’t.
Some of us just carry that stuff around in our heads. Others write songs about it.
Songs like “Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday” …a tale of love gone sour, and a journey through the regrets we carry around with us about things that happened in the past.
Although “Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday” was made famous by the brilliant singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder, he didn’t write it. Ron Miller and Bryan Wells did.
We get the idea of the song from the opening lines…
What happened to the world we knew
When we would dream and scheme
And while the time away
Yester-me, yester-you, yesterday
A love affair has come to an end, as they often do, and our singer is wondering what happened. One minute they were so much in love. The next she’d gone.
It’s hard to understand that sometimes. Did you miss the signs earlier? Were you just kidding yourself that there was something there in the first place? Did she ever really love you, or was she just pretending?
And when all those feelings are swirling around your head, it’s hard to know the truth. You see shadows where none exist. You pick up on things that had nothing to do with her decision at all. You start to see yourself as someone who isn’t worthy of the love of another human being, especially if you’ve been through experiences like this a little too often.
But in amongst all those self-defeating thoughts, the occasional good memory comes along…even if it is quickly followed by the regret of how things turned out…
I had a dream so did you
Life was warm and love was true
The trouble with regret is that it can turn to bitterness. After a few cycles through your memories of being with someone who’s no longer there, you start to blame yourself. Your memories sour and what should perhaps be fond memories of happy times together morph into realising the cruel trick played on you by someone who pretended to care.
Now it seems those yester-dreams
Were just a cruel and foolish
Game we used to play
Yester-me, yester-you, yesterday
Even in the context of a song about lost love, the words “cruel” and “foolish” hit home really hard.
Cruelty implies that the girl who left wasn’t just uncaring, she was deliberately out to hurt. It’s one thing having things not work out. It’s another thing entirely for someone to be cruel towards another human being. In most societies, that’s seen as a particularly unpleasant way to behave.
And “foolish” is an insight into our singer’s mind. He’s blaming himself for having fallen for the elaborate trick played on his emotions. “Foolish” is how you describe something that someone with your age and experience should have seen coming and should have known to avoid. “Foolish” is how you label your own stupidity.
When I recall what we had
I feel lost, I feel sad
With nothing but the memory of yester-love
This section is also a fine example of how “Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday” is themed by the use of the prefix “yester”.
It’s not just the title. We’ve got yester-love, yester-glow and yester-dreams in there as well.
When you’re writing lyrics, you don’t have much space to work with. That was especially true at Motown back in the 1960s when they tended to blast through songs at a fair pace.
The genius of using the “yester” prefix so liberally is that it positions the whole song as being about the past without having to tell an elaborate story and use up a verse or two before getting to the meat of the song.
When someone is so focused on the past and what has happened, you can imply a lot of the regrets they are probably feeling without the need to dwell on them.
Which in turn is what makes the “cruel and foolish” section stand out so prominently and hit home so hard.
So much of “Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday” is implied.
Stevie Wonder doesn’t go on about what happened, whose fault it all was, what she did to hurt him so much.
You get the regrets. You get the sadness. But everything is implied…until the outburst about the “cruel and foolish games we used to play”. By implying so much else, this is a really powerful moment in the story.
Our singer finally recognises the cruelty he’s been subjected to and the way he’s been played for a fool.
With regret, he sees the situation as it really was, not as he fondly imagined it through the rose-tinted spectacles he’d been wearing up to that point.
When you get to that realisation, you’re probably at your lowest point. You might even stay there for a while. But you can’t start to heal until you remember the situation as it really was, not as you’ve tricked your memory into remembering it to be.
And that’s the journey Ron Miller and Bryan Wells took us on in just three minutes. It’s quite a ride…
Here’s Stevie Wonder with his UK and US Top 10 hit from 1969… “Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday”…
The video is below, but if you prefer to listen on Spotify, you can find the song here… https://open.spotify.com/track/7obdhhVi21lqslhLBVvV0a