Today’s song is in tribute to former frontman for The Miracles Smokey Robinson (born William Robinson, Jr.), who turns 74 today. I have a distinct memory of when I fell in love with this song. It was in the blue Falcon my brother, Tom, inherited from our mother’s father, who died in the summer of 1970. This song was released as a single in September, 1970 (though it appears on an album from 1967), and made #1. It may have been fall or early spring when it got to me, but I know it wasn’t the first time I heard it. Though it was probably the first time I really listened to it. And it probably dates from one of my earliest rides (at 11 years old) in my brother’s car with my brother at the wheel. He was 17. So I guess we can say that the song and the memory stem from an early experience of riding shotgun in a car driven by a teen who I knew from before he was a teen. It’s a proto-grown-up moment, I guess.
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I suspect that I had heard Dylan by then because I think that first experience was from the previous spring. And the carnival sound on, say, “Like a Rolling Stone,” found an answer, to me, in what Robinson considered the calliope sound of this song. The music was written by Stevie Wonder and Hank Cosby, who had created that sound, I believe, and then Robinson wrote the words and did the vocal. That little carnivalesque melody is probably what I noticed about the song and why, when it came on the radio in the car, I listened up enough to get most of the words.
I’m willing to believe that, at 11, I’d already realized I was kind of an internal person, not letting much show on the outside. This song is about dissembling, about appearing happy around a woman the singer would rather tell how he’s really feeling, but he can’t (except by singing the song). He can’t, I assume, because she’s already rejected him. They had something once, and now they don’t. So he can’t go crying to her, or to anyone. So, “Like a clown I pretend to be glad.”
The idea of clowns as actually sad figures is an old one. Robinson’s lyrics reference Pagliacci. “Just like Pagliacci did / I try to keep my sadness hid”: the reference recalls the opera Pagliacci, in which the character Canio, as Pagliacci (the clown), performs in white face while claiming that his face is white from shame at his unfaithful wife. It’s a nicely loaded little reference there from Smokey, and it comes off so easily in the song, illustrating the notion that clowns wear paint and fake smiles to mask heartbreak. And Robinson does some good work with the notion: I love the way he enunciates “it’s only to ca-mou-flage my sad-ness.” Thanks to Tom’s love of army movies, I knew all about camouflage. And I suspect I’d already, like most kids do, learned how to camouflage my sadness.
But it would be nice to know if the memory I have (I remember the rain, I remember the road we were on) is from the fall or the spring. The year was sixth grade, and in sixth grade I developed, by the end of the year, an enormous crush on my teacher. But it was also the year when I developed my first crush on a classmate: the girl who was sitting in front of me in the spring (March, when Frazier and Ali fought “the Fight of the Century”). I’m rather thinking the day of “Tears of a Clown” was in the fall, and that only an inkling of how my heart would be wrung by, say, April and May, was present in me then, but I’d say I was primed for the song’s lesson. “Don’t let the smile I wear / Make you think that I don’t care.” Or rather, please let this phoney smile be convincing, and let me off the hook . . .
In any case, the chorus of this song is so infectious, I never tire of it: “Now there’s some sad things known to man / But ain’t too much sadder than / The tears of a clown / When no one’s around.” If that don’t hit ya where you live, then you are blocks of stone. I was already a fan of Hendrix’ “and the clowns have all gone to bed / You can hear happiness staggering on down the street.” The tired clown, taking off his face or mask, like Dylan’s “clown who cried in the alley” or his “Just a ragged clown behind / I wouldn’t pay it any mind / It’s just a shadow you’re seeing that he’s chasing.” The sad clown, the tragic victim of his own emotional surfeit.
In my personal mythology, the school year 1970-71 counts for a lot. And this song by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, though I didn’t own a copy of it, is part of the texture of those days, maybe even more so as it was just on the radio, at random. And that bassoon! It really is a treat for the ears, and I think it was Tom who changed the words to “but when it comes down to fooling you / now honey that’s quite a different soft drink”—as opposed to “different subject.” Yup, there I was, starting already to learn, as Tim Buckley says, “what it means to fall in love.” Quite a different soft drink, indeed. Though to some, it’s just Bubble Gum.