Tomorrow Bruce Springsteen turns 65. What a long, strange trip it’s been.
I first got into listening to Springsteen when I lived in DE and his music very much suited the surroundings, 1975-78. After 1980, I was less immersed. Since the Eighties ended my attention has been spotty, though always ready to be jogged into place by something like We Shall Overcome (2006) or Magic (2007). Still haven’t really soaked up Wrecking Ball (2012), though I hear it’s “top of his game” stuff.
Anyway, for the dude’s birthday, I’m going back to a song I would’ve considered fairly obscure—from his second album The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle (1973), recorded before he even had the full E Street Band in place. But a search of YouTube finds quite a few live performances of the song, some quite recent. Cool, but I’m linking to the original because to me it’s not just a song, it’s a performance and I like the way the version on the album has qualities I associate with Tom Waits, before Waits himself had developed them.
Primarily, it’s that skill of changing the voice to match the lines being sung.
The opening voice is sort of forthright and a little reedy as it sets the scene, with machinists and hired hands, fire-eaters and sword-swallowers. Then it gets a bit more “suthrun” as it drawls about “Fat Lady, Big Mama, Missy Bimbo” and the Man-Beast and the midget. Then it gets more worked-up, barker style, as we watch the ballerina to-and-fro and the Human Cannonball and the Flying Zambinis, complete with a drum roll.
Then it suddenly shifts into something more dramatic and haunting as we see the Ringmaster steal silently away from the midway, with a catch in the voice that continues into the guitar arpeggios that back “A man in baggy pants, a lonely face, a crazy grin / Running home to some small Ohio town / Jesus send some good women to save all you clowns.” We’ve hit the heart of the song, where the distractions of the circus are pretty much the distractions of life and we’re all clowns in some small town. Musically the segment has an eerieness to it that suits that dark side of the circus that we all suspect is there, disguised by the puffing Sousaphone elsewhere in the song and the carny sound of the accordion.
We get to that carny hoedown sound with the “circus boy” dancing “like a monkey on barbed wire,” and the barker romancing a junkie (“she’s got a flat tire”), and “the elephants dance real funky and the band play like a jungle fire.” There’s gonna be a high time in the old town tonight. An upbeat set-up for the tryst of Samson and Tiny Tim as the strong man carries the midget to “his dimly lit trailer.” The voice now is full of a kind of benign yearning, slightly amused. And just as we begin to grasp the full, human dimension of the carny life (earlier, the midget licked his fingers and “suffers Missy Bimbo’s scorn”—which might be scorn of bad hygiene or scorn of a sexual come-on), “the circus boss leans over and whispers in the little boy’s ear, ‘hey, son, you wanta try the Big Top?’” And that circus boss’s voice is full of a dare and a share in the wonder of it all and isn’t beyond sleazy. And neither is the circus. But the call to its colorful realm beyond the pale of the normal is conveyed well by the song’s arrangement and Springsteen’s deft handling of the lyric. He embodies the song as he sings it, and that’s what reminds me of Waits.
Dylan’s mid-Sixties work—especially Highway 61 Revisited (1965)—had made carnival imagery and symbolism a staple for a certain phatasmagoria of our times. And a carnivalesque atmosphere is common to Waits’ Swordfishtrombones (1983) and Rain Dogs (1985). In the early Seventies, glamrock presented a different kind of carnivalization of the body and our culture, which Springsteen, in his initial albums, also flirted with a bit. But here he takes that Dylanesque idea of the carnival as the realm of the bizarre and surreal and situates it, making it sound as American as a 4th of July parade, while retaining all the overtones of a life beyond the pale and of a show-biz existence that comes with its own rewards and its own costs.
All aboard, Nebraska’s our next stop!