Friday, 11 September 2009

Wild Billy's Circus Story

The machinist climbs his ferris wheel like a brave,
And the fire-eater's lying in a pool of sweat, victim of the heatwave,
Behind the tent, the hired hand tightens his legs
on the sword-swallower's blade —
Circus town's on the shortwave.

Well the runway lies ahead like a great false dawn,
Fat Lady, Big Mama, Miss Bimbo sits in her chair and yawns,
And the Man-Beast lies in his cage, sniffing popcorn,
As the midget licks his fingers, and suffers Missy Bimbo's scorn —
And circus town's been born.

Oh and a press roll drummer goes ballerina to and fro,
Cartwheeling up on that tightrope,
With a cannon-blast, lightning-flash,
Moving fast through the tent, Mars-bent,
He's going to miss his fall —
Oh God save the human cannonball!

And the Flying Zambinis watch Marguarita do her neck-twist,
And the ringmaster gets the crowd to count along:
Ninety-five, ninety-six, ninety-seven ...

A ragged suitcase in his hand,
he steals silently away from the circus-ground,
And the highway is haunted by the carnival sounds:
They dance like a great greasepaint ghost on the wind ...
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 your clowns ...

And the circus-boy dances like a monkey on barbed wire,
As the barker romances with a junkie, she's got a flat tire,
And the elephants dance real funky,
and the band plays like a jungle fire —
Circus town's on the live wire —

And the Strong Man Samson lifts the midget little Tiny Tim
way up on his shoulders — way up! —
And carries him home down the midway:
Past the kids,
Past the sailors,
To his dimly lit trailer;
And the ferris wheel turns and turns like it ain't ever going to stop,
And the circus-boss leans over and whispers in the little boy's ear,
“Hey son, you want to try the Big Top?
All aboard! Nebraska's our next stop.”
Wild Billy's Circus Story is the fourth track on The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, Bruce Springsteen's second album. Released thirty-six years ago today, just eight months after his astonishing debut, it's still one of his best albums: it has the madcap zest of Asbury Park, but more discipline; more poetry.

It's not a record afraid of juxtaposing different moods. The exultation of E Street Shuffle leads right into Sandy, an elegiac farewell to life in his home town; the sublime rock of Kitty's Back cedes to the sympathetic freak-show of Circus Story. The second side opens with the nonpareil Incident on 57th Street — an opera of a story told with equal parts joy and ache — and gives over to the celebration of Rosalita. And then the dreaminess of New York City Serenade at the end.

I wrote that there's not a single dull song on Asbury Park: there's not a single song on E Street that's not brilliant, perfect of its kind, with gorgeously written lyrics and music crafted to its mood. When Springsteen released it, he was not quite twenty-four years old. When I discovered it in my suburban teens, courtesy of one of my English teachers, it broke on me like a wave, and while the lives in these songs could not be more different from mine, I've been riding that wave ever since, and probably always will.

[Wild Billy's Circus Story is on YouTube in the album recording, a live version from 1974 (with some great old stills from the road), and a 1990 acoustic version, amongst others.]

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