The machinist climbs his ferris wheel like a brave,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.
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.”
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.]