What the clown knew

Jazz great Charles Mingus was always looking for ways to combine words and music, usually in the form of settings for poetry, as with “The Chill of Death” from Let My Children Hear Music, or “The Weary Blues” by Langston Hughes. Late in life, he approached Joni Mitchell about adapting some of T.S. Eliot’s poems — an encounter that led to Mitchell’s album Mingus.

For my money, Mingus’ most perfectly realized fusion of words and jazz was the title track of The Clown, the 1957 album I like to spring on people who’ve never tried Mingus before. (Pithecanthropus Erectus and Mingus Ah Um are also good introductions to this superb American composer.)

Man, there was this clown. And he was a real happy guy, a real happy guy.

He had all these greens and all these yellows and all these oranges bubbling around inside of him, and he had just one thing he wanted in this world. He just wanted to make people laugh – that’s all he wanted out of this world. He was a real happy guy.

Let me tell you about this clown. He used to raise a sweat every night out on that stage, he just wouldn’t stop. That’s how hard he worked. He was tryin’ to make people laugh. He used to have this cute little gimmick where he had a seal follow him up and down a step ladder, blowin’ “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean” on a B-flat Sears Roebuck model 1322-A plastic bugle – a real cute act. But they didn’t laugh.

Oh you know, a few little . . . things . . . here and there, but not really. And he was booking out on all these tank towns, playing the Rotary Club and the Kiwanis Club and the American Legion hall, and he just wasn’t making it. And he had all these wonderful things going on inside of him, all these greens and yellows, and all these oranges. He was a real happy guy, and all he wanted to do was make people laugh. That’s all he wanted out of this world, was to make people laugh.

And then something began to grow, something that just wasn’t good began to grow inside of this guy . . .

The music is a bouncy waltz tempo, with a jolly sliding trombone part and overdubbed laughter. The narrator is Jean Shepherd, who in the days before he became the amiable nostalgia-merchant of A Christmas Story was a late-night radio jock whose free-form monologues addressed those he called “night people” — nonconformists and ne’er-do-wells capable of passing among the day people but always longing to break free of the conformist straitjacket. Anyone unfamiliar with Shepherd’s earlier work is in for a shock with this piece.

“Tank town” is a bit of obsolete showbiz slang, from the days when railroad engines would stop to draw water for their boilers from an overhead tank. Small clusters of stores grew up around these stops, simply to cater to people getting off the train and stretching their legs. In other words, a “tank town” was synonymous with Nowheresville — a flyspeck community hardly worth stopping at. An entertainer who played lots of tank towns would have a pretty bleak career.

Mingus had conceived a loose storyline about a clown who only becomes successful after he pulls out a gun and commits suicide in front of an audience. Shepherd, who loved jazz and prided himself on improvising with words the way musicians did with notes, gradually transformed the story during rehearsals into something that was, in a subtle way, even grimmer. Mingus pronounced himself delighted with the result.

You know it’s a funny thing. Something began to trouble this clown . . . you know, little things . . . little things once in a while would happen that would make that crowd begin to move. But they were never the right things.

Like for example that time the seal got sick on the stage, all over the stage, the crowd just . . . just broke up. Little things like that, and they weren’t supposed to be in the act, and they weren’t supposed to be funny. This began to trouble him and this began to bother him, this little thing began to grow inside. All those greens and all those oranges and all those yellows . . . they just weren’t as bright as they used to be. And all he wanted to do was to make that crowd laugh. That’s all he wanted to do.

There was this one night in Dubuque when he was playing this Rotary Club. All these dentists and all these druggists, all these postmen sitting around, and they were a real cold bunch – nothing was happening. He was leaving the stage when he stumbled over his ladder and fell flat on his face, just flat on his face, and he stands up and he’s got this bloody nose and he looks out at the crowd and that crowd is just rollin’ on the floor – he’s knocked ‘em flat out. This begins to trouble him even more. And he sees something – he begins to see something . . . hmmm?

Clowns crop up often enough in Mingus’s work — e.g., “Don’t Be Afraid, the Clown’s Afraid, Too” — to suggest they had a very personal meaning to him. One of the curious things about “The Clown” is that the protagonist is feeling alienated because the audience expects him to do what clowns do — take pratfalls, slip on banana peels, get a blast of seltzer in the face, whatever. But if this clown is a stand-in for any artist, then doing the expected thing is not enough. Despite what he may think, this clown wants to do more than make people laugh. They have to laugh when they’re supposed to, at the things the clown wants them to laugh at.

Even in his nightclub days, Mingus was famously insistent on having the audience’s full attention: he thought nothing of chastising people for talking too loudly during his sets, and on one occasion, when two women kept chattering through the group’s performance, he grabbed a microphone and slammed it on the table in front of them. One of his best albums, Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, is recorded as a dream-gig, with Mingus thanking an imaginary nightclub audience for shutting up, not ordering drinks, and staying in their seats. He was also angry, not without justification, at what he saw as second-class treatment — not only for himself as a black man, but also for jazz musicians in general as the popular audience headed in another direction.

And right about here things began to change, but really change. Not the least of which, our clown changed his act. Bought himself a set of football pads, a yellow helmet with red stripes, hired a girl who dropped a five-pound sack of flour on his head every night from maybe twenty feet up. Oh man, what a bit! That just broke them up every night – but not like Dubuque!

And all those colors? All those yellows, all those reds, all those oranges? A lot of gray in there now, a lot of blue. And all he wanted to do was to make this crowd laugh, that’s all he wanted out of this world. They were laughing all right. Not like Dubuque, but . . . they were laughing.

And the dough started to come in, and he was playing the big towns, Chicago, Detroit. . . . And then it was Pittsburgh one night – real fine town, Pittsburgh, you know. About three quarters of the way through his act, a rope broke. Down came the backdrop, right on the back of the neck, and he went flat. And something broke. This was it. It hurt way down deep inside.

He tried to get up. He looked out at the audience and man you should . . . man you should have seen that crowd – they was rollin’ in the aisles! This was bigger than Dubuque!

This was bigger than Dubuque! He really had ‘em going . . .

This was it. This was the last one. This was the last one. This was the last one. He knew now. Man he really knew now. But it was too late. And all he wanted to do was make this crowd laugh – well, they were laughing. But now he knew.

That was the end of the clown. And you should have seen the bookings coming. Man, his agent was on the phone for twenty-four hours. The Palladium . . . MCA . . . William Morris. But it was too late.

He really knew now, He really knew.

He really knew now . . .

William Morris sends regrets.

What did the clown realize in his last moments on earth? What was it that he knew . . . he really knew? That audiences are basically sadistic? That all his artistic striving was meaningless? That success always comes too late? That an artist has to kill himself on stage, every night, and it’s all the same to the audience?

I don’t think Mingus (or Shepherd) believed any of that, though I’m sure the thought crossed their minds more than once. I don’t know if either man ever addressed “The Clown” in an interview. If so, please send e the link. What the clown knew. That’s what I’d like to know.

13 thoughts on “What the clown knew

  1. This was stunning, Steven. I’m a Mingus fan (in fact, a lawyer in my new book is named for him), but I’ve never broken this down and given it much thought. So he sees that the crowds have changed, they’re not following along with what he’s letting them know is the good stuff, they’re deciding for themselves what the good stuff is, but for them, the good stuff is poison. The clown’s a corrupted innocent, the work is tainted, and once that happens, what does he have left? Sober stuff, must think on this. Thanks for posting…

  2. Eugene B. Bergmann says:

    It’s a pleasure to see the narration to “The Clown” and to read your commentary. I believe that what the clown knew was what Shepherd, despite all his struggle for more recognition for being the great talent that he was: the artist will never be properly appreciated–the majority of people do not appreciate because they do not understand. By the way, virtually all the incidents in his movie “A Christmas Story” end in disaster. Though people view the movie nostalgically, Shepherd remained (except at the end of a couple of his films, probably dictated by the films’ producers) a firm hater of nostalgia–note that even here the audience misunderstands! The kid nearly gets his eye shot out; Flick gets his tongue stuck to a cold pole; Santa Claus kicks the kid down the slide with his big, black boot; the kid, wanting to help his father fix a flat, the nuts go flying into the snow and the kid swears and gets soap in his mouth for his effort, etc. Jean Shepherd, great American humorist, believed that all of life ended in disaster. My book about his work is titled “Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd.”

  3. Steven Hart says:

    Form the viewpoint of Shepherd’s career, “The Clown” is almost a prophecy — the thing he ended up being remembered for was the least typical of his life’s work. Just as Mark Twain is remembered as a white haired sage chuckling over Tom Sawyer’s antics, while his best work is pitch black at its core.

    I should note that Shepherd had been milking the poison nostalgia vein for a while with “Phantom of the Open Hearth” and “Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories.” The reason “A Christmas Story” struck gold, I think, was the perfect casting — particularly Darren McGavin.

  4. levari says:

    What did he know? See the essay, Van Gogh: The Artist Suicided By Society by Antonyn Artaud. I’m assuming this is what the clown came to know, if not so heady and in French.

  5. […] May 2008 Interesting Post for Mingus Fans Posted by specksnyder under Mingus   https://stevenhartsite.wordpress.com/2008/05/19/what-the-clown-knew/ […]

  6. John M. Whalen says:

    As a lifelong fan of Jean Shepherd and also Gene Bergmann’s book, I’d have to say “The Clown” is basicaly a modernistic version of Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” What the clown saw was grim reality. The closer he gets to the truth, to his own personal heart of darkness, the more his colors fade from bright hues to greys and blues. The closer he got to finding out what REALLY makes people laugh, the harder it became for him to go on. And as noted above, it’s ironic that some believe Christmas story is a nostalgic tribute to the past. Baloney. It’s a disaster flick, but the greatness of Shepherd is that he could still laugh about it all. Unlike Tennesse Williams or other “serious” dramatists, he never cried about it. He still loved being alive. A pretty rare gift.

  7. Lou Perry says:

    As a working jazz musician all of my life the poem resonates exactly the way I feel every time I perform in front of an audience. No matter what the venue may be. Concert hall, or club, any type of gig. The first time I listened to it I knew exactly what that clown felt and why he ended up that way.
    It is a feeling that I am sure any performing artist knows. You die a little every time. Shep and Mingus knew this all to well. The Clown is a masterpiece for all time.
    Lou Perry
    8th Avenue Band
    Stamford, CT

  8. David says:

    What the clown knew is simple:

    He knew that this was as good as it was ever going to get, and … that it was over.

  9. Manuross says:

    Who is William Morris?

  10. Janse says:

    Sorry for my late answer! I think this is the answer to why he really knew at last.
    We all know that he has, so far, been a slow learner. He is giving his audience what he thinks is something good (jazz, poetry whatever). And he sees that they are not particularly interested but he is convinced that if he tries harder they will join him. So at last when he produces crap (a popular song, a standard verse, a celebrity scandal) and they like it, there is only one conclusion for him to draw. He has been wrong all the time. They really did not like what he stood for. He really knew now. Or what do you think?
    But, who was William Morris or what is it that he represents i the story? Is it the white, rich people, using the artist?

  11. Kevin Bott says:

    Great piece. Just started getting into Mingus recently, and just started listening to The Clown. Did a search to find some context and found this… Thanks. And for those who asked (and who will probably never come back here for an answer), William Morris is a talent agent/agency. Sending regrets because the clown is dead.

  12. Janse says:

    Thanks a lot, Kevin, for your info on Will Morris!

  13. TMEC says:

    Tragedy is when you get a papercut; comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die. It’s funny to us, but to the guy falling into the sewer and dying (ie, the comedian, the artist), in his last moments he will feel the very root of existence laughing cruelly at the utterly pointless absurdity of his very being, all that he ever believed in, all that he ever hoped to be: and then nothing.

    And if you are of an Eastern bent, then endless rebirth for all eternity, reliving without hope for exit each individual farce. Hilarious!

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