One Perfect Song: Tears of a Clown

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“Tears of a Clown”
Written by Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and Hank Cosby
Recorded by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles
Released 1967

“Smokey Robinson is America’s greatest living poet.”

Though this quote has been attributed to Bob Dylan, it has never been confirmed that our modern day Bard actually uttered these exact words. It may have been him, it may have been his manager, or it may have just been a creative journalist with a wild imagination. But whether these words actually came from Bob Dylan or not is ultimately irrelevant. The quote is compelling. Whoever said it has a good point.

“So take a good look at my face
You’ll see my smile looks out of place
If you look closer, it’s easy to trace
The tracks of my tears”

Tracks of My Tears, 1965

“Try to get yourself a bargain son
Don’t be sold on the very first one
Pretty girls come a dime a dozen
Try to find one who’s gonna give you true lovin'”
Shop Around, 1960

“I don’t like you, but I love you,
Seems that I’m always thinking of you.
Oh, oh, oh, you treat me badly,
I love you madly, you really got a hold on me.”
You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me, 1962**

Smokey Robinson and the Miracles was one of the first acts to sign to the Motown label, and in addition to leading the Miracles, Robinson wrote and produced hits for other artists, and eventually became a label executive. His name was attached to dozens of the greatest songs in the history of rock and roll, either as a performer or writer, and he continues to perform to this day.

“Tears of A Clown” was first included on the 1967 album Make it Happen, but was not released as a single until 1970. Thematically, this song breaks no new ground. The character in the song may look happy, but since breaking up with his girlfriend, he is very sad. That is the whole song. If Smokey Robinson tried to sell this song in a pitch meeting, no doubt it would be rejected immediately.

But “Tears of a Clown” is a monster.

Orchestrated to sound like it is being heard outside the big tent of a circus, it prominently features both a penny whistle and bassoon. Two instruments not normally heard in rock and soul hits of the 1960’s. It starts at full throttle, and goes full speed for a powerful 2:39. It never slows, it never falters.

“Now if there’s a smile on my face, it’s only there trying to fool the public.
But when it comes down to fooling you, now honey that’s quite a different subject.
But don’t let my glad expression, give you the wrong impression.
Really I’m sad, sadder than sad.”
It is as if he is wearing clown make up, with a crudely drawn smile. To the outside world, he is happy and carefree, but inside, he mourns his lost love.
“But don’t let my glad expression, give you the wrong impression
Really I’m sad, oh I’m sadder than sad
You’re gone and I’m hurting so bad
Like a clown I appear to be glad (sad, sad, sad, sad)
Now they’re some sad things known to man
But ain’t too much sadder than, the tears of a clown.”
The happy music continues to play, in sharp contrast to the tragic story. The bassoon is thumping deep underneath the happy whine of the penny whistle. The Funk Brothers rhythm section, featuring the legendary James Jamerson on bass, continues to move forward at a breakneck speed.
James-Jamerson
The cadence and rhyme of every line, every word is perfect. The smile on my face should not convince that I am happy. “I’m sadder than sad. I’m hurting so bad.” This song is a tragedy only a clown could identify with. In the brilliant bridge, he explains himself, with a reference to one of the great tragic clowns.
“Just like Pagliacci did, I try to keep my sadness hid.
Smiling in the crowd I try, but in my lonely room I cry,
The tears of a clown.”
There is never a moment in the song we don’t believe the pain and unhappiness. Smokey’s performance is passionate and breathless. This song becomes the template for every rock and roll circus song that followed. Whether Bruce Springsteen is singing ‘Wild Billy’s Circus Story,” the Talking Heads are tempting fate with the “Democratic Circus,”or The Band is celebrating with “Life is a Carnival,” nobody comes close to the mood and desperation of Smokey Robins. Okay…maybe Springsteen comes close.
Smokey Robinson triumphs over pain and sadness in this song. Like so many great works of art, his suffering results in great music. The last lines of the song can almost be read as a guide book to writing great lyrics.
“Don’t let my glad expression, give you the wrong impression
Don’t let this smile I wear, make you think that I don’t care
‘Cause really I’m sad.”
This is great rock and roll, and Smokey Robinson is truly one of our greatest poets.
**So many clips found on YouTube, especially of older acts, are live lip-synced performances from TV shows, or just show still images of the musician, or the song lyrics as the song plays. This clip of “You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me” is refreshing, because it is an actual live performance. In this one short clip, the raw power of these singers is laid bare. Smokey loosens his tie and squirms and squeaks as the horns blare and the Miracles dance and sing behind him. Take a few moments to watch. Time well spent.

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