Working Out Loud with The Boss

Generally, we work better and smarter, and our organizations are more transparent and collaborative, when we can work “out loud.” When we share work in progress with colleagues, they are better informed, and our work can inform their work. When we share what we don’t know, or mistakes we have made, we can learn in new ways and colleagues become invested in our work.  When our work becomes more visible within our organization, opportunities for collaboration can be found and time can be saved.

By reading the great Working Out Loud book by John Stepper, and bringing Working Out Loud circles to our organization to help make the lessons of Working Out Loud a meaningful practice and habit, our organization has begun to see culture and behavior change. People are more vulnerable. They are sharing more. They are not as afraid of mistakes as they once were. They are not as afraid of being vocal about what they don’t know. They want to be more collaborative, and are will to take risks to find opportunities for that collaboration.

I recently came across the video for one of my favorite Bruce Springsteen performances (yes, I am a big fan) from Leipzig, Germany in 2013. Now that I have been a student of Working Out Loud for several months, I see this video with a new perspective. I see that this performance is actually a master class in Working Out Loud.

Springsteen and his band had begun the practice of taking requests from the audience. Mostly, these requests were for songs from deep within the Springsteen catalog. Songs the band could easily plan upon request. But, every now and then, Springsteen would take the request for a song that the band had never played before, or had not played in decades.

Unbeknownst to him, Springsteen is leading a Working Out Loud mega-circle. It is as if he carefully studied the Five Elements of Working Out Loud, and brought them to life for a stadium audience of 35,000 people.

  1. Relationships are at the heart of Working Out Loud. The path to knowledge is via others.
    Immediately upon taking the request, Springsteen looks to his band mates to find a good key for the song. Right by his side is his lifelong friend and band mate Steve Van Zandt. Van Zandt frowns at the keys Springsteen is trying to play. They debate back and forth, in front of the audience, about how the song should be played. It is because of the relationship that Springsteen has with Van Zandt, and because of the relationship that Springsteen has with his audience, that he is able to be so transparent in how he works.
  2. Generosity. We are wired for reciprocal altruism. The currency of real networking is generosity.
    Springsteen could put on an excellent concert with a set list determined only by him, but he chooses to do otherwise. With a spirit of generosity and vulnerability, Springsteen asks the audience what they want the band to play, even if it’s not one of their songs. Through this generosity, Springsteen symbolically brings the audience on stage with him. They are now part of the band. Everyone is in this together.
  3. Visible work. Amplify who you are and what you do.
    Now, the audience and the band are working together, and we are truly seeing how “the sausage is made.” Springsteen hums a melody so the horns will know what to play. “Try it boys.” 35,000 people are watching. “Help us out crowd” as they hum the part along as the horns learn their part. Then, somehow the band all kicks in and they are rockin!
  4. Purposeful discovery. Having a learning goal in mind orients your activities.
    But it’s not enough to just play the song. Springsteen explores the corners of the song. He calls on members of the band to take impromptu solos. Piano, followed by trombone, followed by trumpet. Springsteen does not have a plan, but he invites the audience and the band to discover this song along with him.
  5. Growth mindset. Develop an open, curious approach to work and life.
    There are few artists as talented or successful as Bruce Springsteen. A millionaire many times over. He can play the same songs night after night, and he would continue to fill stadiums. But Springsteen wants more. Even at 64 years old at the time of this performance, Springsteen seeks to continue to grow as an artist. Pushing himself and his band to do more. To be more creative. To be more curious. Watch the band look at Bruce, and at each other, as they make their way through this Chuck Berry classic. They all seem a little scared and very amused, all at the same time. Where is this going? Who plays next? How will this end? Somehow, this all works. Together, the audience and the band grow a little closer together through this joyous, curious and generous approach to rock and roll.

Live on stage, with no plan in place, Bruce Springsteen works out loud. He makes his work visible. Relationships are developed through generosity. He and his band engage in purposeful discovery with a meaningful growth mindset. Bruce Springsteen. The E Street Band. 35,000 people. All working together.

As Springsteen says at the end  “…made it up out of nothing!”

Rock and Roll Easter Eggs

Wikipedia defines an Easter egg as a “hidden message, or a secret feature.” In software, it could be a simple game that appears when a certain keyboard combination is used, or on a DVD, hidden features are revealed when a menu image is selected.

Rock and roll is filled with wonderful Easter eggs. An Easter egg is not when a sample is used in a song, like how “For What it’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield is sampled in the brilliant “He Got Game” by Public Enemy. A Rock and Roll Easter Egg (as defined by me, Larry) is a reference. It’s a clue that another song served as an inspiration for the song we are listening to. It’s a wink and a nod to the knowing listener.

These are a few Rock and Roll Easter Eggs I have come across in listening to music I like. There are not necessarily my favorites, or even the best examples, just little treasures I have come across. And so, presented in no particular order:

  1. “Blue Period” by The Smithereens > “In My Life” by The Beatles
    Off their amazing third album 11 (there’s something magical about third albums sometimes, perhaps more on that in another blog post) is the beautiful ode to sadness “Blue Period.” The Smithereens are huge Beatles fans, and later in their career would  release great song for song covers of Beatle albums. “Blue Period” features a taste of what was to come with a lovely harpsichord instrumental break, immediately recognizable as directly lifted from “In My Life” by The Beatles.

2. “Hangin’ Around Here” by John Hiatt > “The Weight” by The Band
Regular readers of my blog should not be surprised to see Nashville troubadour singer/songwriter John Hiatt included on this list. Always one of my favorites. When first listening to “Hangin’ Around Here” on his 2001 album The Tiki Bar is Open, I immediately thought I was listening to a cover of “The Weight” by The Band, one of my very favorite songs. Though it was sadly not a cover, the intro of “Hangin’ Around Here” is an unmistakable homage to a wonderful song, in fact a song that Hiatt would go on to perform regularly with original Band vocalist Levon Helm.

3. “Sense of Purpose” by The Pretenders > “Louie Louie” by The Kingsmen
Chrissie Hynde, lead vocalist and songwriter of The Pretenders, has never shied away from her love of classic rock and roll. The Pretenders did a great cover of “Stop Your Sobbing” by The Kinks and “A Thin Line Between Love and Hate” by The Persuaders. Though the 1990 “Sense of Purpose” is far from The Pretenders greatest song, it is another example of how they recognize the ongoing inspiration they get from those great early rock and  roll songs. At the very end of the song, Chrissie Hynde yells out the immortal words “Let’s get on out of here now. Let’s go!” which is almost, word for word, the same way the amazing 1963 recording of “Louie Louie” by The Kingsmen ends. Inspiration endures.

4. “The Ballad of the Kingsmen” by Todd Snider > “Let’s Get it On” by Marvin Gaye
As long as there has been rock and roll, there has been censorship, a topic Todd Snider examines with intelligence, humor and exasperation in his amazing 5:03 epic ode to how songs have been misunderstood through the years. “The Ballad of the Kingsmen” begins with “Louie Louie,” then goes on to Marilyn Manson, Marvin Gaye and beyond. As the song fades out, Snider can be heard singing the chorus from “Let’s Get it On” by Marvin Gaye…a controversial song if there ever was one.

5. “Hard Core Troubadour” by Steve Earle > “Rosalita” by Bruce Springsteen
Steve Earle released the I Feel Alright album after dealing with drugs, weapons and prison in the early 1990’s. The center piece of this redemptive, therapeutic album is “Hard Core Troubadour.” Besides a biting reference to Romeo and Juliet with the line “Girl, better figure out which is which. Wherefore art thou Romeo you son of a bitch?” (LOVE that line!). Earle also references Bruce Springsteen, who perhaps wrote the classic “Rosalita” with Romeo and  Juliet in mind as well, as Steve Earle includes the line “He’s the last of the all night, do right. Hey Rosalita, won’t you come out tonight?” Shakespeare and Springsteen, all in one song. Not bad.

6. “Young Americans” by David Bowie > “A Day in The Life” by The Beatles
There are few songs in the David Bowie canon as joyous and celebratory as “Young Americans,” released in 1975 off the album of the same name. I don’t know what this song is about.

“Do you remember President Nixon?”
“Took him minutes, it took her nowhere.”

David Sanborn’s saxophone is wailing. Luther Vandross harmonizes behind Bowie. And then, towards the end, as if to unite us all, we remember the ending of Sgt. Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band when Bowie sings the first lines from “A Day in The Life.”
“I read the news today, Oh boy”


7. “Only Wanna Be With You” by Hootie and the Blowfish > “Tangled Up in Blue” by Bob Dylan
Rock and Roll Easter Eggs exist due to inspiration. The song, the melody, or the message inspired an artist, and referencing the source of that inspiration connects the artist, and us, to the source of that inspiration. Hootie and the Blowfish reference Bob Dylans’ 1975 “Tangled Up in Blue” in their 1995 monster smash “Only Wanna Be With You.” Featuring several complete lines from the song, there can be no mistake where the inspiration came from.


These seven songs only scratch the surface. Rock and Roll has been around for over 60 years. What are your favorite Rock and Roll Easter Eggs?

One Perfect Song: When I Fall in Love

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“When I Fall in Love”
Written by Victor Young and Edward Heyman
Recorded by Nat King Cole
Released April, 1957

A perfect song is timeless. A perfect song is a song that spans years and generations, and will be free of style and instrumentation that identify it with a certain stylistic period. A perfect song may avoid the heavy synthesizers of the 1980’s, the lush orchestration behind a disco beat of the 1970’s, or the organ driven pop of the 1960’s. The greatness of a perfect song will be in the lyrics, the composition and the performance.

A perfect song is preserved in a moment in time. Hearing the song brings us to a time in our lives, an experience that will be filled with joy, or sorrow over a memory, no matter how fleeting. We will recall significant moments when a great song comes on the radio. There may even be a taste in our mouths, or a smell in the air.

I was not yet alive when Nat King Cole released “When I Fall in Love” in 1957. I don’t even know the first time I heard the song, but every time I hear it, it brings me to a very specific place, and it elicits very specific emotions.

“When I Fall in Love” is, on it’s face, a simple love song. Or rather, it is a song with a simple message of the importance of a love that lasts for years. The song is not necessarily being sung to, or about, anyone. “When I Fall in Love” is sung more as a mission statement. A statement of belief.

“When I fall in love,
It will be forever.”

There is no chorus in the song, and there is no bridge. There are only three stanzas and 97 words in the entire song. Only a few of the words even rhyme.

“When I give my heart,
It will be completely
Or I’ll never give my heart.”

The greatness of the song is not so much in its lyrics, but rather in its production and delivery. Nat King Cole was not the first artist to record this song, and he is far from the last. But, his version is arguably the best. His phrasing is at once gentle and confident. His vibrato seems to last forever, until the strings take over the song. Every version of this song that has been released since it was recorded by Cole has been unfairly compared to this sublime recording. It is lush and rich. There is no percussion, only a string section with a bass and a simple acoustic guitar playing gentle staccato chords to keep time with a beautiful harp playing arpeggios, softly accenting every key phrase.

In fact, the instrumentation is so perfect that almost all versions of this song that have been released since 1957 sound similar. Synthesizers are not added, big drum kits are not used. Why mess with perfection?

Nothing in this song connects it to 1957. What made song great then makes it still great in 2017. “When I Fall in Love” is a one perfect song.

One Perfect Song: Johnny Come Lately

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“Johnny Come Lately”
Written by Steve Earle
Recorded by Steve Earle
Released October 17, 1988


“I’m an American, boys, and I’ve come a long way
I was born and bred in the USA
So listen up close, I’ve get something to say
Boys, I’m buying this round.”

These first lines from Steve Earle’s “Johnny Come Lately” off his amazing 1988 Copperhead Road album could serve as an effective introduction for any American songwriter. Blues great Robert Johnson, folk troubadour Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna or Kendrick Lamar. I am here, and I have an important story to tell. I have something meaningful to say.

However, after the first lines of “Johnny Come Lately,” we realize this is not a biographical song about Steve Earle, but rather a story about an American soldier serving in London during World War II.

“When I first got to London it was pourin’ down rain
Met a Iittle girl in the field canteen
Painted her name on the nose of my plane
Six more missions I’m gone.”

The soldier arrives in London and meets a British girl. He tells the world of his love by painting the name of the girl on his plane, and he is already counting the hours and the missions until he can return to her. Later in the song he promises “I’m taking her home with me one day sir, soon as we win this war.” In the chorus, he sings of an expected warm welcome back in the states.

“But when Johnny Come Lately comes marching home
With a chest full of medals and a G.l. loan
They’ll be waiting at the station down in San Antone
When Johnny comes marching home.”

Through this song, World War II becomes connected to a shared, proud and painful past by recalling the popular “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” song from the American Civil War. Heroes were warmly welcomed home then, too. “When Johnny comes marching home again, Hoorah! Hoorah!” War to war, generation to generation, the men and women who put their lives at risk for our safety and democracy come home to celebrations of their heroism and bravery.

Then, there’s a twist. We learn that this story is not being told by the soldier, but rather by his grandson.

“Now my granddaddy sang me this song
Told me about London when the Blitz was on
How he married grandma and brought her back home
A hero throughout this land.”

The soldier did get home safely. He married his British bride. He was celebrated upon his return, and they had a family. They had a grandson.

The narrator is thinking about his grandfather as he himself returns home from the Vietnam war and realizes that the chain is now broken. The narrative has changed. Soldiers return home from a war that the people did not support or understand. The pride of the civil war is missing. The victory elation that followed World War II is missing. People are angry. They are apathetic.

“Now I’m standing on a runway in San Diego
A couple Purple Hearts and I move a little slow
There’s nobody here, maybe nobody knows
About a place called Vietnam.”

America is difficult. Our story is constantly changing and evolving. Families connect to the story of our country across generations, and those experiences are interpreted through vastly perspectives and opinions. I don’t know that the story of our country and its families, now evolving through more than 150 years, has been ever been captured more effectively than Steve Earle has done in “Johnny Come Lately.”

This song, our country…a story about family, war and the patriotism and passion that connects us all. So listen up close, I’ve got something to say. Boys, I’m buying this round.

Check out this short 10 minute documentary film about Steve Earle recording “Johnny Come Lately” with Celtic Punk band The Pogues in North London.

9 Great Rock, Jazz and Soul samples in Rap Music

“Said a hip hop,
Hippie to the hippie, the hip, hip a hop,
and you don’t stop, a rock it out.”

Rapper’s Delight by The Sugarhill Gang was released in 1980, and was the first rap song I ever heard. I was 14 years old, and growing up a white, Jewish kid in the suburbs of Chicago, rap music that was completely foreign to me. I found the song to be a satirical curiosity. I had never heard lyrics like this before, and the music was distilled down to a simple beat. Whenever I heard the song, it made me smile.

Rap music was made by people I didn’t know, and it came from places I didn’t visit. My friends and I easily dismissed rap music. “That’s not music.” “What’s the big deal, I could do that!” But over time, I recognized the necessity of rap. These were important stories that needed to be told. The songs were honest, sincere, angry, joyous and endlessly creative.

Rap music then began to contextualize their new songs by including samples of older songs, and it was through this sampling that I finally found my way to rap music I could identify with, understand and enjoy.

It is easy to dismiss music we don’t understand, or music that feels completely foreign to us. But, by including snippets of songs we know, rap songs become a little more familiar, they give the sampled songs a new life, and a new way for us to listen to the new songs, and the old songs.

nwa511.Express Yourself,” by NWA masterfully samples the horn riffs and bass lines of “Express Yourself” by Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band. Written by Ice Cube and performed by Dr. Dre, it is the one song on the Straight Outta Compton album that does not use any profanity, and yet ironically demands an expectation of freedom of expression and action.

rs-177844-1445983892. I first found “Ghetto Bastard,” by Naughty by Nature on MTV in the early 1990’s. The video was a sparse, honest document of life in the ghetto. Drugs, crime, abandoned children. And yet, an eternal optimism was offered in the chorus, which featured a brilliant sample from “No Woman No Cry” by Bob Marley. Yes, everything is going to be all right. Perhaps the finest sample in a rap song I have ever heard.

3. “Eye Know” by De La Soul is an immediately inviting, airy and open track off Three Feet High and Rising from 1989, regularly called one of the finest hip hop albums of all time. “Eye Know” features a sample of “Peg” by Steely Dan, with the familiar refrain of “I know I love you better.” Sing along!

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4. The opening bass line from “Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed, three simple notes fluidly sliding from one to the other, is so immediately recognizable that when you first hear the same bass line opening “Can I Kick It?” by A Tribe Called Quest you are surprised to hear a light, lively percussion track rather than the low, flat tones of Lou Reed singing about a girl named Holly, who was from “Miami F.L.A.”

5. The track begins with an old recording of a woman speaking. “Ladies and gentlemen, as you know we have something special down at here at Birdland this evening. A recording for Blue Note records.” “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)” is the excellent first track off the excellent 1993 album Hand on the Torch  by Us3. Blue Note records, the venerable jazz recording label that began in 1939, saw the value and legitimacy of rap music in the early 1990’s, and gave Us3 unlimited access to its vaults to include samples in their tracks. The lead track on the album is also their biggest hit, featuring a sample of “Cantaloupe Island” by Herbie Hancock.

6. “Walk this Way” by Run DMC represents of the gty_run_dmc_jt_130412_wblogearliest, and most successful intersections of rap and rock and roll music. Rather than simply sampling, Run DMC actually covered “Walk this Way” by 1970’s rock monsters Aerosmith. A song that already featured rapid fire lyrics, this was a natural choice for recording by just the right rap artists. Recorded over 30 years ago, it still sounds as fresh and vital today as the day it was recorded.

7. The group Arrested Development was part of a socially conscious group of artists, along with De La Soul, that ruled the airwaves in the late 1980’s/early 1990’s. Their track “People Everyday” is a plea for peace and equality amongst African Americans, and it features the wonderful chorus from “Everyday People” by Sly and the Family Stone.

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8. Kanye West is always challenging and controversial, but there few artists who are more creative or inventive. “Gold Digger” not only features lyrics from “I Got a Woman” by Ray Charles, but the lyrics are sung by Jamie Foxx, who played Ray Charles in the brilliant biographical movie “Ray.” What a brilliant way to combine the present and the past.

20071208-fest9. Chicago rapper Rhymefest is a big Michael Jackson fan. While Michael was still alive, Rhymefest recorded an entire album of Jackson inspired rap songs. Unable to formally get permission to use the Jackson songs, Rhymefest made the entire available to fans for free. The last track on the album, titled “Man in the Mirror” perfectly echoes the message and tone of the original Michael Jackson song (personally, my favorite Michael Jackson song) while making it more personal and contemporary.

If you are unfamiliar with rap music, you think rap music isn’t for you, or you think that rap is not even a valid form of musical expression, give these songs a try. They are creative, they are accessible, and in many cases, they speak a truth that is important to hear.

One Perfect Song: Sweet Child o’ Mine

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“Sweet Child o’ Mine”
Written by Guns N’ Roses
Recorded by Guns N’ Roses
Released April 17, 1988

I was working at The Wiz in Georgetown (in Washington D.C.), an east coast based chain of CD/Cassette Tape stores when I was a junior in college, back when there were record stores in every shopping mall and on almost every commercial street corner. Being a lifelong music fan, I was thrilled to finally get paid to be surrounded all day by music. Music I knew, music I was discovering, music I could recommend, music I could dismiss with a now qualified upturn of my nose.

My responsibilities took me from the stock room, to the sales floor, to the cash register. Music was loudly played over the store sound system all day. Depending who was working, what time of day it was, it could have been anything from Jazz to Neo-Soul to Country Western to face melting Heavy Metal. It was a blast.

Located in an old brownstone storefront on Wisconsin Avenue, our store had three floors. The basement was dedicated to classical music, the main floor to popular music, and the top floor was for everything else. It was a bright sunny spring day, and I was running up the stairs to help a customer. I am not a big heavy metal, so I had not been paying very close attention to the new album that was playing that day. Loud guitars and screaming vocals are fine, I suppose…just not my cup o’ Joe.

Then, all of a sudden I heard the bright, clear clarion call of an anthemic guitar solo intro blasting throughout the store. It was as simple as a musical scale, but more complex. It grabbed my attention immediately, and I could not help but to think to myself at hearing the first few notes “this song is going to be a huge hit.”* I did not know the name of the song, I did not know the name of the band.

Escalating in harmonics and intensity, the crystal clear arpeggio continued. A bass guitar comes in to lead the melody along with a rhythm guitar followed by the drums. We are now into the song.

I’ve never thought of heavy metal music as a platform for evoking romantic sweetness, tender childhood memories or a longing for things we once had and will never have again, but this song was different.

“She’s got a smile it seems to me
Reminds me of childhood memories
Where everything
Was as fresh as the bright blue sky
Now and then when I see her face
She takes me away to that special place
And if I’d stare too long
I’d probably break down and cry.”

Frank Sinatra could never be this vulnerable. Marvin Gaye could never be this nostalgic. Who of us can’t think back to a memory from our childhood that makes us feel good and safe as soon as that memory washes over us? Who of us can even come close to describing that feeling?

“Her hair reminds me of a warm safe place
Where as a child I’d hide
And pray for the thunder
And the rain
To quietly pass me by”

The guitar arpeggio continues in different forms throughout the song, but when the original melody returns, it serves as a sweet reminder of where the song came from, just like we remember our own sweet childhood memories.

There are so many things that can make a song great. The sincerity of the lyrics, the skill of the musicians, the honesty and commitment of the singer. But music can also be satisfying in the way it surprises us. The unexpected turn of a phrase, or the guitar solo that takes twists and turns we never expected. A smart ass lyric that makes us smile. The smash of a cymbal out of nowhere.

“Sweet Child o’ Mine” breaks down at the end with a completely different melody and new direction. A dissonant coda tagged on to a perfectly melodic song. Repeating the lyric “Where do we go, where do we go now, where do we go?” The rhythm guitar scrapes along, like knuckles on a concrete sidewalk. Singer Axl Rose screams in perfect control, wondering where to go next. Guitarist Slash brings everything back by repeating the clarion melody, a guitar riff for the ages. Extending the dark, dissonance a bit further, the video for “Sweet Child o’ Mine” is a grainy black and white rehearsal film, which serves as a perfect anti-narrative to sweet, wistfulness of the song.

Whenever I hear Slash’s opening salvo on “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” I see myself on the staircase at The Wiz. The bright sun is shining on me, I am at a job that I love, and I am hearing one perfect song for the very first time.

*I’m glad to say I was right. When I first heard the guitar intro to “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” I thought to myself the song would be a huge hit. The song peaked at #1 in the United States, and  it is listed by Rolling Stone magazine as #198 on the list of the 500 Greatest Songs.

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.
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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.