So there I was at fourteen, hugging a banister at the top of a staircase in my secondary school, heart going like the opening tattoo of ‘Blue Monday’. Oh my God, I said quietly. Not my usual incandescent tantrum; the shock was too great. At least I’d found something to hold on to. My poor bassoon, on the other hand, lay cracked and splintered at the foot of the stairs, like some felled monster. I wasn’t sure it would pull through. Or that I would.
It was Durham LEA’s bassoon; my immediate thought after the initial horror was of financial liability, the dreaded confession to Dad, the humiliation of being ticked off by my rather mild-mannered woodwind teacher Mrs. Rousseau. “It was me or the bassoon”, I said to my parents, trying to convince them that I’d let the instrument go in order to save myself from A & E. “It was the cleaners’ fault”, I ventured, remembering the slippery floor-polish and wondering whether it was grounds enough for suing the school. But really it was all my fault; moreover, it was comeuppance. I’d had a tortured relationship with that instrument; at times I felt I was the young knight wrestling the Lambton Worm. I got frustrated with its pipes and crooks and the way it bubbled and belched and made odd noises when I didn’t ask it to. The reed numbed and bloodied my lips. The case bashed into my legs on the school bus. I got sick of little kids around me asking ‘Is that your trumpet?’ And now, it had exacted its revenge, flinging itself suicidally down the stairwell in a last bid for sympathy and love.
It’s now thirteen years since I last played the bassoon, and I find myself almost missing it. I never got to the point at which it became fun, never got to play the ethereal opening bars of The Rite of Spring or the lolloping theme from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The bassoon is now one of my favourite instruments. I like the way it sounds so thin and muted. There’s a sagacity in it; it’s oaked maturity, the Jura whiskey of the orchestra. And then there’s the comedy – Peter and the Wolf and such – and more than anything, the busy calliope in the instrumentals of ‘Tears of a clown’.‘Tears’ must surely be the most rococo of all the great Motown classics, and it’s not just that bassoon puffing away like a plump ringmaster waddling round a big top; listen again and you’ll hear the glint of a harpsichord flitting round the woodwinds, or flutes and piccolos rising over the Funk Brothers’ masterful rhythm section. It’s a ragtag gaggle of instruments coming to life to cheer up poor old Smokey. He’s been in the love wars again.
You might well say ‘plus ca change’. After all, Smokey is the high priest of heartache, the Werther of Detroit. In ‘The tracks of my tears’, The Miracles cushion his pain in sweet harmonies, from an almost prayerful opening through into a blazing-sun chorus that leaves us in little doubt that she’ll have him back. I mean, who wouldn’t? It’s one of the great operatic pop songs. Not in the Freddie Mercury sense (though that has its uses), but in much profounder terms; it’s a modern aria, both a showpiece and a thrilling, spine-chilling insight into the battlefields of the affections. But ‘Tears of a clown’ swaps that easy perfection for something much more jagged and panicked. Where ‘Tracks of my tears’ sees Smokey hanging round with another girl, playing it cool, ‘Tears of a clown’ finds him breathlessly chasing his own tail, trying to keep himself on the right side of sanity; and all to an exhilarating blast of Hitsville hyperactivity.
That momentum comes partly from a seventeen year-old Stevie Wonder, who composed the music and arranged the backing track with Harry Crosby but had no words. I think if I had been struggling, Smokey would have been my first choice too, though I’d probably have been fighting my way to the front of the queue. After all, in the 1960s he was ‘America’s greatest living poet’, in the words of Bob Dylan – and he could certainly teach that old trooper a few things about lyrical economy, not to mention the art of a good rhyme. He’d already penned some sparkling lines by 1967, the year of ‘Tears of a clown’; lines that negotiate the pleasures and pitfalls of love and longing in dapper spats, bringing the spirit of Cole Porter into Berry Gordy’s hit factory. From the exuberance of Mary Wells’ ‘My Guy’ (that cheeky kiss-off, ‘He may not be a movie star / But when it comes to being happy – we are!) to the string of jewels he chiselled and buffed for the Temptations in the mid sixties (‘Get Ready’ being the absolute highpoint – real blood pressure-raising soul, almost dangerously exciting), there’s a long line of on-the-nose bullseye pop in his back catalogue, music whose full-blooded, life-affirming racket is matched to lyrics that tightrope deftly from simile to simile and metaphor to metaphor. He saved the very best for his own Miracles. There’s the cool insouciance of ‘I Second that Emotion’, where the boardroom pun comes up pinstriped and paint-fresh, and the aforementioned ‘Tracks of my tears’, whose rhyming of ‘cute’ and ‘substitute’ always makes me want to rip up all my notebooks. But ‘Tears of a clown’ is the most brilliant example of Robinson’s way with an extended metaphor. Hearing something of the circus in Stevie Wonder’s jaunty riff, he came up with a lyric about as perfect as there’s ever been in a pop song. Citing Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, a verismo opera of lugubrious, murderous clowns, he fashions his own aria out of the dichotomies of performance. It’s not just that the private and public are at loggerheads, but that he seems to know that his audience requires the public expression of his melancholy in the songs he sings; is it any wonder that calliope goes round and round, sounding as demented as it does gleeful?
Still, the song never gets out of control because the writing is so assured. ‘Don’t let my show convince you, / That I’ve been happy since you / Decided to go’, he sings, a snaking rhyme to match any in the Great American Songbook for ingenuity. These are the real goose-bump moments, particularly when they’re sung in that filigree falsetto, an instrument of rare cream and gleam. Everything Smokey Robinson sings turns to silver. Even lesser songs such as his 1981 British number one ‘Being with you’ are lifted from the pleasantly pedestrian to the diaphanously lovely by the effortless leverage of that voice. And in ‘Tears of a clown’, it skates smoothly over the circus ring; it’s like a dragonfly skimming the millpond. In so many ways, it is the epitome of all that is great about peak-era Motown. The bitterness of heartache is smoothed over by irresistible sweetness, like the perfect cup of coffee – deep caffeine hit offset by a dulcet crema. These are the dualities that have given it such outstanding longevity – it’s youthful music for adults, adult music for kids. And for me, it just gets better with every passing year.
The Beat, one of Britain’s great ska-pop bands from the Two-Tone era, covered ‘Tears of a clown’ in 1979. It’s great, though decidedly for the feet rather than the heart or head. My own bassoon cover, however, will remain in the mind’s ear, never to be actualised. You’ve had a narrow escape: celebrate. Whizz around to the Miracles’ calliope, and marvel at the great clown shedding his tears; marvel at how they settle like snowflakes and glimmer in the light.