Wednesday, April 18, 2018

"Clowntime Is Over" / Elvis Costello
It's over! No, wait -- is it over?

Like a lot of Elvis Costello songs, this is one I don't entirely understand. Then again, riddling out cryptic lyrics has always been one of the deep, deep pleasures of being an Elvis Costello fan. So let's take a ride with this track from 1980's Get Happy, which just may be my favorite EC album of all time.


Oh, you remember Get Happy -- Elvis' homage to Stax and Philly soul, a mea culpa of sorts for his infamous drunken 1979 racist rant about Ray Charles and James Brown (overnight, Costello's records vanished from radio playlists across the USA -- shades of John Lennon saying the Beatles were bigger than Jesus Christ). For the record, I never believed Elvis meant those remarks; we all say stupid things when we're drunk. But if it inspired him to make Get Happy, then I'm glad.

The liner notes claim that "Clowntime Is Over" was meant as a Curtis Mayfield tribute, which baffles me a bit -- could any song sound less like "Superfly"? -- but I'll take your word for it, Elvis.

Soul tribute it may be*, but Get Happy is still steeped in the paranoia that supercharged EC's previous LP, the dark and bristling Armed Forces. Every song on Get Happy is suffused with suspicion of other people -- lovers, leaders, friends, society in general -- yeah, the tempos are bright and brisk, but underneath it's a haunted and mistrustful album. (I mean, c'mon, Get Happy -- was there ever a more ironic title? As if "happy" was ever what we wanted from Elvis Costello.)

Criminal intent lurks in the very first lines of "Clowntime"-- "Tears on your blackmail / Written to ransom" -- and the refrain, jaunty as it sounds, ominously reminds us, over and over, "While others just talk and talk / Somebody's watching where the others don't walk". Big Brother is with us indeed, and just in case you were in doubt, here come Steve Nieve's circus-like organ fills, merry at first, then darkening into minor key. (Forget Curtis Mayfield -- the echo I hear here is Smoky Robinson's "Tears of a Clown.")

Listen to that rueful descending melodic line -- "Clowntime is over" -- shifting keys uneasily in the follow-up line, "Time to take cover" (um, yeah, well, just in case -- you do know where the nearest shelter is, don't you?)

Elvis and I grew up in the same bomb-spooked post-WWII world, with an innate fear of strongmen. So I too have a visceral reaction to verse two: "A voice in the shadows / Says that his men know / He don't step back as expected / He's otherwise and unprotected." YIKES!

And here's the kicker: "While everybody's hiding under covers / Who's making lover's lane safe again for lovers?"  Does he mean, like, safe safe -- or "Just say no" safe? Is this guy Captain America, or Charles Bronson in Death Wish?

So if Clowntime is over, what are we saying goodbye to -- a sweet balloon-animal-making Bozo type of clown, or an evil Pennywise clown like in Stephen King's It? Or -- even worse -- is it a clown who fooled us all by seeming to be a good guy, until he got just enough power to destroy us?

Sound like anyone you know?

* There are exactly five songs on this album that sound like soul to me: "Secondary Modern," "Ï Can't Stand Up for Falling Down," "Five Gears in Reverse," "B Movie," and "Riot Act." All right, maybe "Beaten to the Punch" and "Temptation," only if you had four guys in sequined suits doing synchronized dance moves. But I'm happy to revise that opinion if anyone has a compelling argument otherwise . . . 

4 comments:

NickS said...

Welcome back! Good to see a new post from you, and seems perfect that your first post in a while would be teasing out the many ambiguities of a short Elvis Costello song.

Anonymous said...

Ha! I, too, have always been puzzled that this album was pitched as a Stax tribute. I thought it was just me. Great album, though. And very memorable song. Very happy to hear from you again. Jim

Holly A Hughes said...

Thanks, guys! Glad to be back. More to come soon . . .

Steven said...

Brilliant album and a great song