Thursday, April 21, 2011

Bob Dylan Wants to Join the Circus

the Changing Face of Americana

This past weekend I was helping install an art show at AVC so was on campus both days of the weekend, thus missing the Poppy Festival. My wife and daughter went without me—not a hardship, apparently, since as they both cheerfully said, “more kettle korn for the rest of us!” (Wonderful thing, these families, hmm?)

They did though have a good time and one of the pictures they brought back was a hobo clown riding a velocipede.

That reminded me how “present” the metaphor of a circus still is in American culture, even though the actual experience going to a circus (or wanting to run away, to join one) is less and less a direct, first-hand memory. We’ll say stop clowning around, or else, “that meeting was just a big circus.” The circus idea even informed a Las Vegas casino, the hotel of choice for my mom and dad when I was growing up. (Good puritans, they thought that the nickel slots were dangerously thrilling decadence.)

I saw some circus tents from the 14 freeway a few weeks ago, and had to stop to take a picture. How could I pass them by? They have as powerful a draw as does a tractor beam from a death star.

Even Bob Dylan wants to join the circus. In New Zealand this winter, I bought a three-CD retrospective of Dylan’s music. I know it well of course and have just about all of his albums, but being apparently the last person on the planet not to own an iPod, I needed something to listen to during an all-day drive. I went to the discount bin of the local mall. Dylan it was. Later I saw that the collection had a little souvenir booklet. It had photos of him through the years. Here is the last one. Who does Bob Dylan want to be when he grows up? Apparently a sideshow barker.

Earlier this spring I was helping my wife gather material for a book project, and we were shooting pictures at a classic “roadside American” attraction, House on the Rock, in Wisconsin. This oddball collection of faux Tiffany lamps, half-naked angel mannequins, self-playing organs, old cars, old guns, and old scrimshaw (much of it fake) includes a variety of circus-themed collections. Is the “Frog Girl” banner authentic or a modern workshop replica? Only the curators know for sure.

The great American essayist Edward Hoagland (as close to Thoreau as we get these days) once worked in a circus. This was back in the 1950s, when to be part of the carnival trade or to be a roustabout in a circus was a bit dodgy—these were people of loose morals and quick tempers, and he was countering an Ivy League education by being an animal tender who slept on straw under a wagon. Please allow me a long quotation:

When the circus came to town it provided universal entertainment. First the procession to the lot, with elephants and painted wagons and caravans of flighty horses; the tents were slowly lifted; the cookhouse stove-pipes started smoking. The Midway was public property, and then with the band music drifting through the sidewalls, a crowd sometimes almost as large as that inside the Big Top stood around the rope barriers of the “backyard” during the hubbub of the night performance. Before each spectacle, custardy ruffled frosted floats bearing lighted castles and ballet girls perched in them were hauled into position. The tumbles practices their flips, their voices as tense as barks as they prepared themselves, and horse-holders and spear-carriers ran around hitching the teams, adjusting the gaudy-looking carpets on the floats, grinning at the girls and giving latecomers a foot up. The elephants arrived, with their imperial howdahs on, galumphing, as ponderous as Hannibal’s army but carrying the accumulated grace of twenty centuries. They took hoops in their mouths and more girls sat and swung on these, rocking gently as the beasts walked. The clowns got into line, and the jugglers, the costume mistress dressed as the Queen of Hearts, trained palominos drumming their feet, and several strange stalking ladies who released pigeons on signal.

He goes on, shifting to focus on the sounds he could remember:

There was the racket of the tractors working, of generator engines; shrill whistles blew; and in the meantime the canvasmen, the cookhouse crew, menagerie men, prop handlers and ringstock roustabouts gathered around, wiping the crumps from supper off their mouths and squinting at the leggy girls like they were looking into a spotlight.

Hoagland sums up:

The splendor and the smells, the wealth and deprivation, the jammed exotic mass islanded in flooding lights, fairytale figures leaping to life in plaster masks and sequined frocks (Jack Horner, Goldilocks), and fleshy glamor girls, and pachyderms like African kings in thick brocade, swaying and heralding themselves with French-horn honks and waving trunks—we ragged Bedouin types darting in and out were the connective tissue of all of this. Inspired as the circus was, we [ common working men ] were the meat and gristle: we made the circus be just so.

A young man with a young man’s interests, Hoagland remembers the sexual allure of a circus—a place for real or imagined fantasy connections. In that sense, it was as close to “naughty” (and even “deviant”) as small-town America ever got. A recent Taschen release, The Circus: 1870s to 1950s, talks about this. (The photo above and below come from that book.)

Ever since their earliest days, this sexual tension is something American circus advertising played up. Here is a very racy ad, from well over a hundred years ago.

I suppose Las Vegas showgirls still fill this niche, though some of the old circus acts, like looping the loop on a bicycle, now are sponsored by Red Bull and appear on ESPN. To get shot out of a cannon is sort of a Jackass kind of thing, and to see animals perform, now we go to Sea World or the San Diego Wild Animal Park (renamed recently the San Diego Zoo Safari Park). I am still glad though that I saw tigers jump through flaming hoops when I was a child, back in the days when there was no foam mats under monkey bars and half the cars I rode in didn’t have seatbelts. We didn’t wear helmets to ride bikes and half the time my parents did not know where I was after dark. It was a hard, cruel world, but spectacular, in its way—Hoagland captures it well, in the passages quoted above.

What about your childhood will seem distant and foreign in a few more years? (Anybody remember Pogs?) When I went to college, you could smoke cigarettes in the hallways (but not the classrooms), and before an exam, everybody would be lined up at the class door, trying to get one last drag in.

One of my dad’s favorite movies was Larger Than Life, with a broke and harried Bill Murray trying to transport his father’s circus elephant across America and delivered to a humanitarian flight bound for Sri Lanka. I wonder now if part of the attraction for my dad was nostalgia. In the movie, the elephant connects us to an older, simpler America, a time of trains and circus tents, clown noses and small-town diners. A circus was always on the move, and its “one step ahead of the law” reputation meant you could join up, no questions asked.

I guess I miss that fantasy of escape: now, if you’re tired of your life or need a break from Mom and Dad, where would you go? Even the hotshots on tour with Red Bull have to have liability insurance and social security numbers. Perhaps you can escape into a video game and have the same feeling. I doubt it. So is it inevitable? Will some day the idea of “circus” need a footnote? In Bob Dylan’s apocalyptic, topsy-turvy world of the song “Desolation Row,” the opening scene is nightmarish, off kilter. He sings, “They’re selling postcards of the hanging / They’re painting the passports brown / The beauty parlor is filled with sailors / [ and ] The circus is in town.”

Some day the special arrival of a circus “coming to town” may not make sense. In that case, the song will have come full circle, giving to us the reality of a middle stanza:

    And the only sound that’s left
    After the ambulances go
    Is Cinderella sweeping up
    On Desolation Row.....

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