WILD BILLY'S CIRCUS STORY

Album version

A-one, two, three, four

The machinist climbs his Ferris wheel like a brave
And the fire eater's lyin' in a pool of sweat, victim of the heat wave
Behind the tent, the hired hand tightens his legs on the sword swallower's blade
And circus town's on the shortwave

Well, the runway lies ahead like a great false dawn
Whoa, Fat Lady, Big Mama, Missy Bimbo sits in her chair and yawns
And the man-beast lies in his cage sniffing popcorn
Yeah, the midget licks his fingers and suffers Missy Bimbo's scorn
The circus town's been born

Whoa, and a press roll, drummer go, ballerina to-and-fro
Cartwheelin' up on that tightrope with a cannon blast, lightin' flash
Movin' fast, through the tent, Mars bent, he's gonna miss his fall
Oh, God save the human cannonball
And the flying Zambinis watch Margarita do her neck twist
And the ringmaster gets the crowd to count along: "Ninety-five, ninety-six, ninety-seven"
A ragged suitcase in his hand, he steals silently away from the circus grounds
And the highway's haunted by the carnival sounds
They dance like a great greasepaint ghost on the wind
A man in baggy pants, a lonely face, a crazy grin
Runnin' home to some small Ohio town
Jesus, send some good women to save all your clowns

And circus boy dances like a monkey on barbed wire
And the barker romances with a junkie, she's got a flat tire
And now the elephants dance real funky, and the band play like a jungle fire
Circus town's on the live wire
And the strong man, Sampson, lifts the midget, little Tiny Tim, way up on his shoulders, way up
And carries him on down the midway
Past the kids, past the sailors, to his dimly lit trailer
And the Ferris wheel turns and turns like it ain't ever gonna stop
And the circus boss leans over, whispers in the little boy's ear, "Hey son, you wanna try the big top?"
All aboard, Nebraska's our next stop


Page last updated: 05 Mar 2012

Intro

Music and lyrics by Bruce Springsteen, WILD BILLY'S CIRCUS STORY is the fourth track on his 1973 album The Wild, The Innocent, & The E Street Shuffle. The song was known under the title CIRCUS SONG before it's release on the album.

The above lyrics are for Springsteen's studio version of WILD BILLY'S CIRCUS STORY as released on The Wild, The Innocent, & The E Street Shuffle.

Composition and Recording

WILD BILLY'S CIRCUS STORY was inspired by the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus that visited Springsteen's hometown of Freehold, NJ, every summer. The song was written in mid-1972 as CIRCUS SONG, and according to Brucebase, it was recorded for the Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. album, but that version has never surfaced. It was recorded again for The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle album under a new title, WILD BILLY'S CIRCUS STORY.

The band line-up on this track is unknown, but as far as one can tell, Bruce Springsteen sings vocals and handles acoustic guitar, Danni Federici plays accordion, and Garry Tallent plays tuba which simulates an elephant trumpet. The track also has drums and harmonica, and possibly mandolin. The track, as well as the whole album, was recorded at Sound Studios in Blauvelt, NY and produced by Mike Appel and Jimmy Cretecos.

CIRCUS TOWN is a rumoured song from the Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. period (April 1972 to February 1973). It is is probably an early draft of WILD BILLY'S CIRCUS STORY, or possibly just an alternate title for it. The song may also be related to WILD BILLY'S LULLABY.

Lyrics Variations

The song always had the same melody, but the title changes reflect modest changes in the lyrics, especially in the third and last verses.

CIRCUS SONG

WILD BILLY'S CIRCUS STORY

First verse:
...Behind the tent, the leather boy tightens...

First verse:
...Behind the tent, the hired hand tightens...

Second verse:
[no variations]

Second verse:
[no variations]

Third verse:
...And behind the tent, half bent, money spent, with his wet makeup drippin' on the ground
There's a half-smile, half-frown going down...


Third verse:
...A ragged suitcase in his hand, he steals silently away from the circus grounds
And the highway's haunted by the carnival sounds
They dance like a great greasepaint ghost on the wind
A man in baggy pants, a lonely face, a crazy grin
Runnin' home to some small Ohio town...


Fourth verse:
...The strong man lifts the midget on his shoulders, up, up, up above the liar
Hear the liar
He's outside sighin'
Hear the liar
Whisperin' to the barker
Hear the liar
Checkin' out the center ring
Hear the liar
Feel his fire
Hear the liar
He's so scared of dyin'
Anybody wanna try the big top?...


Fourth verse:
...And the strong man, Sampson, lifts the midget, little Tiny Tim, way up on his shoulders, way up
And carries him on down the midway
Past the kids, past the sailors, to his dimly lit trailer
And the Ferris wheel turns and turns like it ain't ever gonna stop
And the circus boss leans over, whispers in the little boy's ear, "Hey son, you wanna try the big top?"...


The above CIRCUS SONG lyrics are based on the live 31 Jan (early show) 1973 version, but they're almost the same in all versions up to April 1973.

  • The live 09 Jan 1973 version has a slightly different fourth verse: "And Sampson lifts..." instead of "The strong man lifts..."
  • The live 24 Apr 1973 (early show) version features a unique fourth verse wherein Tiny Tim and Sampson discuss "the liars". This is the last version that uses early lyrics in the fourth verse.
  • The live 01 May 1973 version has a rewritten fourth verse, now similar to WILD BILLY'S CIRCUS STORY. This is the last version that uses early lyrics in the third verse.
  • All remaining versions are similar to WILD BILLY'S CIRCUS STORY, with only very minor variations.

The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle

The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle is Bruce Springsteen's second studio album. It was recorded between mid-May 1973 and mid-September 1973 at 914 Sound Studios in Blauvelt, NY. Studio time was slotted in during various itinerary breaks in the Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. Tour, but recording sessions dragged on much longer than originally anticipated and this eventually caused some gig rescheduling and cancellations during the period from July to September 1973.

The album's recording sessions can be split into distinct phases:

  • The first phase of sessions took place on 15-22 May and 17-20 June, and featured the then-touring line-up of Bruce Springsteen, Clarence Clemons, Danny Federici, Garry Tallent, and Vini Lopez. Neither David Sancious nor any other musicians were involved in these initial sessions.
  • The second phase of sessions took place on 26 June-02 July, 11-16 July, 04-12 August, and 10-25 September, and included all of the above-mentioned musicians, plus new E Street Band member David Sancious (who joined in on 22 June), as well as niche session contributions by Suki Lahav on vocals, Richard Blackwell on congas and percussion, and Albee Tellone on baritone sax.

Most of the basic ensemble recording of The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle emanates from the first phase of sessions, prior to the arrival of David Sancious to the sessions on 22 Jun 1973. Sancious verified in a late seventies interview with Thunder Road magazine that most of the session songs had already been recorded (as basic tracks) by the time he joined. He then overdubbed his parts onto these recordings. THE E STREET SHUFFLE is an exception, which was written after Sancious became a member of the band. The latter phase of the sessions involved embellishing additional "frills" instrumentation, vocals, and experimenting with different mixes. No audio evidence has yet emerged that any of the basic recordings of were re-recorded from scratch with Sancious. Indeed, one of the most noteworthy aspects to the audio evidence that has emerged from the The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle recording sessions is that there is not one genuine alternate take to be found – all song recording variations are merely alternate mixes of the same basic recording.

[Click thumbnail to enlarge/reduce artwork]

The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle was produced by Mike Appel and Jim Cretecos and engineered by Louis Lahav. It features 7 new Springsteen compositions and clocks at 46:47. It was commercially released on 05 Nov 1973.

The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle
side 1 track list (vinyl LP format):

  1. THE E STREET SHUFFLE
  2. 4TH OF JULY, ASBURY PARK (SANDY)
  3. KITTY'S BACK
  4. WILD BILLY'S CIRCUS STORY

The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle
side 2 track list (vinyl LP format):

  1. INCIDENT ON 57TH STREET
  2. ROSALITA (COME OUT TONIGHT)
  3. NEW YORK CITY SERENADE

Other Official Releases

Other versions of WILD BILLY'S CIRCUS STORY were also officially released:


The live 01 May 1973 version of WILD BILLY'S CIRCUS STORY was officially released on the Wings For Wheels: The Making Of Born To Run home video in 2005.

The live 25 Sep 2009 version of WILD BILLY'S CIRCUS STORY was officially released on the Spectacle: Elvis Costello With... (season 2) home video in 2011.

Live History

Springsteen performed WILD BILLY'S CIRCUS STORY during his short-lived solo period in summer 1972. The song was also an occasional inclusion in his opening solo acoustic segment during the first three months of the Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. Tour, which started in October 1972 and ended 12 months later.

WILD BILLY'S CIRCUS STORY is known to have been performed at least 7 times during the Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. Tour. Very little is known about the 1972 and 1973 shows, and therefore, the song must've been played on some more dates. On this tour, the song was played in an acoustic version, and at least in the 1973 part, it featured Bruce Springsteen on guitar, Danny Federici on accordion, and Garry Tallent on tuba. Audio for the live 01 May 1973 performance of the song in Los Angeles, CA, was released promotionally in 1973 as part of Columbia/Epic Records' "Play:Back" EP series, and the video was released on the Wings For Wheels: The Making Of Born To Run DVD in 2005. See the live 01 May 1973 version for more details. WILD BILLY'S CIRCUS STORY is known to have been performed in July 1973 at Max's Kansas City in New York City, NY, but the exact date remains unknown. See the live 23 Jul 1973 (early show) version of ZERO AND BLIND TERRY for more details.

[Click here to display/hide detailed known Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. Tour performances list]

WILD BILLY'S CIRCUS STORY is known to have been performed at least 8 times during The Wild, The Innocent, & The E Street Shuffle Tour, all in a three-month period between late January and April 1974. Some of that period's setlists are incomplete or unknown, and therefore, the song must have been played on some more dates. On this tour, the song was played in an acoustic version, with Bruce Springsteen on guitar, Danny Federici on accordion, and Garry Tallent on tuba.

[Click here to display/hide detailed known The Wild, The Innocent, & The E Street Shuffle Tour performances list]

In 1973 and 1974, Bruce Springsteen performed WILD BILLY'S CIRCUS STORY on five radio performances. On all five occasions, and as it was the case during the Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. Tour and The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle Tour, the song was played in an acoustic version, with Bruce Springsteen on guitar, Danny Federici on accordion, and Garry Tallent on tuba. See the individual versions below for more details.

[Click here to display/hide detailed known 1973 and 1974 radio performances list]

WILD BILLY'S CIRCUS STORY was performed off-tour on the first of the two Christic Institute benefit shows in November 1990 at Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, CA. The song was played solo on acoustic guitar. See the live 16 Nov 1990 version for more details.

[Click here to display/hide detailed 1990 off-tour performances list]

WILD BILLY'S CIRCUS STORY was performed 3 times during the 128-date-long The Ghost Of Tom Joad Solo Acoustic Tour, on the three November 1996 Asbury Park shows. The song was played in an acoustic arrangement featuring Bruce Springsteen on acoustic guitar and vocals, plus guests Danny Federici on accordion and Soozie Tyrell on violin (see the live 26 Nov 1996 version).

[Click here to display/hide detailed The Ghost Of Tom Joad Solo Acoustic Tour performances list]

WILD BILLY'S CIRCUS STORY was performed during one of the five 2001 Asbury Park holiday shows. These concerts were billed as "Bruce Springsteen with The Max Weinberg 7 and Friends", with The Max Weinberg 7 serving as the house band, and Springsteen bringing guests on and off the stage throughout the shows. The song was played in a full-band arrangement with Springsteen backed by The Max Weinberg 7, plus Garry Tallent on tuba (see the live 04 Dec 2001 version).

[Click here to display/hide detailed 2000-2003 holiday shows performances list]

WILD BILLY'S CIRCUS STORY was sound-checked prior to the 09 Dec 2002 show in Columbia, SC, (as far as it's known) but it was not performed on any of The Rising Tour's regular shows.

WILD BILLY'S CIRCUS STORY was performed off-tour during the first of the two holiday jam shows that were held on 19 Dec 2004 at Harry's Roadhouse in Asbury Park, NJ. The song was played in a solo acoustic guitar arrangement. See the live 19 Dec 2004 (early show) version for more details.

[Click here to display/hide detailed 2004 off-tour performances list]

WILD BILLY'S CIRCUS STORY was performed 7 times during the Devils & Dust Solo Acoustic Tour. The song was played in a solo acoustic guitar and harmonica arrangement (see the live 22 Jun 2005 version).

[Click here to display/hide detailed Devils & Dust Solo Acoustic Tour performances list]

WILD BILLY'S CIRCUS STORY was performed once during the 100-date-long Magic Tour. The song was played in a full-band arrangement (see the live 27 Apr 2008 version).

[Click here to display/hide detailed Magic Tour performances list]

WILD BILLY'S CIRCUS STORY was performed once during the 83-date-long Working On A Dream Tour. The song was played in a full-band arrangement (see the live 07 Nov 2009 version).

[Click here to display/hide detailed Working On A Dream Tour performances list]

Springsteen performed WILD BILLY'S CIRCUS STORY off-tour on 25 Sep 2009 in New York City, NY, during the taping of "Spectacle: Elvis Costello With Bruce Springsteen". The song was played in a unique acoustic arrangement featuring Bruce Springsteen on vocals and acoustic guitar, Nils Lofgren on acoustic guitar, and Roy Bittan on accordion. The 25 Sep 2009 show was released on the Spectacle: Elvis Costello With... season 2 DVD and Blu-ray in 2011. See the live 25 Sep 2009 version for more details.

[Click here to display/hide detailed 2009 off-tour performances list]

Covers

As far as it's known, no artist has recorded and released Bruce Springsteen's WILD BILLY'S CIRCUS STORY.

Available Versions

List of available versions of WILD BILLY'S CIRCUS STORY on this website:

Credits / References

Thanks Jake (ol'catfishinthelake at BTX and Greasy Lake) for all the help.

Some of the above info about the studio recording and the live performances is taken from Brucebase.