(by Bob Tarte*, published in Yellow Silk magazine, 1991)
In February 1981, while driving along the northeastern perimeter of Grand Rapids, I had the nagging but unfocused certainty of having passed a rural mailbox bearing the unlikely name "A. Clown." Scouring the area the next afternoon with my behemoth buddy The Whale, I was unable to back up my claim with physical evidence.
Two months later, The Whale and I were traversing a ribbon of plazas and muffler repair shops within blocks of my apparition, when a battered white Chevy pulled up alongside my Subaru. The Chevy carried a plump, grizzled driver and bore the title "Bobo the Roller Clown" in large letters on the fender. At the sight of Bobo in his car, The Whale gasped. I pulled into a supermarket parking lot, where we struggled to catch our breaths.
For a full year The Whale and I had been plagued by apparitions of clowns, but never in such intimate, terrifying circumstances. The barrage had primarily consisted of clown photos on newspaper feature pages and through personalities like Mickey Rooney and Anthony Newley using clown personae to revitalize their careers. The blitz seemed to have been touched off by a scene in my super-8mm film, "Monsters," in which The Whale sat fully dressed in a bathtub comtemplating the globe through a clown mask and giant sunglasses.
In the decade following the initial revelation, the phenomenon grew from intermittant spasms of vaguely sinister coincidences (name on Lee Harvey Oswald's grave, according to Don Delillo's novel, Scorpio: William Bobo; leader of a Haitian coup that set the stage for Papa Doc's bloody rule: Dr. Oswald Bobo) to a vast network of steadily expanding synchronistic activity. At each important juncture of my life, fantastic connections erupt.
I've learned to admire Bobo's wit. The day I moved into my house in Lowell, I was shocked to see a poorly lettered sign in front of a local restaurant that seemed to read, "Congratulations Bob Tarte." Who knew I was here? How did they find out about me? Closer scrutiny finally revealed the actual content: "Congratulations Bob & Tate," a peculiar juxtaposition of names that disappeared in a couple of days. Later in the week I took my wife to the only other restaurant in town, Keiser's (a Boboid pun on emperor, no doubt), to discover a decor of hundreds of clown figurines and several clown paintings.
I've learned to fear Bobo, too. When a close relative was tried on a felony, the cosmic clown predicted the sentence might be harsher than I'd anticipated. The day before the hearing I read that Jeremy Irons (another pun) would star in a film of The Trial. And that week NPR's book-via-radio program, "Radio Reader," presented Maximum Morphonius, autobiography of America's toughest judge.
I have even learned to take comfort from Bobo. The endless funhouse mirror distortions of my life provide me with a kind of Puritan belief in the efficacy of signs and portents without the attendant religious baggage. But one stance I have never taken with Bobo is to dismiss him. Snubbing one's personal revelation invites disintegration, as Steve Lewis' downward spiral teaches us.
On his way to Wayne State University in the late '70s, Lewis got stuck in a traffic jam behind Detroit bus #2222, while his car radio was playing the theme from "Room 222" ("And how many times do you hear that on the radio?" he demanded). Thus was Lewis destined to finish law school ranked a dismal 222 in his graduating class.
A few years later, from his Cloquet, MN apartment, Lewis wrote The Whale playfully reproducing an address he had found in a postal directory containing an inordinate concentration of 22s: 122 N 122nd Street, Arlington, VA 22202. Lewis knew nothing about address or who lived there. But he should have known better than to tweak the nose of the Lord of 22. A few months later he landed a job he had not sought as a legislative aid for a Michigan congressman and moved to 3rd Road in Arlington within blocks of the address he had recorded. Nearly every morning upon leaving for work, he would confront a Yellow Cab near the entrance of his apartment bearing the phone number 527-2222.
One dimension, at least, of my bombardment by Bobo's patterns and puns is clear: an injunction against my natural spoilsport disposition. Steve Lewi's revelation by number mirrors not only his penchant for dry analysis, but the stutter of repeating twos also warns of the stagnancy rigidity breeds. Despite the relentlessness of his revelation, he refuses to acknowledge that any significance might lurk within the Lord of 22's utterances.
I tell him that language and literature's medium of symbols didn't arise from a vacuum, it reproduces an ebb and flow around us as integral to our lives as persistent bad weather. I quote Charles Fort as to how each individual incident is a localization of the underlying universal. The sheer clutter of consensus reality argues in favor of maddeningly interlocking connectedness. Still Steve insists on the triumph of the rational will over the cloudy muddle of chaos. Typically, Bobo gets in the final word.
That word is "plan," the philosophy that dictates Steve Lewis' life. He never wanted to become a lawyer, but this was his grandfather's plan for him, so he became one. He married in his mid-thirties, following what he termed "the plan of all the Lewis men." Even an innocent Friday night dinner in a lousy Saranac diner must bear the taint of the dreaded word to become actualized. "So, is that the plan?" he asks, once 6:00 p.m. at Kathy's Kitchen has been named.
Bobo thrives on repetition and loaded circumstance. Steve's last unhappy position as a bankruptcy trustee should have tipped him off as to the hollowness of the plan. When that business failed, he joined a corporation providing legal services for a national union. The name of the corporation is Union Legal Services Plan, or simply, remarkably "The Plan," as its employees call it. And so at a recent lunch, a worn-down Steve Lewis sat across the table from The Whale and I to describe the upcoming renegotiation of his contract. In a voice as clear as Bobo's thumbprint, he complained, "The Plan is screwing me. I hate working for The Plan."
The point here isn't that any of us have control over our lives. Forget disease, divorce, and the law of accident. The trusty archetypal grinning skull that waits for our flesh to weary of all the bother happily scatters any pretense of continuity. The inevitability of death presents us with a gaping mystery too large to plug with a rational idea or single irrational belief, or the praying would have long since been completed, the life insurance policies proudly displayed in slate frames next to workspace photos of our loved ones.
Abhorring an unsightly vacuum, nature kindly sends a clown, a couple of integers, paranoia, meglomania, crop circles, alien abductions, or other sorry exiles from closure. Best bet, then, is to spit gobs of uncertainty back into the void, trusting a few will hit the target. Small vessels seem to work best, presumably because our lifespans are so short. Hence the virtue of the song.
Listening to Orpheus Ascending (Hannibal/Carthage cd) when it was first released in 1989, I wondered if Ivo Papasov hadn't tripped across a floppy-shoed clown foot of his own. Producing the most incongruous music I had heard to date, Papasov and His Bulgarian Wedding Band blend Balkan folk melodies and fusion jazz according to opaque alchemical principles which principally burn away the flux, leaving a vitrified surface of burrs, rough edges and clarinet glossalalia. This is carnival music pure and simple, the manic soundtrack for a carousel as it spins free of its moorings to bear down on your bumper at metal-crunching highway cruising speeds.
The shock of Papsov spitting out a machine gun flurry of clarinet bursts-mirrored note for note by saxophonist Youri Younakov and accordianist Neshko Neshev, while Stefan Angelov thrashes up a Billy Cobhamesque kit drum undertow-is matched only by the listener's conviction that these guys must be hearing something wrong. The cartoon amalgam on Orpheus inititally seems to resemble a bad joke, a parody of jazz learned through furtive two-minute listening stints to heterodyne-filled Radio Liberty, then strung together into a nonstop, headlong fling into virtual reality.
Papasov and Orchestra's second American release, Balkanology (Hannibal/Rykodisc cd) benefits from a sudden shift toward encyclopedic comprehensiveness, which finds them at times sounding like the 3 Mustaphas 3 on ecstacy, other times like the hum of natural forces. No 11:23 jaw dropping tolerance tests like "Bulchenska Ratchenitsa" to misalign your laser as soon as the CD transport drawer slams shut. As if to smite those of us who doubted that Orpheus staked out excursions based on cartographical genius rather than rustic instinct, the bandleader kicks off Balkanology with "Mladeshki Dance," a Turkish reel that chugs along to the skank of a vaguely reggoid funk-inflected rhythm guitar before bolting for rarified altitudes.
What's astonishing about Papasov's music is that such apparent caprices as the wild 11/8 rhythm of "Hristianova Kopanitsa" don't represent a post-glasnost flirtation with academia but lift their inspiration directly from traditional Bulgarian wedding music. And Papasov's slippery, glissando clarinet style, dense with microtonal shadings, owes as much to ancient festival music of Greece and Asia Minor as it does to the slingshot swing of Benny Goodman.
Dazzling as Ivo gets in terms of sheer momentum, even more impressive is his tonal mastery, blowing his clarinet full throated and rounded one moment, then the next phrase pinching it back into an atavistic buzz. Despite the white-hot note-density, melodies emerge with miraculous ease to linger lazily in memory.
Those transfixed by the dark Bulgarian mysteré choral recordings released here over the last few years may still be daunted by the total eclipse of Maria Karafezieva's hierophantic solos. Somehow Ivo manages to match the timbre of her quavering body-electric vocals on his instrument. Eat your heart out John Dankworth and Cleo Laine.
Better than any musician I have ever heard, Papasov expresses the tendency of apparent chaos to resolve itself into patterns: the treasure map formed by a handful of salt strewn across formica; the image of Jesus appearing in a corn tortilla. In The Mothman Prophecies, a sobering tract of lunacy linking encounters with the saucer people to trafficking with fairies during simpler times, author John Keel notes the frustratingly reflexive nature of perceived reality. Whatever theory of spook lights, bug eyed monsters, or bigfeet he entertained at a given time would be amply supported by evidence. Change the theory, new proof arises to back it. Such is the slipperiness of phantasmagoria.
Through a similar mechanism Bobo seems to emerge, or perhaps actually emerges. The media of our popular cultural is devoid enough of content that subtext flipflops to the forefront. Mediumistic images reflecting 10,000 diverse viewpoints easily slip through the lazy grid of commercials, newspaper reportage, sitcoms, opinion polls, shortwave broadcasts, circus posters, and medical reports.
World music derives its unexpected popularity in part from its inscrutability. The foreignness of unknown languages and contexts forms a blank slate upon which we can project our personal agendas. Take Kanda Bongo Man- or Aurlus Mabele-style soukous. What lies behind the exhilaration? Tension or its release? Urbanization or pastoral spaces? From a continent away, you can take your pick with little fear of contradiction.
But Papasov's music is too full to the brim to function as a Rorshach Test. It's not always easy to listen to, because of the sheer intensity that comes from the unmistakable attempt to squeeze so great a range of emotion and experience into a single form. There's the joy of the wedding feast backlit by a sad history of foreign occupation, sure. But most of all his music aches with the ache to simply express the great complexity, and having attempted this it bites off a piece of renewal--this time from an apple we're encouraged to share.
*Freely adapted from "A Circle of Clowns" by Bob Tarte and Bill Holm, Fortean Times-The Journal of Strange Phenomena, Autumn 1982 (96 Mansfield Road, London NW3 2HX, UK).