David Liebe Hart’s latest album, The Wonderful World About Pigs, Horses & Clowns & Especially Dolly Parton, is, for lack of a better word, Pynchonian. “Pynchonian” is a word I see thrown around a lot in the discussion of any novel or film that’s even slightly postmodern, but for some reason hardly anyone talks about Pynchon when it comes to music. Which is strange, considering how often Pynchon uses music in his novels. Of course, there are many musical acts and albums inspired by Pynchon’s work, but that’s not the kind of Pynchonianism I mean. I’m talking about the kind of pop-culture-inspired, investigative, wheels-inside-wheels conspiracism that characterize Pynchon’s plots.
I guess it’s only natural that it would take an outsider artist like Hart to create something that feels like the musical equivalent of Gravity’s Rainbow. This album’s eleven tracks take you on a journey that encompasses everything from interspecies sexual liasons, healing through prayer, Dolly Parton, and Bozo the Clown’s sidekicks. I reviewed the album earlier this year for Jokes Review, but I limited myself to discussing Hart as an artist and a few key songs. Which, I feel, doesn’t do Hart’s work justice.
What I love about David’s work is his specificity. David isn’t the kind of lyricist who writes about lovelessness and social isolation by bemoaning his lonely heart. Instead, he writes a song about not having sex since 1994. And when he sings about his paranormal experiences as a boy growing up in Chicago, you better believe he tells you the full address of his childhood home. This specificity, coupled with his fixation on such topics as aliens, ghosts, and the popular culture of his childhood, makes David’s oeuvre the perfect diving board for many a late-night Internet rabbithole.
“Monty Melvin” is by far his latest album’s standout single, an ode to a forgotten clowny sidekick from The Bozo Show. It may be the greatest David Liebe Hart song ever. The beat and instrumental tracks by Hart’s producer, Jonah Mocium, are sick as hell, and the music video oozes a grimy surrealism that evokes Insane Clown Posse meets Mad Max. But what makes “Monty Melvin” a great song isn’t just the musical elements or presentation, but the subject matter itself and how David confronts it. Monty Melvin the character occupies a special place in David’s heart and psyche, and what follows is a deep dive into Monty Melvin and the postmodern nature of Bozo the Clown.
Let’s start with Bozo. Chances are, whenever you hear or read the word “clown,” Bozo in one of his many iterations is the first thing that pops into your head. The key phrase here being “many iterations,” because Bozo has never been a character in the same way Barney the Dinosaur or Elmo are. Rather, he has always existed as more of a concept than a discrete entity.
Bozo’s first appearance was in a series of children’s storytime/read-along records produced by Capitol in 1946. These records proved so lucrative that, for a time, Bozo became Capitol Records’s mascot. Television and radio appearances soon followed as a way for media companies to cash in on the burgeoning Bozo craze. Thru the late 40s to the very, very early 90s (when America’s love of clowns fizzled out), almost every major television and radio network in the country had their own homebrewed version of Bozo. Thus, when you ask people born between 1940 and 1975 about their fondest memories of Bozo the Clown, the mental images they conjure will vary, depending not only on what years they partook in Bozo media, but also what part of the U.S. they hail from. Jacksonville, Florida, boasted one of the cheapest, most unintentionally terrifying versions of the World’s Most Famous Clown, while Boston’s Bozo’s Big Top was more high-budget but still unsettling.
But by far the most well-remembered and influential Bozo is the Bozo portrayed by Bob Bell for Chicago Superstation WGN’s The Bozo Show. From 1960 to 1984, Bob portrayed Bozo at the peak of the clown’s popularity, and The Bozo Show went on to become the most successful locally-produced television show in world history. Bell’s Bozo was Matt Groening’s inspiration for Krusty the Clown (look up The Bozo Show on YouTube and listen to Bell’s voice—you’ll see what I mean), and alongside Boston’s Bozo’s Big Top, The Bozo Show is the version of Bozo most people think of when they hear “Bozo.”
Chicago’s The Bozo Show was a cornerstone of David Liebe Hart’s childhood. In his latest album, the tracks “Cooky the Clown” and “Monty Melvin” are about two of Bozo’s most famous sidekicks, and the (alleged) rivalry between Cooky and Melvin is one of those unverified stories that may or may not exist entirely in David’s warped memory of events that happened half a century ago.
Here’s what I (and the rest of the world) know for sure about what happened behind the scenes of The Bozo Show in the late late 60s. Sometime in 1968, Bob Bell suffered a brain aneurysm which left him hospitalized for much of 1968 and 1969. During this time, Bozo’s sidekicks Cooky the Clown (played by Roy Brown) and Monty Melvin (played by Richard Lubbers) took turns hosting The Bozo Show until Bell’s return. What exactly happened after Bell’s return is uncertain since, like most television stations at the time, WGN wasn’t in the habit of archiving even their most popular shows. All anyone can confirm is that Cooky the Clown stayed on as Bozo’s sidekick, while Monty Melvin left. That’s one version of the truth.
David’s version is much more dramatic. According to the lyrics of “Monty Melvin,” Monty was “booted off the show” by Bozo/Bell and ran off the stage in tears. If this actually happened, it’s too bad it’s lost media, because that sounds hilarious. One can only guess what kind of big-top drama and fallout was taking place at WGN in David’s account, but as juicy as David’s version may be, it all seems a little too juicy to be (completely) factual.
There’s something tantalizing as well as melancholy about this whole Monty Melvin affair. Monty was part of The Bozo Show for only year. In the bigger picture of television history, Monty Melvin shouldn’t be a big deal to anyone, but by making a song about him, David has forced me to open a can of lost-media worms I wouldn’t have otherwise given a second thought to. And Bozo and Monty Melvin were huge parts of David’s childhood, so I can’t help but be emotionally invested in this as well. I had to find out for myself what the hell happened to Monty Melvin, even if I was doomed to be unsuccessful.
When I first started going down this rabbithole, one of my first thoughts was, “What if Monty Melvin never existed?” David may have simply conflated The Bozo Show with a similar children’s show (or any show with clowns, really), and Monty Melvin could be an amalgamation of various TV clowns from the era. In “Monty Melvin,” Hart describes Monty Melvin as “wearing glasses” and “looking like the Joker from the Batman show.” The original Batman TV series starring Adam West would have been airing around the same time Bob Bell was recovering in the hospital, and it isn’t hard to imagine a young David accidentally stumbling on an episode of Batman featuring a certain harlequin villain and thinking he was watching an unusually action-packed episode of The Bozo Show. And as far as the glasses go, your guess is as good as mine. David has worn glasses from a very young age, so maybe David imagined his ideal clown wearing glasses too.
Then I saw the following Tweet and realized Monty Melvin was almost certainly real.
Yep, that’s a photograph of Monty. Granted, this is the only physical proof we have of Monty’s existence, but it’s proof nevertheless. And that’s about all I (or anyone else) will probably ever know about the fate of David’s favorite clown.
David clearly can’t let this go. I’ve obsessed over my fair share of obscure characters, so I too understand that special kind of existential dread that comes with remembering a character that the rest of the world has forgotten. The search for lost media is just as integral as the lost media itself, but the fact that some intellectual properties, even properties as influential as Bozo the Clown, will forever remain incomplete is disheartening. That’s the hardest lesson to stomach in the Information Age—despite having unprecedented access to media and information, that access simply makes us more aware of the gaps in the record. The more clues we uncover, the larger our map becomes; but, paradoxically, the new swaths of map that emerge serve only to show us just how many black holes of information are still out there. The more we know, the more we know that we don’t (and can never) know.
This is the kind of experience I wish more music would foster. I don’t just want to feel like some bored college student going down a Wikipedia black hole about Anne Frank and time travel after listening to Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane over the Sea for the first time. I want to feel the same level of revelation and uncertainty about the world that Oedipa Maas experiences in The Crying of Lot 49. And if anyone who has ever worked in the telecommunications industry in Chicago has any information regarding Monty Melvin, please forward it to either me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or contact Jonah Mocium or David on Twitter or through David’s website.