By Jeff Moses
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By Roger Calamaio
By Mark Deming
Don't expect any clowns at the Jim Rose Circus. Ninjas with machetes, maybe, but no clowns. Trained poodles? Try maggots and scorpions. And, in lieu of a tightrope walker, look for the guy who balances a running lawn mower on his lip while dodging vegetables.
Ringling Bros., this ain't.
"We're playing chain-saw football this year," says ringmaster Rose in a sinister drawl. "We're gonna give a whole new meaning to the word 'halfback.' Not since Christians were fed to the lions has there been a sport this dangerous." The voice of this Tempe nerd-turned-King of the Grunge Nation Freaks crackles with the patter of a veteran carnival barker.
Since stealing the show on Lollapalooza's second stage in 1992, Rose and his band of aggressively bizarre performance artists have garnered a cult following among modern-rock fans and stars alike. Avowed Rose devotees include Eddie Vedder and (no big surprise here) Trent Reznor.
Initially, Rose's strategy was simple: Make people puke. And puke they did. Almost every night on the '92 Lolla tour, hard-assed rockers hurled on their Doc Martens after watching Slug chow down a plate of live maggots and roaches, or Torture King ram skewers through his eyelids.
The vicarious, voyeuristic appeal of such spectacles is rooted in more than 100 years of exploitative entertainment most easily traced back to P.T. Barnum, the self-proclaimed "Prince of Humbugs," who made a fortune parading exotic animals and human oddities across 19th-century America in a caravan of railroad cars.
Barnum's exhibitions weren't limited by reality--just his imagination. If nature hadn't gotten around to producing a bona fide "Feejee Mermaid," for instance, P.T. figured it was his job to give evolution a nudge in the right direction. Sew the head and torso of a female monkey to the body of a fish, Barnum knew, and they will come.
Rose's show was never based on such chicanery. His attractions were just oddballs who committed odd acts--swinging concrete blocks on a chain hooked to a ring through the tip of the penis, for example.
Lately, though, Rose has shifted the thrust of his troupe's intent.
"It's not a freak show; it's a thrill show," he explains. "I don't do any gratuitous mutilation anymore. Instead of repelling you to the back of your seat, we keep you on the edge.
"Daredevils," Rose continues, "I'm bringing 'em back. I would have done this show earlier, 'cause this is the real one. But you gotta start somewhere, and I didn't have the funding. So we pulled a few cheap sensationalist things in the early days to grab people's attention."
A few? Rose's first circus had a guy who simultaneously stuck his hand into a raccoon trap and stapled money to his face. In another stunt, a pharmacist worked seven feet of surgical tubing through his nose into his stomach; pumped a mixture of beer, Pepto-Bismol and ketchup into his gut; then siphoned the vile brew out again and chugged it back down--after, of course, filling the proffered cups of several salivating audience members (Ministry's Al Jourgensen was known to partake on occasion).
Rose himself ate light bulbs and buried his face in a pile of glass while someone stomped his head into the shards--not exactly the line of work his parents envisioned for him when the family moved to Phoenix from McGehee, Arkansas. Then again, "that Rose kid" was never quite normal.
Born severely cross-eyed, Rose underwent surgery when he was six to correct the deformation that made him a social outcast. He wore bandages over his eyes for two months, only to find when the gauze came off that the operation was a total failure. Asaresult, little Rose wound up with "glasses so thick, I could see gnats mating on Pluto."
Grade-school bullies identified the cross-eyed lad as an obvious target, and founded the popular practice of tying him to trees. Eventually, Rose claims, he taught himself to wriggle free of the ropes, no matter how tight his tormenters would truss him up.
"From then on," he says, "I'd stage dramatic escape stunts and do anything to divert onlookers' eyes from mine."
Gradually, Rose's tricks made him popular with classmates. A second eye operation was successful, and, by sixth grade, he was a Tom Sawyer type with a passion for the carnival that came to town every summer. In addition to vandalizing Valley golf courses by ghost-riding their carts into ponds, Rose and his "neighbor hoodlums" would sneak into the state fairgrounds.
"We started jumping the fence when I was nine," he remembers. "They'd hire us to vend soft drinks, and always promised us a big stuffed animal at the end of the run. We never got it, but we stole enough to make it worth our while."
Rose says he quickly acquired a taste for hanging out with the circus performers, and learned the key concept of "the jolt"--that thrilling core of a spectacle that defies social convention and suspends an audience between terror and amazement.
"The jolt," Rose explains, "was rooted in fear and rebellion against moms. The stunts I was seeing were exactly the things mothers across the world were telling their children never to do."