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."
Rose stayed out of the carnival business long enough to earn a degree in political science from the University of Arizona. After graduation, however, he hooked up with a French woman known as Bebe the Circus Queen--now his wife--and toured Europe for four years (1986 to '90) "seeking the exciting and bizarre." Overseas, he learned to eat fire and glass before returning to the United States with little clue how to parlay such knowledge into a steady income.
Bebe and Rose rented a ramshackle hotel room in Los Angeles, lived on fruit and did six acts a day along Venice Beach. Venice was a saturated market for street performers by then, and pass-the-hat dollars were never more than a trickle. Frustrated, the couple headed to Seattle and landed a gig at that city's annual Bumbershoot arts festival in 1991.
Once there, Rose talked his way into a job at a cramped Middle Eastern restaurant called Ali Baba's, where he swallowed swords, rested on a bed of nails and hammered spikes up his nose. Diners were highly amused, and began to regard the price of a meal at Baba's as a cover charge. Bingo: Rose was a professional freak.
Gradually, a handful of like-minded folks started sniffing around, trying to get in on the action. Among them was a car-insurance salesman who called himself Mr. Lifto. He lived up to his name by hauling around iron balls and concrete blocks on chains attached to various pierced body parts. His proudest achievement was hoisting 78 pounds with his penis--a Guinness-certified world record.
With Lifto in tow, Rose embarked on a tour of Canada that caught the attention of a producer for Sally Jessy Raphael. Exposure for the modern-day sideshow steadily escalated from there, culminating in the spot in Lollapalooza and subsequent worldwide fame. Recent Rose media coups include the release of his new biography, Freak Like Me, and a guest spot on The X-Files as (you guessed it) a demented circus freak in a town of genetic misfits.
"That's the one they air each Halloween," says Rose of his prime-time debut. "Just like Rudolph and Charlie Brown, Jim Rose is a holiday special--my gift to you."
The best offering Rose says he has to make, however, is his updated show.
"It's like a ten-ring circus," he promises, switching into carny pitch mode. "You'll need a swivel on your neck. We have a Tibetan monk who lets scorpions crawl on his face and into his mouth. We got the Armenian Rubber Man. He's a pretzel--a human bar snack. He's a giant, six feet eight, who slithers through the head of a tennis racket. We've got a guy who balances a running lawn mower on his face. One mistake, and he'll get a haircut he will never remember."
Rose affects a tone of genuine concern as he guardedly discusses his new centerpiece act--the ominously billed "Ten Seconds of Death."
"I really can't give it away," he says soberly, "but it's a real, real ... if it goes wrong, it's over."
Despite the hype, Rose says there's rarely any blood on his stage. "We're professionals here!" he barks. "Maybe two or three times a year, there's an accident. I'll put two or three accidents up against any international touring rock 'n' roll act."
In fact, Rose is so intent on demonstrating his troupe's professionalism that every performance by the new Jim Rose Circus includes an up-close-and-personal demonstration of his band's keen precision. "We're gonna give a volunteer the best souvenir ever," he brags. "One audience member will put an apple in their mouth, and we'll cut their initials in it. With a chain saw. They get to keep the apple."
Cool--let's just hope they still have the teeth to eat it.
The Jim Rose Circus is scheduled to perform onMonday, November 27, at Electric Ballroom inTempe, with Hovercraft. Showtime is 9 p.m. (all ages).