Punk Globe talks to the Amazing
of the Jim Rose Circus
by De Fen
I recently had a chance to talk with Jim Rose of the Jim Rose Circus about past Lollapalooza performances, early vaudeville history, circus performance within the punk rock community, and his upcoming spoken word tour: How to Train a Bear to Ride a Bicycle and more. Enjoy.
Punk Globe- Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. Can you tell the Punk Globe readers about your early circus years?
Jim Rose- I grew up next to the Arizona state fairgrounds. They would recruit neighbor-hoodlums to vend soft drinks. We were promised a big stuffed animal at the end of a two week run. We never got the animal, but we stole enough to make it worth our while. Little by little, I transitioned into a fetcher of cokes, etc. for freak show performers and the next think I know I'm learning how to do the human blockhead. My initial love was motorcycle daredevils and eventually, I got pretty good at it. I attempted to jump 27 cows. I cleared the cows, but must have landed on some spent cud and went wobbly. That's why as I speak to Punk Globe today, I have the posture of a jumbo shrimp.
Punk Globe- Wasn't that for a vegan photo shoot?
Jim Rose- Yes. It was kind of ahead of it's time. They got the photo of me going over the cows. I haven't seen it in awhile, when it originally came out I was in the hospital. It's flared up again. I went out with The Jim Rose Circus and Jake The Snake Roberts and I took a chair shot that landed a little wrong so I'm back to that jumbo shrimp thing. I'm guessing that within five months I'll be planking.
Punk Globe- When did you put together the first sideshow that was all your own?
Jim Rose- I was doing spoken word at a place called D.C. Space in the early 1980s. Ian and Henry Rollins were there at that time, but they were primarily playing in bands and weren't doing much spoken word stuff at the time. I never got into the band end of it so I was basically reading to junkies. I remember my first heckler put down. Somebody was harassing me at an open mic and I said, "I remember you. I was shooting smack in my balls and you tied me off with your mouth." I never came from the straight edge perspective. I always documented the paths off ill repute. During this time, I ran into a person who seemed to like my show. I talked to her afterwards and realized that it was because she didn't speak English. Bebe was from France and came from a circus family, which reminded me of the stuff I used to do at the state fairgrounds when I was 12 and 13. So I started to incorporate storytelling and spoken word with those types of stunts. And so it goes.
Punk Globe- Were your early spoken word pieces strong narratives?
Jim Rose- Yes. I was a heroin addict, so I come from a certain type of perspective. I ended up going to France and staying in who is now my wife's parent's basement and grew hair on my knuckles and howled at the moon.
Punk Globe- Can you tell the readers about the first Lollapalooza you entertained at?
Jim Rose- I had come up with the idea that punk needed new tentacles. I've always stuck with d.i.y. and punk ethos and I thought that the type of show I was doing should be under the punk umbrella. Back then that was a new way of thinking. I essentially made a leap of faith that this community would accept what I was doing as punk and it was rewarded. It was rewarded by people like Perry Farrell who saw early on that I was doing something completely different. I wasn't that waxed moustached guy from 30 years prior saying "Step right up ladies and gentlemen." I was accepted really quickly, unlike my experience in the 1980s at D.C. Space. Some of those people looked at me like I killed the Lindbergh kid when I had the balls to call what I was doing punk.
Punk Globe- Wow. That seems so strange.
Jim Rose- It might seem strange today, but not back then. That just shows how it has morphed and I'm proud of that. Punk ethos and aesthetics are so much bigger than just a band. The bands are hugely important, they're the driving force. Do you realize how many performance troupes there are today doing the types of shows I was doing in the late 1980s and early 1990s? Any city that has over 200,000 people probably has two competing groups doing these types of shows. When I first started, nobody had done it in 30 years. At Lollapalooza I had a human pin cushion, a pierced weight lifter, gavage performers, and people who walked up ladders of razor sharp swords. Pretty standard fare today. My later incarnations took in different concepts, but that was the original offering.
Punk Globe- Regarding d.i.y. ethics, you're pretty self produced and have maintained that, right?
Jim Rose- 100%. I do my own public relations, production, hiring, directing, writing, etc. I did an okay job. My employees make a thousand dollars a week and I give them three thousand dollar a month bonuses. These days we get to stay at really nice hotels. In the true d.i.y. spirit, I certainly shared what comes in.
Punk Globe- I liked what you were saying earlier about how punk rock extends beyond music. I like the idea that it's a whole method of production and aesthetics from kids with fanzines to performance artists. Like a variety show or something.
Jim Rose- I'm really proud to be part of it. I did The Simpsons and let Homer join my circus as the human cannonball, knowing that that was mainstream and also knowing that I would get a lot of mainstream offers that I would just decline. I was still able to do what I wanted to do because I happen to like The Simpsons. Same thing with The X Files. I got tons of offers to do all kinds of stuff after that, but it was up to me and my own personal code to decide what allows me to keep the comfort zone I like. I had my summer where the fame game got a little out of hand and I needed security to go outside and I wasn't comfortable with that. That's why I started branding my name and pushing my other performers as the images of what was to come to town. You would be hard pressed to describe what I look like unless you went through and studied a bunch of photos. If you just hear the name, you're going to imagine some guy lifting something with his nipples or maybe women's sumo wrestling . . . Or whatever, depending upon which incarnation you lost your virginity in.
Punk Globe- Have you ever gotten in trouble with the law for your performances?
Jim Rose- There's actually a Jim Rose law in Calgary, Canada. I can't see it being a factor nowadays, but when we first showed up, people from all over really did look at us like we were the ones who killed the Lindbergh kid. I'm still not allowed in Calgary. The gist of the law is that our performance was "dehumanizing." I don't know how they came up with that other than the fact that Calgary is an extremely conservative town and we showed up, lifted some stuff with our penis's and left town before they could arrest us. They were so pissed off about it they came up with the law to appease the public.
Punk Globe- Do you have any thoughts on the shift in public consciousness concerning the way people began to view the vaudeville side shows from 30 years back? The public opinion shifted from viewing these sideshows as entertainment to some sort of human rights violation.
Jim Rose- I didn't take that type of act out. I took out the human marble. Although, I'm not opposed to taking that sort of act out. If you really know your history you know that these people were not being helped or subsidized in a way where they were able to make ends meet. They were absolutely poor. It was one of the only ways for them to make some decent money.
Punk Globe- Yeah. I've read the memoirs of some early performers and it seemed like a rather sad thing that the shows were shut down. Their social status hadn't changed so they weren't being gainfully employed elsewhere and also their communities were busted up.
Jim Rose- They had the pride of being able to take care of themselves instead of having to rely on government stipends and they lost that. The stipends were never enough anyways and forced them out to beg off relatives or strangers.
Punk Globe- Are accidents common in the type of performances you do?
Jim Rose- It's not a fool proof occupation in terms of safety. Like the guy that lifts weights with his penis. We were doing a photo shoot where he was pulling a shopping cart with a chain attached to it and he fell over. He saw the tip of his best friend hanging from a chain on the floor. We packed it in ice and got him to the hospital in time. They took some skin from his butt and grafted it back on. He says that when he scratches his ass he gets an erection. That penis always has a piece of ass if you follow the story line, but he has to sit down to pee now. It's a bit of a sprinkler thing. If you see it between legs, you would have to know that it's a penis, but if you took it out of context, you'd probably think it were a very large dog's chew toy . . . Or maybe a flesh colored, half crunched beer can.
Punk Globe- It's pretty mangled?
Jim Rose- It looks like it barely survived a boating accident.
Punk Globe- So, there's a rather impressive list of musicians who've drank your stomach bile, right?
Jim Rose- Eddie Vedder did it on a television show in England. Also, Al Jourgensen from Ministry. In all fairness, Chris Cornell of Soundgarden was the first to drink my vomit. Of course, Gibby Haynes from the Butthole Surfers and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It's that after-after taste that you have to worry about.
Punk Globe- How was Willian S. Burroughs?
Jim Rose- I hung out with Bill a lot. Being an ex-heroin addict, I had read all of his books. I was also semi-well versed with the Beats and I knew that one of their main inspirations was a writer named Louis-Ferdinand Celine.
Punk Globe- He's one of my favorites.
Jim Rose- Me too. Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan are great. He was the first published black humorist. The first time I saw Burroughs -I eat razor blades, by the way. I eat 4 razor blades, then thread and cough them up tied to the thread- the first thing he ever said to me was: "The razor blades! I knew a man in Tangiers that did that. He had two stomaches." I thought to myself that he had probably had that memory for 30 years so I wasn't going to screw that one up for him. I knew it didn't take two stomaches because I was doing and I've only got one stomach. So I said, "Yeah, two stomachs" and I wanted to change the subject so I asked him what he thought about Louis-Ferdinand Celine. He responded: "He's dead!" So now when people ask me about Burroughs, I usually say, "He's dead!"
Punk Globe- Do you have any particularly vivid memory either during or after a performance that stands out?
Jim Rose- I was the middle act for Nine Inch Nails once. There was a guy named Brian, who wasn't very well known at the time who called himself Marilyn Manson. I was on that tour for six months and there came times when boredom would set in. There were a bunch of girls back stage, they were all strippers and they loved Closer, that song Trent was singing back then. Actually, I recently talked to Trent and told him that I was really starting to like Neil Diamond and thought they should do a Diamond cover album and call it: Nine Inch Neil. Anyways, we were back stage with the girls and somebody got the wild idea to give them all an enema and see how long they could hold it in. So that was done. There were about twelve of them and they held on pretty good. You would see little drips about to form, but then a quiver would make it all vanish. Finally, they could be held no longer and a lot of it splashed all over the dressing room. We had actually set out a bunch of cereal bowls with cereal in it. Some of it ended up in one of the bowls and one of my circus members ate it. It sounds worse than it really was. I would say it was 99.99999% water and .00001% e coli. And on that note . . . I'm going to vanish.
Punk Globe- Do you have any parting words for the readers?
Jim Rose- I can remember when punk was regional and I'm so happy there's a Punk Globe today.
Punk Globe- One more thing. You're doing a comedy/spoken word tour, right?
Jim Rose- Yes. I'm going out next year. It's going to be called How to Train a Bear to Ride a Bicycle and it's basically comedy-storytelling. So if the readers found anything in this interview that they thought was somewhat funny, they'll at least know the paths that will be taken in that show.
Punk Globe would like to thank Jim Rose for the interview and his contributions to our cultural history/future. Here's a link to the Jim Rose Circus's Facebook page: