Around Thanksgiving 1993 the sideshow was in Dallas, TX. It was kind of freaky, as it had recently snowed, and there were still traces of snow on the ground. It was a surreal setting for performing on stage and celebrating Thanksgiving.
Part of my act was lighting a string of firecrackers on my bare chest. I’m afraid I can’t claim to have invented this act; I read about prankster and artist Joe Coleman doing this spontaneously in bars, just to shock people. I thought it would be adaptable to sideshow, so I became the first performer to do it in a sideshow setting. Some years later I met Joe Coleman at a COCA event here in Seattle. I told him that I had adapted his stunt for sideshow. His response was wordless; he took the cigar he was smoking out of his mouth, grabbed my hand and deposited ashes into my upturned palm. I still don’t know if this was a “fuck you” or a “good job, guy.”
The string of firecrackers had to have some sort of backing, or else they would totally tear up your skin. I had an old piece of Kevlar that I had obtained through dumpster diving. It must have been resin impregnated, as it was already stiff. I cut it to fit just slightly smaller than the outside edge of the firecrackers, so the audience couldn’t see it. The firecrackers would be taped to the Kevlar, and the Kevlar would be taped to my skin. Eventually I realized that even a thin sheet of ABS or polyethylene would do the same thing, and I’ll bet that’s what most of the performers who do this stunt today use.
Even then, some of the firecrackers would explode near my chest, and would leave burns and abrasions. But what really worried me was if one should go up my nose and explode. Thankfully that never happened. The greatest part of this stunt was doing it inside morning drive-time radio studios. I would have a tee-shirt on and wait wordlessly until the end of the program. Then I would whip off my shirt and light the firecrackers before anyone could do anything about it. Some of those morning drive-time radio DJs had the biggest egos I’ve ever seen…
Doing this stunt meant that I had to have a dependably functional lighter with me. I don’t smoke, but to this day keep a disposable lighter in a belt pouch with me at all times. This behavior seems to confuse a lot of people. Being sort of a pyro anyway, I kind of liked it, and would collect more butane lighters then I could possibly ever need. I still have many of them.
During our short stay in Dallas, I scored big time, by finding the coolest lighter case I had ever seen:
I regret that over time it’s become a bit mangled, as I used it continuously for a while there. It’s one of those things that should have been put away in a safe and never touched except while wearing cotton gloves.
My last tour with the sideshow was in 1994 in Scandinavia. We performed in Stockholm, and it just so happened that ZZ Top was in town at the same time, promoting their new album “Antenna”. I had actually met Billy Gibbons in 1992 in Texas during Lollapalooza. I was standing around in a hotel bar when Marky Ray, at the time a technician with Ministry, walked up to me and said “Billy Gibbons wants to see you”. Wow! I walked up and said hello, and he asked me for one of my condoms. He took one out of its package and unrolled it. He then proceeded to do a magic trick with it, making it appear as if it went from his mouth to his ear through his head! Bested in a condom stunt by Billy Gibbons!
Billy came backstage before our show in Stockholm. He spoke to us at length about sideshow, and it was obvious that he really knew his stuff, and had lived through the golden age when sideshows regularly toured the South.
Perhaps the greatest moment of this episode was when I asked Billy; “what’s that Pearl Necklace song all about?”
After our show, all three members of the band came backstage. I pulled out the lighter case I bought in Dallas and showed it to Dusty. He instantaneously fell in love with it, and wanted to buy it from me. I could tell he REALLY liked it. But I loved it too, and I wouldn’t budge. In a way I’m glad I kept it, because now, after all these years I can photograph it and share the photograph with everyone. But I also regret not having giving it to Dusty, that would have been cool, too.