Jim Rose does the following things for a living: swallow razor blades and regurgitate them; have his wife throw darts into his back; escape from strait-jackets (the trick is to pop your arms out of their sockets); and let people stand on his head while his face is buried in broken beer-bottles. He runs the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow, where the other acts eat worms, slugs and crickets; ingest a mixture of beer, chocolate sauce and ketchup through the nose and then bring it back up again; stick skewers through their cheeks; or lift concrete breeze-blocks from hooks in their nipples. Business is booming. We all have strength enough to bear the misfortunes of others.
The Jim Rose Circus Sideshow is being picked on as an example of 'grunge culture', a reincarnation of punk whose soundtrack is Mudhoney and Nirvana, and whose spiritual home is Seattle. Those who heard Radio 4's PM programme on the subject last week might have thought that the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow was nothing more than an exercise in provoking nauseated outrage. This upsets Jim Rose. 'What we're doing,' he says, 'is nothing different from what used to go on in circus sideshows, right the way across America, all through the 19th century. The difference is, you would have to go to 50 tents to see the quality of the acts that we're doing. We've just brought the best acts together.'
Rose is in his mid-thirties, not very tall, with a mop of dark hair, a modest goatee, and the pallor of a skin tough enough to be pressed, hard, into broken glass without bleeding. He looks like a Beatle on heroin. (Yet, offstage, he actually leads a pretty blameless life. He doesn't drink - 'God only allows you a certain amount of alcohol in your life, and I've had mine.')
What most upsets him about the description of the Sideshow as simple groo-yurgh merchants is the dismissal of the performers' professionalism. (The performers don't look like circus performers, even if they are; people confuse them with rock acts, only partly because their largest break was as a sideshow supporting last year's multi-act Lollapallooza tour). The acts are the culmination of several years' hard work.
'Look, I'm not going to swallow razor blades into my stomach,' says Rose. 'I'm not stupid. And you don't start off swallowing razor blades. You know how you sometimes swallow a piece of meat so big that you can't get it down your oesophagus and into your stomach, so you bring it up? Well, it's like that. You start with soft objects, then you practise with hard ones, then with sharp ones, then with razor blades.' (Jim Rose's razor- blade swallowing is quite impressive; first the blades go down, then a little ball of thread. Rose pulls the blades out of his mouth, prettily threaded on to the cotton.) 'The Amazing Mr Lifto didn't start by swinging suitcases from his tongue; he started with little things and worked his way up.'
Ah, yes. The Amazing Mr Lifto. This is one of the highlights of the act, and one which causes most people's eyes to pop out of their heads (although most of the fainting occurs when the Torture King comes on. We'll get back to the Torture King later). It's also one which makes the local moral authorities most uncomfortable. Mr Lifto, you see, not only has pierced nipples, from which he suspends household irons, and a pierced tongue, from which he swings a valise, but elsewhere on his body, the legacy of an early, botched circumcision, which also features in his act. I wonder if I want to see these people perform after all.
'We have a private joke,' says Rose. 'We take people fainting as our equivalent of a standing ovation. Ninety-eight per cent of the time it's the guys who faint. Girls are smart enough to know to look away when they see something they don't like. If you think you're going to see something you don't like, look at the person next to you. They'll be holding whichever part of the body we're, uh, working on . . .'
He stubs out his cigarette on his tongue, as promised. He doesn't grind it out, but taps it lightly and quickly until it goes out. The cinders sizzle in the ashtray.
'That must taste horrible,' I say.
'I don't have any taste-buds any more,' he says. 'Everything tastes to me like white bread.'
Some people claim that the Sideshow's performances can be categorised as Performance Art. Rose looks uncomfortable when he hears the words, as if conceding that, though it's nice to be taken seriously, the term is tainted. 'Performance Art makes me think of people with an attention deficit disorder,' he says. 'If the show's about anything, it's about being curious about the body. Because everyone has to live in one.'
The show begins with an uncomfortable echo of Performance Art: a waxwork-like man in black, with a top hat, sits and doodles circus tunes on a synthesiser. Then the PA announces the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow with the grisly elan of a Victorian barker. The backdrop is of faux-naf woodcuts, stylised representations of the acts; the words 'real', 'dangerous', 'live', 'freaks', are picked out in flashes.
It's when Rose bounds on to the stage and launches into his patter that you realise the Sideshow is more than just a collection of disgusting party stunts. His delivery is brutally comic; he plays the highly-strung audience like a violin.
'You look like a jaded mother,' he says to one enormous biker. 'Verify that this is a real screwdriver.' Rose then crams it up his own nose. He praises the members of the troupe with a fierce, protective admiration; when the Amazing Mr Lifto begins his act, Rose croons along with the pounding synthesiser accompaniment: 'beautiful Lifto . . . beauuutifuul Lifto . . .'
Children want to run away with the circus because it represents an alternative moral universe: Rose's Sideshow offers a world where accepted behaviour is inverted. The best jokes in his commentary are rough-and- ready satires that, incidentally, help to soften the impact of the grossest acts as much as hype them. When the Tube prepares to pump two pints of beer, ketchup and chocolate sauce up his nose, Rose screams: 'Tonight, London . . . it's MILLER TIME]' Or, earlier: 'The Tube likes to get drunk . . . but he hates the taste of beer]') It's the sick joke turned, virtually, into an art form.
The keyboard player reveals himself as the Slug. A member of the audience is invited to feed him from a jar of worms, slugs and 'hippity-hoppity crickets'. The nervous stooge drops one of the worms. 'Don't eat that one, Slug] It's been on the floor]' shouts Rose. The Slug eats it anyway. 'Can't take him anywhere,' says Rose, disgusted. 'Don't play with your food, Slug]' (Backstage, the Slug confides, with some sadness, that his mother doesn't approve of his chosen career. Give him a break, Mrs Slug, your son's an artist).
Early on, Rose asks us to raise our hands if anyone faints next to us. We assume - or hope - that this is showmanship. But when the Torture King ('I've seen junkies faint]' says Rose, introducing him) sticks a long hatpin through both cheeks - you see the cheek stretch like a piece of rubber before the pin pops out - a tough-looking Mohican next to me collapses. As he's helped up, he tooks dazed. When I next look round, he's gone. As someone else faints, Rose says: 'Wipe the bubbles off his nose and mouth. He'll be OK.' The Torture King sticks one hand in the sparks off an electric generator and lights up a circular neon tube on his head. The show ends after almost two hours: it seems as if only 10 minutes have gone by. I wonder if I have developed moral calluses. Probably not.
Context is everything. The bare details of the performances might make you think that watching the Sideshow will scar you for life; but Rose doesn't want just to disgust people. He and his troupe are dedicated and driven and, above all, consummate showmen. The Sideshow, when I think about it now, leaves me with a sense of wonder, and I speak as someone who has to leave the room if someone pops their knuckles. As Rose says, in a brief philosophical aside, 'In the words of William Blake, 'The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.' '
The Jim Rose Circus Sideshow returns to Britain in February.