August 11, 2010
This one was a long time coming, folks. My fault entirely. [Interviewee’s note (and I’ll be doing a lot of these; note the brackets & “JT3”): Weeellll, the delay’s mostly not his fault; what can I say: a week’s an hour to me, and he let me edit this interview, soooo….]
This interview was conducted at the cottage in the summer of 2010. We invited our friends James and Rebecca over for dinner and before you know it, my digital voice recorder was out and recording the ensuing interview. What? You thought I memorized these interviews? Pish posh, little boy.
In a trivial note, this is the first time I’ve done an interview with a person who has his own wikipedia entry. Here it is.
Over the next 3+ hours, we discussed sideshows, performers in sideshow, The American Civil War, minstrelsy, a lady named Thrill Kill Jill, book publishing, and the best approach to transcribing long freakin' interviews. Like I need advice on that or something. [JT3: Bev, the best way is to get someone else to do it, FYI.]
What are you waiting for, ladies and gentlemen? Start reading!!
Bevboy: Why circus sideshows? What is their appeal to you?
James Taylor: I've always been fascinated with the odd, the bizarre, the weird, the strange and the unusual. Years ago, after my father passed away, my mother took up with an old carny. I thought he was the most fascinating, hilarious human being I'd ever met in my life. He was a guy named Jerry Farrow. He was what they call a "forty miler": a guy who never took his carnival show very far on the road. Jerry was a hysterical human being. He was this tiny little guy. Not much to look at. He was one of those guys that laughs like a kind of old Wild West character.
After going with my mother for a couple of years, and me listening to all these outrageous stories that he told about his years on the road (because he had been in the carnival business pretty much his whole life), I asked him at one point, "Jerry, where do you get the books on this stuff?” I'm a writer, and as far as I'm concerned, everything has to be in a book or I don't get it.
He looks at me and says, "Well, there ain't none."
"What do you mean, 'There ain't none'. There's books on everything."
"I know the kind of book you want. That book ain't out there. But you're a writer. Write your own damn book."
It was like somebody giving me permission to do something that never had occurred to me before, because my background's all poetry and fiction and high-end lit, and all the rest of that mess. It never occurred to me that what I could be doing was writing non-fiction and interviewing people to get the types of things that I wanted out of and about a subject. Literally having no experience in interviews, no experience in any sort of journalism, or any of that, I went off and started interviewing old showmen cold.
I realized at the time I started doing this, which would have been the tail end of '92, the beginning of '93, that it was really the end of an era for all the classic sideshow and classic variety and entertainment [performers]. All those old timers who were from the heyday of the business, which would have been between World War I and World War II, were dying. They were all going into the ground. I realized that if I didn't get them, nobody else was.
I got plane tickets to fly to Gibsonton, Florida, just below Tampa, which is where a lot of those people had their winterquarters. Literally hopped a plane, flew down to Tampa, rented the car, drove to Gibsonton, and started hanging out with carnival people. I'd had a lot of people tell me beforehand, “Oh, they're going to freeze you out. They don't want to deal with you. You're media. You're going to be sticking your nose in their business. They're not going to want to talk to you.” Instead, I found them to be some of the sweetest people I'd ever met, and all of them filled with the most outrageous stories I'd ever been told in my whole life. A riot, every one of them. And, it's been pretty much a riot ever since, dealing with the business. The “business”, as they say, is a hard way to make an easy living.
BB: How much work is involved in producing an edition of Shock and Amazed!?
JT: More work than has been committed by all of humanity since the dawn of the species. It’s been appreciably more since my editor-in-chief [Kathleen Kotcher] split the country.
BB: The last one came out in 2007, I think, right?
JT: Painfully, years ago, yes. Yeah, it’s a lot of work. It’s a long story.
BB: Well, how do you figure out what you’re going to put into a volume?
JT: That’s another long story. Because everything’s a long story with me. I have known what’s going to be in volume 10 for a while. In the old days of the sideshow, they called them 10 in 1‘s: Ten acts in one show. Didn’t mean you got 10 performers; it just meant you got 10 acts. Sometimes you got 1 performer doing 10 things. They’re always very specifically honest in the sideshow. You just have to pay attention to what they’re being honest about.
I always knew what “10 in 1” should be in volume 10: the banners, because that’s what everybody thinks about when they think about these sideshows. They think of that glorious line of “pictorial paintings” across the front of the sideshow. Those pictures of the human blockheads, the “Siamese” twins, the two-headed dogs, the fat ladies, the educated monkeys and all the rest of that stuff.
So, I knew it had to be about the art of the sideshow. I had pretty much the whole thing defined for me because there are three principal pre-eminent banner painters alive now. There are a lot of people who do it, but there are really a “Big 3” that I wanted to interview. I’ve got them to work on.
I’ve picked up a lot of information and a lot of archival material on the history of banner painting for the sideshow. The whole thing is going to be devoted to the artwork of the shows.
But, separate from that, most volumes are an exercise in making it up as you go.
BB: If you were starting Shocked and Amazed! Volume 10 today...
JT: I am, as a matter of fact!
BB: ... Well, how long does it take you from conceptualizing an edition of Shocked and Amazed! to when it goes to the printer? I realize the last one came out in 2007. Have you been working on it for the last few years?
JT: Shocked and Amazed! is an exercise in herding cats. It really is. The problem is that nobody gets paid. In fact, in order to be a mover and a shaker in Shocked and Amazed!, you have to part with a lot of your own money. How much am I going to have to spend to be a part of this debacle? That’s the question you have to ask yourself. [JT3: Just ask my partner, D.B.Doghouse; he’ll tell you how much it can cost you.]
BB: I read the piece today about minstrel shows. It’s a long piece. The guy who wrote that was not paid?
BB: Does he get free copies of the publication, or what does he get?
JT: The piece on minstrelsy is from my buddy John Strausbaugh’s book, Black Like You. It’s a great book, too, a great history of the business. As far as he is concerned, it’s just great to be a part of the project. The piece on medicine shows? The same thing. We give people ad space and copies. The number of people who have ever actually been paid have been paid chump money. It’s always been more of a token of, “Well, gee, you have to pay your agent, right? Here’s some money.” It’s always been joke money if anybody got paid out of Shocked and Amazed! It speaks very much to the generosity, if not insanity, of those who work on it and contribute to it. We’ve had wonderful, wonderful friends in the business give of themselves, and very often give of themselves monetarily to make sure that Shocked and Amazed! happened.
But at the core level, it’s gotten longer and longer between volumes, and harder and harder to build them as time has gone on.
BB: Is it lack of interest?
JT: No. People have lives. When nobody’s making any money off of the thing, life gets in the way.
BB: Paying work gets in the way.
JT: Everything gets in the way. Personal lives. Work lives. The lives of your kids. And, not the least of which is the money, because Shocked and Amazed! does not make a lot of dough. We’re in the effort of trying to change that somewhat now. But we’ve never been a magazine that’s been run by any intelligent methodology. The business model has always been nuts. Most publications like [Shocked and Amazed!] are run by ad revenues. That’s what runs all publications. Subscriptions never pay for the continuation of any object. Not newspapers. Not magazines. Not any of that. It’s ad revenues. That’s what pays for it.
BB: And, you’re ceding your ad revenue to the people who contribute pieces, right?
JT: There are people who pay for ad space. The problem is that in order to really sell the ad space, I would have to do things with Shocked and Amazed! that are almost counter to what it is. I would have to turn the publication into less of what it is and more of what you see when you go to any newsstand. It would have to be along those lines. Ads would take over the publication. I’ve never seen that being the way it would go. I’ve done a lot of things to try to make it get enough money to keep afloat. Most of those things have been more work than they were worth. It’s finally ended up with, basically, “Gee, let’s figure out a way to raise whatever money we can by whatever means, but it ain’t gonna be ad revenues.” The idea of making money on Shocked and Amazed! is that we get the printer’s bill back. Everything else is donated. Anybody who’s ever been on the masthead, anybody who’s ever been connected to it at all, has donated a lot of time and very often a lot of their money toward James Taylor’s Shocked and Amazed!: On & Off The Midway. That’s what it’s boiled down to. It’s a labour of love with capital L’s all the way down the line.
BB: Is that your approach with Shocked and Amazed!? You don’t do it for the money, obviously.
It’s been a labour of love since day one. It’s one of the reasons why the show people seem to have the respect for it that they do. To them, it doesn’t read as, “Oh, this is about the money.” Everything about it is trying to be true to the spirit of the business and trying to make sure that the business is portrayed with the spirit of fun that is inherent in it. It’s like the way the entertainment business used to be, is how I look at it. The way that the film business must have been in its earliest days, the way vaudeville must have been in its earliest days. Every day, the performers have to almost make it up and figure out how to have it work on a day-to-day basis, and shift from one form of entertainment to another, wherever the money is. Sideshow feels much like the old time end of the business. Maybe it’s all that’s left of the entertainment business in that way. I don’t think the rest of the entertainment business reeks of anything but, “Let’s turn this into a big pay day!” None of these sideshow guys think that. They don’t think they’re going to be in the money. That’s not what’s in the cards for them. But it’s a way of life for them, especially when kids get in the business. The ones that are in it now, it’s like, “This is my way of life. Screw you!” It’s like something out of the Sixties.
I’ve got nothing but admiration for people who are willing to say, “I may be starving to death this time next week, if not today, but, damn it, this is what I’m going to do.” My hat’s off to those people.
BB: Who are your mentors?
JT: At the writing level, probably [poet] Michael Egan. He was like the wild man of the universe. Roaring drunk. So full of bullshit, you wouldn’t believe it. If you looked up b.s. in the dictionary, Michael was there. But he was a phenomenal writer. He is one of the most amazing writers not only whom I’ve met but whose work I’ve ever read. But he was just Hell on the people who knew him.
Aside from him, probably my mother’s boyfriend, after my father passed away, Jerry Farrow. As I’ve written before, as my editor-in-chief Kathleen Kotcher told me one time, “So! Took a lot of guts to put down in print that you hated your father!”
I’m like, “I didn’t hate my father!” I just said that Jerry was the father that I didn’t have. I didn’t mean it to be disparaging to my old man at all. But, with people and their parents, sometimes things click and sometimes they don’t. I think the mark of being an adult is recognising how, as people, you relate to your parents. Just because they’re blood doesn’t mean they’re good or bad or otherwise as people.
But Jerry and I just clicked. Jerry really was my mentor in the carnival business and not because he was a show guy; he wasn’t involved in the sideshows at all. He was rides and games and all that, an owner and a jointee [a carnival man who owns concessions & games]. He really typified the spirit of the business for me. These guys were all life gamblers. I have a reputation for being one of those gamblers, even though to myself, I am not at all. I don’t gamble. I take no risks.
But I look back on my life and try to see through the eyes of the people that have been my inspirations and been people whose lives I’ve tried to imitate or whose spirits I’ve tried to learn and grow from. I do recognise that to a lot of other people I probably look like I’ve had this wild and outrageous and ridiculous and preposterous and hilariously bizarre life, but I think that’s what mentors do: They guide you on that preposterous way, I guess. [laughs] At least mine have.
But, yes, the two principal ones have been Michael Egan and Jerry Farrow.
BB: Tell me about some of the circus sideshow people who have impressed you the most.
BB: You showed me pictures of her yesterday.
JT: Yes. She was in that Ripley’s book. Jeanie really was Mom to me, as far as the business goes. The first time I ever dealt with Jeanie, it was right on the money with her. I’d been given her phone number by another old show guy, George Sanders, who worked the Museum of the Carnival. He says, “You have to talk to Jeanie Tomaini. She’s over there at Giants’ Camp.” It was a camp that she and her late husband Al Tomaini (The American Giant!) had created at Gibsonton (which in its way helped create Gibsonton as a town for show people).
I called her up on the phone. I got her daughter, Judy, and I asked if Jeanie was around. She put her on. There was this little voice, “Hello?”
I told her I had got her phone number from George over at the museum and that I was doing this book and I’d like to talk to her. She says, “Oh, that sounds really great!” She was really sweet. She says, “Well, would you want to come over tomorrow to do that?” I agreed.
She says, “Well, do you want to come by at 9, or do you want to come by around noon?”
I was, like, “Uh, why 9 or noon?”
I started laughing. I said, “I got a great idea, Jeanie. Why don’t I come by at 9? I can talk to you. When CNN shows up, we can talk about that afterward, too.”
She says, “Oh, that would be great.”
I showed up at 9. We’re talking. She says, “You know those CNN people? They called me and said they weren’t coming by!” [laughs]
I said, “Well, that was really a bum out!”
She said, “Yeah, but that’s ok. Somebody else will call me tomorrow!”
Sure enough, they always did. Whenever somebody wanted to do a thing on Gibsonton, they always had to talk to Jeanie. Jeanie was a jewel. God, that woman was just lovely. I’d planned on doing a book on her that was going to be a combo with her and Percilla Bejano (Percilla, the Monkey Girl!). It was going to be a flip book, like the old Ace Doubles.
JT: I’ve seen them. They’re great.
The Jeanie & Percilla book never happened, sadly. Now, Jeanie and Percilla are both gone. All of the old timers are gone. All of the ones from that era between the World Wars are almost all gone now. I couldn’t rattle off one that’s still around who was from that era. They’d all been born in the Teens, you know.
JT: Grady Stiles. I was friendly with his kids.
BB: I heard he was an evil man. He beat his kids, didn’t he?
JT: As one of Grady’s best friends told me, “Grady was a great guy as long as he wasn’t on the bottle.” The problem with Grady was, more often than not, he was on the bottle. He was not a nice drunk.
JT: He was not a very nice man at a lot of levels. But a lot of it was due to the alcohol, apparently. But I never met Grady. As others have said, the occupational hazard of the sideshow business is boredom, because you’re essentially doing the same act, the same show, every day, over and over.
BB: No variety. No challenge.
JT: Yes. You’re basically doing the same act for 5, 6, 7, minutes, 20-25 times a day. At night, you’re not practicing a new act. You’re essentially crashing because you’re all worn out from the day. The guys who like to drink, drink; the guys who like to gamble, gamble; the guys who are too damned exhausted to do anything, crash. The next day, you get up, and you start it all over again.
JT: Yeah. That’s it. That’s it exactly. If you really want to do it, it’s something that’s in the blood, and that’s the way it goes. If it’s something where it’s all you know how to do, you’re going to be doing it until the day you drop. It’s not like there’s a bigger problem with drunkenness in sideshow anymore than there is in the entertainment business generally or any other form of business, but you’ll find people with alcohol problems or with gambling problems. And, because it’s the entertainment business, it always tends to attract people who are of a certain type personally. They’re entertainment people. They’re prone to extremes personally sometimes. That’s why I love them.
But, yeah, Grady was quite the character. I never met Grady, so I can only speak as others have spoken of him. I know his kids, Grady Jr...
BB: They’re similarly afflicted, are they not?
JT: Yes. Cathy, the daughter, is much more similar in her hands and body make up than Grady, his son. I love Grady Jr.’s hands. The way Grady Sr. was, literally, it looked like just 2 fingers. But his son is just missing the middle digit. What happens is, his hand splays out real wide. His hands aren’t lobster so much. They look like these immense, dramatic hands. But he’s not in the business, and Cathy’s only in the business when she gets pulled out of self-imposed retirement. She and her brother, after the old man was murdered, were, “We’re out of the business.”
BB: I can’t remember the details of his murder.
JT: His wife and his stepson contracted a third guy and paid to have him murdered. The stepson is still in jail; he’ll probably be in jail for years still. Grady’s wife had in her favour the abused spouse defense. I believe that she’s been out of jail for a little while now. But you have to figure: Grady was murdered in November of ‘92. The trial was a horrifying scandal for Gibtown [JT3: That’s the show name for Gibsonton, folks.] because, as far as the carnival people were concerned, “Oh, great. Another thing to make us all look like dirt and garbage and trash.”
The media’s always looked at the business as something odd and somehow sleazy and weird and bizarre. Sadly, the business just feeds into it, too. The business has always been one that, throughout its mythology, has told the media “We’re all weird, bizarre, strange people!” You pitch that long enough, and that’s what the media wants to buy, because that’s what’s sexy. They don’t want to see past that to your real life.
BB: That they’re human, with mortgages to pay...
JT: Yes. And, basically, interviewing any of those people is like interviewing any other performer or any other entertainer. Just because the person doing the interviewing might have a hard time seeing that, doesn’t mean it ain’t the case. It’s like interviewing any other old time Vaudevillian who’s working under canvas. To you, they’re doing a weird and goofy and strange act. But it’s just the entertainment business.
I like it because it takes a certain ... what’s the line? “You don’t have to be crazy to be in the business, but it helps.” That’s one of the reasons why I’ve always loved it. The people are always 3 or 4 degrees off centre in some way. The old show guy’s line is, “Do you think the show’s up there on the platform? Oh, no! The show’s in the audience. The show’s in the tip.” They call the audience “the tip”. When showmen say they “turn the tip,” they’re saying they’re convincing people to come into your show.
One of my favorite show people, a banner painter by the name of Johnny Meah, had a wacky idea for a show that’s going to be called “Them”. It was about the audience. The whole idea of the show was that the people in the audience were the real show. One of the traditional lines in sideshow was, “You know, you had to pay money to see me. I get to look at you for free.”
The times I’ve been in shows, I stand back and watch the audience, because I’ve seen the shows a million times. I sit there watching the audience thinking, “Nothing up there is weird. You people are weird.” The people coming into the show sometimes should be up there on the platform standing there. Some very strange stuff comes trooping through those sideshows, boy. There’s always somebody in almost every tip that wants to show one of these old show guys something they can do, and it’s always something just appalling. “Look what I can do with my butt!”
It’s like, “We don’t want to see that. Get out of the show!”
It’s a great business.
BB: Please say something about the following people
A. Penn and Teller
JT: I can’t tell you anything on the record for these guys. [laughs]
BB: How did you meet them?
JT: Actually, I met them through, sadly, a good friend of mine who passed away a few years ago. It was a woman who was the director of The Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. Her name was Gretchen Worden. Gretchen was big buddies with Teller. I met her in the late ‘80‘s, I guess, through John Strausbaugh. She’s like, “Teller’s in town. I told him about the stuff you’re into with sideshow. He wants to meet you. I know you want to meet him.”
I drove up to Philadelphia with Kathleen before she was even married to her husband, Ivan. The 3 of us drove up to Philadelphia and met Teller. We hung out for the night.
About a year later, he and Penn were going to be in town, in Baltimore. I emailed him. I wrote, “This is probably totally out of line, but can I hit you guys up for some comps for the show?”
He’s like, “Yeah! You don’t have to pay to come to a show.”
I’m like, “I’m there!”
They’ve both been very sweet to me. The front cover of The Best of Shocked and Amazed! has a quote from Penn. We couldn’t print the exact quote because then it wouldn’t have made it into the bookstores. The exact quote was, “Great Fucking Mag!”
I think, as entertainers go, they’re top drawer.
P: So, what does Teller sound like, anyway?
JT: Just a guy. He’s very soft-spoken in a way, but the boy can talk.
P: I’d love to know what he sounds like.
JT: There’s a magic documentary that he’s on. It’s hilarious because, if I’m not mistaken, they keep him in the shadows. They identify him as Teller and you can hear him talk. And, if you ever see him on stage, there are a couple of tricks that they do where it’s his voice, but you don’t see him. He’s off stage, but you hear his voice. There are places where you can hear him talk, but if he’s in role, [he doesn’t speak].
There’s a network interview with them years ago, right when I was starting work on Shocked and Amazed! It’s an interview with both Penn and Teller. It’s a 15 minute segment on sideshow. They’re talking about the business. Of course, Teller’s not talking, because he’s in character. He’s on screen, so he’s not going to talk. I can’t remember the name of the news guy, but he was fairly prominent in the day. He says, “Oh, you’re doing your Harpo Marx thing.”
Teller lunges at him like he’s going to choke him. You don’t want to say that kind of stuff to the man. [laughs] You don’t want to talk about Harpo to Teller. He gets really lethal when you do that to him. It was all a stunt, but it was a funny bit.
BB: Penn is rabidly agnostic.
JT: No! Rabidly Atheist. With a capital “a”. There are many types of atheists. Penn says, “Hey, this is it. I’m going in the ground.” But there are many atheists who don’t necessarily believe that, afterwards, there’s nothing. They just believe there ain’t no God. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing afterwards to them.
One can argue that some spiritualists are atheists: They believe that there’s something else; they just don’t believe there’s a God connected to it.
BB: So Penn is extremely, rabidly atheist?
JT: Oh, my God, yes. And proud of it. He’s like, “Why should the belief system be otherwise?” [JT3: Want to know more? Check out Penn’s God No.]
BB: Does he tolerate a belief system with people?
JT: Well, one has the ability and the right to believe whatever one wants.
BB: I’ve seen Penn and Teller: Bullshit!
JT: And, they are no bullshit. But it doesn’t mean one can’t bring things to the table that they don’t know or think otherwise about.
When I first met Teller, we were at the Mütter, and we’d just shown up. Somehow, the subject of the Pope came up. I’m not a fan. Teller looked at me and was like, “I rather admire the man for having the strength to carry on his beliefs in the face of the things that challenge it.”
BB: Teller is an atheist as well?
JT: Yes. People believe what they believe. You watch them on their show. They’ll tell it like it is. It’s hard to knock a lot of the arguments.
BB: I realise you want to be diplomatic with your friends.
JT: Yes, I do.
P: Penn strikes me as your favourite uncle that you want to piss off.
JT: Yeah, Penn's fun to piss off. [laughs]
B. Ricky Jay
JT: Inarguably, one of the best card mechanics on the face of the Earth. Ricky is an amazing card mechanic, an amazing magician. He's got a couple of shows out. We saw Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants. I went to New York to see On the Stem, which means, "On Broadway". The stem is what they called Broadway 150 years ago.
All of his shows involve big hunks of history of the business. Almost all of his tricks involve some aspect of the history of how that trick came to be. Not just him personally, but all the guys who came before him who have fed into that trick and made it possible for him to do it.
Rebecca: If you ever get the chance, you really should go see him.
JT: He's an amazing showman. He's also quite the historian of the business. His book, Learned Pigs, is one of the inspirations for Shocked and Amazed! There were a couple of core publications that were the inspiration for Shocked and Amazed!, and that was one of them. The other was a book called Modern Primitives; it was put out by a publishing house called Re-Search. It still exists, I think, but it hasn't put out a lot of stuff recently. It was all interviews. It was interviews with people who were instrumental when helping create the modern primitives movement. V. Vale and Andrea Juno were the people behind Re-Search.
But Ricky's an amazing performer.
BB: And a buddy of yours.
JT: Ricky and I are a mutual admiration society for each other's publications. I've not been in Ricky's company as much as I've been in Penn and Teller's. Ricky's been very generous with me in his day. But he's a much tougher guy to catch up with and be around, anyway. He doesn't show very much. He did 52 Assistants as a revival show, really, because that was a show of his that went back 15 years. He brought it out of mothballs and toured it around the country briefly. The show that was after 52 Assistants was On the Stem, and that played in New York for about 3 or 4 months. That was it.
Rebecca: He acts, too.
JT: Yes. It's mostly theatrical stuff, TV and movies here and there. There’s also his theatrical effects work he does for films.
BB: He was in Flash Forward, too.
JT: Yes. He was in Flash Forward. The guy's time is tough. Penn and Teller have that, "Gee, we're locked in Vegas" problem, and they don't tour very much now either. But, before that, they were touring their show around constantly. And Teller does a lot of theater work. He just finished up work co-writing a show with another big buddy of mine, a guy by the name of Todd Robins. Todd had done a séance show that was a debunking show. It was just amazing. It didn't have the success he wanted it to have; he wanted it to have a lot more commercial reach than it ended up having. He and Teller go back a long ways, as he and Penn do. He went out to Vegas. He and Teller re-framed the show. It's been re-titled, Play Dead. We're going to try to get up there in November and see that one when it premieres off-Broadway. It should be a hilarious show, and maybe I'll get to run into Teller for the first time in years. [JT3: Play Dead had a successful run off-Broadway, at the Player’s Theatre]
BB: Give him one of my Bevboy's Blog business cards.
JT: I will. I will indeed.
P: That would be cool.
JT: We went to DC to see a version of MacBeth that Teller did, which was fun. It was framed with a lot of magic in it. A lot of people forget, in its original incarnation in Shakespeare's day, all of that theatrical magic stuff was in its infancy, but that was important to stagecraft at the time. The version in Shakespeare's time would have had a lot of that stuff. Subsequent to that, as the ages have gone by, we've lost sight of the wackier stagecraft. It's all ACTING! now. That's what Teller tried to do; he had some pretty funny bits in that show.
BB: Getting back to Ricky Jay for a moment: I remember a number of years ago, there was a show called That's Incredible. There was a feature about a blind guy who was awesome with cards. I can't remember the fella's name.
JT: There have been a number of blind card guys.
BB: He would be lifting weights with one hand, and manipulating a deck of cards with the other.
JT: I should be ashamed of myself. I should know who this guy is. Ricky would know who it was.
BB: Even though he's your friend, you can still say that, objectively, he's the best card guy around.
JT: Oh, my God. You're running into dangerous territory when you say, "the best", but I would say, pretty much inarguably, he's one of the best card mechanics alive. Jamy Ian Swiss is another one. Jamie is an amazing character, an amazing magician. But Ricky, with 52 Assistants, does a trick where I'm not sure if he touches the deck more than once. Everything else is “done” by the volunteer. By the time it's over, there's 3 cards left. That's it. The volunteer picks whatever card they want. The card they pick is their card, the one they picked at the beginning. Basically, it makes it look like, "What? My trick? It was yours!" The mechanism by which that's brought off? I don't have a clue about 99% of the magic in the world as to how it's done. I don't care about the mechanics.
BB: It's the patter and the show.
JT: Yup. It's how the act is pulled off. How do they accomplish what they accomplish? It's one of the things about magic that I really like. It ain't the trick at all. It's the story that the trick is framed inside of that pulls the trick off. If the story don't cut it, the trick is, "Oh, here's your card. OK. Fine." It's all that patter that goes with it. Because, really, you could take almost any card trick; and depending on how good you are, you can reframe, revise, change, alter the story any way you want, and still have the trick and pull it off, and still be amazing. What a lot of people don't realize is that it's that whole framework that makes the trick work.
I saw Melvin Burkhart [the Original Human Blockhead] do that damned trick that Ricky does, where there's 3 cards left, and you pick the card. It's always the card you picked to begin with. The coup de gras of the whole thing is, whoever's doing it flips the other 2 cards over, and they're not the same. It's not like, "Well, gee, the last 3 cards are all your card!" It's different cards. It's like, "It's bad enough that I picked my own card again. But, now, I'm having it proven to me that I had to do it."
Ricky's line about it is, "Can cards be controlled? Yes!" [laughs] You don't want to play cards with Ricky. You lose.
If you want to know about Ricky Jay, there was a big interview in The New Yorker that was just amazing. It was right after the time that he and David Copperfield had their huge falling out.
BB: Oh? Tell me about this.
JT: Well, Copperfield bought the Mulholland Library [of Conjuring and the Allied Arts], which was a huge archive of magic books and memorabilia. Ricky had tried to buy the collection, because he had been its curator and the chief librarian thereof. When the collection came up at auction, Ricky tried to get people together because he knew it was going to go for a tub of money. He just couldn't get the finances together to beat out Copperfield. David's got more money than God. If Copperfield wants it, Copperfield's gonna get it. And, he got it.
He offered Ricky continuing librarian status, if you will, with the collection. Ricky was like, "Uh, no."
BB: Was it professional jealousy, or he doesn't like Copperfield for some reason?"
JT: As far as Ricky Jay is concerned, magic ain't what Copperfield makes it. As far as he is concerned, magic is not the glitz and the hoopla that he sees Copperfield as performing. That's not me saying that's what Copperfield's act is. We saw Copperfield. We thought it was a great show. A great show. The best show money can buy.
Rebecca: We were right in the front row. We were as close you could get.
JT: And, David's another one who's been very good to me. David was in my house before that show, as a matter of fact. He was looking at some of my collection. We'll let it rest with that. He was like, "I'll give you guys front row!"
"You can threaten me with front row any time you want, David! That's fine by me."
BB: He would have displaced two young models from the front row.
JT: We sat next to one of them. She was very sweet. It was a great show.
But Ricky's all about the keys to the kingdom. The muggles aren't supposed to have the keys to the kingdom. Ricky's very much about maintaining that veneer of, "There are keys to the kingdom that you're not supposed to have until you've run through the mill. You're supposed to have had that experience of going through this, and you're not supposed to be given access. That's the way it's supposed to be presented. That's the way it goes."
BB: I can go to Hank Lee’s website whenever I want, Hank Lee's Magic Factory out of Boston. They have a huge online presence. I can order whatever trick I want. And, I'm a muggle.
JT: Well, that's Penn and Teller's angle on it. When they first started to get the fame that they were earning, Penn and Teller pissed off a lot of a certain stamp of magician because one of their m.o.'s is to get out there and say, "Oh, we're going to show you how it's done.” And, then do the trick in front of you; and despite the fact that they told you how it's done, you still can't see how it's done. They literally do a cups and balls act where the cups are transparent. And huge. They show you how it's done. And you still don't see how the Goddamn trick is done. When it's all over, they're still pulling crap out of these damn cups. I said, "Where the Hell was it? I don't get it."
Then, they started that damned rumour that they were banned from the Magic Castle. They were never banned from the damned Magic Castle! The Larsens [who run the Castle] love them. But it was good for press. They got a lot of ink from it. The Larsens thought it was funny, too.
But Ricky's of another attitude. "Look. I love my audience. And, that's the audience. But that ain't up here. I hold secrets that are known only to me and God." It's that whole "Godly magician" thing, despite the fact that ultimately, yes, it's only magic. But, for Ricky, it's magic with a capital M. It's not just a living; it's the way you live your life. That's the way Ricky wants it. There's a fair number of magicians who feel that way.
Rebecca: They just have different philosophies.
JT: Big time.
Rebecca: They're never going to agree with each other.
BB: Is it hard to be friends with two people who don't like each other?
JT: I don’t know these folks don’t like each other, but yeah, I got millions of friends who don't like each other.
BB: He's going to complain to you about him. You have to be in the middle. You have to be like Switzerland.
JT: Well, I just never bring them up with the other ones. I know who likes whom and why. That's not to say that I haven't pissed off talent myself, because I have. There are people in the business who don't want to deal with me. I'm not happy with that, but that's happened. But, usually, with things going to print, it's not like I'm revealing secrets about them.
BB: You'll have a chance to vet this.
JT: I love ya. I love ya for that. I report on the business, but I'm also a promoter of the business. That doesn't mean that I can't be friends with a lot of different people who might not like each other because I like all of them in different ways. They don't have to like each other to have me as a common friend/resource/fan. I can be friendly with all of them, as much as possible. [JT3: Ok ok ok: drunken interviewees note here. I’m NOT saying that any of the aforementioned folks dislike each other. Hell, I’ve never heard any of them even mention each other specifically. Philosophically, though, hey, different folks have their own takes on the biz, and boy howdy, they ain’t gotta agree about it. In the show biz, it ain’t about agreement: It’s about generating audience.]
C. Tyler Fyre and Thrill Kill Jill
Rebecca: [Thrill Kill Jill once] finished the act with blood rolling down her face.
JT: Tyler [Fyre, Jill’s husband & co-performer] did come out and get the snake off of her. She told him to keep the music going. "No matter what, do not stop the music. I’ll keep smiling and don’t stop the music." She got off that stage and thought, "That's it. The career is over." Because she was performing during the Miss Exotic World competition. She wasn't part of the competition because that's all for burlesque queens. But she and Tyler were doing sideshow. She's doing her snake act; she's dancing around.
That snake? I'd have fried and eaten it for lunch. When they're trying to kill you, you exercise the human imperative to put it down.
She's dancing around with that thing. She lifts it up and says, "Uh, oh!" That snake went boom! There's pictures; you can see them online. She's still smiling. The snake has bitten her forehead. Their teeth are such that, once they bite, they can't get their teeth off of you. They're locked on, because the idea is that they're going to bite whatever they bite and pull it in. Every time they open their mouth and bite down, they're pulling you back.
She's like, "Oh, crap. This is it. I've blown my rep. It's all over. In front of all these burlesque queens, I've screwed my act up."
Instead, after that act, she says, it was instant cred. All these burlesque queens went, "I can't believe you finished the act!" They were all in awe of her. They all back up now whenever she gets introduced. They all have a different mode of what puts you on top, I guess.
Rebecca: Jill's very pretty, too. She's got skin like alabaster. She's thin. Coal-dark black hair.
JT: She's drop-dead gorgeous. They're the Lucky Daredevil Thrill Show. Whose birthday party did they do? Snoop Dogg’s? P Diddy’s? They've done amazing stuff. They're a great act. Top 5 in sideshow, easily. [JT3: The Lucky Daredevils now number three, Tyler Fyre, Thrill Kill Jill & Hank Lightning, who was born July 4, 2011.]
D. David Carradine
JT: Never met him.
BB: Shit. [everyone laughs]
JT: You'll have to talk to that sword swallower friend of mine, Charon Henning. She met him.
BB: He was into some weird stuff.
BB: He was caught dead, wasn't he?
JT: Yes, he was. Sad, but true. I only know Carradine care of the show [the History Channel documentary Wild West Tech, hosted by Carradine and featuring James as a commentator].
P: There was a little fella with him. His little sidekick.
JT: I don't remember who that was. I know I never met the little guy who was with him either. I know of him just from the show. There's a million and one little people doing entertainment. It's a much more common physical difference than most of the other people with other physical differences who have done sideshow and worked the business otherwise.
Danny Black runs Short Dwarf, which is a talent agency, literally, for little people. That's mostly all he does is little people. Danny's a piece of work; what a character he is. He's funny as Hell.
There's a lot of them getting into sideshow now. It's like the rebirth of the freak show. Everyone says, "Well, it's the pornography of disability!" Well, tell it to the guy over there with the lobster hands that wants to get into the show. There are a lot of people proud to be called freaks getting into the business.
BB: Other than Coney Island, what sideshows are there out there?
JT: There's one called 999 Eyes out of Austin. There's Hellsapoppin which has freaks in it. Whenever Tyler and Jill perform, they always try to get a freak act. Matt Fraser, who did a documentary I was in, which was on Channel 4 in London, did a documentary called "Seal Boy Freak". He's one of the thalidomide kids. He started out as a magician and a sometimes entertainer separate from his band. His first cd was called Short-Armed and Dangerous. Matt's a piece of work, too. A real sweetheart. He's marrying burlesque queen Julie Atlas Muz up in Coney Island last I heard.
E. Oofty Goofty
JT: Everything I know about Oofty Goofty, you saw in [one of the sideshow episodes of Wild West Tech]. The only reason I remembered Oofty Goofty is because I’m a huge fan of [Herbert] Asbury and his books. He wrote a book called, The Barbary Coast. The big book that everybody knows from Asbury is The Gangs of New York. But he wrote a pile of other books. He wrote one called The French Quarter, all about New Orleans, which is a great book. But the one called The Barbary Coast, which is all about San Francisco’s waterfront, that’s where Oofty Goofty and most of what was written about him is from. It’s only 3 or 4 paragraphs. It’s not a lot.
BB: Not a lot is known about him, then?
JT: No. Everything you saw on that show is everything that’s known about Oofty Goofty, as far as I know, except that I have his bat buried in my back yard. [JT3: A great deal more on Oofty Goofty was published recently on-line. See my note below. Sure as hell surprised me.]
BB: You told me that story. It’s apocryphal.
JT: “The apocryphal bat of Oofty Goofty”. I like that.
P: What was his real name?
JT: I haven’t a clue. Nobody knows what his real name was. It’s like anybody who came and went along the Barbary Coast. Good luck believing anything that they told you anyway. It was all these guys trying desperately to escape the law, or guys who fell off from being shanghaied from whatever ship that docked. It was a wild and wooly time, during the heyday of the Barbary Coast in the 19th century.
But that whole hunk of America was just mobbed up with goofball characters that guys like Asbury loved to write about. Oofty Goofty’d walk around with a bat and charge people money to give him a whack with it to show them he could survive any blow, until, of course, he ran into a prize fighter who beat him senseless.
BB: John L. Sullivan, apparently.
JT: That’s right. He breathed rather oddly after that encounter. Oofty Goofty, not Sullivan.
BB: I wonder if John L. Sullivan ever wrote about that incident. I wonder if he ever mentioned that he beat this guy, Oofty Goofty?
JT: You know, that’s a good question.
BB: Because there was a Canadian heavyweight champion 100 years ago named Tommy Burns. John L. Sullivan and those guys from that period would never fight black people. They just refused to do it. They were racist pigs. Jack London wrote hateful things about black people.
JT: Oh, hateful things about all kinds of people. Great writer, but you have to read past that stuff.
BB: He’s revered, but it’s hard to look past that stuff. But John L. Sullivan was that way himself. You’d think that a fairly famous guy like John L. Sullivan must have written a book. He must have had a biography, and I wonder if he mentioned Oofty Goofty.
JT: In all honesty, I don’t know.
Rebecca: Google it.
JT: As soon as you get past using Google for the sake of spell check.
[JT3: John L. Sullivan did, indeed, write an autobiography, entitled Reminiscences of a 19th Century Gladiator. And much more is now available on Oofty Goofty, some of the best appearing at http://www.sfcityguides.org/public_guidelines.html?article=1326&submitted=TRUE&srch_text=&submitted2=&topic=San%20Francisco%20Characters]
F. Zip the Pinhead and Schlitzie
JT: [Zip] is buried in New Jersey. I think he finally has a tombstone. A buddy and I were going to get together and do a fund-raising thing out of Coney Island to raise money to get a tombstone for Zip, but I think somebody already put a tombstone out there.
BB: He has one of those stones that are flush with the ground. Are you saying he has a full-fledged tombstone now?
JT: Not that I know of. There never used to be anything other than barely a marker. The fact that there is something there now is different than it ever used to be.
BB: After working 65 years in the industry, there wasn’t enough money to bury him properly?
JT: He apparently died with a lot of money. But how much of that is apocryphal? I don’t know. He apparently owned a chicken farm; maybe he didn’t. He apparently had an I.Q. that wasn’t moronic. Supposedly, on his deathbed, his last words were, “We sure fooled them, didn’t we?”
Rebecca: But he looked that way.
JT: Well, he looked like a pinhead because he had this funny-shaped head with this tuft of hair on the back. But as [“King of the Sideshows”] Ward Hall will tell you, “I’ve seen lots of pinheads on the midway. Find anybody with a funny head and get him to say, ‘Yeah, I’ll do that!’ Cut their hair funny. Do everything you can to accentuate the weird shape of their head, and get them out there on stage to act like they’re goofy. People will believe whatever you tell them.”
But I think it’s more than likely that Zip was not particularly intelligent and really was microcephalic. Who knows?
Rebecca: Well, somebody had to care for him.
JT: Yes, but the guys who were associated with him never quite went on the record with any of that stuff. Literally, to his dying day, you could find show guys who, in print, would say, “No. Sorry. Guy was a pinhead; he was an idiot. Had to be cared for completely, soup to nuts.”
Other guys would be like, “Nope. Sorry. He was a lot smarter than you think he was.”
That’s one of those legends that won’t go away. How are you going to prove it? Whom are you going to believe, and why are you going to believe them over somebody else? It’s different when you get the guys like Schlitzie. He, inarguably, had the brainpower of an orange.
You know Zippy, the comic strip?
JT: Zippy is actually based on Schlitzie.
BB: I thought it might be based on Zip the Pinhead.
JT: No. Not at all, other than the name. Sort of. Schlitzie had quite the career, too. He used to do a magic trick on stage. The magic trick consisted of Schlitzie showing you a deck of cards. You’d pick a card. You’d give the card back, and Schlitzie would pick your card out of there. Well, the deck of cards was all the same damn card. Any idiot could do that trick, and an idiot did.
Zippy is male, but he always wears a dress. That’s because most pinheads were always dressed up as females because it was easier to take care of their bathroom needs by putting them in a dress.
Schlitzie was in a bunch of movies. Boston Blackie is the one you can actually find fairly readily. A “B” detective film.
JT: I think the film’s called Meet Boston Blackie. Schlitzie’s in it, as a pinhead, as a sideshow performer. He was in a bunch of other goofy movies, too. He was also in a 1930‘s eugenics film. He was right out of the mental institution, looking not very happy, and looking very male, with about 3 days’ worth of beard. What an embarrassing and horrible movie. “Does this really deserve to live? Wouldn’t it be better to put them to death?” The ‘30‘s was all about that crap. That’s the rise of Nazism, you know. It was a “worthless to the species” attitude. And, what’s Schlitzie going to do to object? “Go walk over there and lay down on that bed.”
But Schlitzie was only happy when he was on stage.
Rebecca: That’s when everybody treated him special.
JT: Yes. He was the centre of attention. He’d get up there and be goofy and nuts. People were laughing and carrying on. He was having a gay old time.
BB: I’ll have to check out that Boston Blackie movie. I used to listen to Boston Blackie OTR shows in the 1970‘s. My favourite threat ever was in a Boston Blackie episode. Someone said to Boston Blackie, “What if he slams the door in your face?” Boston Blackie goes, “I’ll slam his face into the door!” I was 12 years old when I heard that, and I’ve never forgotten it.
JT: [Laughs] I love that. That’s priceless. I’ll have to remember that one.
BB: Has there ever been a book about Zip the Pinhead?
BB: Give him my card.
JT: I shall indeed.
I get contacted by people, I swear to God, every week, working on some project or other. Stephen Cox? The guy that wrote the books on all the munchkins of Oz? He’s in the middle of a book on Robert Wadlow, the tallest man in recorded history. I was back and forth with him a couple of months back. He’s a really funny character, too. He just loves that old-time entertainment stuff.
BB: So a fella’s writing a book about Zip the Pinhead?
JT: Yes. But it’s been a while since I’ve heard from him. Everybody’s writing a book about everybody. William Lindsay Gresham, the guy that wrote Nightmare Alley and Monster Midway and a bunch of books on Houdini and scams and cons and stuff, is having a bio written on him by a guy I was back and forth with emailing... oh, it’s been 10 years now. That book’s still not out there.
These guys, they either run out of gas, or they get the book and they can’t get it published after a dozen or two submissions. They get sick of it and let it sit. Or they self-publish it and it goes nowhere. It can be a pretty sad business that way.
BB: Or, even researching that stuff, with all the contradictory information. After a while, you think, “Well, what the Hell do I do here? Do I have a book here? If I can’t take a point of view, if people keep contradicting each other, what am I supposed to do?”
JT: Well, you know, those talk show guys do that all the time. If you can’t argue the facts, argue the argument. Actually, there’s a lot to be said for not being able to say definitively what happened here, here or here. That itself speaks to the nature of the business and the nature of how people ran their lives in terms of that business.
The piece we did on the “Fartomaniac” [JT3: aka Le Petomane], the piece we ran in Shock in Amazed!, was driven by the fact that in the great days of vaudeville and La Moulin Rouge and all the rest of it, he was one of the most hysterical acts in Paris. He outgrossed Sarah Bernhart.
BB: Farts are still funny.
JT: They are. And, if you can get up there and do it to music, more power to you.
My partner in the American Dime Museum had heard a rumour that Pujol was invented, that it was made up, that it was all just like a joke book that had been done back in the late ‘60‘s: The biography, supposedly written by the grandson was out, published. It was an inspiration to all kinds of guys. Ricky Jay. Mel Brooks. All these comics and entertainers and performers who came out of the ‘60‘s and ‘70‘s, all worshipped the idea that there was this guy who made money getting up on stage and farting.
But there was always this rumour running around that the guy never existed, and that’s because there wasn’t anything in English on him prior to that biography. It was all wink-wink, nudge-nudge, it never really happened. My ex-partner in the American Dime Museum was an idea-a-minute character for how we could get attention for the museum. One of his ideas was that we would hold a press conference saying that we had done all this extensive research on Joseph Pujol and come to the decision that it was all made up, it was all a scam, it was all bullshit, and he didn’t exist.
Either way, as he saw it, it was a win-win. We’d get all this attention. If he did really exist, then we’d be all like, “Oh, jeez. Sorry. Our mistake.” If he didn’t exist, we’d be the ones that outted the fact that everybody else had been hoodwinked by this damned biography.
My line to him was, “If we get shown up as having farted in front of the media without good reason, I, as a historian, am going to look like an asshole. You’re just going to look like a guy who makes Feejee mermaids. I don’t think this one’s going to fly, pal!”
I put the kibosh on that. But, in the meantime, I had gotten this guy who was a medical researcher who was out of Philadelphia, and he wrote that piece [in Shocked and Amazed!] as a matter of fact. I said, “Go ahead, and find what you can find.” Of course, what he found was the reason we don’t know much about Pujol in the English speaking world is because Joseph Pujol was French, and he performed in the late 1800‘s and early 1900‘s. Not a lot of that crap about a guy who farted for a living got translated into English. So, what are you going to know? The primary sources are in a language that we can’t easily access. I thought, “I’m glad we didn’t call that press conference; I’d look like an asshole.” No reference to Fartomaniac intended.
G. Harry Anderson
JT: He's huge. He's like 6'9"
P: He looks kind of lanky and scrawny.
P: Is he on steroids or something? The little judge.
JT: "The Little Judge". Nice!
P: I think of him on Night Court.
JT: Before that, he was a con man and a magician. An amazing magician, actually. Funny, funny fella. [JT3: And Harry and his wife, Elizabeth, owned the amazing and now, sadly, defunct magic & sideshow emporium, Sideshow, and the also now-closed variety club, Oswald’s, both in New Orleans.]
H. Willa Mae Buckner
JT: If there’s to be a volume 11, I know that the front cover is going to be Willa Mae Buckner, The Wild Enchantress, who was an African-American Blues singer, Jazz/lounge singer, and sideshow performer and sideshow owner in her day. Willa Mae was a hilarious character; I’ve been promising her biggest fan, a lady from North Carolina, where Willa Mae was based, a cover for a lot of volumes.
When I interviewed Willa Mae Buckner, her house was about the size of these two rooms [the cottage living room and kitchen], probably had about 3 pieces of furniture in it, aside from the stand-up ragtime piano, and what few tchotchkes were sitting around the room were being pushed on the floor by her 25 foot albino python, which roamed around the entire time I was interviewing her. She’s like, “Don’t pay him no mind. He won’t bother you!” Damned if he didn’t bother me, as a matter of fact. I watched him go straight up the side of the piano, the way snakes do, where you can’t believe they’re doing it, but they’re getting all stiff and snaking up the side, literally, of the piano. He got across the top of the piano. Then he moved his eight-inch-in-diameter bulk across the top of the piano. He’s pushing pictures and crap off the top of that piano onto the floor. She’s got no rugs, just a bare wood floor. It’s crawling down the other side and snaking around.
Before I left, she points at her snakes and she said, “Yeah, I just had two of these born, these two right here. I’m gonna name one of them after you!”
I was like, “That’s fine by me, Willa. You do whatever you feel you have to do.”
JT: The thing about the entertainment business is that we all base what we think the entertainment business is on guys making zillions of dollars a year. The Angelina Jolie’s, the Brad Pitt’s. That’s the “entertainment business”. But there’s 3 dozen of them compared with 3 million of all those other guys who might have a big pay day once in a while. Maybe in their day, they may have been millionaires, but they don’t quite finish their lives like that, usually. Say what you want to about that entertainment crowd, but they’re not all very good with their money and some never made very much more than a living. It’s a boom-and-bust business.
Unless, in the business, you recognize that the attention you’re getting, not just today, but now, you won’t be getting tomorrow, and that includes the money that you’re getting now compared with this time tomorrow, [unless you recognize that, you may be in for a huge disappointment]. Look at your life like, “I can’t spend any more than I have. Everything’s got to be lean, mean, and I have to think about the fact that I have no retirement [pension] in this. I’m essentially self-employed.” You have to think that way constantly, because otherwise you end up like a lot of entertainers: with amazing memories, amazing stories, and not much else. That’s the way a lot of people finish in the entertainment business.
Certainly, most of the ones in the sideshow end up that way. In Shocked and Amazed!, one of the serialized pieces is by an old show guy named Walt Hudson. The first serialized bit we ran with him was I Was A Teenage Blockhead; the next batch is what we’re doing now, which is Coney Island Baby; the third batch, if we keep doing Shocked and Amazed!, will be about his days performing in the amusement parks. He was always a sideshow guy doing these wacky stunts and learning how to swallow swords and stuff. But his line to me when I first met him in the early days of Shocked and Amazed! was, “I got out of school, I knew what I wanted. I wanted to be able to retire.” And he did. He did all that stuff based on, “I do this as a sideline. I do this as a hobby. I do this for the fun. But I’m getting a real job. I’m getting a sucker job. That’s what I’m gonna do, because I’m gonna get a retirement out of this. I’m gonna get a payday when it’s all over.”
Literally, he was a professional magician. He made some money and got attention as an entertainer. He’s always been a writer. He’s written for magic magazines his whole life.
BB: The Linking Ring, or whatever?
JT: Yes. All of that. New Tops was one of them. He wrote for White Tops for a while. And, of course, he’s written for Shocked and Amazed! He wrote for Circus Report for years. He looks at all the “kids”, as he calls them in the business. A lot of them are kids to me. But even guys who are closer to my age... Walt goes, “These kids don’t have any sense. What are they going to do when it comes time to retire? They’re not going to have anything.”
He forgets that what drives people to do that business, drives them to do things most of the rest of us “suckers”, the rest of us rubes, would think was insane. “What are you going to do when you hit 65? Social security? How much is that going to give you? Do you think you’ll be able to live on that? You’ll have nothing.” But you can’t stop them. It’s what they want. They devote their lives to it, and that’s the way it goes.
Even in the old days of the show business, these guys would basically get old and end up in some sort of stumble bum fashion around the shows, and just go out horizontal. Just die on the job. Die, trying to work the last spot. But it’s something that gets in the blood. They don’t know any other way to live their lives. That’s what they do.
It’s something I really admire. I tell people all the time, “Of all the friends that I have and have had, the ones I have always admired the most are the ones who didn’t do the route that I did.”
John Strausbaugh out of New York has always been a newspaper guy. Good luck on making that work for you nowadays. Those guys will get rid of your ass in a heartbeat. He was the editor of New York Press. The guy who owned that press sold it; the first thing the new owners did, they fired Strausbaugh. He had a big job, big money. Totally out of work.
JT: What he does now is ghostwrite autobiographies and write his own books, fiction and nonfiction. John’s had a dozen books out. Some great stuff. A friend of mine, Nick Aumiller, has always been a painter and a sculptor. Any job that he has ever had, has been just to keep food in his stomach and a roof over his head, and all the rest went to the art. Nick’s line to me years ago was, “You know, I never did a major painting that it didn’t cost me a job.” He’d get working and get working. Then he’d forget to go to work. He’s an amazing painter. He’s got 2 Master’s degrees. And now he’s a caricaturist; that’s his job. But he’d much rather be making money painting.
Scott Huffines’ another one. He created Atomic Books and was partnered with me on Shocked and Amazed! store sales in the early days. Scott had been a guy who ran food services for a major hospital. He was making huge money. He had the fiancée who did everything in the world to make sure he kept making huge money. And he said to himself, “You know what I want to do? I want to run a wacky, goofy, dirty book store!” He literally walked away from all of it and created Atomic Books. He lost the fiancée. He lost the house. He lost all of it. But he was the happiest SOB who walked the face of the earth. Then he went bankrupt with Atomic Books. But he gave it a shot. If he had had the mind and the backers to do Atomic the way it should have been done, he’d have been Amazon.com now, because Amazon was nothing when Scott was out there, doing online book sales like Amazon was. Amazon was one of his prime competitors. But those guys had a business model that Scott didn’t. Scott wanted to do this wacky, goofy little thing that was based on his own way of doing it. The idea that he’d have to get out there and kiss up to rich people ... he didn’t want to do that.
But, no, my biggest buddies in life have always been guys who were willing to say, “You know, I’m probably gonna starve to death, but I’m going to do this thing.”
BB: I'm fascinated about minstrelsy. There was a documentary on PBS a few years ago about Vaudeville. There was overlap.
BB: Burlesque was woven in there.
BB: But there were African Americans performers --
JT: Bert Williams.
JT: Well, I’m no expert on minstrelsy, but the origins of minstrelsy in America go back to the early days of the 19th century. It was less about what today we think minstrelsy is. Today, we see it as this horrifyingly racist institution that’s better off dead, forgotten, and not even spoken about. But, in its day, minstrelsy was monstrously successful, for a huge block of time. And it wasn’t because, gee, it made fun of black people. It was because it was entertaining to watch. There were any number of blacks who worked minstrelsy, and worked in blackface. [Bevboy Note: There are songs sung today that began as minstrelsy tunes: Two examples are “Camptown Races” and “Oh! Susanna”. The original lyrics can be had via a simple google search]
Bert Williams, who was probably the most famous black minstrel who ever worked, supported huge numbers of other entertainers because he was one of the most famous entertainers of his day. He literally pulled any number of other show producers out of bankruptcy, out of the goodness of his heart, because he admired them as producers and admired them as fellow entertainers. He knew what he could raise by way of money. When he walked out on stage, he was money walking out on stage. He couldn’t get off the stage unless he sang his song, “Nobody”. If he didn’t do that, the audience wouldn’t leave the theater.
We have a hard time understanding minstrelsy today because we see it, again, as this racist institution. But, in its infancy, in its birth, as John Strausbaugh is writing in Black Like You, it was the early 19th century’s rock n’ roll.
BB: Yes, with performers like Thomas Dartmouth Rice and Jump Jim Crow.
JT: Because, you know why? Blackface is a mask. It’s what it is. One could argue that in the oldest traditions of the theater, it was all about playing the role. The role is representative of the man. What’s Oscar Wilde’s line? “The mask reveals the man.” That’s what minstrelsy was. The idea that Bert Williams would ever work out of blackface, Bert Williams’ line was, “That’s the act. Blackface isn’t making fun of me. I know what I am, and I know who I am. It’s not what I am on stage, as that role.” You talk about the End Man, and Bones, and the Interlocutor. All those were roles that represented certain things within that form of theatrics. You broke with those modes of entertainment at your peril because people would be, like, “What’s this? What’s going on with that? I expect to see a certain thing out of this.”
It’s like when you break with traditions in filmmaking. There are certain things that if you try to do in film, even today, people won’t pay to see it. They won’t watch it, because they expect certain things out of certain theatrical modes. And, that’s what minstrelsy was.
BB: It sounds like your fascination is with the entertainment business in general, even more so than with just the “weird” acts. Is that a fair statement?
JT: Whenever someone says, “What’s your favourite volume?”, I always say, “The next one.” That’s the line you use. But, really, volume 9 finally represented for me what Shocked and Amazed! is supposed to be, which was a very big tent. Shocked and Amazed! might have, at some levels, in its origins and inspiration, been driven by, “I want to know what it’s like to work in a freak show.” But, really, at its core, I’ve always been fascinated with the stories and with the way the business worked, less than how you swallow a sword. What I really wanted to know was, “How do you turn that into an act?” How do you turn smearing your face with burnt cork into an act? How does that work? Those mechanics, that stuff, is what I’ve always wanted to have reported on in Shocked and Amazed! That’s why, really, Tim Cridland, the Torture King’s interview, is important. Manuel King is a great interview. John Strausbaugh’s excerpt from Black Like You. And the piece on medicine shows. That kind of stuff is what I wanted to move Shocked and Amazed! in the direction of since volume one, because it talks about all of that other entertainment. All of that stuff that you don’t realize is impacting, how it’s influenced other forms of entertainment.
When you think about it, every time you turn on that tv, you’re watching a damn medicine show. What medicine show was, “Give them a little show. Pitch something to them to buy. Give them a little more show. Pitch something to them to buy.” That’s exactly what [commercial] tv is. All of those forms of entertainment had to get their inspiration from somewhere, and that was a fairly successful form. It was a way to pitch more than just the act. When you try to pitch an act, how do you make money out of, “Well, I’m showing this guy; he’s being entertaining.” Well, how do you get the viewer to pony up when the means of communication are effectively free, like radio was? Or like tv used to be? When it’s free, how do you make money off of it? Well, you make money off of what you’re pitching. You make money off those commercials. And, that takes its cues directly from medicine show. But you talk to most people about where this all comes from, and they don’t have a clue.
The ways minstrelsy feeds into things. The way all that cross-racial stuff still works. Because, really, the whole notion of drag is still really important in entertainment. If you troop some guy out there dressed as a babe, I’m sorry, it’s minstrelsy. That’s what it is. It’s black drag. It’s female drag. And, that’s what acting kinda is from Square One anyway, because anytime you put on a role, you’re in drag. You’re in that character. You’re not you any more.
BB: Is it possible for a white man to have a discussion about minstrelsy with a black man without coming across as racist?
JT: Oh, sure. I think John Strausbaugh in Black Like You does an admirable job of it. There’s an essay at the conclusion of the book by an African-American guy living in Berlin. That afterpiece was John’s way of saying, “Hey, look. We can see this in ways as other than racist. We can see this as an American experiment, if you will, an entertainment experiment in how whites and blacks do and do not deal well with each other, and how it’s been this dance since the dawn of the country.” It was a relationship that might have been born predominantly in slavery, and that makes it problematic and troublesome, but you ignore it or bury it at your peril.
In America, for example, God forbid you ever talk about free blacks. The idea is, “There were white people who were free, and black people who were slaves.” Well, not totally. There was a small coterie of blacks who actually fought for the confederacy. It’s not like it was the overwhelming majority by any means, and it’s it’s a kind of weirdly embarrassing thing to look at, but it happened.
The idea of the American Civil War is that it was all about slavery. Well, yes, but not exactly the way most of us now think. The War of the Rebellion was a war over a way of life, which was upheld by slavery. But it was also a war over your representation in Congress because if, politically, the slaves represent a certain percentage of the vote, but they don’t really have the vote, they represent a percentage of what kind of power you’re going to have in politics in Congress, which is what they did. But they had no vote. You got power in Congress based on their numbers. If what you’re saying is they’re freed, they all get the vote; look how many of them there are. You’re not going to have the way of life you had before when they get the vote. It was all that kind of mix. It’s about slavery in its way, but slavery in quotes, in a way, where it’s simultaneously as brutal and as ugly as it looked, and as subtly octopus-like, invasive and tentacled throughout the culture in ways that you never think about; you don’t even have a conscious notion that it’s going on.
Think about all the things that blacks in America have contributed to that most people, until fairly recently, either didn’t want to credit them with or never really thought about. So much of the music; so much of the theater; so much of all of it. It applies to a lot of the segments of American culture anyway. It’s an argument that makes a lot of black people nuts, in terms of people’s rights and all. A lot of gays make the same argument, “Hey, look. We might not have come from slavery, but the same kind of prejudices get applied to us.” All I can ever think about, though, is Elizabeth Taylor’s line: “No gays, no entertainment business.” She’s got a point. You live your life in disguise. When you become an adult, living a life of pretend, it comes naturally. Why shouldn’t you, if you have any notion of getting in front of people with this difference, and this ability, to be someone else, why not get on the stage and do it?
You have to be careful, when you walk on the terrain of assuming that someone who’s black can’t hear a white’s perspective on minstrelsy, the same way that the assumption can be made that someone who’s white can’t understand a black’s perspective on it.
I think if someone who’s black comes to minstrelsy with a high-bound notion that everything about it is racist, that’s as ignorant of all the facts as somebody who’s white coming to it, looking at it, and going, “Oh, come on! It was just in fun.” Which is also stupid and wrong.
If you look at the really serpentine kind of way that black and white have intermixed and intermingled, since the dawn of the relationship, blacks and whites have always been oddly and perversely fascinated with the ways one another acts and does and is. It’s simultaneously weird and off-putting. It’s sexy, exotic, and odd. Then, when you really get down to it, it’s like, “We’re just people, aren’t we?” When you get to that point, it’s like, “What was all this mess about? What were we upset about?” It’s a funny thing to take part in and be part of. You can’t not.
America’s a black and white exercise. That’s why it was such a huge deal to elect Obama. Then we find out he’s just a politician. Oh, crap! [laughs] What did you think he was going to be? He’s the president. Come on!
BB: There are audio recordings of Jump Jim Crow [the classic minstrel song]. There’s a university in the States that managed to find these vintage recordings, these old cylinder recordings, and digitized them. I’ve played a few of them.
JT: They’re out there. And they’re pretty amazing. You want to go to YouTube. You’ll find three dozen people doing it on YouTube. But the other thing you want to go to is archiphone.com. Archiphone is “sound before radio.” It’s some amazing stuff. A fair amount is recordings of people you wouldn’t even have thought had been recorded. Barnum was actually recorded. Not very much. When he passed away, audio had just started. But they found a recording of Whitman. It’s only one line from “Leaves of Grass”, I think. But it’s amazing, the people who were recorded in the very earliest days of audio: some prominent politicians and performers. But you’ll find Jump Jim Crow out there.
BB: You founded Dolphin-Moon Press way back in 1973. Tell me about how you started your own publishing house.
JT: It’s been a long time since anyone talked about those origins. In ‘73, I and my brother and his girlfriend at the time were in writing classes with my writing mentor, poet Michael Egan. He basically said, “Hey, you guys want some extra credit? I’ll let you set up a class whereby what you do for this class is that the 3 of you create a journal.”
That’s what we did. We created a magazine called CAIM. CAIM, as a name, is actually a name for a fallen angel, one of Lucifer’s minions. But CAIM had a weird lineage. One of the things that CAIM, the fallen angel, was empowered to do was speak with the birds, which we thought was a pretty sexy thing.
We created this literary journal. For the next couple of years, we published this completely lunatic journal that was basically a portfolio with all sorts of loose attachments and wacky enclosures. It was an unbound magazine. We had records in them, and notecards and all kinds of stuff.
After 3 or 4 years of delving into the very bottommost depths of bankruptcy, we finally had that paid off, but the journal was dead.
The Press was dormant for a couple of years after that. I and another writer, Anne Leaver, brought it back from the dead and decided, “You know, it needs to make some money. It needs to get involved in a lot more public media and all of that.” It got tied into a number of writers who had the same ideas. It got a lot more successful in the second incarnation.
BB: How did you come up with the name “Dolphin-Moon Press”?
JT: We didn’t have a name for the press originally. Originally it was just the journal CAIM, but we were looking for a name for the press. My brother had come across a story in a Pacific Island mythological text about a group of islanders who, under a certain phase of the moon, in order to survive, would all go down to the beach. There was a song they’d sing. The dolphins would be attracted to this song, beach themselves and be killed by the islanders for food.
I realize that’s not a very pleasant, happy ending for the dolphins. But, by the same token, the idea of there being a dolphin phase of the moon when these dolphins would provide sustenance for these happy, singing islanders, had a sexy ring to it for us. In the meantime, I came across, in an old Greek text, an illustration from a piece of ancient Greek pottery that had a dolphin in the form of a sickle moon. We stole the image from the ancient Greeks and it became the logo for Dolphin-Moon Press. It was bankruptcy with gay abandon thereafter.
But Shocked and Amazed! came into that later on. I’d been doing all that high end literary stuff for a bunch of years before that.
BB: Can we get back to the journal for just a second?
BB: I don’t want to be offensive, but ...
JT: By all means, I’ll be if you’re not.
BB: I find that “literary fiction” is the kind of stuff I don’t want to read because I need to read fiction that has a plot. No offense. Is that the kind of stuff you published? Fiction with no plot?
JT: Gee, I’m not sure how to respond to that.
BB: Stuff happened to people?
JT: Yes. There was a lot of poetry. Mostly, CAIM was poetry. It was actually a combo of poetry and artwork. A lot of illustrations. A lot of photographic work. But, when CAIM died, and the press ended up being reborn a couple of years later, every project had to basically, visually, physically represent what was in it. So, no two objects ever ended up looking the same. We published books that there this wide and this tall; we published books that literally were like what CAIM was, where it was all loose stuff in folders. We published record albums. Books with die-cut holes in front of them, and you’d see parts of what was going on behind them. You’d open them up, and it’s a different thing. Books that read one way this way, and you’d flip them over and read them the other way.
The thing that we didn’t recognize at the time, because media penetration meant nothing to us, was that there’s a reason why books can be fairly boring to look at: They’re all the same basic shapes and sizes. It’s because that’s the way books end up being stocked in stores. That’s why there are standard sizes for things. As far as we were concerned, that was of absolutely no importance at all. It was more important that the object be true to the artistic vision of the people involved with it (us, as well as the authors).
So, the books were just impossible to find outside of us doing direct sales. But they were beautiful objects. They were Art. Fiction, poetry, and a lot of creative non-fiction, which is how it all ended up being for me the entry into Shocked and Amazed!
BB: Did you publish any authors who went on to have significant careers?
JT: Oh, there were authors with careers before we even showed up to ask them to be part of it. William Burroughs. A writer by the name of Peter Wilde had a fairly huge presence in American writing back in the ‘70‘s and early ‘80‘s. John Logan, who had been nominated for poetry consultant at the Library of Congress at one point. Josephine Jacobson, who was poetry consultant at the Libary of Congress [a position now called Poet Laureate of the United States].
Rebecca: Michael Weaver.
JT: Yes. Michael Weaver, one of whose books we did.
Rebecca: Judson Jerome.
JT: Judson Jerome [once poetry editor for Writer’s Digest]. We published one of Seifert’s books, Dressed in Light. Seifert’d won the Nobel Prize.
We published a lot of fairly big deal “name” writers, but we also published a lot of other people who, as far as were concerned, their work, whether or not ... how do I want to word this? We really weren’t after a “polish,” in an academic sense. What we were after was work that spoke unlike anyone else’s, and work that revealed the writer in ways we didn’t care whether it spoke to a writing seminar or some place. We didn’t give a damn about all of that, which unfortunately for us put us on the outside of all of that. All of the channels that you might normally have had to get attention at the media level that we could have been seeking, we weren’t because we were thumbing our noses at all of that. It made for some great publishing, but it was real tough to get anybody to pay any attention to you.
JT: Yes. Not in America, anyway! We should have been doing this in Iceland. There’s a lot of poetry that sells in Iceland. But we weren’t doing it in Icelandic. That wouldn’t have helped us at all, come to think of it.
BB: OK. So, eventually you decided to revive Dolphin-Moon Press. You published Shocked and Amazed! under that press.
JT: That’s a funny story in itself because, originally, I had New York publishers for it. I had thought that it would be a collection of interviews. I went out and interviewed a whole boatload of these old timers. I transcribed the first of the interviews, which was with an old showman by the name of Ward Hall, "King of the Sideshows". Ward's a funny old duck himself.
I took the transcription of that interview and my introduction to it, and my outro to it, and I showed it to my people in New York. They're like, "These interviews are kind of boring."
"They're not boring to me, and I don't think they'll be boring to anybody else."
They're like, "Look, you're a great writer. Why don't you take [the interviews] and use lots of quotes, and you can fill in the middle."
BB: It's not an interview, then.
JT: No. It's not. I said, "Well, I made a promise to these people. The promise that I made was I'm not going to do that to them, what every other goofball writer has done who's ever told them they were going to remain ‘true to the spirit of the business.’” Because, by the time you finish putting in your 2 cents, you make it look like, "There but for me there would be none of this." That's what happens with these guys who reframe and revise what the interviews have been.
I went into about a year-long writer's block, trying to figure out what to do with this project, because my New York peopled wanted me to do something that I couldn't do. I'd have had no integrity at all, as far as these show people were concerned, to have done this.
I ended up talking to a lot of the showpeople about it. Ward Hall's advice to me was, "Just do your own book. Just do your own thing. You have a publishing house. Self-publish the stuff."
It's not like I hadn't before. A lot of people confuse vanity publishing with self-publishing. They're not the same thing at all. The more I thought about it, I thought, "Well, I like the idea of somebody else carrying this one out of New York. That would have been sweet." But, the other side to that is, I was planning a book. When you do the book, it's over. And I'd fallen in love with the business. The idea that, basically, once the book is done, then what do you do? Another book? But if I turn it into this journal, I could keep reporting on the business and keep associating with it, keep in touch with the people.
That's what ended up happening. I ended up having Shocked and Amazed! being published out of Dolphin-Moon Press. In fact, it's now the principal publication. It's not like we haven't published anything else over the years, but that's its principal publication. I've stayed in tune and in touch with the people in the business and been reporting on it since '95, when volume one came out.
Talk about media penetration. Shocked and Amazed!, in most ways, has ended up being a license to get ink. It's been the project that's probably been the most successful at the public exposure level. Not just for me. I look at it as, it's also exposure for the business. I've been pulled into more things and been allowed to pull more people from the business into things than might have happened otherwise. I'm happy that I've been there for the business for that.
BB: Whenever they do a documentary on television for circus sideshows, you're the go-to guy for that, it seems.
JT: Yes. And I've been happy for it, too.
BB: Do you get paid a fee for that, by the way?
JT: Well, there's getting paid; and then there's getting paid. Nobody makes money off television unless you happen to be David Letterman or somebody. There's some money, but mostly you're not really doing it for the bucks at the tv level. What you're doing it for at the tv level is the exposure for the project. That's what that's really about. That's helped a lot.
But it's always a tough sell. One of the things I learned early on was that, however sexy you want books to be, books ain't sexy. Writers really ain't too sexy. They have to figure out ways and means and hooks to come across that way, to be media sexy, to have the media want to come to them. One of the things I learned early on, care of the show people hounding me about it, was, "You know, books get ink once in a while. But a two-headed dog? That boy, he gets ink every time you bring him out!" [everyone laughs] Bring on the two-headed snakes. Bring on the Siamese Twins. Bring on the guy swallowing the sword. Bring all that stuff out. If you drag that stuff out, the media perks right up. If it's weird, strange, bizarre, odd, it will get [the media] attention.
The guy who writes about that weird, wacky stuff, it helps him with his editor because he gets the byline. Then, everybody starts making the money, the media-attention money. You start getting that kind of payday out of it. That weird, crazy stuff gets you ink. Shocked and Amazed! has been very, very good to me thereby. I've gotten a lot of tv out of it, gotten a lot of newspaper stuff.
I've got other books out of it. Melvin Burkhart had passed away. He was the original "Human Blockhead", so named by Robert Ripley. I was called by the New York Times because I had interviewed him a few volumes back for Shocked and Amazed! The people at the New York Times had talked to me about other things before. But when Melvin passed away, they went, "Look, you did that interview with him. You knew him, right?"
I was like, "Yes. Melvin and I were friends. He was a great guy."
They were like, "We want to talk to you about him." They talked to some other people as well. His obituary was half a page in the New York Times. It ended up, when the New York Times picked their 100 most important obituaries for the 20th Century, Melvin Burkhart's was in the list.
BB: Who wrote the obituary?
JT: Newspaperman named Doug Martin. He’s been pretty good to Shocked and Amazed! over the years.
Melvin was really the patron saint to all the new sideshow guys. All the younger sideshow people look at Melvin and ask, "Did you know Melvin?" Because he was that wacky old guy who could have been anything. He really was. Melvin was a really smart guy. What he chose to be was this crazy variety performer who never made a lot of money in his life. He made enough to get by. But he became the guy that everybody wanted to know in the business. He was just a real sweet character.
I was interviewed for his obituary. They used a couple of quotes of mine. Literally, the day after that obituary ran, I got a call from a publishing house outside of New York City. They're like, "So, you're in the New York Times."
"Yeah, for Melvin Burkhart's obituary. Believe me, I'm second best to the guy that just died. You should’ve talked to him."
They're like, "Well, anybody that's in the New York Times, we want to talk to!"
"Well, talk. I'm here."
"What do you think of a kind of best of Shocked and Amazed!"
"Make me an offer I can't refuse, and I'm there for you."
They threaten you with the money that these guys threaten you with, which you always imagine is going to be so much more, and you listen. But it's great having someone come to you and say, "Hey, do you want to do a book?"
"OK. I think I can do that." As opposed to sending out 9000 manuscripts and getting all of them rejected. That's not a lot of fun. That's dog labour.
So they did The Best of Shocked and Amazed! that sold really well. It immediately sold thousands of copies. Of course, all the returns started coming back a couple of months later.
BB: With the cover ripped off?
JT: They can't do that with the trades [trade paperbacks]. They only do that with the mass market [paperbacks]. The big ones, they don't strip out. You just get them back. I was buying crates of those things for a while. No book ever sells like it sells by the author. Unless you happen to be named Stephen King, forget it. For the author, direct sales is always the best. Buying it directly from the guy that wrote it is always the best way to move the merch.
But, yes, Shocked And Amazed! has been veddy, veddy good to me. And, I like to think, pretty good to the business, too. There's not been very much else out on the business ever like Shocked and Amazed! Which is the reason I wanted to make the book the way I did. There's just not a lot out there like it.
BB: Tell me about the funniest time you were mistaken for the "other" James Taylor.
[JT and Rebecca laugh]
JT: Oh, man!
BB: Don't tell me this has never happened.
Rebecca: Which is the funniest?
JT: You know the funniest, don't you? Let me see. That would have to have been 2005, when I was in New Orleans. Like an idiot, I always assume, “Gee, if you're going to make reservations at a restaurant, why shouldn't you make reservations in your own name? It was at The Court of Two Sisters. We saw Mary Travers down there one time.
BB: Oh, my God. Peter, Paul, and Mary.
JT: Yes, whom Rebecca was mistaken for the other day in the bank.
Rebecca: Of course, she's dead.
JT: Yes. She almost gave the woman at the bank a heart attack.
But, anyway, I make the reservation. I was down doing training with the Feds. I make reservations with The Court of Two Sisters because, every time I'm in New Orleans, I have to go there to get their Sunday brunch. It's a killer brunch.
They have a courtyard behind it that's all wisteria. The ceiling of the restaurant in the back of the courtyard is all wisteria. The birds are flying all around your table. They take the food right out of your hands.
I make the reservations. I go in. The hostess is a few years younger than I am. I tell her, “I have reservations for James Taylor.” She perks right up. She leads me in. She's chatting me up. It's always a friendly place to go. It's New Orleans. Everybody's got to chat you up. It is what it is.
They're asking me where I want to sit. “Do you want to sit over by the band?” They always have a little rag-time band set up in the courtyard.
“No. I'll just sit back here.” I don't want to sit next to a bunch of musicians playing away. I want to eat and be left alone.
So, I'm sitting in the back, and I'm going up to the buffet. The waitress is real happy to be dealing with me. I'm thinking, “This is really friendly today.”
I'm drinking my coffee, and the waitress comes out. She says, “So, Mr. Taylor, I'm really sorry...”
I say, “No, no, no.” I'm figuring she's giving me the bum's rush. The place is not packed, but it's getting crowded. “That's ok. I'm just about finished my coffee.”
The hostess comes out now. I'm sitting there and thinking, “I got a bad feeling about this!”
The hostess says, “Oh, Mr. Taylor. We're so glad you could show up today. We're so glad you came.”
I say, “Well, I really like this place. I try to get by whenever I'm in town.”
She says, “You know, I've always been a fan of your music.”
Inside, I'm going, “You know, there's no way to extricate myself from this that's not going to be embarrassing for me or humiliating for her because she's mistaken me for somebody I'm seriously not.”
I'm thinking, “OK. Similarities. Same name. About the same age. No hair. Big noses. Other than that, I'm working on a blank here. About the same height. This is still not working.”
She says, “But, you know, I've always been a big fan of your music. But, after about the mid-‘70's, it was like you dropped off the face of the earth.”
By this point, I'm getting up, trying to get out. I'm, like, “She has no clue that he's been making music for decades. This is great. She has no idea.” I look at her, and say, “My dear, believe me. The earth's round. You can't fall but so far. It's been great being here. I'll see you guys down the road.”
I ran out. I've never been back.
So, meanwhile, she goes out. I know what she's doing. She's saying, “I met James Taylor!” I think, “Yeah, you did.”
I go back, and I'm talking to the people who are working with me at the federal government. They're laughing. It's hilarious. I'm thinking I'm burned at The Court of Two Sisters. I can never go back. I'll have to go back under disguise. I'll have to shave all my hair or something.
So, it's the last day of the week that we're there. They're still laughing at me about this story. We're loading all this stuff to go back to the airport. I hear this, “Mr. Taylor, Mr. Taylor!” I turn around and it's the waitress!
“Are you getting ready to leave town?”
“Yeah. Just me and my people. We're flying out today.”
She walked past us on way to The Court of Two Sisters. And up steps my boss, actually. Of course, her line to me’s “Your people, huh?” Payback's a bitch. What can I tell you? You thought it was funny to start with. It's not so funny now, is it?
BB: Was this before or after Katrina?
JT: It was right before. It was June of '05. The Quarter manages to stay virtually immune to everything except total inebriation. If you've never been to New Orleans, they have the cleanest streets at dawn you've ever seen in your life.
P: I'd love to go to New Orleans.
Rebecca: Oh, it's wonderful. I wouldn't want to live there, but it's beautiful.
JT: Right after the bars close, which is 3am, literally the cops are in walls just marching down Bourbon Street, getting people off the street, running them out of the Quarter. Right behind them is this immense street cleaning equipment. They are scrubbing those streets within an inch of their lives. You get up dawn. The streets are wet and clean.
Rebecca: Plus, people come out in front of their shops and spray down and sweep everything.
JT: It's a funny hunk of the planet. You can see it all happen on Bourbon Street. Everything goes. But you try to walk off Bourbon Street with it, there will be cops standing there. Guys walking down the street smoking dope. Cop will just be standing there. But if you try to get off Bourbon Street, they'll say, “I'll throw you in the wagon.” As long as it isn't violent, you're on Bourbon Street, they don't care. It's like 4 blocks of Amsterdam.
Rebecca: A woman walked up to him. Threw her top up. He's there going, “Wow!” This wasn't even Mardi Gras.
JT: Oh, no. It's year round. We were there, it’s 40 degrees, in December. It was brutal. Days were ok. But the nights were all over the place down there at the Gulf. And there the ladies are, showin’ you everything.
BB: What is one thing about James Taylor that would surprise even your closest friends? You seem like a pretty open book.
JT: In a lot of ways I am. You know I really am a freak, but I can’t make any money off my deformities. I have a congenital deformity on my left foot, which has my little toe over my left foot. And, internally...
BB: A lot of people have funny looking toes.
JT: Yes. There’s an actress who has toes like this. My grandfather had it on both of his feet. My mother’s feet were fine. But it jumped a generation. It’s only on my left foot. My heart is sideways.
BB: Your heart is sideways? Oh, my God.
JT: Which I didn’t discover until about 15, 20 years ago. My doctor did a full physical on me. After I got the full physical, a couple of weeks later I go back. He says, “I have something I want to talk to you about.” He draws this little oblong. He says, “That’s your heart. You know we run this electricity through your heart. The vectors are supposed to go a certain way, like a 3D asterisk. If they’re all perfectly in line, that’s fine. It means you’re in good shape. When those vectors start veering off, it means there’s dead tissue in your heart. The vector has to go around that because it won’t go through dead tissue. It’s indicative of heart failure or bad heart tissue. “
He showed me, and I’m like, “Well, that’s not good!” He goes, “Well, they’re still in line. What this means is, your heart’s sideways. “
“Which means... what?”
He goes, “It happens. It’s pretty uncommon, but it happens.”
This is great. Here I am, a freak, and I can’t make a buck off of it! I’m humiliated. This is so sad.
BB: I’ve never heard of such a thing. Has it affected you, health-wise?
JT: No. Well, I’m sure there are many women I’ve been with who would say, “There’s something cracked about that guy!” But it’s just one of those things. It’s like the way some people are born with their internal organs mirrored, where they’re flipped and reversed. When they cut you open, if they have to go very specifically to a thing and they don’t know, it can be dangerous; but with me, if they had to do any work on my heart, they’d be doing tests up the wazoo. And, besides, if they have to cut you open, the minute they cut you open, they see what’s going on. But it’s not going to be anything that’s going to matter one way or another. But it is kind of bizarre.
BB: It wouldn’t be any benefit to you to put it right side up, would it?
JT: No. It would probably be a lot worse because then they’d have to operate on me, and I don’t want them cutting me before they have to.
BB: How do you approach transcribing an interview? It’s an art, isn’t it?
JT: Yeah, it is. Because nobody wants to read the interview exactly as it went down.
BB: “Um, um. Yeah. What I really meant to say was.... Oh, really?” You cut all that crap out.
JT: All the stuttering around. All those verbal devices people use to connect stuff while they’re thinking that otherwise they’re not going to be able to connect. All the “likes” and “um’s” and “You know, it’s kinda like, um, you know what I mean.” And, all the rest of that stuff.
Any transcribed interview, any broadcast interview, is really an exercise in editing. You’re editing to content, and editing to style. And editing to the spirit as opposed to getting any of it literally word-for-word. Which is one of the reasons why people take issue with the way any of these things get presented. “You took that out of context!” It can happen. Sometimes, that’s the way that stuff goes down.
I had interviews where, literally, I think I came closer to capturing the spirit of what was intended than any of the ways anything literally got said. Even some of the interviews I’m working on right now for Volume 10. They’re an exercise in rearrangement to have them make sense. And I’ll tell you, this one, unless you do a lot of rearranging, ain’t gonna make a lot of sense, not with the way I ramble on.
BB: Well, I will be rearranging things....
JT: You have to.
BB: ... but I won’t be misrepresenting you. That’s a fine line, isn’t it, between representing what they say, but you don’t want to take so much out of what they say that you end up misrepresenting them.
JT: Believe me, I’ve read transcribed interviews with me. I’m reading, now, one of the interviews that was originally intended for Volume 10. There’s a quote, supposedly, in there from me. I asked Rebecca, “Read that line. That’s supposedly me! Can you ever picture me saying those words? That was not transcribed directly from what I said.”
Rebecca: You would never have used that word.
JT: It was something about, “Oh, it’s obvious that in your banner painting that gesture is really important.” Excuse me? “Gesture”? Give me a break.
The times I’ve been interviewed by newspaper guys, you read the quotes. You look down there and go, “No. I didn’t say that. I would never have said that. I don’t remember every syllable I utter, but I didn’t say that. Not even close. I’d never have put it that way.”
BB: The way I look at it, we’ve talked for about 3 hours, and 2 hours and 45 minutes of it will end up being published. It’s gonna take me forever to type it all in, but it’ll be there,
JT: I’d suggest investing in those programs that aren’t even developed yet that automatically transcribe.
BB: I’ve talked to people who do a lot more transcribing than I do, and it’s a brutal thing to do.
JT: It IS brutal. The people I ask to do it are always telling me that.
BB: How do you approach transcribing?
JT: Usually I just call up people I hope are going to do it for me and say, “Would you be willing to do this?” I didn’t transcribe any of the 3 interviews I’ve got for Volume 10.
JT: It’s really funny because the one interview with [sideshow banner painter] Johnny Meah, the guy who transcribed that is the principal illustrator for volume 10. The essay on Pujol? The illustrator for that is the guy who did the transcription for Johnny Meah, a artist named James Mundie. There are 7 tapes. But it’s bits and pieces of stuff. Four of the 7 tapes were actual interview stuff, conversations where he was telling me specific stories. What Jim did was listen to all 7 tapes and outline them for me and broke all that stuff out and said, “Look. The things in bold are what I figure would probably be what you’d want to have in Volume 10. The things in italics are really great stories that maybe we can figure out another use for, but he’s talking about other aspects of the business. Then, the other stuff is just straight text and is just funny stuff he’s saying. It’s about you and him talking about Shocked and Amazed! and where you think it ought to go, and what it means to the business and blah blah blah.”
He says, “What do you think?”
I read through the outline and say, “It’s dead on the money.” What he did was, he went back in and took, literally, the stuff he thought ought to go into Volume 10 and that’s what he transcribed. That was it. He rearranged it and built it into an order that seemed to make sense. Spot on. Great stuff. I don’t think I edited 10 lines of 14 pages.
BB: But will Johnny Meah look at that and say, “Geez, I’m sure I said more things than showed up in the interview!”
JT: After all these years, I don’t think Johnny would remember. I sure didn’t remember most of it. [chuckles]
Kris, the wife of Scott Huffines, the guy who created Atomic Books, transcribed the interview with another of the banner painters, Mark Frierson. She went through Hell doing this thing because Mark and I are all over the place. Mark, at that point, was mostly talking about, “Gee, I’m starving to death. I need money. Hey, I’ve got something I want to sell. Do you want to buy it?” And he and I are talking all this wacky crap and a lot less about the business than I should’ve forced along. That left Kris having to guess at what might be necessary to keep and not edit out. Scott was helping her out with that, since he’s a lot more familiar with the lay of the land on Shocked and Amazed! That interview is kind of ... wacky. But it’ll all work out. The other one was the one that [intern] Julia Arredondo did, the one with [Coney Island banner painter] Marie Roberts. She transcribed it, literally, word-for-word.
JT: The problem is that Maria’s an educator. Maria’s a teacher. When I ask her a question, what I got was solid blocks of text that I’m not sure what to cut because she knew how to tell that story about what it means at the art level, what it means at the show level. Her family goes back in the entertainment business on Coney Island 3 generations. She has all this history that I’m loathe to cut at all, because it’s great stuff, except that it’s not all about her painting banners. It’s great stuff, but how much of this can I put in here?
Rebecca: Can’t you save the parts on the show if you ever do another one?
JT: Well, I already ran that because I ran the piece that she wrote about her uncle [in vol.7 of Shocked and Amazed!]. Her uncle Lester was “The Professor.” He was the one that had that freak show there on Surf Avenue. We ran that a couple of volumes back, so it’s not that I ran everything she told me because that was a piece that I reprinted, but revisiting it through her is like, gee, couldn’t you run somebody else’s story? How many times are you going to cover this material?
I’m going to have to cut some of it because, out of the 14 pages I’m going to have to cut probably 4 or 5 pages. And, I don’t know where it’s going to come from, because all the stuff she’s saying is spot on. It’s all about what it needs to be. I just have to find out what’s expendable and what’s not. Fortunately, Jim Mundie gave me Johnny Meah’s interview on a silver platter. The one of Mark Frierson’s, the one that Kris transcribed, is actually better than she thinks it is because it’s not unlike what Kathleen would’ve done, where it’s a lot of the text that I’m sure she thinks doesn’t matter, but I can edit from that. I love going in there and going, “I’m just going to cut this piece of crap out. This paragraph’s gone.” It gives me a feeling of, “Get rid of this. They’re just talking about money.” When it’s almost given to me solid, it’s either great when it’s done or it’s totally not. If I cut any of the Johnny Meah’s, for example, I don’t know what I’m going to cut. It’s as tough as the Roberts interview in a different way. It’s still long. It’s tough. You’re right. It’s a real art, figuring out what to leave in and what to cut out.
BB: I figure if I cut too much, if I move too much stuff from one section to another, I’m not representing so much what the person said any more.
JT: Well, I worry a lot less about that, as long as the way the whole thing moves maintains the spirit of what they were telling me and still feels true to the way they could have told it to me. What I worry about, though, is that in the process of doing that, there’s almost no way to guarantee that you’re going to use their exact words and have it still work. And, then, you have to take license with how you got them saying what they’re saying.
Rebecca: You put words in their mouth.
BB: You use the square brackets to add phrases. I hate those.
JT: I try to use as much of what people actually say as I possibly can, but I don’t have a lot of worries about rearranging the way people said things to make them sound like they’re making sense...
Rebecca: People don’t talk in a straight line.
JT: And anywhere upwards of 80% of conversation ain’t in the words, anyway. It’s in facial expressions, and people waving their arms around, and in grunts. It’s all of that that you have to figure out a way to preserve in only the words. That’s tough in itself.
BB: When I started doing these interviews a couple of years ago, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into because now these jocks are contacting me. “I’d love to sit down with you for an interview sometime!”
JT: Well, the first time somebody told me that I was a really great interviewer, I’m sitting there thinking, “You really haven’t been interviewed by me, have you, because I don’t consider myself that good an interviewer, or an interviewee. It is what it is.” God love whoever it is who’s listening to it, or God love when they’re being interviewed by me, if they can put up with my crap in the process of telling me what they’re telling me. When it’s all over, I hope they like what they see because it’s the best I can do with it. But it’s oral history. You’re trying to capture the spirit of what’s said, the best way you can, and take something that is in one form and translate it into another.
People talk about, “Did you like the movie or the book?” Well, that’s not a very good question. We all ask it, but it’s not a really good question. A movie’s not a book, and a book’s not a movie. They’re meant to accomplish the same thing, which is to entertain and inform you by totally different means. They’re never going to be the same because they don’t get where they’re going the same way. There’s never going to be any kind of comparison except, well, “Gee, I feel as good about the movie as I feel about the book.”
BB: That’s really about the only answer you can give.
JT: What else are you going to say? You don’t read a movie, and you don’t watch a book. Well, you could watch a book, but it’s pretty Goddamn boring.
JT: Believe me, there’ve been some that I would rather have watched than read. What’s Dorothy Parker’s line? “It’s not a book to be tossed lightly aside. It should be thrown with great force!”
BB: I just don’t get a chance to talk to many people who do this thing.
JT: Believe me, we could talk shop. Not tonight, apparently, but we can talk shop any time you want. I love talking shop.
BB: You ask me a question.
JT: Of all the gin joints in all the world, what was it made you decide you needed to interview people?
BB: That’s always the question people ask me.
JT: Good! Then I don’t mind asking it again.
BB: I don’t mind answering it. Most of the people I interview are on the radio. They always ask me, “Why do you do this?” It’s just because I have a life-long interest in radio. I got my first radio when I was 10 years old.
As for interviewing other people: I’ve interviewed some writers. I enjoy talking to people. I don’t have my own tv show or my own radio show. My only forum to present their work and present their words is on my blog. But I have this insatiable interest in talking to people. The more I talk to people, the more questions I come up with and the more people I want to speak with, and the more I want to learn.
I have this unique opportunity to ask people whatever I want. I don’t want to take cheap shots. I don’t ask cheap questions, like, “Whom did you sleep with in 1978?” I don’t give a shit whom you slept with in 1978.
JT: Oh, man! I thought that was going to be the next question!
BB: I just want to talk to people and find out what makes them tick and why people do the things that they do. It just makes them more of a complete person to me. And, people who are on the radio and people who write for a living or people who do what you do. You talk to some extremely interesting people.
JT: Boy howdy.
BB: And, I’m two degrees of separation away from Penn and Teller.
JT: Well, if they play Halifax, you might be a little closer. It’s a great show. And, they’re funny as Hell.
BB: But talking to you guys is a very interesting thing for me to do, and I have this forum through which I can ask whatever I want and present their words and their work. As well, as you know, the long-form interview is not something you see much of any more. You do it, and there is a magazine called the Comics Journal that publishes long interviews with people who work in comics.
JT: I know that one.
BB: And, then, there’s me. Hardly anybody else does long-form interviews. I think it’s just because they’re so damned much work, and there’s not a whole lot of market for it. I think that this is a noble thing to do. But it’s an awful lot of work.
BB: Thank you very much for the last six and a half hours of your life. [laughter all around]
JT: Even if it’s only been 3, it certainly felt like 6. Or more like 9!
BB: You came at 5:30. We had a nice meal. And we’ve been talking [on the record] since 8:15. That’s 4 hours of talking.
Thank you so much. I hope the lady folk weren’t too bored. Thank you once again, James Taylor!
JT: Thank you, Bev. It’s been lovely.
[The women folk applaud]