Clearly, Chicken John was in the circus. The voluptuous Dr. Ducky DooLittle -- the crackpot sexologist -- was temporarily touring with the circus. David Apocalypse -- who did a straitjacket act and had actually been institutionalized -- was a circus.
And Chicken's best friend, Dammit the Amazing Wonder Dog, was the four-legged star of the show.
So that made me the rube.
I was running away with the circus -- to Boise, Idaho, of all places -- but I didn't have talent. That wasn't the problem, exactly. Chicken preferred performers with no talent. He told me that he could work me into the show. The problem was that I had paper and a tape recorder. People in the circus perform, they don't take notes. They let me come along anyway.
Chicken hadn't really slept the night before. David dozed against the car window, asleep as he could be in the front seat of a clanking 1974 Duster with a broken shock mount. Ducky, in the back seat, looked relatively perky in fishnet stockings, a fake leopard coat, and bright red lipstick. She was from New York City, after all, and she had the time difference on her side.
It was 5:30 a.m. Friday, and Chicken had the monkey-shit brown Duster, which he'd bought at a junkyard for $25, pointed east on Highway 80. With any luck, we'd cross the Bay Bridge, miss rush hour in Sacramento, and roll into Boise around 6 p.m.
The circus was booked for a gig that night at a club called the Neurolux. They didn't have all the acts planned out, but they were hardly unprepared. The trunk was crammed with a couple of pink drums, some sparkly boots, three machetes, a chewed-up hula hoop, grease paint, and a bag that Chicken told me was extremely flammable before packing it directly behind my seat. If the show went well, they'd take home $250. Six hundred and seventy-five miles for a couple hundred bucks made perfect sense. Hell, for that, they could buy a fleet of Dusters.
While Chicken John talked in the car, one of his eyes watched the road and the other locked on to David in the shotgun seat, or on Ducky and me in the rearview mirror. Dammit was curled up in a doggie bed in the front seat. Chicken developed stories as if he had all day to tell them, which that day, of course, he had. He asked active and rhetorical questions to make sure that whoever was awake was listening. As El Cerrito, Richmond, and Vallejo woke up at the side of the highway, he told the tale of how he ended up here, on this road, as a circus performer.
Chicken, a fairly nondescript 30-year-old distinguished by thick black glasses and a wedge goatee with a splayed mustache, developed Circus Redickuless five years ago in Los Angeles. The idea germinated from a series of terrible things that happened in San Francisco. First, his best friend and bandmate died of a drug overdose. Then Chicken spent all of his money burying the friend. Finally, Chicken's girlfriend dumped him. "She couldn't stand to live in the shadow of this dead guy," he said.
Chicken siphoned gas down 101 to Los Angeles, and played guitar at Elvis' star on Hollywood Boulevard. He tried to figure out what to do with the pain. "I thought, 'I could change all of these shitty things into comedy,' " he said.
It didn't work. "I bombed 61 nights in a row -- open mike to open mike. I was doing the comedy thing, but I couldn't get one thing right."
He began to toy with failure. "Nothing I could say was funny," he said. "I started working on the bomb factor, daring people to laugh. 'Laugh or I'll kick your ass.' " Now that was funny. Like any performer, he elaborated on the most successful element. "I thought, 'What if there were a couple of comedians who were not funny?' "
He knew that was a terrible idea. Who wants to watch crappy comedians, each one worse than the last? The idea mutated. " 'What if it was, instead of a comedy troupe, it was a circus troupe,' " he thought. " 'A completely dysfunctional circus -- no talent.' "
Now he had something. He worked with his new girlfriend, Dannygirl, on developing the idea. She came up with a speed-metal tap dance routine and a couple of other acts. Chicken had a few ideas as well: the Temporarily Tattooed Man; and the Vegan Geek, who could "bite off a head of lettuce."
Circuses travel. Chicken didn't bother performing in Los Angeles. He bullshitted clubs across the country, exploiting connections he'd made touring with old punk bands, before he even had a troupe. He told potential performers that he had a bus before he had the title to it.
In the summer of 1995 he left on a national tour with 19 performers, three vans, and $123. They hadn't practiced; they didn't have a set list. "You put energy into something, and chaos ensues," he said.
Chicken believed in chaos. He'd made a life of it so far, and with any luck it would pay off. "In the old days, when we first started this, I really thought we could make money," he said. "And I was excited about it. I really thought that we put together a great show on a collective level, and that we would cook collectively, and that we would all invest a couple hundred bucks each, and then we would pay for all of the expenses, and cook healthy meals under the fucking stars. We'd put on the greatest show on Earth, get all of this press, and we'd be the only punk rock circus on the planet. I had high hopes."