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Road Scholars 

Eating fire, swallowing swords, playing old-timey tunes -- the Yard Dogs offer medicine for the soul. And they'll even work for booze.

Wednesday, Apr 21 2004
Step right up -- here you are! You may not have cinderella but if you haven't it's a cinch you've got something else and no matter what it is this little box will save your life one dose alone irrevocably guaranteed to instantaneously eliminate permanently prevent and otherwise completely cure toothache sleeplessness clubfeet mumps stuttering varicose veins youthful errors tonsillitis rheumatism lockjaw pyorrhea stomachache hernia tuberculosis nervous debility impotence halitosis and falling down stairs or your money back.

-- from Him by e.e. cummings

During the late 1800s, small towns like Brimfield, Ill.; Bisbee, Ariz.; and Ketcham, Idaho, depended on traveling medicine shows for "sophisticated" entertainment and spectacle. The event might be as modest as one pitchman operating out of a "tripes and keister" (a suitcase mounted on a tripod) alongside a tap-dancing harmonica player, or as extravagant as a 12-wagon caravan, complete with dancing girls, fire-breathers, and elephants. Promising miracle cures in the form of Kickapoo Indian Sagwa or Hamlin's Wizard's Oil, the wagons would sometimes take months, even years, to roll back through a town, but toward the turn of the century the wait was worth it.

By the early 1900s, the smooth-talking mountebank peddling a secret elixir from his homeland had given way to the first 10-in-one -- 10 acts under one tent -- which paved the road for the traveling carnivals, circuses, and vaudeville acts that would soon follow. The principal difference between the medicine show and all of its fancier-footed cousins was that the former provided all entertainment free of charge, a flashy hook for the real business at hand, which was selling dreams and assuaging terrors by way of a whole new life corked up in a dark little bottle. The principal similarity between the medicine show and those that followed was the bally.

The bally-act or ballyhoo was the attraction that drew the initial crowd, and it was only as good as its pitchman. The pitchman had to do in a few minutes what a good PR firm now does in a few years: pique interest, evoke mystery, induce excitement, instill confidence, suggest authenticity, and insinuate results beyond the customer's wildest expectation. Eddy Joe Cotton is the pitchman for the Yard Dogs Road Show, a highly colored confederacy of free spirits and artful vagrants that started in the Bay Area as a traveling jug band and has morphed over the years into a full-blown vaudeville troupe, complete with burlesque dancers, a fire-eater, a sword-swallower, and a baby.

When he's not onstage or yelling through a megaphone from the top of a fruit crate, Cotton has a quiet, serious comportment. He is a slight man with a strong jaw, a delicate mouth, dark eyebrows, and a long, narrow nose, which he accents with a soft-brimmed fedora or high top hat, all of which colludes to make him appear as if he has just stepped out of a grainy photograph taken during the building of the Hoover Dam. Heightening this impression are Cotton's clothes -- jacket, slacks, and shirt-sleeves -- usually baggy, always impeccable, even if they are sometimes a bit threadbare and decidedly out of time.

Despite his manner and mien, though, Cotton is most definitely the product of his parents' generation. Born Zebu Recchia some 30-odd years ago to a cowboy biker and a "wild woman" who had once been engaged to a founding member of San Francisco's legendary hippie-and-drag theatrical group the Cockettes, Cotton was traipsed across the country, exposed to communes, hippies, merchant marines, hitchhikers, gypsies, and magic mushrooms, before he and his dad ended up alone, laying brick in Denver.

One day in 1991, after one of many fights with his father, Cotton walked out and hopped a freight train. He rode the rails for the next 10 years, the early, most poignant memories of which are captured in his absorbing, highly sympathetic memoir, Hobo. It was while wandering that Cotton came across the two kindred souls who would help him birth the Yard Dogs Road Show: Flecher Fleudujon, a gaunt, handsome, wildly energetic filmmaker with a fast laugh and a good eye, and Miguel Strong, a rambling playboy poet with blond hair, broad shoulders, and a knack for knowing which way the wind blows. As Yard Dogs, these two would become Five Livrd Larry and Voodoo Freddy, respectively.

The idea for a jug band came while the three young men were traveling through Northern California, en route to perform at a Ken Kesey party as part of the Zoopy Funk Puppet Theatre.

"We had pulled over on Dog Creek Road," recalls Cotton, "and we were passing a bottle around the campfire. That's where the idea was born."

That night, in the grand tradition of hobo artistes, the boys slept in the dirt under the stars. They had their first rehearsal on the porch of an abandoned house. Fleudujon played trumpet and jaw harp, Cotton played a washtub bass, Strong played the washboard, and they all whooped.

"Our first gig was at the Klondike Bar and Casino [outside Shasta]," says Cotton, chuckling to himself. "They had this tiny little stage, and I convinced the bartender to let us play. That sort of solidified me as the band's manager. There were just four guys drinking in there at the time. They never even looked at us.

"The people at Kesey's place loved us, though. Of course, they were all out of their minds by then. We sort of snuck the band on at about 4 in morning, and everyone was already high."

Six years later, everything and nothing has changed. The group, now comprising 13 members, has garnered a devoted, almost cultish, following. The Yard Dogs perform infrequently, usually choosing to tour in accordance with the traditional circus season, and their shows have become highly anticipated events in out-of-the-way places like Bisbee and Yuma, Ariz.

"We always play at the Youth Cultural Festival put on by the Quechan Tribe [in Yuma]," says Cotton. "We stay for a few days, do sweat lodges, teach workshops for the kids. The whole community responds to us because we're not just a band, we're a show: singing, dancing, sleight of hand. There's something for everyone. The old folks say we're exactly like the shows that used to come through."

Which isn't surprising. Despite the modern-day humor implicit in acts like "Guitar Boy," an overblown "guitar hero" in spandex shorts, and "Hellvis," a flame-gargling sex machine, the Yard Dogs Road Show might have been lifted right out of the Dust Bowl. The music is a ramshackle blend of blues, ragtime, and circus grinds that inevitably devolves into drunken delirium or explodes with the force of religious mania. Many of the instruments -- like the washtub bass, jugs, saw, and percussion "contraption" (which unfolds out of a suitcase) -- are salvaged or fabricated and carried in steamer trunks. The group travels with hand-painted posters, hand-sewn costumes, and homemade curiosity cabinets. The players -- each drawn by temperament and experience to the Yard Dogs fold -- wear bloomers, bowlers, and vests of their own design; they holler, writhe, sing, dance, beat, and blow, seemingly as the mood takes them. And when Miz Lily Rose Love, the historical fourth member to join the Yard Dogs, strokes her trombone and growls her wildcat song, the crowd, whether it be in a San Francisco nightclub or a Colorado parking lot, becomes riotous. Even if every note is not quite pure.

"Truth is, we don't practice much," says Sidecar Tommy, the drummer whose résumé, which includes membership in both Rube Waddell and the Extra Action Marching Band, makes him the sole "working" musician in the group. "None of these people -- except maybe [Five Livrd Larry and burlesque dancer Tuesday Blue], who have a family now -- are in the same place long enough to practice. They're the real deal. Vagabonds. Tramp artists."

Which is the magic potion corked up in the little dark bottle.

While the various members of the Yard Dogs call the Bay Area home base, they are all travelers, in the nomadic sense of the word. When Miz Love is not painting houses or standing like a statue on Fisherman's Wharf, she's on the road. When Shanandoa Sasafras is not making music, she is making tracks. When Leighton/Hellvis is not creating murals and doing interior design, he is gathering specimens in Southeast Asia with burlesque dancer Gypsy Joblinsky for the Yard Dogs Electric Side Show Museum, or just drifting. When Micha Devlin is not doing odd jobs and turning garbage into art for the Yard Dogs' merch company, Bootleg, Bottle, and Bone, he is roving. When dancer Lil' Leila La Roux is not designing her own clothes, she is dragging her trailer through poppy fields. When burlesque troupe founder Bellpodd Joblinsky is not gyrating in local strip joints, she's roaming. Even Lula, the wee offspring of Five Livrd Larry and Tuesday Blue, has been on the road almost as much as she's been off. Every one of the Yard Dogs has, at one time or another, nestled down in a hobo jungle on the edge of a train yard; every one of them has felt the call of the open road and called back. And that's what they bring to the stage -- a wild, electrifying sense of freedom.

"At the end of every tour, we spread out to all corners of the world, to chase our own demons and dreams, to pursue our own private affairs," explains Cotton. "When we come back together, it's exciting. It's like a big family reunion. We all have stories to tell, new passions to bring to the show. We rehearse for a couple weeks, then we hit the road again just as we are, playing to anyone that wants to listen, anywhere they'll have us."

As with the old medicine shows, the entertainment is often free -- the group has been known to waive the door charge and pass the hat in established clubs, or take over abandoned bars for a night just to play for food and liquor. And like the old medicine shows, the Yard Dogs offer much more than entertainment. They peddle adventure and soulful abandon; they promise a do-it-yourself life unfettered by designer labels and home loans, one written by the light of campfires with the hand of wine, music, lust, and dust. If you want proof that their secret elixir really works, you need only peer into their fevered faces and listen to their banshee howls.

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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