A twisted oompa beat comes from the stage, where a bizarre troupe of mismatched musicians keep cranking away, churning out a constant, eerie progression of old-timey tunes and raucous banshee wails. "What's this? A crowd?" the barker calls out. "Well, step right up, don't be afraid!"
There's a horn section, too, where the heavy brass sheets of Miz Lily Rose Love's trombone are allowed to breathe, filling the slack spaces with her slick, velvety huffs. But when she sings, she's channeling the spirit of Josephine Baker, like the smoky lounge lizard queen that Miz Love really is when she's on the stage.
"Do you believe in fairy tales?!" the barker shouts.
Behind it all, the svelte accordion player Sansa plays on, perched on her stool. She gazes into the crowd with a look of seductive indifference, teasing the menfolk one song at a time. She's doll-like, a statuesque porcelain beauty who just happens to play the hell out of her squeezebox.
It's all about hawking dreams and laying groundwork for nightmares each time the Yard Dogs Road Show, which is best described as an itinerant hobo circus, rolls into town.
Tobias the Mystic Man, the resident magical freak, rolls a crystal-clear acrylic ball effortlessly across the palms of his hands, up to his elbows and back again, à la 1986 Labyrinth David Bowie. He also swallows swords, each bigger than the last. He may tear up just a little bit when he lets a scimitar slide down his esophagus. If he's uncomfortable with a piece of cold steel shoved down his gullet, well, he doesn't let it show.
There's no time for gag-reflexes in this showbiz bazaar. This is, after all, a throwback to the old medicine shows that traveled the country in search of an audience during the 1800s. This is a theatrical relic, jury-rigged by a few gutterpunks, vagabond artists who carry themselves with a strange cowboy aesthetic—always on the move, barely sleeping, feeding on the adrenaline of their performances. It's a spectacle, a sometimes-gruesome tribute to the seedy underbelly of everything Vaudeville, everything sideshow. A fantastic tangle of pure kitsch.
This is a fantasia on dead American themes, brought back to life one act at a time. "Let me pause and stop right here, to make myself per-fect-ly clear—" the barker isn't done yet, as he begins to move into song—"There's so/Much more/That you need to know/About the Yard Dogs/Traveling road show." A fedora passes through the audience, slowly collecting dollar bills. Tobias runs a bow across the edge of a saw, bending the blade and warping each note into a ghastly moan.
"Oh, God! Oh, shit!" exclaims Eddy Joe Cotton, the pitchman and general head honcho for the Yard Dogs. "I'm so tired right now."
Born Zebu Recchia to a "hippie on a Harley" father, Cotton spent much of his childhood on the road, where he met up with hippies, gypsies, boozehounds, drag queens, merchant marines, bums, barflies, psychedelic mushrooms and, of course, musicians. Then, sometime in 1991, all that rambling came to an abrupt halt. Cotton and his father were stuck laying brick in Denver. The young kid wasn't going anywhere.
"Being on the road is being burned out," Cotton explains. "It's how you deal with it that matters."
So like any good hobo would, Cotton jumped a freight train, and perhaps for the first time, he began to live life on his own terms.
"It's basically life stripped down," he explains. "In the wind, y'know? I don't like having too many things around me."
Cotton wouldn't see his father again for two years. He was out exploring American primeval, where he was forced into a spiritual and physical walkabout, gleaning bits and pieces of folklore and hobo mystique. His journey into adulthood was an unorthodox romp through the grimier, unglamorous side of the American dream.
(The most poetic and emotionally jarring memories of his crash course in hobo culture are captured in his memoir, Hobo, which was published in 2002.)
"I think part of it is an escape," Cotton goes on. "We're all telling our stories. It's variety, it's Vaudeville, it's cabaret. It's an American art-form that was completely lost to television.... That's why I hide out on the road."
On the road is where the Yard Dogs first came into existence. Filmmaker Flecher Fleudujon and poet Miguel Strong, two wayward artists who happened to blow in the same direction as Eddy Joe Cotton, proved to be quick studies of the hobo lifestyle. The trio was headed into Northern California to perform with the Zoopy Funk Puppet Theatre, and a whiskey-fueled conversation led to the creation of a ramshackle jug band.
"That was just a couple of guys and puppets thrown into a car," Cotton recalls. "We had built a washtub bass." And out of pure happenstance, a three-piece jug band was born.
It was four in the morning when they first played to a real audience. Everyone in attendance at Ken Kesey's puppet theater were either drunk or stoned, probably a little of both. Fleudujon, having adopted the moniker of Five Livrd Larry, played the trumpet and mouth harp. And Strong, who now refers to himself as Voodoo Freddy, had a washboard. Cotton manned the washtub bass. Their hoots and hollers were poetically roughhewn, a kind of unpracticed and pure expression of tramp artistry.
"All of us are drawing from past lives or past experiences," Cotton says. "We just naturally identified with this lifestyle."
Six years later, and the Yard Dogs are a 13-piece outfit, a slipshod collection of dancers, musicians, magicians, comedians and charismatic buffoons. The music is a witch's brew of rock, blues, early New Orleans rag and classic circus grinds. The performance is equal parts drunken hell-raising and existential musings.
"There's no limit for what we do," Cotton continues, "because it's not any single art-form. If you put all these arts together, there's no limit.... It's performance art. We need to reinvent ourselves in order to survive.
"This project is at the point where it needs a lot of love. A lot of love and commitment."
For the past six years, the Yard Dogs' lineup has been fairly consistent. But the road show isn't a full-time job. These are real hobo artists, real tramps who don't take too kindly to a structured life.
Miz Love (the trombone player) can often be found on the San Francisco wharf, performing for tourist dollars. She's the founder of the Black and Blue burlesque troupe, which has been a staple of the Yard Dogs Road Show for years now, and is known to make regular appearances in Bay-area strip joints. They're all wanderers. And their collection of oddities from around the globe, affectionately called the the "Yard Dogs Electric Slide Show Museum," is an ever-expanding work in progress.
When the Yard Dogs are on stage, however, it's pure theater. It can be seen as a throwback to the early days of cabaret and Vaudeville, sure, but there's always something lurking during the performance. You can see it on Eddie Joe Cotton's face as he addresses the crowd. You can see it when the Black and Blue burlesque girls finish a provocative routine. It's there each time Tobias swallows a sword. The Yard Dogs are in the business of dream-making, as each show becomes more surreal and more intricate. At the same time, it's always a jovial tour through the human psyche, where the sordid and the sublime come together in a kind of harmony. This is the life they've chosen to live.
"It's a demanding lifestyle," Cotton says matter-of-factly. "It's a lot of work."