If Neil Young were the godfather of grunge, then Tim Cridland, aka Zamora the Torture King, might just be the godfather of the modern circus sideshow. But the comparison might be a little more accurate if Neil Young had played lead guitar in Soundgarden, which is the equivalent of what Zamora has been doing in the alternative circus business since the early 1990s when he helped form the infamous Jim Rose Circus with a small group of throwback performers.
Cridland, who grew up in a small university town in eastern Washington, became fascinated with sideshow acts and plied the college's library for literature about vaudeville and circus shows. Before long, he was hanging around the fringes of traveling acts, coaxing performers to show him the finer points of fire swallowing and other sideshow staples. Working in the fertile Seattle scene of the late '80s and early '90s, Cridland and few other performers started sharpening their own modern sideshow act, holding court weekly at the famed Crocodile Café. Cridland got his break in 1991 when organizers of the inaugural Lollapalooza, the model for most modern music festivals, tapped Cridland and the Jim Rose Circus to take its act on the road to perform for massive audiences.
Since that time Cridland has traveled the country with a changing band of merry freaks putting on a raunchy vaudeville show that is part old time county fair medicine show and part shock show with a touch of burlesque to add some sex appeal.
Cridland, who, as his stage name suggests, specializes in what can only be described as cringe-inducing acts of self-flagellation, including punching long needles through his soft tissue and muscles, says the Hellzapopin' show is a balance of light and darkness. Self-mutilation is followed by sexy sword swallowing by a buxom and nearly topless performer offering a more literal rendering of deep throating.
"I'll come out and do something pretty intense and then we'll have a juggler come out and do some juggling," said Cridland, who, among other things, invites some of the largest audience members from each audience to come to the stage and stand on his chest - as he lays on a bed of nails. A quick search on YouTube reveals a clip of Cridland taking the act to an extreme, allowing himself to be run over by a Range Rover as he lays on the bed of nails.
As Lollapalooza proved, the modern sideshow act blends well with the carnival atmosphere of music festivals. Hellzapopin's Bend date is sandwiched between a festival in Bakersfield, CA, and a string of dates at a music fest in Sweden. Regardless of the setting, Cridland, who serves as the de facto headliner for a troupe of roughly a half dozen performers, said it's all about the interaction with the audience. While there's some inherent shock value to what audiences are seeing, he said the ultimate goal is entertainment, pure and simple.
"There's an art to entertaining people. I came into it from the show business angle and the main focus has always been on entertaining people," said Cridland, adding that the sideshow act is an endangered art form.
That said, Cridland acknowledges that it's a different kind of entertainment than most modern audiences are used to seeing in our culturally sanitized world and one that really needs to be experienced first hand to be appreciated.
"It's kind of like the same type of fun you get from a roller coaster or a horror movie," he said.
Cridland acknowledges that his act has gotten more extreme as he's gotten older and more experienced (he's been at this for more than 20 years now) and said things go off perfectly about 95 percent of the time. When they don't... well, you can imagine.
"When I have a bad day at work, it's worse than your bad day at work," he deadpanned.
9pm Saturday, June 12. Domino Room, 51 NW Greenwood Ave. $13 (door only). All Ages.