Since Professor Pinkerton Xyloma launched his Dead Man’s Carnival circus show more than 10 years ago, he has wanted to do some kind of salute to singer/songwriter Tom Waits, who has loomed large in his life. His parents got married to a Tom Waits soundtrack, and a Waits album that came out 30 years ago this year, “Franks Wild Years,” made an impression on Xyloma early on.
“‘Franks Wild Years’ was the first record I ever heard where I stopped in my tracks and listened to the whole thing,” Xyloma said by phone recently from Milwaukee, where the Dead Man’s Carnival is based. A Tom Waits tribute show was probably in our notebook from year one. I’m very happy we waited to do it, though, because we’ll do a better job.”
Dead Man’s Carnival harkens to the early days of the 20th century, before records, radio and motion pictures, when vaudeville stage shows and live performances were a valued form of entertainment. Xyloma loves old-time music and entertainment, and he found a way to preserve and promote those art forms through Dead Man’s Carnival.
While each Dead Man’s Carnival show is different, there’s a certain formula Xyloma follows. In his zest to keep traditional circus skills alive, he likes to include juggling, acrobatics and magic acts in the show, along with some kind of sideshow acts, such as sword swallowing, glass walking or fire eating.
The show also always has some element of burlesque, but Xyloma noted that doesn’t necessarily mean a strip tease. It could mean comedy or satire with double entendres.
There’s a good chance Dead Man’s Carnival will feature some kind of “human oddity,” what you might have seen at a midway freak show. The show on Dec. 8 at the Cavalier Theater will feature a friend of Xyloma who has wrestled with spina bifida who with little use of his lower body has developed incredible upper body strength and balance.
“He represents the crux of my story — the little guy,” Xyloma said.
And, of course, no Dead Man’s Carnival show would be complete without music. Xyloma serves as bandleader, singer and emcee for the shows, and as he was working earlier this year on a rendition of “Yesterday Is Here” from “Franks Wild Years” he noticed it had been 30 years since Waits released the album, a collection of songs written for a play of the same name.
That was the sign he’d been waiting for — it was time for a Waits show. Focusing on one Waits album was a big help in forming the show, Xyloma said, because Waits has such an eclectic and wide ranging career. “He really refuses to be put in a box,” Xyloma said of Waits. “He’s such an agent of chaos.”
“Franks Wild Years” was a great fit for Dead Man’s Carnival because many of the songs have an old-time carnival feel, with a twisted, dream-like and otherworldly aura. “Every song has a different character,” Xyloma said. “There really is a lot of brilliance, but it’s nothing super obvious.”
Xyloma dug deep into the album, listening to demo versions and live renditions of songs from the albums and coming up with his own adaptations of the songs to fit the show. He and five other band members will play more than two dozen instruments for this show, including an 1880s pump organ, a marxophone and timpani drums.
“We’re not cutting any corners, and that in a sense is in the spirit of the record,” Xyloma said. “I’ve really used this as an excuse to use all the instruments I’ve used over the years.”
While Xyloma admitted to feeling that doing a show devoted to music by your favorite artist was a little self indulgent, the 20-some other performers in Dead Man’s Carnival are on board. In the circus performer community, Tom Waits is a hero. “Almost all of them love Tom Waits. And GWAR, but I’m not ready to take on that beast,” Xyloma said with a laugh.
One of the things that really resonates with Xyloma about Waits is his way of drawing inspiration from older music forms.
“There is something very, very magnetizing about old music. I don’t know if it’s the tone or it it’s kind of otherworldly,” Xyloma said. “I think a lot of the reason I like this old music is the caliber of musicianship is unparalleled. I’m sure there were people making mediocre art then, but it wasn’t remembered.”