My childhood was spent smeared with blood and smelling of gunpowder. I grew up in the kind of small, backwoods town that gave outsiders the creeps at night. It was nestled deep in the South Jersey Pine Barrens, miles off the beaten path, with a population that just grazed 800. Our town had more gun clubs than buildings. People would bring their freshly shot deer carcasses by our house for my dad to skin and butcher. I’d come home from a soccer game and scamper out back to help my dad gut a whitetail or carry the meat in for mom to marinate before it was time to crash around in the woods with my best friend. The nearest grocery store was a half-hour drive away, and we spent most of our Sundays shopping at Walmart. Growing up in isolation surrounded by familiar faces was the perfect environment for someone who’s been born a little bit different.
I didn’t really realize that there was anything strange about me until first grade, when one of the older boys at school started calling me “E.T.” I didn’t realize he was being cruel until my teacher caught him and, her face stormy, upbraided him in front of everyone. I was born with ectrodactyly, a rare congenital disorder that affected the growth of my hands; to paint a mental picture, a century ago, ectro was known as “lobster claw syndrome.” That means that the unexpected juxtaposition of my little blonde curls and knobbly little fingers made that boy equate me to Steven Spielberg’s misfit alien. I still can’t watch that movie without tearing up a little bit.
There was also another student who was different. He was my best friend’s cousin, Erik. He was born with osteogenesis imperfecta. He was smaller than the other kids and used a wheelchair to get around. He had an aide who gave him extra help, though he was hardly weak; he was a serious athlete and traveled the country competing in — and winning — Wheelchair Sports USA events. I didn’t know him very well because he was a few grades ahead of me, and hadn’t thought of him in years until last summer. I’d ended up at the Coney Island Sideshow with my boyfriend and two close friends, knee-deep in boardwalk margaritas and looking for some idle amusement. I’d always been drawn to the sideshow and couldn’t resist a chance to drag everyone else in there with me. One of the acts, Velvet Crayon, featured a small man in a wheelchair who wore a koala mask as he cracked jokes, sang songs and wailed away on a ukulele. He commanded the stage easily and mirthfully, hosting a Q&A segment and boldly daring the audience to try to offend him. Something about his voice sounded strangely familiar, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that we’d met before. A quick Google search turned up his website, and as it turned out, Velvet Crayon was Erik.
Crashing into the realization that he was making his way in the world as a musician and performer, and that I’m making mine as a writer (one with eight fingers, even!) was immensely gratifying, and I knew I needed to talk to him. As luck would have it, by the time I pursued the story, American Horror Story: Freakshow was just gaining steam. Given that Erik is a sideshow performer — and a self-proclaimed “freak” — it was almost uncanny how things fell into place, and he carved out time to let me pick his brain amid his busy touring schedule with the Squidling Brothers Circus. “Here’s the thing: I am a human. To me, we are all weird and strange. I feel very normal most of the time and what most people consider “normal” is very, very weird to me,” he explained from somewhere in Middle America. “A freak can be a lot of things to a lot of people. In our world, there are three forms in the modern world: natural-born, self-made and the working acts.” Erik may look different from most people on the street, but his role in the sideshow is as a working act — his music and stage banter are the focus, his appearance an afterthought. According to his bio, “On stage, while sometimes featuring ukulele or synth, Erik leads a fuzzed-out orchestra of electric guitars, vocals and drum machines (think the Flaming Lips meets the White Stripes with a dash of the Kinks).” As the surrealist one-man band Velvet Crayon, he’s recorded and released records, toured the country, and spent a decade honing his shimmering, fuzz-bombed psychedelic indie rock odes to absurdity and emotion. Velvet Crayon’s entire discography is streaming on Bandcamp, including a muted cover of John Lennon’s hopeful classic “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” complete with jingle bells that he recorded and uploaded from the road.
I’m grateful to him for finding time to answer my questions, and delighted to have been given a peek inside the sideshow tent. We talked about his background in the circus, his drive to perform, and what really makes a freak a freak.
So, Erik, who are you, and how does the koala persona figure in?
Who am I? I am a man. Well, probably more a boy, a lost boy specifically. I have played music my whole life. My grandma taught me organ as a child, and music is the thing that has made the most sense in my life always. The koala started as a joke that we realized was more true than anything we could make up. Koalas are very psychedelic, but they are angry punk rock creatures. They’re cute and cuddly, sure, but piss them off and they will surely rip off your face.
How did you first become interested in the idea of performing in a sideshow, as opposed to doing straightforward musical performances as Velvet Crayon?
Well, I still do shows as just Velvet Crayon, but the Squidling Brothers are my dearest friends so to perform with them is just like hanging out with my best friends. In the beginning of my tenure performing with them, I was just performing as Velvet Crayon solo and they asked if I would be the opening band to their show. That evolved into writing scripts, bits and songs with them, and now I am a sideshow performer. To me, sideshow is really becoming performance art, and I honestly have really done performance art my whole life, so to me this is just a natural progression.
I know you’ve been working with the Squidling Brothers circus for years, but how did you first get involved with the Coney Island sideshow?
My first experience at Coney Island was as part of a performance with one of the Squidling Brothers, in a sideshow play called “The Great Clown Caper.” That evolved into the artist director of Coney Island, Dick Zigan, asking me to perform at an event called Super Freak Weekend. Contrary to popular belief, I am my own performer, working where I feel at home.
What do you enjoy most about performing?
The best part about being on stage to me is the idea of a safe place to do whatever makes me happy. I am on stage doing what I love, and that is also entertaining people? Isn’t that the idea of beauty?
You seem to really enjoy the Q&A segment of your performance, and definitely didn’t hold back. What’s the strangest question you’ve ever gotten from an audience member?
Weird is a very personal idea. Most things that I’ve been asked, while they may be weird to other people, are not necessarily weird to me. The weirdest thing for me is probably the question of “How do I pee?” because of phrasing. It’s all about the phrasing in this context. I expel liquid from my body because I take in liquid and need to expel waste in liquid form!
The American Horror Story: Freakshow series stirred up a lot of interest in sideshow culture, and there has been a lot of discussion about how the characters are depicted. What’s your impression of the show?
I am actually friends with Mat Fraser, aka Paul the Illustrated Seal! Personally, I think the show will give a lot of publicity to what we’re doing, and it is probably good for all of us in this scene.
Your song “To Be a Freak” is wry and affecting — the line “If you wanna be a freak, you better toughen up!” speaks volumes. Another lyric — “‘Cause it’s not just your body that makes you a freak, no, you gotta be one mentally” — stuck with me as well. What is your comfort level with the word “freak”?
I personally am OK with the term freak, but to me it does not just mean anyone born different; to be a freak in our world is to be a performer in the sideshow that was born different (aka a “natural-born freak”), or who has made themselves different through body modifications.
The novel Geek Love had a profound impact on me when I read it, and one line that always stayed with me came from Arty, a boy born with flippers instead of limbs. He says to his sister, an albino little person, that, “We have this advantage, that the norms expect us to be wise. Even a rat’s-ass dwarf got credit for terrible canniness disguised in his foolery. Freaks are like owls, mythed into blinking, bloodless objectivity.” Do you find that people expect you to be innocent or underestimate your intelligence because you use a wheelchair?
I used to believe that people prejudged wheelchair users in our world as less intelligent and easy to be taken advantage of, but now I’m not so sure. The time I have spent in the sideshow world has changed the way I think people perceive me as a performer and an artist. And, in a sense, don’t we all like to fuck with people who underestimate us or judge us? Perception is a hell of a drug.