Today’s blog takes on a particularly personal flavour, since it takes the form of an interview with the man who for over 15 years now has been my best friend. In the manner of many great friendships, we’ve spent some time periods literally living in each other’s pockets and others barely seeing each other, yet we can always drop straight into conversation like we only stopped talking to each other five minutes ago. In fact, there’s very little we don’t know about each other, and so it may seem a little redundant for me to choose him of all people to write a blog about. However this blog is not just about him, but about him drawing a line under a particular chapter in his life, and I felt we should mark the occasion with a little retrospective look at what he’s leaving behind.
You see, my best friend is a pretty interesting character. For a long time now, not only has he been Kirk Robert Gary James Gordon Thomas Driscoll, friend and fellow hell raiser, he has also existed as his more public persona – he is Kwerky Kirk, the main man at Kwerky Kirk’s Circus Workshop. By day a mild-mannered care worker specialising in care for the mentally disabled, when the clarion call of freaks in need of carnage is sounded, he dons his superhero outfit (which genuinely often contains a lot of tight leather, pvc and even occasionally a Gimp mask) and unleashes such delights as hammering masonry nails up his nose, eating lightbulbs, being hammered into a bed of nails, throwing knives, breathing fire, stiltwalking and all manner of other extreme behaviour which would lead most sane mortals to doubt his own sanity. Frankly with good reason – he’s a total fruitcake. But this year sadly, he’s proving the old axiom that all good things must come to an end, and at the finale of this season’s circuit he’ll be hanging up his ringmaster’s whip for the last time and retiring from the stage.
My initial idea was to conduct a brief chat with Kirk over a few beers, stick up a post about him retiring with some pretty pictures of him on stage and have done with it. The influence of alcohol and lack of barriers between us lead, however, to something that took on a life of its own. Presented here and now for your consideration is the best approximation I can produce of our late-night, Hunter S. Thompson-esque interview, with approximately 15,492 swear words edited out………
THE FREAKS COME OUT TO PLAY…
SA: First question – Heartbreaker or Homemaker??
KWERKY: Well Bro, I’d love to say Heartbreaker and certainly in my younger days I did more than most to try to live up to that reputation [understatement of the decade – SA] but the honest answer these days is homemaker. My wife, LA, has been the main reason for that – it sounds like a rehearsed answer to say that the love of a good woman does a lot to settle a man down, but in my case it’s not only true to say that, it’s also true that without her influence in my life I’d probably have ended up in a much darker place than I am now – I don’t doubt that either drugs or alcohol might well have seen me either dead or in jail had I continued the way I was going, but her encouragement to keep performing and keep bettering myself has driven me to become a better person.
SA: What are your earliest memories as a child??
KWERKY: Probably my earliest memory is one that’s led to a life-long running joke with my Dad. I was about four years old, and I lived on a farm – my Dad was a farm hand, and we lived in one of the farm cottages. I had a small wooden wheelbarrow, painted blue and red and I took that thing everywhere. When my sister was born we moved to live with my grandfather, and somehow in the confusion of moving, my wheelbarrow was left behind and lost. To this day it has become the finisher in any family argument with my Dad.
“Son, you still haven’t taken out the rubbish like I asked you to!!”.
“Yeah, well you lost my wheelbarrow!”.
SA: Was it difficult having the whole family under one roof, and living with grandparents??
KWERKY: No, not at all, in fact we were always a big, active family, always people coming and going and a great sense of community amongst us – and there were side benefits to living with my Grandad – he used to work for the local ferry company in the days when drivers would offer backhand bungs to get their lorries loaded first, and it wasn’t unusual for him to come home with whole boxes of crisps, say, or even half a pig – we were always curious to see what he’d get next!
SA: What’s the strangest client you’ve ever done a show for??
KWERKY: Well, the answer to that depends very much on what your definition of strange is!!! After all, some of my clients have been the hosts of dungeons and fetish nights, or extreme shows involving gallons of fake blood!! But from my own perspective?? Well .. as you well know mate, since you used to be our PR man, I was at one point in a trio called Magic, Mischief and Mayhem alongside the magician Luke Lamont and our globetrotting compadre Sam Stagg, who was our resident juggler and straight man for the act. Well, on one occasion we were booked for some unfathomable reason to perform for a gathering of Christian worshippers at some church event or another – I forget the exact location. We did our usual act, which for the record involved everything from sawing Sam in half with a bandsaw to Luke hammering a six-inch masonry nail into my face with a mallet, as well as Luke’s awesome trick where he swallows six razor blades and a bit of string, and then regurgitates them all tied together. I’ve never seen an audience split like that after a show – whilst some of them wanted to chat and were fascinated by how we came to be in that line of work, several others were openly decrying us as agents of Satan and urging for us to be thrown from the premises!! Needless to say we stayed as long as we could to agitate the situation, then bailed just before the mob arrived bearing torches to drive the monsters from the village!
SA: Is there a favourite venue you’ve performed at over the years??
KWERKY: Not one, no. I’ve done so many gigs in so many diverse places that it’s virtually impossible to isolate just one as being the greatest.
SA: Thanks for the really helpful answer there old buddy of mine! Surely there are some that stand above the rest?
KWERKY: Oh hell yes! Well, playing main stage at the Bestival was a real highlight for me since it was not only performing to a home crowd, but obviously meant I got to hang out backstage with all those worldwide music stars which was a pretty cool moment of supreme smugness for me, I can tell you! One that’s dear to me as well was when I performed at a place called TJ’s in Wales, because I got to play on the same stage that Nirvana had played on when they were there, and as a massive fan of the band that held a special resonance for me. Also I’d have to say pretty much ANY gig I’ve done with The Shanklin Freakshow – I’ve had a kind of informal collaboration thing going with the guys from the band for a while now, and not only are they an awesome bunch of guys to hang out with, but their shows are always uber-professional, and they are masters of getting the crowd into a great mood and really know how to generate that mythical atmosphere where the crowd feel part of something bigger!! Oh, and playing Redeemer [a massive alternative rock and fetish night – SA] one night I was on the smaller second stage, and due to a gap in scheduling I got to do an impromptu fire performance on the main stage as a warm-up act for Saxon, which was pretty awesome to be asked to do! But really, man, the list goes on and on and on and… well, all this talking is interfering with my Jack Daniels drinking here so…..
SA: Fine, you blatant alcoholic lush, wet your whistle and we’ll move on to something else. Here I’m going to be harsh and force you to choose a definite answer though – who is your favourite other performer to work alongside??
KWERKY: [Spends about ten minutes mulling this over, looking very undecided. I begin to wonder if he’s stuck for an answer – not that this is very often a problem with Kwerky – but he finally settles down…]
Well, to be honest there’s only one person who’s at the top of this list by a long way, but to be honest I wasn’t sure if I should say it because I don’t want to upset anyone else who might read this and wonder why I didn’t choose them!!! But the answer, by a freak-laden country mile, is Nick Painless. The man just encapsulates everything I love about extreme entertainment – he’s all about pushing the envelope, about trying to work out where the audience will expect his thresholds to be, and then stepping waaaaay beyond them. Yet despite the fact that he’s done some of the most fucked-up shit I’ve ever seen on a stage [FYI readers, Nick’s performances often include him suspending himself by hooks pierced through the flesh of his back, and other delights like allowing himself to be used as a human dartboard – this guy is OUT THERE!! – SA] he is always 110% professional behind the scenes and he has a great attitude toward making sure he delivers the best possible show for the crowd – he’s very focussed on ensuring the crowd go away feeling that they got their money’s worth
of entertainment out of him. He’s always got a massive grin on his face when I work with him, and with Nick it’s never just a gig, it’s an experience!!!!
SA: Was this extremism in your performing style an extension of your own internal chaos, or were you attempting to connect with a certain market or niche of performance??
KWERKY: Good question man!! I think it was a bit of both, although that sounds wrong because I never really made a conscious decision to target myself like that – it was never a commercial decision, more an organic development. I was one of what we refer to in England as Thatcher’s Children, a group of people growing up in an atmosphere of financial hardship and rising unemployment, a time of political agitation and change in the UK. Punk was still highly prevalent, especially at a grass-roots level, and we were on the verge of the period in time that saw an explosion in outdoor illegal raves, basement parties and a huge increase in music with a political agenda. So I suspect that in part I was already open to ‘revolution’ if you like, to a sense of anarchy from which change would arise, and I probably subconsciously tapped into the zeitgeist of the times. But as we moved with the times I found that I didn’t want to change anymore, that I was happier being on the fringe of social norms rather than following the herd. I’d found an identity I was comfortable with, and stayed true to it, and as society changed I found myself in an extreme minority not through choice, but more by accident.
SA: I’m not going to talk about your ‘normal’ job in this article because of the obvious concerns over the privacy of both your clients and yourself, but I will mention that you work with vulnerable adults. Having briefly been in the same field, I noticed that there are a lot of carers who seem to have … larger than life lives outside of work. To what extent do you think your own experiences as an entertainer have influenced how you approach your day job??
KWERKY: Oh, massively, without a doubt mate!! Let me tell you how I see it. I might have seen the best of life at times, but I’ve also seen the worst of it and suffered for it along the way, as have most of us in one form or another. That kind of suffering teaches you to be guarded, to put up a shield if you like, or a mask. That mask is no different to me assuming my stage persona – every performer has a mask they wear in public, whether thats just a stage name or a whole different costume, persona, whatever. One of the main reasons for this is that as a performer you are seen by your audience as different for everyone else, and fairly or not they judge you by a different set of rules, of social values. That experience gives me a great empathy for some of the people I work with, because I understand how that feeling can make you feel cut off from your usual support mechanisms. Being on stage has taught me to accept that difference, and not be phased by it – a confidence that I try to teach my clients to discover themselves – to stop wishing they were the same, but to revel in being different, to accept it as just a facet of life. And you’re right about the people who work in my field – they’re not all performers, but a lot of them have an unusual character trait or hobby, something that sets them apart from others. But whatever that may be, we all share one thing in common – we go to work not to feel good about ourselves because we helped someone, but because the job desperately needs doing, and we know we can do it – it’s always about the clients, not the staff. We aim to help our clients discover something new, gain confidence and feel good about what they’ve experienced, and in that sense there’s very little difference between going to work and walking out on stage – I’m here to help you have a good time!!
SA: A skill you have in terrifying abundance, as I can all-to-wearily attest!!! OK, something a little less serious – Desert Island Discs time!! You can take three albums and a toy to amuse you whilst stranded on a desert island – choose, bitch!!
KWERKY: Haha!! Antichrist Magazine asked me this in an interview once – I asked if I could take my circus box as my toy but they said no because it’s got tons of bits in it – can I have my circus box as my toy??
KWERKY: Wanker! Alright then, I know this one already; my three albums are Mutter by Rammstein, S&M, the live Metallica double album, and Nirvana’s Nevermind. And my toy is my throwing knives, since they double up as a method of defence and also a way of cutting wood for fires and soon – plus I find something hypnotic about the process of knife throwing, so they’d help me while away the hours easily!!
SA: One last question, then we’ll take a break because I can see you’re getting distressed about the slow speed the booze is disappearing at because I make you keep talking.
KWERKY: You know me so well old friend. Now pour me a large one and make with the questioning!!
SA: OK, give me the names of five people in no articular order who have had a definite influence on your life to date. You are not allowed to include Satan or Jeremy Kyle.
KWERKY: Haha get the fuck out of my head!! Right. Well number one in the list is my Dad. I’m one of the lucky ones who gets to say that my Dad genuinely is one of my heroes. He always accepted whatever I wanted to do and encouraged me to try out new things – his only condition was that if I was going to do something, I do it 110% and not fuck about but commit to it. I’d probably never have had half the chances I did were it not for his support, and I love him for it. Next I’d have to mention another fire performer who goes by the name of Lucyfire. It was watching her on stage one day that really ignited in me the desire to stop doing the circus stuff as a hobby and really go for it in terms of creating a business out of it. As you know one of my hobbies that I’m getting more and more into is tattooing, and my main influence for getting into that is Darren Stares – his early 90’s work in portraiture was the first time I saw nearly picture-perfect tattooing and it opened my eyes to just what was possible with a tattoo gun. Er.. The godfather of alternative circus, Jim Rose, too, because I love the way his stuff celebrates the circus sideshow elements, that old-time vaudeville feel to performance that celebrates not just the performance but the history behind it too. And also LA as well – I know I’ve already mentioned her but her own attitude towards work is an inspiration in and of itself – this is a woman who took herself back to university in her mid-forties and passed a Batchelor of the Arts degree for god’s sake!! Her constant drive and determination have helped not just her but me too, and I’m immensely proud of all her work. [LA is a workhorse of artistic output seemingly always involved in 174 simultaneous art projects from club backdrops to sculpture and everything in between, but YOU can find her on Facebook, where she has a made-to-order business creating beautiful handmade books – one local school just commissioned a whole load as leaving diaries for their exit year. Please drop by her business, Heart in my Mouth, by following this link. – SA]
[At this point, we took a small break for ‘refreshments’. Following a slice of Battenberg cake and a cup of weak lemon tea, we were ready to proceed – let the carnage recommence! – SA]
SA: Right, let’s get back into this with an interesting question – how would your worst enemy describe you, and how accurate would their observations be??
KWERKY: Wow, you want me to pick just one enemy?? Sadly, I wish I could say I don’t know who to pick, but we both know I do, and we both know who. No names, no pack drill though, right? Well I imagine they would probably use phrases such as self-centred, corruptive, deceiving, non-committal – and sadly they’d be pretty accurate, at least in reference to the time they knew me. A lot of my bad character traits were a natural development born from the lifestyle I was living – I spent so long forming layers of arrogance like an armour suit around my true emotions that it took even longer to learn how to let those barriers down again. So perhaps it’s fair to say that my behaviour at the time was not a true reflection of me but rather a hardness born of necessity – although I’m not trying to say that I wasn’t a complete asshole, I was – but their opinion of me was based on behaviour that was forced rather than natural. It took a very long time for others to show me that, however, and making the change to being more open and less abruptly challenging with my behaviour has taken serious effort – its alarming how deeply these traits become imbedded in who you are without you realising. Happily, I’m now only a vicious, moody, unmanageable bastard about 65% of the time, so there’s hope yet!!
SA: You’ve touched a couple of times on the hardships you went through growing up – what would you say was the hardest part of your life so far to deal with in terms of its impact on you??
KWERKY: [Thinks for a moment, looking very serious] You know, to most people I’d say the hardest thing ever was finding a way to break my earlier dependence on drugs – you knew me then mate, and you know that I was one stupid decision away from becoming another failed statistic, of ending up forever lost in some dingy basement wasting my life away one hit at a time. Indeed, although that’s behind me now I still consider it to be a battle I’m fighting on a daily basis and only slowly winning at – you don’t erase a decade of bad behaviour by waving a magic wand, you do it by showing consistently over time that you have changed – it’s still a project in progress.
SA: You’d say that to most people – so what would you say to me, here and now?
KWERKY: [Heavy sigh] Well, the problem with you being such a good friend is that I find myself strangely compelled to tell you the truth. The hardest time of my life was 2010. In the same year I buried both my Grandad and my Mum, and the loss of two huge figures so close together really knocked me for six. I found it so hard to deal with the emotional impact, and started drinking and partying to dry and block out the pain I was feeling because I just didn’t know how to process that. It caused all sorts of problems for me in terms of work and also my social life, and at my lowest that year I was certain my behaviour was going to lead to my wife divorcing me. I just couldn’t seem to find a point from which to start dealing with everything that was happening, so I became like the ostrich burying its head in the sand – except instead of sand, I used vodka!! Getting through that year nearly broke me, and it’s the closest I’ve ever been to losing everything good I’ve managed to do with my life.
SA: I recall it well bro – frankly, you were a total wreck and we [your friends] were all more than a bit worried about you. Losing your mum messed you up, didn’t it – you had a much stronger bond with her than many people realised, didn’t you?
KWERKY: Well, my family knew obviously, but yes not many people realised how much she meant to me – it didn’t help that when we lost her suddenly like that, we were going through a bit of a rocky patch in terms of speaking to each other, so it left me with a lot of thoughts that revolved around things I wish I’d had the time to say to her before we parted.
SA: By the time you were born, your family was no longer travelling, but you come from a Romany Gypsy background don’t you – did that have an impact on your closeness as a family??
KWERKY: Oh, very much so – our home was always a hive of activity when I was young, there was a real sense of community among not just the family but all the regular visitors to our home. Mum was always cooking not just for all of us [Kirk is one of six children – SA] but for kids of neighbours and friends as well, and I remember wonderful gypsy meals – bacon and onion suet pastries cooked in a knotted up old towel, Joey Grey…..
SA: Er.. what?
KWERKY: Joey Grey – it’s a kind of chunky stew of bacon, onion and sliced potato cooked slowly in stock until it’s really thick – awesome stuff for cold winter days!! If we wanted a snack there was no chocolate or anything like that – more often it would be a huge doorstep of bread with tons of real butter, and a cup of tea made with watered-down condensed milk!! And we had a ‘best room’ too, the living room that was hardly used and kept immaculate, like a show-home…. any family or guests were entertained in there, and we were forbidden to use it so it stayed tidy!! There was tons of brass there too, all of it polished at least once a week, but when mum was entertaining in the best room, often the men would be found gathered in the kitchen, putting the world to rights!! There was the odd smattering of Romany language as well – especially for my brother, Danny, and I it was like having our own secret language as kids – there are a lot of happy days of memories from my childhood days!
SA: What was your mum like in terms of her reaction to your career path later in life?
KWERKY: Well, a bit of a mixed bag really. I think the performance and showmanship of what I do appealed to her Romany roots, but she was a strict disciplinarian – as kids we used to make a game of hiding the wooden spoon she’d use to hit us with if we were misbehaving!! So she was very much the counter to my rebellious side – as an example, I used to box when I was young, and was pretty good at it. But the first time I came home from training with a black eye she went mad and I was never allowed back!! I mean, don’t get me wrong bro, she loved every one of us kids unconditionally and was always the first to back us to the hilt and encourage us to try something, but she was a good grounding element, a reminder to us not to overstep the mark too much or get too crazy!! She did a lot to instill in me the sense of responsibility to others, of making sure you took care of your business before play-time as it were. Losing both her and my grandfather in the same year knocked my feet out from under me, and it took me a long time to work out how to deal with the change in perspective it caused, time to work out how to assimilate myself back into life if you like. I still miss them both terribly.
SA: Let’s move on. [Kwerky is visibly shaken by opening up to me, and I feel guilty for perhaps opening wounds that are not long closed.] When we finally find something that’s strong enough to finish you off, what epitaph would you like to see left on a memorial to your life??
KWERKY: Haha!! I’ve no clue really – I just hope it was something complimentary, rather than something true!!! Someone once suggested to me that it would read “The Freak that Everyone Loved” – I told them it was more likely to read “The Freak Everyone Was Given No Choice But To Love”!!!!!!!!!!!!
SA: So, who would play you in the movie of your life??
KWERKY: Well, it would need to be someone who carried off my devilishly handsome good looks obviously!! [At this point, Mrs Assassin, who is wisely hiding in the kitchen avoiding the drunken bromance, shouts out ‘Yul Brynner!!’ 😉 ] HAHAHA yeah that’d be cool – he’s got the bald slaphead, and I love him as an actor so that’s cool!! But you know my luck mate – I’d ask for someone like Johnny Depp, a suave good-looking sophisticate, and I’d get Adam Sandler!!!!!!!!!
SA: Personally, I’d have said Jack Nicholson – the resemblance might not be there, but he does have a good track record of accurately portraying complete nutters!! So, two things more I want to ask you today – and the first of these is the reason we sat down for this chat in the first place, the fact that you’re using my blog to announce your retirement. So….. in your own words, why quit??
KWERKY: It’s just time, man, that’s all. People mistakenly think that this gig is easy – you rock up, act like an overgrown child [one who’s allowed to play with fire and knives!! -SA] and get paid for it. But in reality what I do requires a huge investment of time and effort, from hours of behind-the-scenes practice to the transport of props to billing and financial records, insurance documents, promotion – it’s a never-ending cycle of hard graft to get to that magical hour or so on stage. Plus, it’s a very fluid market – I might be booked solid for a month, then not work for a week or so! That kind of unpredictability makes it very hard to hold down a normal home life, and that’s become more and more my main focus in recent years, so I need to dedicate myself more fully to my ‘real’ job and take care of my wife and kids.
SA: You’ve had some awesome moments doing this though – I know I’ve been there for some of them – surely it’s hard to leave that behind and walk away??
KWERKY: Dear God yes, so very hard!! There have been some magical moments man, some great moments that would never have come my way otherwise – good example, my wife LOVES the band Elbow. Opening main stage at Bestival, they were soundchecking at the same time as us. I asked for an autograph for her, they produced a card and wrote her a wonderful message from the whole band, then broke out their rider of beer and shared it with us – that shit just doesn’t happen to Joe Public!! But I’m not without my own little things to keep me going when I leave the stage – I’ve been getting into tattooing for a few years now and that’s something I do from home, so I can do that and still be around the family. [He’s getting better all the time too – Kirk follows an older style of work, and cites influences including Norman Collins (aka Sailor Jerry), Adam Da Punk, Paul Booth, Mo Capaletta, Sister Sammy and his fellow discoverer of the tattooing arts, Simon Bloomfield from Blu Ink – SA] And I’m not saying that I won’t take the occasional gig every now and then just to keep my eye in so to speak, but they’ll be because I want to do them and not because I need the money. It just feels natural to bow out now, on a high and with a great track record behind me – one last dance, and then off into the wilderness!!!!
SA: Well, there are a whole army of freaks that will miss you out on the circuit man – I know more than one person I mentioned your retirement too when editing this article was pretty dismayed to hear you were stepping down, saying that you always brought something new to each gig. And now I’d like to bow out with one final question, in true Social Assassin style – if you could be re-incarnated as any common supermarket item, what would you be and why??!
KWERKY: HA – easy one dude! I’d be a box of eggs – I’ve already been laid, and I’m about to get smashed!!!!!!!
So there we have it – the [highly edited!!] version of Kwerky Kirk’s last ever interview. I’d like to take a little gushing moment here to praise a man who, whilst not without some major flaws, has been the kind of friend you only find once in a lifetime – who has held me while I cried, stood back-to-back with me in bar fights, and who I love fiercely and unconditionally. You can find Kirk’s occasionally updated FB tattooing page at KWERKY INC , or if you’re really adventurous go and befriend the man himself, KWERKY KIRK , just don’t feed him after midnight and NEVER, EVER get him wet.
And for those of you who would like a little insight into the band Kirk regularly tours with, here is a link to a video of the Shanklin Freakshow, featuring the man himself!!