Coney Island looms large in the American mind—a place of cotton candy and Nathan’s franks, of ferris wheels and roller coasters, of crowded beaches, sideshows and carnivals. However, millions of Americans have never been to Coney and probably couldn’t find it on a map. According to musician and Coney Island resident Benjamin Wilson, this small but important piece of America is almost like a lost continent. “Most people have heard of Coney Island, but they don’t know where it is,” Wilson says. “If they live in New York, they know it’s in Brooklyn. But what is it to America? It’s like Atlantis—a piece of Americana that has never been emulated or recreated anywhere else.”
However, contemporary Coney Island persists as a sacred space in American popular entertainment, and there are numerous artists and performers—including Wilson—who are working to keep both Coney the physical place and the sideshow arts, including burlesque and even freak shows, alive and well.
Wilson and his production company, called Cockabilly Records, are attempting to transport some of the lurid appeal of Coney Island to the hinterlands this summer, with the Coney Island Cockabilly Roadshow. “Basically we are taking a slice of Coney Island and taking it on the road—that perfect little slice of American culture,” according to Wilson, who I spoke to recently by telephone. The tour will hit about 40 cities, including a stop in Birmingham at The Nick on July 29.
The roadshow features sideshow performers Jelly Boy the Clown and the Squidling Brothers Circus Sideshow. There are rockabilly bands Jason and the Punknecks from Los Angeles, Florida-based Viva Le Vox, Hickry Hawkins from Charlotte, N.C., and two bands from Brooklyn, N.Y.—Guitar Bomb and Wilson’s own group, The Holy Roller Sideshow. There will also be burlesque performers.
One intriguing aspect of the tour is that Jelly Boy, the Squidlings and the burlesque performers are not thought of by Wilson as merely a colorful add-on or supplement to the bands—as has been the case with other rock tours that incorporated alt-showbiz elements. They are instead an integral part of the show, perhaps the most important part. “The way we promote it is real live sideshow, then burlesque and rock and roll,” Wilson says. “We’ve flipped it around and put sideshow first. The heart of what this is about is the circus-burlesque-sideshow feeling.”
Rockabilly is another passion for Wilson, one that seems to mesh well with the sideshow arts and Coney Island. “It has a natural place [at Coney], even though it’s a county blues thing,” Wilson says. “The sideshow feel, the licks of the music, seem to fit well with the carnival by the sea, the flashing lights and everything that goes with it. The roots [of] Americana really tie it together. It seems to fit.”
The tour is an outgrowth of an annual summer festival, the Coney Island Rockabilly Festival, that Wilson and Cockabilly have hosted on Coney since 2007 at outdoor stages and at Cha Cha’s Lounge on the boardwalk. The festival in turn grew out of a simple desire on the part of Wilson and his band mates in The Holy Roller Sideshow to play a gig on the boardwalk at Coney.
In 2007, Wilson and his band were given the use of a stage at the Astroland amusement park, thanks to Jen Gapay, a well-known New York burlesque promoter who also booked entertainment at Astroland. There was one problem, though—The Holy Rollers had the stage for the whole day, more time than they could fill by themselves. “We only had a couple of hours of material, so we got a bunch more bands involved,” Wilson says. “We had some burlesque girls call, including Lucy Buttons, who calls herself the ‘Queen of Rock n’ Roll Burlesque.’ By the week it happened, we had about 25 bands, 50 burlesque girls and a bunch of sideshow freaks. The whole idea of Cockabilly Records came up behind that. We needed a production company to produce it. Once we did it one year, everybody had such a blast that we had to do it every year.”
Coney Island has undergone a lot of changes the last few years, according to Wilson, with big-money interests elbowing their way into Coney and buying properties for bargain prices. This led, for example, to the closing of Astroland. The situation became very political, according to Wilson, with many people protesting the changes. But Wilson and his mates took a different approach. “We felt we could picket and hold up signs, but maybe we can just keep bringing art and music and culture to Coney and try to keep its identity intact,” he says. “It began with wanting to play the boardwalk, but the underlying thing is that we want to help preserve Coney and the sideshow arts. This was our way of fighting for something we believed in.”
According to Wilson, this year’s Cockabilly Roadshow tour has become bigger than he ever anticipated, and he is already planning a second tour for summer 2011. “This year we wanted to go on the road, and originally we talked about doing just boardwalk towns, like Asbury Park, N.J., but the people involved said if we’re going out on the road, let’s just stay out,” he says. “We went from planning eight to ten gigs to now where we have 40 shows in six weeks. It had its own natural inertia. We didn’t make it to the west coast this year, but next year we want to go to California and up to Canada and make a big loop across the country.”
The Coney Island Cockabilly Roadshow will make a stop at The Nick on July 29 at 10 p.m. For more information, visit www.thenickrocks.com or www.cockabillyrecords.com. The Coney Island Rockabilly Festival is scheduled to take place on Labor Day weekend, September 3-6, at various venues in Coney Island. To learn more, check out the Cockabilly web site.
Jesse Chambers is a Birmingham Weekly contributing editor. Send your comments to email@example.com.