Wrestling as a Way to Survive: A Conversation with John Darnielle

A conversation with John Darnielle about regional wrestling, the unparalleled microphone dominance of Rowdy Roddy Piper, and his new album, "Beat The Champ."

by Nate Patrin
Mar 20 2015, 2:36pm

For all the reasons people watch professional wrestling, emotional connection is the purest. It's also the first to go: whether you care or not that the result is pre-determined, the reality behind the pumped-up artifice— the daily lives of the participants, what goes on behind the scenes, and how decisions are made as to who gets main-event status—tends to take the shine off. Once wrestling starts to feel predictable, the passion starts to fade.

For all the other things it gets right, the Mountain Goats' new album Beat the Champ perfectly maintains the feeling of still falling for that big emotional pull. In Beat the Champ, John Darnielle returns to his longstanding themes of escape and coping with the things that tear us apart, but does so through songs centering on the territorial-era pro wrestling that was his own childhood coping mechanism in a world filled with violence and betrayal. We talked about that.

What was it about professional wrestling that first fascinated you, and what inspired you to do an album about it now?

It was on TV! Like a lot of things from your youth, access was what made it appealing. I started watching the Spanish language broadcast on Saturday mornings, but there was an hour broadcast that was on weeknight evenings on a UHF channel, and I'd always liked the lewd stuff on UHF channels. And there was this thing that I just happened to stay on one evening or morning—one of those things where it's not like I saw it and said, "OK, well here's what I like about that, so I will like that." It was, like, some guy was yelling about something. So I caught the vibe, and I really liked it.

And there's something really stark about it, I always liked that. Most TV, even in the '70s—there's sets, they're carefully planned, there's someone whose job it is to make sure the set is consistent. And local broadcasts for wrestling were sort of the opposite of what they are now. Some guy with a camera who probably had no training outside community college tech school or something, some A/V class. The camera would be stationary, there were not multiple camera angles, there was one camera pointing at the ring. It's like theater, there's something stark and weird about it. All they really had to get over back then was the wrestling and maybe a mask or two. Otherwise the gimmick was method acting, almost, this inhabiting of a character. And there were good guys and bad guys, something I really liked.

It had a documentary feel to it, almost?

It's more like it was from another world, one I didn't know anything about. It was like something that was going on just down the street that people were getting very heated about, that I didn't know about. It was cryptic and hidden, I didn't know anybody else who was into it.

And then I'd go look at wrestling magazines, and they were weird. The internet now means you can become an instant expert on any subject pretty quickly, but for me it was like you'd go through these wrestling magazines—why aren't any of the guys who wrestle here written about there? It was because these were the days of the regional territories and the magazines were all published out East. So that made it even weirder than what was going on down the street, there was this private, passion-filled scene.

Which territory was this? I know one of the songs is titled 'Southwestern Territories'...

Yeah, that's L.A.—that's the Olympic Auditorium, which I now know, I didn't then, had been a pretty massive territory for a brief period of time under a promoter named Gene LeBell, who was a character. You know how there's a certain type of pathology, the kind of guy who claims he knows more judo than he does? This is a recurring character in American life. Gene LeBell was one of these guys, a guy who had been a regional judo champion or something like that, but he had a lot of stories about how many men he'd killed.

He ran the wrestling promotion, and there were two big, big poppin' dudes out there at the time: John Tolos, and Freddie Blassie, whose name you probably know. "Classy" Freddie Blassie, I first knew him off the Dr. Demento show from his song "Pencil Neck Geek," which was actually just a version of his gimmick, which was this rough-talking pseudo-Popeye figure. An abusive Popeye. And he was apparently—I never saw him wrestle, I only saw him ref—but even when I saw him ref, he had incredible heat. Just really, you had to perform this craft in front of an audience in a way that would draw profound heat. His match with Tolos, I think it was, I'm pretty sure it sold out the L.A. Coliseum, it was a big, big deal.

But Blassie went East and the territory went into decline. That's about when I get into it, so it's sort of like the remnants of a dying scene, but they're so faithful around it, a lot of fun to be had. It was smaller, the Olympic Auditorium was understaffed, so kids could just run all around everywhere. There was nobody to stop us, we would wrestle in the hallways between matches. It was one of those sorts of places where if parents were caught presently doing the sort of stuff they let us do at the Olympic, they'd be charged with child neglect.

I'm a little too young to remember most of the territorial era; I grew up in the Twin Cities and that was AWA turf...

Yeah, Nick Bockwinkel.

Yeah, but my time was around when Hulk Hogan was starting to get over, and by the time I started paying attention he was with the WWF.

It's hard to remember that Hogan became such a massive figure, but he was a regional star, just with incredible heat. He was a guy who people just really responded to.

And Verne Gagne didn't want to capitalize on that, so that's kind of the beginning of the end there.

The '80s WWF, that's when it was really growing, getting big. You look at the footage and the promos they had, it produced a lot of great work, like the [Randy Savage] "Cream of the Crop" promo was the greatest thing ever made by human beings. And there's so much that's really great, even though at the time you could feel it going family the way Vegas did. That's sort of what it became, but it's not something you wanna spend a lot of time complaining about—businesses are gonna do what businesses are gonna do and get bigger. Plus, do you know the story of the Gobbledy Gooker?

Was that Mando Guerrero? Or is it Hector?

It was Hector. It's considered one of the worst gimmicks of all time. There was this big egg in the ring, and it would be there, present, week after week, and what's gonna come out of the egg?

So it turned out to be Hector Guerrero in a turkey suit, right? I saw what to me was a very moving interview with Hector Guerrero, because this was generally remembered as a very embarrassing moment for wrestling. And Hector Guerrero was really adamantly defending the Gobbledy Gooker, he was saying "the Gobbledy Gooker was for the kids; bigger kids and adults like the wrestling and smaller kids really react to something that's fun and silly. And it was a good gimmick." And he wouldn't hear any criticism of it. But I really liked this idea of making something of value just for smaller kids. There's some charm in that. It's like when you start thinking about preserving territorial stuff like that, once the preservationist instinct is even present, then the thing's over anyway.

It does seem kind of odd to me that there haven't been a lot of songs that actually posit professional wrestlers as contemporary folk heroes or work in an emotional context, even though they've been ubiquitous as a pop-culture fixture since the early days of television, if not before.

For one thing, I think for many people, it's a turn-off—it seems like sort of declasse entertainment. Grown-up people can get stuck on the fact that these people aren't actually punching each other.

Unless Terry Funk's involved.

Yeah, yeah. Or if Abdullah the Butcher's actually cutting people. But yeah, that's one of those things I think people, when they realize it when they're 13 or 14, that sort of becomes the realization they stuck with. They don't realize that everyone in the building's also hip to that. I

It's that, and it's also "lower class." Baseball's been successfully elevated to this sort of noble pursuit of sportsmen along the tradition of 19th Century English poets, celebrating the sportsman, the athlete. But in part because it's scripted and in part because it's sort of working-class entertainment, wrestling doesn't get to occupy that exalted place. But I'm not the only guy who's written about it. I discovered this month that the guy from the Auteurs [Luke Haines] also did an album about pro wrestlers, but English ones who neither you or I would know about unless you did your research.

"The Legend of Chavo Guerrero" has a line that stands out to me: "I need justice in my life/here it comes." Do you believe in pro wrestling's power to act as a proxy for our own conflicts in life?

Yeah, at least as a child. I mean, I can still catch a little of that. But it's hard as an adult, you don't get to have those sorts of moments that I had when I was 12.

I was really wrapped up in the storylines, and Chavo was one of the greatest faces of all time. He was just amazing, and he was strictly regional; nobody knew who he was in New York. He was really all about doing what's right, and standing for good, scientific wrestling. [Chavo] was a good guy, dealing punishment to people who were bad guys, and I really, really, really, really needed that when I was a kid.

I was very into Chavo as the good guy, even though I was starting to get the feeling for what people were always saying—that the heels were the more interesting characters, more fun and so forth; Rowdy Roddy Piper, who was [Chavo's] antagonist in L.A., nobody ever popped on the microphone like Roddy Piper. But something about Chavo's righteousness—that's the quality of the babyface I really responded to, was righteousness, battling for the cause of something good, even though that something good is never articulated. You couldn't really break it down that hard, it's a felt thing, not an analyzed thing.

The song "Heel Turn 2", which is a really vivid, emotional portrait of what happens when a good guy goes bad. Was there any particular incident or a series of moments that you thought back to when you were writing it?

I remember the feeling of outrage when somebody attacked his own tag team partner, but I can't remember who it was. But it's one of these things where you think you know what to expect from the good guys. And it's not like in real life where any one of us who seems like a good person does something that's not so great, and then you go "oh, that's right, people are complex."

In wrestling, a person who you know to be unalloyed good suddenly, without having let you know that something is stewing inside of his brain, turns on good. It's electrifying and horrifying, but at the same time you relate to that. You have these days where you want to go "fuck it, I want to be an asshole!" And it'll let out a lot of negative energy. That's what the song is, the feeling of watching somebody turn heel and thinking "this must've been brewing for some time."

Another side to the album is actually getting to some of the behind-the-scenes incidents. Maybe the most notorious on the record is "Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan," which is a first-person perspective of the murder of Bruiser Brody.

What I remember is deciding to do that little slide up the neck that opens the song—randomly on one take, I did that with tape rolling, that feeling of setting the scene. We all know it's scripted, we know they get injured a little, but you're not really risking your life unless you break your neck or something. And then you get stabbed in a locker room. There's some backstory nobody knows about on-camera or in the room that's going on—and it's a father, and it's horrifying.

And the smallness of the business, of any business concern, really, becomes apparent. What business is there you might be doing that you'd be willing to actually bleed out for? You'd choose a different line of work. The writing was only partly first person, it goes into first person in the choruses, but for the most part it kind of glides here and there. It's an attempt to sketch a scene, it's kind of a murder ballad, but I'd like the scene to speak for itself.

Were there any other particular matches or wrestlers that inspired some of the songs? I did hear hints of The Original Sheik Ed Farhat in "Fire Editorial."

That's who exactly who that is about, and what it's about is that the Sheik had been big in L.A., before my day. By the time I got there he was back in the Midwest and the East Coast doing his thing. So I only knew him from pictures in magazines—pictures in editorials, or articles which always had an editorial bent. These articles would be "somebody has got to stop this guy, he's really going to hurt somebody with the fire that he throws."

And I couldn't picture it! How does this work, that a guy just throws fire in the middle of a match? I hadn't smartened up as a kid yet to realize you couldn't make fire! I would think "wow, in an actually regulated thing, you wouldn't get one chance to do that." They'd go, "you're never working here again because you're trying to light people on fire!" So it points out just what a weird grand guignol sort of world this whole thing is positing, where a guy can just return week after week to attempt to burn his opponents to death.

And the tone of these breathless editorials where they would say things like "someone has to stop him" and "wrestling really needs to step up and speak out about the antics of The Sheik," who turns out to have been the boss of the territory. He was from Michigan and owned this territory. And he never broke character once. It was amazing, he'd answer the phone in character just in case. He's one of the first guys to so completely inhabit this heel character that people didn't know what to expect.

If you ever watch matches of his, they're so tawdry. He'd always, always attack before the bell rings, and there's no wrestling of any kind, just pummeling the shit out of these guys. And there's sort of this pure evil that's attractive, even if you're young and looking for heroes, you can't turn your eyes away from this guy. He's gonna light these dudes on fire! That's insane! Oh my god! He's going to light people on fire, and they won't even give him the win, he'll be disqualified and still kicking the guy's ass!

Which is another thing, when that sort of thing would go on, you'd be like, "why are you still kicking the guy's ass, the match is over and you lost because you cheated." There's a sin in Catholicism, doing evil for evil's sake—not for end, not to get something, but just for the sheer relish of being evil. If I do evil to feed my family, how evil is it, really? It's probably not, it's probably more good than evil. But if I do evil 'cause it feels good to me, or just out of habit, it comes close to some pure distillation of evil and wrong. You can't just look away from that.

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