The Baseball Team Who Saved One Another: An Interview with John Albert
'There's nothing subversive about getting a Mohawk and walking around Silver Lake. When I was 16, if you got a tattoo, it was like, 'What the fuck are you doing?' There was nobody doing that. [Now] everyone is covered in tattoos. It means nothing. Dyeing your hair pink means nothing. Putting a metal post through your nose doesn't mean anything.' Jodie Janella Horn talks to John Albert about music, baseball, James Frey, and punk-rock death.
John Albert's Wrecking Crew tells the tale of a Los Angeles fast pitch baseball team's rise to an unlikely league victory. It is a tired story: against all odds, the oddballs win. However, the victory isn't the revenge of the nerds against the frat boys, or even the Bad News Bears against posh kids, despite what the title suggests. These are truly jaded players: men who've galloped with fame and then lost it all, men with inexplicable predilections for prostitutes or cross-dressing. While Wrecking Crew's hook is the ironic dissonance between the beautiful stories of a bunch of men with ugly predilections, the meaning is in the loss of irony.
Albert drummed with hardcore legends Bad Religion "a few years after the group's initial underground success and still some time before a creative resurgence would result in hit singles, gold records, and a dedicated worldwide following." His teammates and cohorts also experienced various degrees of success: their pitcher and manager Mike started the team while trying to "kick the rather predictable drug habit he'd acquired on the road" with his recently signed band. Clay had gone from being in a nearly successful LA metal band, Junkyard, to selling all his belongings for drug money and living in a car. Dino courted notoriety with a "new romantic" band in the early 1980s before resigning himself to jerking off into socks and driving a limo.
Other team members lingered near success in other fields. Dave Navarro's cousin Johnny maintained a lucrative career in advertising well after he kicked his drug habit, and while he developed a thing for gambling and purchased sex. Jacob, an aspiring actor from Appalachia, had a speaking part in Pleasantville and Musashi, a Japanese man with limited English skills, but a great pitch, had a walk-on roll in The Last Samurai. These are the people of Hollywood: wannabes and has-beens, but while I just walk by proxies of these characters and wonder, Albert knows them and gives them their due.
I met up with Albert at a coffee shop in LA's Silver Lake neighborhood and in a soft-spoken way that belied his impressive ambitions, provided a vigorous defense of his oft-maligned hometown and being a punk-rock ball player.
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PopMatters: One of the things I loved about the book is that it captures quintessentially LA people. It couldn't have happened anywhere else.
John Albert: I always found myself as sort of defensive about LA when I go other places or meet people from other places because I understand what's superficial and fake about [LA], but that's not my life here. My theory about it is that the people who make it that way are not people from here. They're people that come here for other things, because my friends aren't like that.
PM: You say in the book that Los Angeles is a place that looks down upon you if all of your dreams haven't been fulfilled.
JA: I have relatives that have fairly modest lives, but they feel really successful. Like, "I have a job, a kid, a house, and a nice mustache." Here it's like if you don't have everything, you have nothing. It doesn't bother me now, but there was a time when it just felt awful. Because everyone in their early 20s thinks that the world is your oyster, that you can achieve anything. There's a certain point when you realize that may not happen. At the time the story took place, it was more than not happening. Everyone was stalling out with no real excuse. It's one thing when things don't work out because you're a junkie. But if you don't have that excuse anymore, you have to ask yourself, "Am I just a failure?" And that is what was happening. Record deals going south. Plans not being realized. It was surprisingly painful for a lot of people.
PM: I read a lot of reviews and in a lot of them they're almost patronizing about the individuals in your story. Like they are hopeless. Or they put out a strong condemnation for the choices they've made.
JA: They freely use the term "losers" which is fine. I don't mind it and none of the characters mind it. I think one thing that happens is that people read the book and don't make the connection that these are really people. I've read reviews where they're sure it's a novel. In one, they gave a positive review, but they said something like, "I could have done without the contrived ending." But that's just what happened. People ask me, "Is everything true?" Everything is true. It's a memoir. There's nothing in there that isn't true.
PM: You've called the book a story of redemption. Why do you feel the characters need redeeming?
JA: The thing is that people's lives don't stop when the story ends. It could have been anything, but it was friendship. I can't really explain it, but it enabled us to grow up. Doing something really childish enabled us to grow up. We were all so caught in that thing where we were entering our 30s and we didn't consider ourselves adults. We didn't live like adults. We all sort of lived like teenagers, which is a thing that happens here a lot.
I was somebody that tried to be real old real fast. I look at pictures of myself when I was 15 and I was trying to be like a 30-year-old and I'm doing all these things that I thought were real adult things. I'm running around as a kid in bad places and doing dangerous things and never allowing myself to have much of a childhood. So, somehow going back to doing something that's really childlike and doing and forming these friendships allowed us to move on in our lives.
In terms of healing people's sexual addictions, or gambling addictions, or drug addictions, yes, coincidentally most people have been okay, but not everyone. There are still people struggling with all those things right now.
PM: What you are you working on next?
JA: I'm supposed to be doing the book proposal for my second book, which is difficult. I just have a couple of ideas and I'm not sure what I want to do but I have to have it done in the next couple of weeks. Most people get their first book because they have a great idea, whether it's well written or not. The second book might be infinitely better written, but it's not that great idea they got the first time. As crass as this is, I want a book that's going to get me on talk shows. Whether I got a lot of press or not, and I got a fair amount, its all because there's a hook. The way that movies, books and even music works is that if there's not a hook to it then they disappear. I'd like to find a way to write whatever story I'm going to write and attach it to something that will get me on Oprah. That would be my ideal. Whether it will happen or not? Probably not.
PM: You bear comparison to James Frey and he's getting the Oprah Book Club gig. You're styles are very different, but you both are dealing with addiction.
JA: I read that book, and I'm not a big fan of his. I'll say that openly. I don't care for a couple of reasons. This is an unfair thing, but I don't really believe some of the stuff in his book [A Million Little Pieces]. In my world of experiences, I can't believe certain things happen the way [he said they] did. Secondly, this is a class thing, but he's writing a book about struggling in one of the premiere cushiest rehabs in the world. You have to have great insurance or thousands and thousands of dollars to get in there. That's like writing a hardcore book about being in the Betty Ford Center. I mean, he's in Hazelton. And I know because I've been in all those places. I started out as a kid in nice places, and by the end I was on GE, the equivalent of being supported by welfare. I was state sent to a custodial drug treatment center. At the time, that place was in a refurbished old folks home and if you didn't get with the program they would shave your head bald. It was gnarly. I read [A Million Little Pieces] and was kind of like, big fucking deal.
PM: To what extent were you guys on the team joined by music?
JA: I think we all had a common background whether we argued about it or not. Everybody with the exception of the people who had come from the outside had the common experience of growing up as teenage punk rockers. There wasn't anybody that said they grew up listening to Warrant. It wasn't like that. Most of us growing up in California had been into the same bands and been to the same clubs. Some people had met each other before or we could say, "Oh, I remember when I was 15 at this show," and we could be like, "Oh yeah, I was there too." We got into drugs in the same way. There was definitely a shared history, except for the people that had come from out of town. They didn't know what the hell was going on. You weren't going to be listening to Black Flag in the Appalachian hills, but you may have been listening to Iron Maiden and drinking moonshine, which is probably the same thing. It was a shared history. I don't think we would have kicked someone off the team for listening to something else, but we found each other because of that.
PM: One of the most important things to me about the book was finding community. Living in LA or any big city can be so isolating, but you guys managed to seek out your kindred and create a makeshift community.
JA: I don't think its unique to LA, but I do think its exaggerated here because of the way that people live. I can only guess at how people live in other cities. You can live here and not be in contact with people at all. I just think it's a fairly isolating place: geographically spread out, people in their cars. If everyone sees each other on a regular basis and someone veers off into the ether, you're really aware that they're gone and you can try and find them. For instance, when Dave Huffman overdosed, other than people he knew from playing baseball he didn't know anyone. So Mike was his friend through the team and went over to check on him and found him and saved his life. Otherwise he would have just laid there and died. He was really close. There was another friend of mine where the same thing happened. He overdosed and he fell over. He was sort of paralyzed. But because he had no friends after driving everyone away, he was just there for days. Supposedly he was in and out of consciousness but he couldn't move. He eventually died. They say that drug addiction is about isolation. One of the things I've always wondered is did he know at some point that if he had friends, someone would save him? The thing with Dave is that Mike came to look for him. He found him, took him to the hospital and just barely saved him. When you talk about this as a baseball team who saved one another, that's literally true in a couple of instances.
PM: You talk about baseball as being ultimately punk rock because it's the least punk rock thing you can do. What was the response to the baseball element of your book from the punk scene?
JA: I've been in contact with a lot of people that I knew from back in the '80s punk rock scene and we talk about that. I mean, punk rock means nothing now. It's sort of like the equivalent of being in the '80s and dressing like a '50s greaser. It's just been done and done so it has no teeth. There's nothing subversive about getting a Mohawk and walking around Silver Lake. When I was 16, if you got a tattoo, it was like, "What the fuck are you doing?" There was nobody doing that. [Now] everyone is covered in tattoos. It means nothing. Dyeing your hair pink means nothing. Putting a metal post through your nose doesn't mean anything.
Sincerity was the one thing that nobody was doing. At the same time we were starting the baseball team there was very tongue in cheek kickball league in Silver Lake. It was all very ironic and we were the opposite of that. We were so serious. We would practice and practice because we wanted to win. So yeah, in a world where little was subversive, being sincere was subversive. And might still be.