In the crowd at a middle-of-nowhere North Carolina show, an earnest and bearded young man approaches John Darnielle, the Mountain Goats frontman. The young man slides in next to Darnielle, briefly and respectfully praising his music. This is nothing new. Young men in dark rooms have been approaching Darnielle for a couple of decades, and Darnielle’s music has meant a great deal to thousands of us. What happens next, however, is new.
Darnielle, proud and moved, asks the young man if he’d like to take a picture together. Yes, absolutely, the young man would. He can’t do it yet, though. He has to get back to the locker room and grab his mask. The young man in question is Argus, a professional wrestler with a lizard-man character. And masked wrestlers will not allow themselves to be photographed without their masks.
When I reach him by email a couple of weeks later, Argus explains why he was so excited to meet Darnielle. Argus cites Darnielle’s 2005 song “This Year,” a song about pushing yourself to survive and endure, as playing “a pivotal role” in his wrestling training. He’d moved to a new city, left behind his family and his girlfriend, so that he could try to make it as a pro wrestler. In the past decade, “This Year” has become an anthem for people like Argus, people pushing themselves through difficult circumstances. But Darnielle didn’t write it as a vague, applicable-to-all rallying cry. He wrote it about life with an abusive stepfather — the same abusive stepfather who used to take him to wrestling shows at L.A.’s Olympic Auditorium, back in wrestling’s bloody, grimy, pre-Hulkamania days.
The Mountain Goats’ new album, Beat The Champ, is about the gladiators, masked and otherwise, whom Darneille would watch back in those days. It’s an album of beautifully observed, fleshed-out portraits of half-forgotten warriors and their mythic lives. Bruiser Brody, stabbed to death in a locker-room shower in Puerto Rico. The Shiek, terrifying audiences by throwing flames in his opponents’ faces, never breaking character. Underdog hero Chavo Guerrero, bringing justice to Darnielle’s life when Darnielle most needed it.
Beat The Champ is the reason we’re here, in a strip mall in rural North Carolina. Everything else in the mall seems to be a storefront churches, but the mall is home to the Mid-Atlantic Sportatorium, a small-time indie wrestling venue that, tonight, is playing host to a Philadelphia-based wrestling company called Chikara. It’s Darnielle’s first wrestling show in 35 years, and he is amped.
“This is awesome,” says Darneille, walking through the lobby and seeing the tables piled high with the wares that the wrestlers will sell at intermission: T-shirts, posters, masks, DVDs. “We had nothing like this. They hadn’t even figured out that you could sell things.” He’s just as agog when he sees the ring, with its lit-up entrance ramp and its banners hanging from the ceiling. If you’re used to seeing WWE stars wrestling in brightly lit hockey arenas, the Sportatorium setup is conspicuously low-tech — a few hundred charged-up fans crammed into a room barely big enough to accommodate them, an announcers’ table tucked into the corner, a bare-bones lighting rig trained on the ring and nothing else. There isn’t even a ring bell; a guy uses a laptop to simulate the sound. Compared to what Darnielle saw in the Olympic Auditorium as a kid, though, it’s quite a spectacle.
“They didn’t have a whole lot of security working there,” Darnielle remembers as he sits down for a BBQ tofu sandwich, in a college-town restaurant nearby, before the wrestling starts. “Me and other kids would wrestle in the hallways and just be totally unmolested. Nobody would bother you. After the matches were over, you’d jump into the ring, just climb up. Maybe somebody would come and chase you off. It was super working-class.”
Darnielle would get completely caught up in the drama, in the moralism of it. His stepfather would cheer for the bad guys, driving Darnielle nuts. He couldn’t understand why anyone would cheat to win. Baby-faced crowd favorites like Chavo Guerrero were his favorites. “[My stepfather] liked to upset me, pick my hero and just ridicule him constantly to see if it would get me upset,” says Darnielle. “It’s a really unhealthy relationship for your father-figure to have with you, but that was what he did … But at the same time, we were also bonding because he liked to go.”
This was pro wrestling’s so-called “territorial era,” when regional companies would run their low-tech TV shows on local TV and the occasional superstar would come in from out of town. Darnielle rapturously tells the story of the time Andre The Giant came to town, competing in a battle royal, a chaotic mass of wrestlers all trying to throw each other over the top rope and out of the ring. When the dust cleared, the last two wrestlers in the ring were Andre and Chavo, Darnielle’s hero. “They circle each other, and this tension’s rising. And at the exact same moment, they extend their hands, shake hands, and share the victory. I loved it! Everyone in the room except my stepfather loved it. My stepfather goes, ‘Ah, boo! Boo!’ Because he fucking hated that, he hated my good guys. But to me, it spoke to the good in the world — that the good guys want to share, they don’t want to fight. And it was the best. When Andre left the ring, you could run right up to him in those days. I reached up as high as I could, and he put out his enormous monster hand. I shook his hand, and my little hand vanished into his paw. It was the greatest thing ever!”
Darnielle stopped watching wrestling sometime around eighth grade, and he still feels bad about it. “I was starting to hang with kids who were really hip — older kids than me,” he says, “That was not something I was gonna put in front of these dudes. I was also into science fiction and fantasy. The fact that I was into unicorns and dragons? You know how important it is to not get off on the wrong foot with the people you respect in high school. You hide the stuff that’s important to you if it might possibly cause you friction, and that was me. I have a lot of shame about that. I sold out the unicorns.”
Darnielle didn’t even pay attention when the WWF’s commercial juggernaut got rolling, obliterating the country’s regional companies. “The marketing push behind that when it was fresh was so transparent,” he says. “But don’t waste an opportunity to see a performer like Randy Savage. That guy is a genius. It’s like if I told you Jimi Hendrix was playing with some very square band, you’d go see the band because it’s Jimi Hendrix.”
Darnielle will sometimes watch WWE TV now, but he’s mostly checked out of it. These days, pro wrestling looks basically nothing like the territorial-era blood-and-fire stuff that fascinated Darnielle as a kid. But the way Darnielle writes, he was almost destined to return to pro wrestling sooner or later. As a songwriter, Darnielle only rarely sings about himself in the first person. Instead, he’s drawn to subcultures, to tiny nurtured obsessions lurking in society’s shadows, to arcane passions. He’s sung movingly about undercard boxers, or about meth addicts longing for transcendence, or about teenagers forming imaginary death metal bands. For a songwriter like Darnielle, wrestling just makes sense.
“Songs are often character studies,” says Darnielle. “If you think of an imaginary wrestler, you can still dial into his character very clearly. Suddenly you get a lot of information about a wrestler whose gimmick is that he’s a werewolf. The story practically writes itself.” And on Beat The Champ, Darnielle tells that story. The song is called “Werewolf Gimmick,” and it’s got Darnielle howling, from the wrestler’s perspective, about wanting to annihilate everyone around him: “Get told to maybe dial it back backstage later on / Everyone still in this building right now, dead before the dawn!” At the wrestling show later in the night, bad-guy manager Sidney Bakabella proclaims that the Devastation Corporation, his team of hulking monsters, will beat up every fan in the building, and Darnielle hoots with delight.
Darnielle mostly isn’t singing from the perspective of the men and women portraying the wrestlers he watched in the ring. Instead, he’s singing as the characters themselves. He isn’t breaking the code of silence around wrestling. He’s taking wrestling’s imaginary reality at face value. And so he sings about the desperation that leads a good-guy character to turn bad, or about the bad-guy character’s desire to stab you in the eye with a foreign object.
It’s a powerful way to write about a group of people who often become their characters in ways that traditional actors never do. “I assume that if you’re working, that’s what you kind of sort of have to be doing,” says Darnielle. “You gotta own it. The best ones — Hulk Hogan believes in Hulkamania. It’s not a thing he’s selling here. It’s real. He knows it’s real because he goes to the Mall Of America and everybody goes insane, right? Wrestling is real. Those characters are real. The werewolf is real. He would kill everybody if he could. All my dudes believe in themselves on the record. None of them have anything to sell.”
That style of writing finds its most powerful expression in a song called “Animal Mask.” It’s a story song. One wrestler is in a battle royal, a chaotic brawl where there are 20 or more guys in the ring, all trying to throw each other out. He sees another wrestler in trouble. A bad guy is pulling at that wrestler’s mask, trying to reveal his face. Our hero goes to help, and a new tag team is born out of nothing: “I came to you, hands wrapped in adhesive tape. That was when we were young and green, in the dawning hours of our team. Some things you will remember. Some things stay sweet forever.”
It sounds like a love song, and so I ask Darnielle if that’s what it is. Darnielle confirms my suspicions, but it really goes deeper than that. “It’s about the labor and delivery room,” he tells me. “It’s about seeing your son for the first time. I mean, this is the sort of thing I would usually be coy about, but I’m proud of that song. I wrote it with my son on my lap. It’s about how they’re about to show you your son’s face and you feel this profound instinct to protect — to say, ‘Nobody gets to see you.’ It’s very intense. That’s the understatement of the year, to say it’s intense to be in the delivery room. But that’s what it’s about, that bond that you are forming a tag team, you are forming an alliance. And if you believe in a tag team when you’re watching wrestling, a good one, they feel like brothers. Even more than brothers. They feel like partners. And the word partner gains a depth that you might not have had from before.” Since Darnielle told me about what the song means, I haven’t been able to hear it without crying.
Beyond any symbolism, though, Darnielle is interested in wrestling itself as a subject, in the lives of the people who willingly face serious injury to perform for people every night, often with very little hope of making much money doing it. If you’re training to become a wrestler, you have to decide, on the very first day, that you are OK with the idea of waking up in pain every morning for the rest of your life. That takes a particular sort of person.
I start to say that it’s a rich world because wrestlers are crazy, and Darnielle stops me and corrects me. “Wrestlers give their bodies to their work,” he says. “I don’t know if I like the word crazy here. What I would say is there are people who have a different relationship to their bodies than most people. Your relationship to your body is so essential. If you have that sort of different relationship, maybe you are a different person from the rest. You’re kind of a star already. You’re living this different life.”
Darnielle mentions an aphorism he once heard: After seven or so years of doing some marginal thing, you are no longer employable in the rest of society. It’s something that musicians have in common with wrestlers. And wrestlers have an unashamed-of-themselves power, even beyond what most musicians wield, that Darnielle admires. “When wrestlers crank up a gimmick, they do something musicians are often afraid to do, and that is say something ridiculous and then keep saying it because it sounds right to you,” says Darnielle. “The more established you are, the less likely you are to do something ridiculous, which is one reason I’m proud to put out a wrestling album. If you stop and you go, ‘Well what if people don’t like it?,’ if you’re already established in what you do, that’ll strike fear into your heart. Often, you’re doing what people pay you to do, what they expect you to do. But wrestlers seem to be operating on the principle that it’s more important to make a character that’s unique and true to itself than it is for that character to sell immediately.”
This is an auspicious moment for Darnielle to make an album about wrestling. The Mountain Goats are, at this point, an indie institution, 15 albums and countless smaller records deep into a run that’s spanned more than two decades. It’s been three years since the Mountain Goats released their last album, 2012’s Transcendental Youth, but Darnielle has moved into other realms. Last year, he published a novel called Wolf In White Van a strange and powerful account of a hideously scarred young man wracked with guilt and of the byzantine mail-in fantasy card game he invented. This was Darnielle’s second novel; his first, a masterful story about a hesher dealing with the tyranny of psychiatric care, was the 33 1/3 installment on Black Sabbath’s Master Of Reality.
But Wolf In White Van is the book that moved Darnielle completely into the literary world. Far from being a moonlighting musician’s indulgent passion project, the book earned a ton of critical acclaim on its own merit. It was longlisted for a National Book Award and nominated for an L.A. Times Festival Of Books First Fiction prize. He’s already working on another novel. And Darnielle has traveled the world to promote Wolf In White Van, in a way he’s not used to doing. A few days before the Chikara show, Darnielle had returned from a book tour of Australia, and book tours are a whole different thing for him.
“It’s incredibly satisfying and you feel really honored and set and gratified,” says Darnielle. “But you don’t get the cathartic release of a music tour. Every night you play music, even at a bad show, you get release. Even if you played some show where people weren’t feeling you 15 years ago or whatever, you still got a thing. Book tour, everybody has a good time, but you never really get loose. You don’t get free.”
In any case, Beat The Champ is Darnielle’s first album since becoming an acclaimed author. And while Darnielle has charmed the literary world, it will be interesting to see if the literary world is ready for a song called “Hair Match.” But Darnielle isn’t just proud of Beat The Champ because making a wrestling album is a ridiculous and maybe counterintuitive thing for him to do. He’s proud of the album because it’s a great album, beautifully written and delicately recorded.
“We’re really proud of this record,” says Darnielle. “With this, I’ve been doing it long enough that [bassist Peter Hughes] was like, ‘I trust it’ll be good, but this seems like a big reach.’ But he’s so stoked because he loves this record more than any other record we’ve done, and it’s about something he knows nothing about.”
The album and the book tour aren’t the only things keeping Darnielle busy. He also has two small sons, one of them just a few months old, and he’s going through the withdrawal-from-the-world that new parents go through. Recently, he started occasionally reviewing movies for Slate, mostly so he’d have an excuse to get out of the house. So tonight’s wrestling show is a rare night out for a man who’s usually only out of the house when he’s working.
Chikara is one of a handful of thriving, touring indie wrestling companies in the U.S. Chikara wrestlers like Cesaro and Luke Harper have gone onto success in WWE, but the vast majority of the wrestlers who come through the company won’t perform before many crowds much bigger than the few hundred packed into the room in North Carolina. The company’s champion, an undersized technician named Icarus, does construction work when he’s not wrestling.
But Chikara has its own place in the wrestling landscape. It’s a company full of outsized and absurd characters, all thrown into byzantine and absurd and cartoonish plots. If you skip a couple of Chikara shows, the storylines can leave you completely befuddled. (Chikara sells videos of each individual show online for $10 a pop, so it’s possible to keep up, though it takes commitment.) Many of the wrestlers in the company wear lucha libre-inspired masks and have personas to match: An old-timey baseball player, a breakdancing snake-mummy, a whole team of ants. Darnielle is especially fond of the Proletariat Boar Of Moldova, whose ring gear includes both a boar mask and a tail.
The venue might be small and the storylines might flirt with silliness, but Chikara is a company with a devoted hardcore fanbase — many people in the crowd drove hours to get to the show — and a crew of wrestlers who work hard to entertain them. A handful of times during the show, Darnielle and I have to jump out of our second-row seats because we see one or more wresters preparing to launch themselves out of the ring, onto opponents on the floor. When that happens, the folding chairs go flying, and we see wrestlers lying in heaps at our feet. In the ring, they suplex each other, piledrive each other, drop each other on their heads, or flip onto each other from the top rope. Up close, it’s a much more exhilarating spectacle than it is on TV, and that’s partly because you can see, that much more clearly, how much work and athleticism goes into the show.
Darnielle eats the whole thing up. He cheers good guys and bad guys alike, laughs uproariously at the goofy gimmicks, and says, many times, how “awesome” the whole thing is. (He’s right. It is.) Before the main event, when fans surround the ring to pound the canvas in an ersatz drumroll — a Chikara tradition — Darnielle is right in there with them. He reserves special praise for the wrestlers who really look like they’re trying to hurt each other, like the towering Flex Rumblecrunch or the hard-hitting Princess KimberLee, the only woman in an eight-person match. (She wins it.)
At intermission, those of us in the crowd stumble into the lobby to see the wrestlers, in full character, doing everything they can to sell us their T-shirts. Sometimes, the hustle is elaborate, as when Viking warrior Oleg The Usurper pulls you in close to ask what tribe you hail from, and only later asks if you’d like to purchase a garment bearing his likeness. Sometimes, their sales pitches are simple to the point of rudeness. “Hey man, buy my shirt,” the surly heel Pinkie Sanchez barks at Darnielle. Darnielle obliges. “I know how much it sucks to go home to a full basement full of unsold merch,” he says. Also, he likes that Sanchez looks like Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett.
During intermission, Darnielle strikes up an immediate kinship with Ultramantis Black, a masked wrestler who released an album of militant-vegan power-violence on Relapse last year. (Darnielle, a huge metalhead, immediately perks up upon learning that one of the wrestlers on the card has a record out on Relapse.) During their conversation, Darnielle learns that Ultramantis is a fan of his, and that a few of the other wrestlers are fans as well. By the end of the show, Darnielle and Ultramantis are posing for pictures together, and Darneille is promising to guest-list Mantis when the Mountain Goats come to Philadelphia later in the year. Darnielle can’t help but be overjoyed at the idea that wrestlers like his music.
— UltraMantis Black ? (@UltraMantis) March 8, 2015
When the show is over, Darnielle seems nearly dizzy with joy, and he’s already talking about coming back to the next Chikara show in North Carolina. But he sees profound differences between the Chikara show and the wrestling he grew up watching. “There are no marks anymore,” he says. “When I was a kid, at least half of the people in the room would believe that what they were seeing was real — or, anyway, that it was real enough.”
It’s a crucial distinction. At this point, when people watch wrestling, they’re in on it, enjoying it on a purely show-business level. The young Darnielle didn’t approach it like that. Wrestling was grand and mythic, and there were emotional stakes involved. “When you’re actually a kid, even if you know it’s fake, you’re buying it,” says Darnielle. “You’re a mark. You’re buying it completely. I hated the bad guys because I couldn’t understand their motivation. Why would you want to do wrong? I couldn’t understand it! … I could understand a guy who turns wrong because he can’t win or something. But there were guys whose whole philosophy was ‘cheat!’ This was super basic to me.”
And wrestling — even the small-time local variety of it that Darnielle grew up watching — was premised on the idea that these bad guys would eventually lose. Good would prevail. On “The Legend Of Chavo Guerrero,” a Beat The Champ song about Darnielle’s childhood hero, he puts things like this: “Before a black-and-white TV in the middle of the night / I’m lying on the floor, I’m bathed in blue light / The telecast is in Spanish. I can understand some / And I need some justice in my life. Here it comes.” Professional wrestling has plenty of connotations in the world, and most of them are bad. But it persists because some of us will always need justice in our lives.
Beat The Champ is out 4/7 via Merge.
[Photos by Rachel Bridges/Stereogum.]