Sunday, December 09, 2007

BOOK REVIEW: Extremely Strange by JR Benson

FIRST things first, I’m mentioned by name on page 196 of Extremely Strange, the self-published autobiography of controversial indy wrestling manager JR Benson.

With that admission out of the way, let me say that this is the second-best wrestling book I’ve ever read (just behind Mick Foley’s Have A Nice Day).

I’ve known JR and his cohort in crime Peter Hinds for 15 years – mainly through the many videos they’ve sent me. I covered their backyard promotion CCW, which was an integral part of San Francisco promotions Incredibly Strange Wrestling and Extremely Strange Wrestling during the 90s, quite a bit in my zine Betty Paginated.

Reading Extremely Strange brought back a lot of great memories of ISW and ESW, which pushed the boundaries of good taste when it came to pro-wrestling (long before ECW and WWE did). You want examples?

* Wrestlers being revived by their valet peeing on them? Check.

* Valets being raped by heels? Check.

* A wrestling commissioner played by a drooling street bum called Paul E? Check.

* Tub-full-of-used-syringes match? Check.

* Wrestlers with such names as The Abortionist, The Rapist, The Great NAMBLA and Natural Born Molester? Check.

* Ultra-violent wrestling that included moments when even the fans were in danger of being hit by thrown objects? Check.

* Major drug use by wrestlers just before a match in full view of the fans? Check.

Any perversion you can think of was probably performed on tape in front of a crowd by the CCW crew involved with ISW and ESW. And the ringleader was the drug-scoffing, extreme violence-loving bump machine JR Benson.

This book is JR’s life story, interspersed with his thoughts on the national and international wrestling scene as he grew up.

Let me state for the record that JR is one damn entertaining writer. It took me a couple of weeks to plough through 420 pages of EXTREMELY SMALL TEXT, but I still didn’t want the book to end. That’s about as big a compliment as I can give any book.

JR’s wrestling upbringing hit a chord with me right from the start. He grew up watching old-school San Francisco wrestling, while I watched Jim Barnett’s WCW in Australia with Mario Milano, King Curtis and Mark Lewin.

His thoughts on the American wrestling scene in the 80s and 90s are eerily parallel to mine. An obvious example is that I always thought NWA blew away WWF. It was clear Flair was THE MAN, not Hogan. Of course, JR benefited by the fact he actually LIVED in the USA so he got to see NWA, AWA, WWF and many other groups live, which I never did growing up.

He was also obsessed with tape trading and wrestling sheets, same as me.

Of course, where JR and I differ is that I didn’t get involved in the business (beyond reporting on it) and I didn’t get into drugs. He did and it’s chronicled in loving detail in Extremely Strange.

He may have only been an indy wrestler, but JR did far more than most indy guys could ever dream of: He booked his own promotion, wrestled and managed a bunch of talented folk on the West Coast. He got to know people like Jim Cornette at Smoky Mountain (even working a few spot shows) and also hooked up with XPW and APW (certainly more high profile than most indy groups at that time). He got in the ring against such great talents as Sabu, Al Snow and Vic Grimes, and partied with the Sandman, New Jack, Chris Jericho and more.

Other reviewers seem to get hung up about JR’s enthusiastic drug, sex and hard-core wrestling violence stories. Personally, I found them fascinating – I’ve always wondered what drove hard-core wrestlers to destroy their bodies in such painful ways and JR gave me some interesting insights into the mindset of a “garbage wrestler”.

JR’s behind-the-scenes look at the politics and bullshit surrounding small promotions like APW and XPW are truly fascinating and make this book an essential read for any true fan of the business.

Now, don’t think I’m being 100% positive here. There are faults in Extremely Strange – a prudent editor at a proper publisher could’ve trimmed out a lot of the repetitive sentences and easily edited the book down to 300 pages without losing any of the juicy, meaty stories. And as much as I agree with his anti-Bush rhetoric, I didn’t think it was relevant to a wrestling book and probably could’ve been excised, too.

However, if the book WAS edited and legaled by a publisher, then 99% of JR’s anecdotes would have been cut out due to potential lawsuits. So I guess self-publishing – with all its inherent problems – was the only option.

Some of JR’s opinions and recollections made me raise my eyebrows, too. I saw all the ISW and ESW tapes – he raves about a lot of angles and matches as being groundbreaking or much better than they truly were. Having watched those matches, I came away with a COMPLETELY different opinion. ISW/ESW was crap, but it was entertaining crap. JR was a horrible wrestler, but he took an ungodly amount of punishment and I respect him for what he put his body through for his art.

Basically, this is JR’s story and he has the right to put whatever spin he wants on his life and wrestling career. Hey, it wouldn’t be a wrestling autobiography if he didn’t.

OK. Do I recommend Extremely Strange to wrestling fans? Absolutely…if you’re open-minded enough to deal with frank, at-times offensive (for some) views on drug use, violence, sex and politics. Conservative, anti-drug Christians should avoid this book like a plague.

Everyone else will find it a blast. How much is a work and how much is real is up to you to decide.

You can buy Extremely Strange direct from JR Benson at http://www.jrbenson.com/WhatsNewbook%20release.htm.

1 Comments:

Blogger fabulous heretic said...

Jesse Ventura was the man or, more completely, Jesse and Adrian Adonis were the men. At least they were my favourites in the eighties. The East West Connection rocked.

I do have a soft spot for Dusty Rhodes too, the only face I will admit to liking.

Flair did kick Hogan's butt as a wrestling entity, but I didn't like him. I still don't.

9:46 AM  

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