My feelings toward the act of writing run hot and cold. The cold is existential dread. With interviews, it is quite the opposite. If I could spend half the day in conversation—walking around or sitting on a riverbank or sharing a meal—and read for the other half of the day, I would be the happiest camper. Other but not all writers feel this way.
Ahead of an interview, no matter who it is, I feel first-date nerves—good nerves. When things are going well, I let the conversation meander and carry on too long. I am not in control. I even like transcribing (it’s true!) and the opportunity it provides to revisit, to pick up on whatever I might have missed in the moment. I savor whittling a transcript down into something consumable, into something that honestly mirrors the voice of its subject.
In embarking upon this series for The PDXX Collective, I’ve humbly borrowed my title from the late Studs Terkel, to whom we storytellers, we who value the preservation of all voices, owe such a great debt. Acknowledging that I’m no Studs Terkel, still I intend to use this space to introduce the voices of friends, acquaintances, and passing strangers—some you will have heard of; most, not.
I’ll begin with a friend. Jason Ellis, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is a walking encyclopedia on heavy metal and horror, a metal singer, a radio host, a DIY music promoter, and a longtime volunteer at the Milwaukee Women’s Center (for whom he also organizes an annual fundraiser, DIY vs. Domestic Abuse). The conversation that follows is not new; in fact, it’s one of the first interviews I ever conducted. Having been assigned a short profile piece for a class a few years ago, my original subject fell through and I had nerves—bad nerves—until Jason agreed to fill in at the zero hour. The dude is smart, hilarious, a true brother—and once upon a time he tried his hand at professional wrestling.
Jason: I was seven when I first saw WWF. I was completely enthralled. I would read TV listings to see if there was any weird off-brand wrestling, like WCCW out of Texas, guys you never heard of, guys who were scrubs… I would be up on it. I think the first reason I ever got a job was because my mom stopped giving me money for wrestling magazines.
EP: You’ve said you fully bought into it when you were a kid—as many of us did. When did you realize it was fake?
Jason: I think I was probably thirteen or fourteen years old—a little later in life than when most people stop believing in wrestling. When we were growing up, me and [my brother] Chris would have pretend wrestling matches, and then we realized that, Oh, we can’t do a lot of this stuff. And I think it was when I started getting into more intensive, actual gym classes and weight training, I realized these 200 lb. guys who were in really good shape could not easily pick up a 100 lb. guy and throw him over his head.
For years [the promoters] tried to work under the guise that it was real—and the punches are real—but it’s all choreographed: it’s definitely as much of a dance as it is fighting.
EP: You’re not terribly disillusioned, though.
Jason: There are points in time when I take breaks away from it… This is super dorky, but when I revisit it now, it’s like it’s new to me. There are guys I didn’t know about. Storylines I didn’t know about.
EP: Do you watch the current stuff at all?
Jason: I’m not interested in the newer stuff, even though some of the guys I like still work.
Basically, [WWE promoter] Vince McMahon did the worst thing he could—he got rid of all the competition. He drained the pond. He’s the biggest fish in a pond with no water. There’s no other promotion to bring wrestlers over from. There’s no place to develop, to work on new characters. He’s developing a lot of his characters from scratch. It used to be you’d have guys work their way up over a year, or two years, or three years to become a champion. Now it’s like four months. When you’re really young and nobody has any idea what sort of character you are, you haven’t earned your position. Right now there’s a lot of really young, really green guys who don’t know what they’re doing. And the writers are not any good, everything is like two steps off.
EP: You wrestled for a little while in your twenties…
Jason: I trained for about six weeks. I wasn’t good. I couldn’t figure out how to do it. Doing a handstand off someone’s shoulders is kinda weird.
I’d seen this guy Mike at a few indie promotions. He came up and asked if I wanted to wrestle. Mike trained quite a few guys that turned out to be pretty good. One thing that Mike always taught was the ethics of wrestling. How to be respectful to your opponent. Like, if somebody put you over—
Jason: If somebody let you win—you should thank them, buy them a beer afterward. I haven’t wrestled for eleven years, but there’s a guy [from those days] that works at Taco Bell—he immediately recognizes me and I get fed like an alleycat.
Anyway, we did this weekend of shows out of town. There was a girl Mike trained who was maybe two inches away from being a little person, with size G or H breasts. How the night went—Marty [another trainer] comes up and says, “We want you to get in the ring and say a bunch of sexist stuff. She’ll confront you, roll you up, and pin you for three.” Well, my character’s not sexist, and I’m not sexist. So Marty threw me a Mexican wrestling mask, and I go out there—the guy in the mask goes out there and says a bunch of sexist stuff. “Girls shouldn’t be allowed to get driver’s licenses”—stuff like that. She comes out, I swing—like a Three Stooges swing—and she rolls me up and pins me.
The next day he asks if I want to do that again. I figure sure, why not? Then this big guy Danny shows up, wanting to be on the card. Marty decides to pair Danny up with the girl. I’m supposed to push the girl, then Danny’ll get in the ring, bodyslam me, and she’ll pin me. But instead of a bodyslam he does a piledriver—drops me on my head.
Mike saw what happened and he chewed Danny a new one. He asks me if I’m okay, points at the Motel 6 sign down the street and says “Go back to your room, but don’t go to sleep.” I decide I’m just gonna lay down until they all get back, and then we’ll all go to the bar. I woke up with a splitting headache and my pillow was wet. I thought maybe it was drool, but actually I was bleeding out of my ear. When Mike got back I told him I quit. I’d just wrestled those two times.
EP: Who are some of your all-time favorite wrestlers?
Jason: As a kid, I thought Jake the Snake was awesome. In terms of actual wrestling ability, Sean Michaels and Jericho were both unbelievable. Rowdy Roddy Piper was the first ultra-villain. He was aggressively unpopular, intentionally abrasive. A bully that everyone liked. And Mick Foley was selfless: he did a match where he lost a portion of his ear, then he got stitched up and did another match the next night.
There are times I still think it would be awesome to be a wrestler.