by Camarillo “Carl” Brillo
Being of a certain age, I’ve seen a lot of history through the voyeuristic eye of television. The era in which I was glued to the TV, cable’s infancy and network’s midlife crisis, definitely taught us that the lines between legitimate history and pop culture can definitely blur. We saw shuttles explode, TV dynasties end, the Wall crumble, the King of Pop ignite, a President shot, and Dennis Franz nude. Among one of the biggest pop spectacles in this timeframe was the explosion of pro wrestling.
For some of us pro wrestling is a pleasant distant memory, and for others of us it is the bedrock upon which we built a lifelong interest. We were taught to value spectacle, to suspend disbelief, and the power of drama to stoke emotional response. Now as we all grew up and found “the good life,” in the most unlikely of company we trade memories and share smiles based on a common lexicon of names. Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, Superfly Snuka, Ultimate Warrior… the list continues. Among the higher tier is a wrestler no one could forget. His face, his character, and his shtick are fondly recalled; Jake “the Snake” Roberts.
On the night of Monday January 6, 2014 most of the United States TV viewing audience was split between the BCS football championship and the premier of a new season of ABC’s The Bachelor. Yet there remained many of us who were peeking in to watch WWE RAW. That night’s program was a celebration of nostalgia, history, and former superstars (affectionately entitled Old-School RAW). These nights are regular occurrences during which the WWE parades out both its newest stars and a handful of the past masters upon whom their sports entertainment empire was built. It serves as a treat for the longtime fans and an introduction for the new fans to the titans that built the industry.
At the end of January’s Old School RAW a very special moment occurred that carried great significance to me personally. Without irony or snark I can say it was as significant to me as the moon landing or announcement of the SEAL led assassination of Bin Laden; Jake “the Snake” Roberts made a surprise live appearance . Before you roll your eyes in suspicion that this is just hyperbole, take a moment to consider who Jake was at his peak and what he had become of him in the interim between that initial glory and his reemergence on RAW.
Born Aurelian Smith Jr., Jake Roberts was old-school even in the days when everyone was old-school. He represented a look and physique that screamed “truck-stop tough” versus steroid-sculpted gym rat. At 6 foot 6 inches, he towered over fans, looking more like a Hell’s Angel than a beloved athlete. A natural character that relied upon intimidation, he utilized icy stares and psychology to thrill fans instead of an over-the-top B-movie acting method. He was a natural but it didn’t come easily. Jake was raised in incredibly poor conditions by his grandparents in Texas. He had poor relationships with his birth parents and the situation he was brought into. His father was a pro wrestler with an amateur southern promotion (who wrestled as Grizzly Smith), but was functionally absent from Jake’s early life. However, the exposure to wrestling made it a part of Jake from birth. Unfortunately so were addiction and dysfunction.
In an interview for the WWE documentary Pick Your Poison, Jake admits quite matter-of-factly that his home life and upbringing taught him emotional isolation, distrust of men, wariness to trust women, and the habit of coping via substance abuse. By high school graduation, he planned on following his father’s career in wrestling, but was determined to do it his way. Jake wanted away from the poison atmosphere at home. He had seen the business first hand, had charisma, owned an impressive build, and was both clever and professional. These traits found him early work.
Escaping from beneath his father’s professional shadow and negative personal influence, he entered the amateur circuit part-time. Once severely injuring his arm he left the business to work as a farmhand. It is said that the legendary Harley Race was the one who encouraged him to return to the ring. Jake decided to try it again, and his early work was split between the Mid-South and Mid-Atlantic promotions. Along the way Jake was working with other men who would become the cornerstones of the modern WWE. His act was leaving positive impressions with promoters and talent; connections that would pay off in the future. As he travelled he honed his intense psychological, mysterious personae as well as his signature finishing move, the DDT (a move that was the combination of an aborted suplex and pile driver). The DDT, a move that looks and sounds as brutal as anything wrestling has ever presented, is a joyful memory among wrestling’s super-fans.
Living on the road, without a solid emotional touchstone to call home, Jake started developing the rituals that would become full-fledged demons later in his life. The alcoholism and substance abuse were becoming a well known part of Jake the man, even among the hard-living wrestling rosters. Yet, he remained a professional in the ring, and the menace his character brought to any angle was alluring to both fan and promoter. Excuses and blind eyes enabled Jake to live his dual life of sober, calculating competitor and self-destructive drunk.
In spite of his alcoholism, success was finding Jake. Fast forward to 1986 when Jake debuted for Vince McMahon facing “Leaping” Lanny Poffo. It is hard to recognize this as a debut match in retrospect. Throughout it Jake was showcasing a natural wrestling style, honed move set, impeccable timing, and a soft-spoken threatening demeanor that made him an instant star. His debut not only taught the WWF fans what a DDT was but also served to introduce Jake’s other signature finishing trick. After the match’s conclusion, Jake would unleash an enormous python named Damien on his unconscious foe. We as fans were hooked, and Jake immediately was pushed on every WWE program and product.
Another heirloom from Jake’s father was having dedication to the art of kayfabe, which in staged events (like pro wrestling) means selling an unreal situation even beyond the performance. For instance, if a storyline results in a wrestler having their neck seriously injured by a rival, the wrestler will often wear a neck brace in public until the plot is resolved (or surreptitiously dropped, which happens nearly as often). The dark, brooding character of The Snake was slowly becoming Jake Roberts the man, and vice versa. For the sake of kayfabe, Jake was becoming the demon.
In retrospect, his personal demons continued to gain control over Jake parallel to his in-ring character’s drift into a more devilish personae. Before the Undertaker premiered, Jake was THE horror show on the WWE roster. Absent of humor and rarely jobbed to help get another worker over, Jake walked a strange path between “face” and “heel.” He was loved by fans despite his motives, and never did anything truly villainous. Jake was to WWE what Jim Morrison was to rock and roll.
Even Jake’s plots and feuds were a touch more bizarre than the usual angles. One of the first and most memorable was a feud with Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat. To sell the feud, writers had Steamboat begin to haul what was allegedly a komodo dragon around as his pet. This rivalry included a match where each eventually used their “pets” as weapons, and ended with a ringside DDT into concrete that could have killed Steamboat. The dragon was a fake but the DDT was real, and Steamboat needed medical attention.
Jake rumbled with many of the era’s the greats including the Heenan Family’s Rick Rude. Rude tried to woo Jake’s ringside wife (his real wife, not an actress) only to get slapped, which led to Rude roughing her up and Jake running in to save the day. This feud was punctuated by Rude premiering airbrushed tights with her face on them, and Jake ripping them off of him in ring. With Jake as straight man to Rude’s clown, this was probably one of the best feuds of the Snake’s early career. Jake even went toe to toe with Andre himself. This angle was based around the maybe-not-so-fictional fear of snakes that affected the Giant. Another angle had him being blinded by Rick Martel squirting Arrogance perfume in his eyes. Another storyline was centered on his quest to avenge the death of Damien who was squashed by the obese Earthquake. Then there was the time Damien made a meal out of Randy “Macho Man” Savage, taking a long bloody bite from his arm.
None of these rivalries would equal the intensity of Jake’s real life struggle with chemical dependency. During a live taping Jake took a nasty bump when Honky Tonk Man attacked him with real guitar (not a prop). The blow damaged vertebrae in his neck and started an exposure to prescription pain killers that grew into yet another abuse. Trouble in his marriage and unchecked fame also fueled his partying habits. By 1992 Jake’s career started to show cracks. Atop concerns that his abuse and unpredictable behavior was threatening to put opponents in peril, there were also behind-the-scenes professional fireworks. Jake had always wanted to be writer, and to use his largely overlooked intelligence to develop new talent. Such a job came open, and Jake was assured he’d be up for it. To Jake’s confusion the job was not extended to him.
At about this same time there was a failed push related to the Ultimate Warrior, who flaked out on the WWE and left Jake dangling and embarrassed. Feel unappreciated and used, Jake left the WWE. Soon he was unemployed and wrestling with the bottle, sex addiction, and his broken family life. He eventually migrated to match blows with luchadors in a Mexico City based promotion. Somewhere during this time Jake did what many addicts at rock bottom do; he found God and made getting sober a metaphysical crusade.
Returning to the WWE, the writing staff made no delay in incorporating his sincere religious reconciliation into a gimmick. He became a face who thumped a Bible. The problem that arises in most media involving a “born-again” character is that the story development inevitably leads to either an exposure of hypocrisy or the lampoon of morality. Wrestling was no different. Instead of celebrating Jake turning his back on addiction and destructive lifestyles, the WWE used him as a goody two-shoes to help push heels and rebellious anti-heroes. This made both Jake’s fictional and real life over-turned leaf a running joke. At the angle’s nadir Jake’s foes were mocking his alcoholism on screen and reportedly harassing him about it through backstage pranks. On one occasion a downed Jake was to have prop whisky poured on his face. The talent decided instead to use real whisky.
The culmination of Jake’s struggle to comeback was his rivalry with then up-and-coming talent “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. The new Godly Jake (his snake was even named Revelations at this time) was beaten easily by Austin through no lack of dastardly gamesmanship. Once victorious, Austin mocked Jake’s Bible quoting and gave the now stomach-turning but then fortune-making “Austin 3:16″ speech. Austin became the new fan favorite, the Attitude Era had begun, and Jake was a man without a country. It served as a bizarre bookend to his WWE career, as his biggest rocket to popularity was as a villain against the then face Honky Tonk Man (as he puts it “switching places” in the fans’ minds).
Unable to find a foothold within the new flavor of programming, Jake turned back to the darkness. In the days before ubiquitous internet gossip and with few wrestling magazines willing to fully break kayfabe, Jake seemed to seemingly disappear. In many ways this is exactly what happened. Jake was poisoned by addiction and he just started to fade into the scenery. His whole life had cultivated the ideal soil for failure, and it was time to harvest. Unable to relate to home life, Jake was cycling through being absent, then present but fighting with his wife and children, then absent again. He lacked the emotional tools to navigate the waters of relationships. The family unit crumbled and Jake felt as if he had been abandoned once again. The substance abuse accelerated beyond the usual backslide into alcoholism and Jake turned to harder drugs. Jake was self medicating with everything except heroin by his own admission.
It wasn’t until the heartbreaking 1999 documentary Beyond the Mat was released that the world knew how low Jake had fallen. Director Barry Blaustein, as part of his behind-the-curtain look into the world of professional wrestling, found Jake wrestling in the Midwest. He was doing assorted indie shows and allegedly addicted to crack cocaine. He was completely estranged from both his family and dedicated fans. For those who put performers like Jake on a pedestal it was soul-crushing to see him stumbling, incoherent, and unable to make or maintain commitments. During Beyond the Mat there is a staggering scene where Jake wanders off to smoke crack rather than attempt to make any sort of human connection or emotional commitment to his own daughter. Jake was at rock bottom. And while this documentary may have manufactured a completely grim reality, the impact was strong enough that the Jake on Blaustein’s screen was the Jake we now knew. Fragments of this Jake are present in the lauded The Wrestler; another influence Jake had on the world, and one he’d surely rather have avoided.
Oddly connected to the times, Jake was once made legendary as the playful public at large welcomed pro wrestling, and later fell from grace at a time when the culture had become cynical and instead labeled wrestling as low-brow. America in the 90’s loved to see celebrities fall, having watched televangelists, actors/actresses, athletes, mayors, musicians (Milli Vanilli anyone?), and even a President stumble and become sardonic punch lines. The audience was bloodthirsty and full of mean spirits. By the time Kurt Cobain killed himself America had grown suspect of celebrity and weary of the famous. We demanded their stories to end badly for our entertainment. We attacked the mainstream and anything we declared “old” with venom and vitriol. Humor became more edgy and sarcasm became the lingua franca.
We entered the new millennium and Jake the Snake was dead. And the public at large either pretended to not know who he was, or laughed at his obituary.
Rarely recognized is the fact that the role of “guilty party” in an addicts self destructive behavior is shared by both the bad personal choices of the addict themselves and the careless enabling by others. As fans and hard-hearted spectators we enabled Jake’s decline. We wanted him to be darker. We mocked the craft he took seriously. We reveled in the fall, even wanting the fall to be harder. We mocked any attempts at correction. No one was reaching down to pull Jake back out of the grave.
By the end of 2000’s first decade, Jake was in and out of WWE funded rehab. He was making slow progress but lacked a rudder to truly steer him out of the dark waters he was used to sailing in. Everyone was cautious with Jake, and the general expectation was a full relapse was always imminent. Until “Diamond” Dallas Page intervened.
Page, a former wrestling star himself, had reemerged as a dedicated practitioner of yoga. His positivity, and belief in the potential for healing through healthy life choices and regular yoga, led him to take Jake under his wing. Page reportedly moved Jake in with him, and got to work saving not the wrestling career of The Snake, but the life of Aurelian Smith Jr.; the human being under the darkness. A new order of business was established: get into rehab, become involved in AA, get back into physical shape, and unify the process of healing of soul and body through yoga.
It is said, to Page’s credit, that Jake was submitted to regular drug tests, curfews, and even given a zero-tolerance ultimatum. Not enough can be said for Page’s dedication in resurrecting Jake. When working with patients with addictions and mental disorders tremendous patience is needed. The saying goes that a dog will return to its vomit, and addicts are often no different. Jake was a man who had poor coping mechanisms, tendencies for abuse bred into his DNA, a tendency to feel victimized, and plenty of reasons to want to disappear. He was a man possessed, used, forgotten, and discarded. Yet Page reached out, stuck with him, and focused him on not only the goal of “The Big Return” but to live life again.
Two years later, January 6, 2014 on Old-School RAW, Jake the Snake Roberts strode out of the curtains for a “run in” during the closing moments of the main event. At home, completely unaware Jake was to appear, I had just stood to turn the TV set off. The end was anti-climatic for me and I had only tuned in for two reasons: because it was Old-School night and as a last hurrah for live wrestling because I had ordered our cable to end service. Then Jake’s entrance music started as I stood, and hairs on the back of my neck followed suit. Surely this wasn’t Jake? McMahon wouldn’t gamble like this would he? If so, wouldn’t it be pure exploitation? Would he even look like himself enough not to bum everyone out? However, Page had been on earlier, so maybe…
The crowd fell nearly silent when his music was cued. It sounded familiar, but no one placed it right away, perhaps refusing to believe (just as I had) until the video monitors give it away; Jake is back. Along with the New Age Outlaws (an Attitude Era tag-team that were supporting CM Punk at ring side), Jake helped clear the ring of The Shield (a new-school wolf pack of heels), even dumping a new Damien from a bag onto an unconscious Dean Ambrose. The joy of Jake’s triumphant surprise return broke kayfabe in every way. Three generations of WWE wrestling stars in the ring, a man back from the dead, a crowd losing its mind, and a “KO’d” Ambrose smiling ear to ear as Damien coils around him.
So, why does Jake “The Snake” Roberts matter?
Because it is true redemption. It is a tale as old as stories; a hero falls from grace and walks the hard road of redemption back into the spotlight. Because it teaches us the importance of reaching out to those in worse situations than ourselves and lending a hand. Because it demonstrates that demons of all sizes can be defeated. Because it reminds us that these idolized personalities are more than stage characters, but are real human beings with the same faulty wiring we all have. Because it reminds us of the traps and snares that come along with fame, and that by overvaluing fame we also overvalue empty living. Because in a sport with an unnatural amount of tragedy, untimely deaths, and cautionary tales Jake’s own recovery proves that the “crash” is not inevitable.
Jake matters because his story reminds us that time is short, that every year wasted cannot be recaptured, and the time for positive change is always “now.” Because it reinforces that sobriety matters, and that we should not be celebrating chemical abuse. Because it digs our purest memories, those of our childhood heroes, out of the mud and reminds us they aren’t fraudulent. Because it teaches us trust; that sometimes good truly does defeat evil and that people can change. Because it teaches us the value of hard work in overwhelming situations. Because it casts a spotlight on the importance of family and friends, and how a solid network of loved ones can help anchor us in life’s storms.
But most importantly, Jake matters because his return gives us, as a culture, an opportunity for redemption for ourselves. Jake’s return is giving us a chance to apologize and atone for enabling the spectator sport of celebrity implosion. No more rewarding antisocial and destructive behavior. No more death pools. No more tasteless jokes about dead celebs. No more shaky cell phone videos on TMZ. No more sharing mug shots. Let’s celebrate life and the triumph over the demons that lurk in the shadows of life, ready to consume each and every one of us. We should be encouraging one another to become better human beings. We need to let each other know they matter, and work to make our own lives matter as well.
Congrats Jake, please keep up the good work, and thank you for using your second chance to give us a one as well. You, Jake the Snake Roberts, matter.
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