Jake 'The Snake' Roberts turns his baggage into healing performance art
By Dominic Griffin
Aug 23, 2016 | 8:25 PM
The physical attrition of flesh and bone colliding with canvas is no longer a part of legendary pro wrestler Jake "The Snake" Roberts' performative repertoire, but the iconic grappler's seated storytelling show is no less a grind. If, in the past, seeing Roberts live meant watching him abuse his body for the entertainment of wrestling fans, many of whom know full well the predetermined nature of their favored pastime, then these days, he bears his soul on the stage telling stories of his wrestling career, addictions, and the long road he's taken to recovery.
"I like doing [the show] night after night," Roberts says over the phone. "You get into a rhythm. I guess I kinda flashback to the old days, when I was working every night. I understood it back in the day, because you didn't want the soreness to set in, so you kept beating yourself up and beating yourself up."
Roberts sounds so different now. He still speaks with a low, rumbling timbre that hypnotizes as easily as it can discomfit. But there's a levity to his voice that no longer has to fight through gruff layers to make its presence known. He comes across as weary and world traveled as you might imagine, though there's something comforting bubbling underneath, like hearing your uncle tell you a story having just woken from an afternoon nap.
Born Aurelian Smith Jr., Roberts has been beating himself up for quite some time. His professional wrestling career spanned five decades and the pedigree of his opponents reads like a Wikipedia entry of the fictional sport's greats. He's had marquee feuds with men like Rick Rude, Andre The Giant and Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat. He's known for having innovated one of wrestling's most inspired finishing moves in the DDT—a swift symphony of high impact offense where an opponent's head is held in a front face lock before being unceremoniously driven into the mat with a marksman's precision. It's the kind of maneuver that's been getting little boys in trouble for injuring their younger brothers for years.
But the one thing that stands out among his many accomplishments is his unique approach to storytelling. Roberts' singular knack for working a microphone has made him one of the pantheon's most influential characters. His laconic, deliberate delivery grabbed the attention of audiences in a way few performers have managed since. In the landscape of 1980s WWF (now WWE), with Vince McMahon's preponderance of colorful superhero characters in the mold of Hulk Hogan, Jake "The Snake" was a chilling presence in the ring. When he began to speak, an arena's temperature seemed to drop a few degrees. He didn't need to shake the ropes like The Ultimate Warrior or spout coked out glossolalia like The Macho Man. Roberts could make your blood run cold by diction alone.
A simple YouTube search of "Jake The Snake Greatest Promo All Time" will paint a quicker picture of Roberts' ability to pontificate better than words ever could. Listening to him at Wrestlemania VI explain to "Mean" Gene Okerlund how he's going to humble "The Million Dollar Man" Ted DiBiase resonates like a melodramatic rendition of Cormac McCarthy prose wherein Roberts promises wrestling's ultimate capitalist he'll be a victim of his own greed, wallowing in the muck of avarice. As Okerlund puts it, "Longfellow couldn't have said it better."
Appropriately, Roberts is frequently quoted on @WrestlingPoetry, a Twitter account that takes wrestler speeches and breaks them up into lines revealing their stubby poetics. A recent one: "Sometimes I get so mad inside/ that I just want to spit out fire/ or something."
Damian, the giant snake that accompanied him to the ring and horrified his enemies, was just icing on the cake. As part of the many mind games Roberts would play with his foes, letting the fifteen-foot leviathan writhe around their fallen bodies was perhaps the most iconic. Back in 2004, Roberts was accused of letting the python starve to death, but there was never one "Damian," rather a series of rented snakes hired to stand in as Roberts' trusty sidekick. In point of fact, Roberts hated and was deathly afraid of snakes. Such is the consuming deceit of kayfabe.
In the years since his heyday, Roberts suffered through a procession of very public setbacks—and that hard-living second act was always told through someone else's perspective. Director Barry Blaustein's infamous 1999 documentary "Beyond The Mat" highlighted Roberts' addiction to drugs and alcohol as well as his inability to connect with his eldest daughter, Brandy. Roberts has publicly denounced the film for showing him in such a negative light, given that one of the key interviews used was taped directly after he had smoked crack cocaine. The footage is rather damning, having since been blatantly repurposed as the inspiration behind Darren Aronofsky's 2008 film, "The Wrestler." The year that Oscar hopeful was released, a video of Roberts performing while drunk at a Cleveland indie show went viral, showing him at one of his lowest points.
Diamond Dallas Page, a former wrestler given second life as the founder of DDP Yoga, a wellness program that's struck fire within the industry, saw this video and decided to pay back one of his mentors. Page moved Roberts into his own home to help him lose weight and get clean, which formed the basis for Steven Yu's documentary "The Resurrection of Jake Roberts," currently streaming on Netflix. The film plays as a more hopeful sequel to "Beyond The Mat," in that it ultimately provides a happier ending, though it doesn't shy from the troubles along the way.
Most importantly, "The Resurrection of Jake The Snake" chronicles a key shift in Roberts' career. Professional wrestling is essentially one big con on the spectators who participate in the illusion. He's always been a gifted at this specific brand of storytelling, but at the low end of alcoholism, he'd begun telling those tales to his friends and family rather than his fans.
"Addiction will lie to you," Roberts says. "It'll tell you you're not worthy and you don't deserve it."
In the film, we watch Jake lie to Page, Yu and the other cohabitants of The Accountability House, going so far as to palm a pair of Antabuse capsules to avoid having to admit that he's relapsed. It's the kind of sleight of hand that made him such a capable performer in the ring, but watching that aptitude for deception ravage those closest to him is more painful than any of the bumps he's taken over the years. Anyone familiar with addiction, either as an addict or an addict's loved one, will have difficulty getting through to the light at the end of the film's tunnel, but the journey is a necessary one. In wrestling, you've got to see the babyface in serious peril for his eventual victory to hold any real meaning. Roberts has spent the last 20 years with his back pinned to the mat, but he has kicked out just in time.
"I've got so many stories to tell," Roberts says. "They're so funny and so crazy and they need to be shared, but I could never have done this drunk."
Since getting sober, Roberts has done upward of 60 shows, many in smaller venues, like bars. He sees it as an opportunity to give back to the fans who crowdfunded his shoulder surgery and who supported him through the dark years. In some ways, he's gone from everyone's favorite wrestler to their favorite sponsor. The open dialogue about sobriety more often than not leads to some helpful after-show conversations: "If you want to talk to me after the show about what you're going through, I'll be glad to hang out and talk to you. There's always someone who wants to talk."
While his in-ring persona was always a foreboding one, the newly inspirational tenor of Roberts' reliable rasp suits him. "There's hope for all of us," he says. "Not just me."
Although at 61, Roberts will probably never step foot in a wrestling ring as a competitor again, events like these speaking engagements keep him going and give him clarity. And this particular avenue has become something of a family business as well. Roberts' daughter Brandy, the one he struggled so hard to form a relationship with in "Beyond The Mat," handles his bookings for the live shows. It's allowed him to spend more time with her and the rest of his kids, as well as his grandchildren. It's a pleasant change of pace for Roberts.
"It feels good to be wanted," he says. "You know, not stalked or chased, but wanted. To have people want you in their home."