In the early days of Southern California’s hardcore punk explosion, John Albert went to Arizona with his friends in the Orange County band the Adolescents. Being a roadie in those days meant riding in the back of the truck with the amps and the equipment. After they drove across the desert for eight hours, a brawl broke out at the gig. Albert locked himself in the dressing room, gathered up all the deli platters and booze, and climbed out the window. The show may have been a bust, but thanks to Albert’s quick thinking, they had sandwiches and beer for the long ride home.
As a teenager, Albert threw himself into the L.A. punk scene, where he made many of his lifelong friends. In an essay about seeing Black Flag for the first time, he wrote about the suffocation of suburban ennui. “I have cut my hair short and can’t stop smashing windows.”
Musician Ben Harper, who grew up next door to Albert and was four years his junior, witnessed the transformation: “I’ll never forget the first time I saw his Mohawk spiked to the moon. It was as if he had landed from outer space.”
A beloved participant in and observer of the L.A. underground, Albert died of a heart attack May 3. He was 58. His death was confirmed by his brother, Jesse.
Albert grew up in Claremont, the youngest of two children. His father, Robert S. Albert, was a professor of child psychology at Pitzer College and his mother, Julie Maehling Albert, was a social worker at Loma Linda University. From an early age, John Albert was drawn to a side of L.A. that others didn’t appreciate or could even see. Wherever he went, others followed.
As a musician, he played an important role in L.A.’s punk rock scene as a co-founder of the influential Goth-punk band Christian Death, which he formed with Roger Alan Painter, a.k.a. Rozz Williams, in late 1979. “Christian Death started in our garage,” said Jesse.
“Jay Albert and his squad introduced Southern California to punk rock,” Harper said, “especially in the 909 and the Inland Empire, where he and I grew up.”
Later, Albert signed on as the drummer for the San Fernando Valley punk rock band Bad Religion even though his friend, founding member Brett Gurewitz, wasn’t playing in the group at the time. Albert also jammed with other L.A. bands, including the New Romantics with Jack Grisham of T.S.O.L. and DFL with Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys. Albert’s stint in Bad Religion came to an end in the mid-’80s when he checked himself into rehab to get help for his hardcore heroin addiction.
After he emerged 18 months later, Albert reinvented himself as a writer. He wrote about the city he loved and displayed a knack for dissecting L.A. at the intersection of glitz and grime. He had a temperament perfectly suited for documenting the incongruities of the city at the turn of the century.
Albert wrote for alternative weeklies and magazines, including LA Weekly during its heyday, and the influential literary magazine Slake, founded by Laurie Ochoa (now general manager of Food at The Times) and Joe Donnelly. Albert was a keen observer and an intuitive critic. It didn’t matter if his subjects were on the rise or past their prime according to Hollywood’s ruthless calculus of cool — Albert was able to dismiss the hype and get at the essence.
In an LA Weekly cover story about the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Albert considered the band’s legacy — warts and all: “David Bowie stated that the American public really only remembers the three biggest things any artist has done. Sadly, for the Chili Peppers this would consist of nudity, drug addiction and funk rock.”
“He had a style and he had a way of understanding the essential parts of the story,” said Donnelly. “He was unencumbered by prejudice or snobbery when it came to seeing what the heart of the story was. If it was a story with soul and meaning, he didn’t care if it was cool or not.”
Perhaps his greatest and most unlikely literary achievement was his 2005 memoir about baseball and addiction, “Wrecking Crew: The Really Bad News Griffith Park Pirates.” The book is a nonfiction account of a team of addicts, ex-cons and semi-reformed dirtbags whose members recapture a piece of their innocence on the baseball diamond.
Playing baseball with broken people, Albert was able to reconnect with his youth. “When I look back on those two seasons of Little League,” he wrote in “Wrecking Crew,” “they seem like the relative calm before the storm, a lingering moment of true childhood before I was swept up in a wave of teenage nihilism, petty crime, and punk music.”
For Albert, the game filled a hole he didn’t know he had. “For someone like me,” he admitted in a profile in The Times, “an anti-social intellectual who had spent his life sneering at any kind of middle-class normalcy, joining a baseball team felt oddly subversive.”
“Wrecking Crew” began as a story that ran in LA Weekly and evolved into a book-length memoir of brutal honesty and gallows humor. Albert’s longtime friend Jerry Stahl calls it “one of the great unsung books about Los Angeles — in particular, the East Side.”
The book was twice optioned by Paramount. Then, Philip Seymour Hoffman acquired the option, which ended with the actor’s death by accidental overdose in 2014. Such cosmic irony would unravel some writers, but Albert took it in stride.
“He was incredibly unimpressed with fame,” Donnelly said. “He had famous friends, friends of great renown. He had notorious friends. He had friends with mythical and epic lives. None of that mattered. What mattered to John was having a soulful relationship with people.”
Albert wasn’t an actor but possessed the confidence of someone at home in his own skin. Although he recently completed a biography of nightclub impresario and conservationist Eric Goode and “Wrecking Crew” is being developed for television, his friends recalled that he seldom talked about what he was working on or what he was up to.
“John had a gift for being interested in other people,” Gurewitz said. “At a dinner party, you could seat him next to the most awkward person because John could talk to anybody.”
The riff that runs through all of Albert’s writing and relationships was his great sense of humor, which ranged from the scatological to the acerbic. “John was one of the funniest people I ever met,” said Stahl. “His humor was so dry you might not know to laugh right away, but the laugh always arrived.”
Albert never lost sight of what he went through to have the kind of normal life that many people take for granted, and he helped many Angelenos in their struggles with substance abuse. Harper recalled how Albert supported him in the early stages of his sobriety: “He helped pave the way for me to not drink. He was a touchstone when I was white-knuckling it.” Albert encouraged him to imagine what the day after would be like if he relapsed. “Right away, I’d be back in my body,” Harper said.
“He was a rock star of a human being,” Gurewitz said.
Albert is survived by his 9-year-old son, Ravi, and his brother, Jesse.