Beer, Blood and Cornmeal: Seven Years of Incredibly Strange Wrestling by Bob Calhoun

February 14, 2023

While it tells the story of the ultimate in for-the-moment entertainment, this is a memoir that reveals its depths when taken as a whole.

For those who don’t remember it’s notoriety from the tape-trading scene of the mid-to-late 90s, Incredibly Strange Wrestling was an unusual San Francisco based promotion where people who didn’t really know how to (professionally) wrestle performed for people who weren’t really fans of pro wrestling.

The group performed in bars and music venues in San Francisco and as part of music tours, gaining a cult following as it evolved from a lucha-style promotion to a cast of outlandish, often tasteless gimmicks from Harley Racist and the Abortionist to El Homo Loco and NAMBLA.

Calhoun performed under a host of gimmicks as well as working in publicity and booking for the group. This isn’t a definitive history of the promotion (which would be a particularly weird exercise to embark on) but rather his memories of his time in and around ISW and the punk rock scene.

It’s extremely detailed, to the point that it often left me wondering who is meant to care about the minutiae of petty squabbles at the lower levels of independent wrestling (albeit often attracting better crowds than more traditional groups in the region.) At times it certainly comes across as setting the story straight when few reader will know the story in question.

However, as the book continues, it creates a bigger picture account of the cultural factors that affected ISW, wrestling, music and San Francisco over the period. The effects of gentrification, the dotcom boom (and bust), corporate control of entertainment and the rise and fall of wrestling in the Monday Night Wars era all get explored through the prism of Calhoun’s experiences.

The more the book goes on and on (and certain elements get repeated), the better the job it does of conveying how people get caught up in wrestling’s grip and escapism (for performers as well as crowds) while simultaneously desiring to depart its stresses and return to reality.

Pro wrestling fans may not be the book’s primary audience: indeed, the number of people looking for the inside scoop of the booking of a particular ISW match is likely to be minimal. But anyone with an interest in subcultures and how wrestling relates to, and differs from, other fringes of society may find this worth their while.

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