L.A.'s underground celebrates the life of punk iconoclast John Albert

Once upon a time, the collected works of music journalists, film critics and other cultural correspondents appeared with regularity on the literary landscape.

We relied on their observations to make sense not only of the art we admired and the artists who created it but of the times we lived in and the places we felt at home.

Now? Not so much. The way culture is celebrated, disseminated and reported on has changed, probably forever.

So when a book like “Running With the Devil: Essays, Articles & Remembrances” by John Albert appears on the horizon, it feels as anachronistic as a sailing vessel flying the skull and bones.

But John Albert was no ordinary writer.

When he died suddenly from a heart attack last year at the age of 58, he left behind a body of work scattered across the pages of books, anthologies, literary journals and alternative weeklies. His friend and editor, Joe Donnelly, hit on the idea to assemble these pieces in a collection.

“Almost as soon as John died,” Donnelly said, “I started thinking about the responsibility to preserve his writing legacy.”

Donnelly approached their mutual friend Iris Berry, co-founder of Punk Hostage Press, about the project. She didn’t need to be convinced.

“There always seemed to be a kind of magic surrounding John Albert,” Berry said. “A mystery and a charisma that I can’t explain. He definitely left us too soon.”

It’s only fitting, then, that “Running With the Devil” will receive a grand, old-school book launch at Wacko Soap Plant from 4 to 7 p.m. on Sunday, June 30.

Berry and Donnelly will be joined by a crew of underground all-stars that includes Jesse Albert, Jennifer Finch, Brett Gurewitz, Ben Harper, Keith Morris, Arty Nelson, Jerry Stahl, John Waldman and Justin Warfield.

Albert emerged from the exurbs of Los Angeles and embraced the city in all its guises. He was an early member of Christian Death and Bad Religion, two bands whose names suggest a spiritual affinity, or at least a consensus, but couldn’t be more stylistically dissimilar.

He wrote about discovering Black Flag and embracing punk rock with pulp panache: “I have cut my hair short and can’t stop smashing windows.”

“In the Black Flag piece,” Berry said, “I love how he writes about the transition into punk rock in great detail. It affected everyone around him, especially his parents and friends. Throughout history, parents have always been horrified by their kids’ choices, but the punk movement was one of the toughest and John articulated it so well.”

Albert was so much more than a former musician and occasional music writer. As a recovering addict, he found salvation in sport: first and most famously through baseball, which he wrote about in “The Wrecking Crew: The Really Bad News Griffith Park Pirates.”

Writing about a team of recovering addicts, washed-up rockers and miscellaneous oddballs, he captured something magical about L.A.

“He made sense of Los Angeles in a sort of Didion-esque and Eve Babitz way,” Donnelly said. “His best subjects were his friends and the people in his circle, and he had a unique window into Los Angeles during that time and place.”

As Albert’s interests and experiences expanded, so did his writing: He wrote about surfing, living with Hepatitis C, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. As Keith Morris, founding vocalist for Black Flag and the Circle Jerks, puts it: “John was a stud prince rawker and had a great knowledge of all sorts of happening stuff.”

Albert had a knack for writing about things that had been overlooked or pushed to the margins, and by training his lens on them helped make them culturally significant again. In a city that runs on hype, Albert was more interested in those who’d opted out, been left behind or were kicked to the curb by the dream factory.

“He was a throwback,” Donnelly said, “a punk-rock George Plimpton. He was in the mix of life and wrote from the perspective of lived experience, and not just helicoptering into an anthropological survey of something. He actually knew of what he spoke.”

Although he wasn’t a sentimental writer, Albert wrote with great humor. His sarcasm could be devastating, but he saved it for those in his inner circle, the people he loved most.

“John was such a talented writer,” said Berry. “He remembered so much. The feelings, the details of the feelings, and the places. He slides from comedy to tragedy and back to comedy with such grace. He was a true storyteller.”

One of the many tragedies of Albert’s untimely passing is that we have been deprived a book about fatherhood in 21st century L.A. Albert loved his son, Ravi, and all the proceeds from the collection will go to him.

“Getting to publish his book, ‘Running With the Devil,’ is bittersweet for me,” Berry said. “I’m honored to get to publish him, grateful to Joe Donnelly for bringing it to me and for editing it. I just wish it was under different circumstances. But knowing that it’s for his son, Ravi, is everything. As my mom would say, ‘It’s definitely a mitzvah.’”

Join Iris Berry, Joe Donnelly and friends at Wacko Soap Plant, 4633 Hollywood Blvd., on Sunday, June 30, from 3 to 7 p.m.

Jim Ruland is the author of the novel “Make It Stop” and “Corporate Rock Sucks: The Rise & Fall of SST Records.”

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