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August 10 2019
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Murder victim Billy Balls and his girlfriend, Rebecca, in the East Village, early 1980s.

Joe Rogan straddles the podcast planet like a colossus in chunky trail shoes. Sitcom actor (NewsRadio), reality-TV host (Fear Factor), stand-up comic (latest special, Strange Times, on Netflix), social-media star (over five million Twitter followers), distance runner, biohacker, mixed-martial-arts analyst, psychedelic explorer, flotation-tank advocate, and good old American dad—Rogan’s got it all going on and packs it into a podcast that resembles the ultimate audio man cave, though he doesn’t stint on female guests.

Titled The Joe Rogan Experience, the show might be better named The Joe Rogan Immersion: episodes can stretch as long as a David Lean movie, three hours plus. The epic lengths of these jaw-fests don’t daunt his loyal legions. Nary a week passes which doesn’t find two or three J.R.E. episodes notched among iTunes’ Top 10 downloads. The avid popularity of such deep-dive conversations belies the notion that we are a nation of attention-deficit ditzes. Ninety-five million downloads a month can’t be wrong.

The avid popularity of Rogan’s deep-dive conversations belies the notion that we are a nation of attention-deficit ditzes.

Or can they? Rogan, in case you haven’t noticed, is regarded as something of a radioactive meatball in some sectors, especially those situated on the cultural left. This is partly due to the musk and sweat of testosterone that wafts from his studio, which can be perturbing to listeners more attuned to the chirpy ingratiation of NPR and podcasts targeted at urban professionals.

But most of the Rogan-shunning has to do with his association with the so-called Intellectual Dark Web (I.D.W.), a loose Darth Vader–ish confederacy of YouTube stars, podcasters, polemicists, and provocateurs that includes maverick professor Jordan Peterson (an occasional powerhouse guest on Rogan’s show), Quillette site founder Claire Lehmann, neuroscientists Sam Harris and Steven Pinker, and feminist gadfly Christina Hoff Sommers. The association can’t be denied, nor is it necessarily a big deal, though Rogan has invited to his show some vile inexcusables—Milo Yiannopoulos and orcish Alex Jones—that I would prefer to see securely tied in a canoe and eased toward the rapids rather than afforded airtime. These juggalos I cannot justify, even on free-speech grounds. Rather than boycott the show, a quixotic gesture, like raising a defiant fist in an empty room, I simply skip such episodes, just as I did Rogan’s sit-down with jabbermouth Roseanne Barr.

This still leaves an expanding library of chewy episodes to choose from, with Rogan sometimes uploading multiple episodes a week. In the last few months alone he’s held extended sessions with Reggie Watts, Eddie Izzard, Kevin Hart, Russell Brand, and Gabrielle Reece.

Conservative Musclehead? Not Really

Serious dabbling reveals that Rogan isn’t some conservative musclehead who fancies himself Conan the Barbarian but a libertarian with a free-range imagination and a hearty appetite for inward/outward experiences he can share with other aspiring Argonauts. As somebody who doesn’t run, hunt, kickbox, scale tall buildings parkour-style, vape, microdose, ride Pegasus on magic mushrooms, or perform stand-up comedy before a roomful of rowdies, I can live vicariously through Rogan and his guests and receive intel on the latest developments in maximizing human potential. Well, not entirely vicariously—I may give sensory deprivation a try, since floating in a womb-like isolation tank would require zero effort on my part, satisfying my Platonic ideal of inactive activity and effortless effort.

If it isn’t a chat show you’re craving but the scrape of mean streets, consider a pair of amateur bloodhound manhunts that deliver clashing, bi-coastal shades of noir. To Live and Die in LA (no relation to the 1985 action thriller directed by William Friedkin that had William Petersen on the vengeful warpath) investigates the disappearance of Adea Shabani, an aspiring actress at the Stella Adler Academy whose body is eventually discovered in a shallow grave. Cause of death: blunt trauma to the head. Adea’s boyfriend, Chris Spotz, also a striving actor, is the chief suspect, his father hovering in the background like a malignant cloud.

In tidy synopsis, To Live and Die in LA might pass as a textbook classic case of murder-suicide with Freudian garnish. But if we learn anything from nonfiction-podcast detection, it’s that nothing in the enactment or aftermath of a crime is psychologically and forensically tidy. The evidence trail, so barren at first glimpse, yields a trove of clues, false leads, and bizarre discrepancies once the spadework begins.

If we learn anything from nonfiction-podcast detection, it’s that nothing in the enactment or aftermath of a crime is psychologically and forensically tidy.

The front man for To Live and Die in LA is Neil Strauss. What an eclectic career he’s had, to put it euphemistically. A rock journalist for Rolling Stone who collaborated with Mötley Crüe on the band bio The Dirt, Strauss ghostwrote porn star Jenna Jameson’s best-selling memoir and later became involved with the subcult of slick Casanovas whose techniques and exploits he chronicled with The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists. Objectivity be damned, Strauss became a PUA himself, devoting a chapter in The Game to a list of all the women he had congressional relations with while mastering the occult art of picking up babes.

Billy Balls, a “minor-league musician, scrounger, and dope dealer,” whose death is the subject of the podcast The Ballad of Billy Balls.

Years later, with an inevitable thud of sincerity, came an act of penance and reform: the memoir The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships, in which Strauss confronted the horny little devils driving him and made nice with intimacy, domesticity, and long-term commitment. Having gotten all of that out of his system, Strauss has returned to practicing a style of journalism where he’s the chief scout but his self-image isn’t in play. Here, he and his podcast team do a stellar job to tell a story where the pieces can never snugly fit because so much has been shattered.

Noisy, Sticky, Gritty

Where To Live and Die in LA is a contemporary who- and whydunit, The Ballad of Billy Balls is a time machine rattling like a subway car from the Reagan era into the present. The year, 1982. The scene, Manhattan’s East Village. The atmosphere, noisy, sticky, and gritty, punctuated by the crunch of crack vials underfoot. Gentrification has yet to gobble up every danger zone in funky bohemia. In the summer of 1982, a minor-league musician, scrounger, and dope dealer known as Billy Balls (real name, William Heitzman) was shot multiple times in his storefront apartment on Third Avenue around the corner from St. Marks Place, where I lived at the time. The murky circumstances of this gundown gave rise to gnarly rumors and speculation. Was Billy Balls killed in the spark of the moment by an undercover cop, rival dealer, or disgruntled customer, or was it a setup?⁠ A pre-meditated hit? He died in hospital and his body was unceremoniously buried in a potter’s field formally known as Hart Island.

Piecing the story together from scraps of information and interviews is the son of Billy’s live-in girlfriend Rebecca, iO Tillett Wright (whose memoir, Darling Days, I highly recommend), who’s determined to unearth who Billy really was, how and why he was killed, and why his death was shrouded in myth and secrecy. Cheetah Chrome of punk’s infamous Dead Boys is one of the East Village veterans whose raspy testimony we hear. If “Billy Balls” has a white knight, it’s activist lawyer Ron Kuby (the protégé of radical defense icon William Kunstler), who not only breaks through the bureaucratic stonewalling of law enforcement to liberate the police report of the events of that night, but interprets and decodes the documents with a theatrical zest. Each Lone Ranger appearance by Kuby occasions an energy spike, a spotlight beam of clarity as he brings the paper trail to life.

Rebecca, who figures in the murder investigation.

That’s a major difference between the cases. In the early 80s of The Ballad of Billy Balls, paper was still the major currency of documentation, tucked in manila folders and stashed in evidence boxes. Paper is only one of the players in To Live and Die in LA, where the media is more kaleidoscopic, a digital collage of surveillance cams, e-mails, text messages, voice messages, Facebook posts, Instagram shots, and Google G.P.S. tracking logs—a pointillistic reconstruction composed of pixels and pings.

Narrative pleasures aside, what’s exemplary about this new breed of true crimers epitomized by To Live and Die in LA and The Ballad of Billy Balls is that they de-center the perpetrator—the killer, the stalker, the con artist—to encompass the wider radius of collateral damage and enduring pain suffered by friends, lovers, family members, and incidental bystanders of the perps and their victims. They have a humanistic heart. Too many scripted TV mini-series posing as Chilling Portraits of Evil end up peddling a kind of glossy psycho porn where each fresh target furnishes a gleam in the villain’s eye and the crimes seem ticked off a to-do list. Here we are in the more recognizable full-bodied, maimed-psyche James M. Cain world of ordinary fuckups and tense situations gone bad, where the cost of not thinking straight or keeping cool proves fatal. And for the survivors the consequences never stop hurting.

Now I must go and hug the cat. Next time around: Brexit, Schmexit, let’s call the whole thing off.

James Wolcott is an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL.

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