Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Sweet Scientists

Where would we be without the sporting metaphor? No photo finish, no fumbles, no hitting one out of the park, no playing against the clock, no stiff-arming. The appreciation of competive sports is -- similar to the appreciation of cigars, fly fishing, internal combustion engines, and Civil War history -- some sort of deeply male activity. And there's probably no sport more thoroughly fouled up with testosterone stink than boxing. As it happens, boxing also seems to be where we get the most sporting metaphors -- against the ropes, saved by the bell, sucker punch, below the belt, down for the count, and, of course, the knockout.

David Remnick has written a couple of excellent pieces on boxing for the New Yorker. I was reading the Mike Tyson piece from Reporting, Remnick's new book of collected writings from the magazine. In it he mentions that during his prison time Tyson had become something of a history buff. Hannibal was one of the figures Tyson took an interest in. "He rode elephants through Cartilage," Tyson told Remnick. There's also a great explanation by one of Tyson's trainers of the whole Roman, bread and circus component of boxing.

"People are full of shit. They want to see something dark," Tyson's former trainer Teddy Atlas told Remnick. "People want to feel close to it and in on it, but, of course, only from the distance of their suburban homes. They want to have the benfeit of comfort m security, safety, respect, and at the same time the privilege of watching something out of contril - even promote it being out of control -- as long as we ca be secure the we're not accountable for it. With Tyson, the dark thing was always the aniticipation that someone was going to get knocked out. ... But we wanted to believe that the monster was also a nice kid. We wanted to believe that Mike Tyson was an American story: the kid who grows up in the horrible ghetto and the converts that dark power into a good cause, into boxing. But then the story takes a turn. The dark side overwhelms him. He's cynical, he's out of control. And now the story is even better. It's like a double feature now, like you're getting Heidi and Godzilla at the same time."

He's right. We want to see some motherfuckers thrown to the lions. We want blood to flow. We think of life as combat and struggle. Destructive, explosive violence -- even better if it's controlled in a ring -- somehow confirms our ideas about the nature of things. But brute force isn't always the way to win -- poetry, finesse and endurence all come into play. I guess the same is true with rock and pop: volatile emotions are let loose -- briefly, for, say, 2 minutes and 45 seconds -- and then resolved, harnessed, put back in the bottle. Distortion, electricity, operatic singing, martial drum beats, it's all a kind of chaos that gets controlled by form. The compositional emulation of the male orgasm, set to wax.

Taking inspiration from Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio show, which you can hear at White Man Stew, I've put together a little thematic sampling of pugilistic musical favorites.

I think it was Greil Marcus who famously asked "What is this shit?" about Dylan's monumentally offputting Self Portrait record, from which the following track comes. Obviously, including Dylan's transcendantly horrendous version of the Paul Simon song "The Boxer" serves two purposes: It justifies not including the Simon and Garfunkle version and it also allows for exclusion of Dylan's most famous boxing song, "The Hurricane," a great song, but one that you can hear elsewhere, occasionally on classic rock radio or even better, in the scene in Dazed in Confused where Mathew McConoughey's character delivers the famous lines "high school girls -- I love 'em -- I keep getting older, and they keep staying the same age."

Dylan's version of "The Boxer" is really a marvel -- you can almost see the executives at Columbia Records listening to this stuff as their heads smolder and then finally explode. Dylan has never been very good at harmonizing -- listen to some of his stuff with Joan Baez (not entirely his fault) or listen to "Girl From the North Country". Here, he ups the ante by harmonizing with himself. One of his vocal tracks loosely follows the original melody while the other wanders, darts and ducks, maddeningly. It's almost like he's just pissing in the wind and calling everyone over to take a look at his soaked trousers. Then again, there's the other possibility that
it's some sort of veiled put down of Paul Simon. Unlikely, I know, but I remember when Lefty and I saw the two on a double bill at Madison Square Garden in the summer of 2000; though they sort of honored each other a bit, from the stage Dylan seemed to exude a contempt.

Obviously, a batch of boxing music probably should include the theme music from Rocky (but you all know that one), and I thought about putting the Stones "One Hit to the Body" -- from Dirty Work, the final frontier of Stones appreciation -- but I figured that was just an assault/love song, of which there are many. Next is "The Upset," by Paul Kelly, from the masterful Numero Group's masterful Eccentric Soul series which does some deep excavation of obscure regional soul labels and oddball vintage vanity vinyl pressings.

I've already foisted some of the Rev. J.M. Gates here before. This is a sermon/rant about the Brown Bomber. Tunes about Joe Louis are a part of their own subgenre of boxing tunes. Louis was so monumental a figure in the 1940s that many blues and jazz singers sang about him (he was among the most famous black men of the decade). Rounder Records released a compilation devoted to songs about Joe Louis in 2001. What I love about this track is the response of the congregation. Every time Gates pauses, one of his Deacons says "That's right!" It's like clockwork. It might sound funny, but it's also very much an extention of something that you read about regarding the jelis or griots or West Africa. When jelis speak there's often someone on hand who says the word "namu" (which means "truth") after each small phrase. The person even has a name which translates to "the one who says namu." The namu sayer has a crucial position, because it's an affirmation of the power of sacred speech. Somewhere, I have a great example of a "namu sayer"on a recording of a jeli singing along with some Guinean drumming. Fittingly, the rhythm is one of the many that are a part of the family of rhythms known as "dununba" -- or "the dance of the strong men." ("Konowulen II," featured here, is a dununba, though not the one with a "namu sayer," though some of the same principles of call and response are evident, and it kicks ample ass). Dununbas were traditionally performed as a part of ritualized violence in the form of a dance where men would dance in a circle and lash each other's backs as a means of demonstrating endurance and resolving conflict. Namu.

Bob Dylan - "The Boxer"

Paul Kelly -- "The Upset"

Rev. J.M. Gates -- "Joe Louis' Wrist and His Fist"

Famadou Konate -- "Konowulen II"

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