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Lyrics of Fury: Exploring the enduring relationship between the sweet science and songwriting

Young man boxing
To investigate why artists are drawn to boxing, Elliot Worsell speaks to Mark Kozelek (Sun Kil Moon), Ken Casey (Dropkick Murphys), and poet Declan Ryan.

WHEN Phil Shevack isn’t standing outside shooing away gangbangers trying to sling drugs on the doorstep of his boxing gym, he is fielding calls from music managers and poetry curators eager to figure a way to get their talent inside. It’s quite the paradox. A barking dog scares off the dealers; dealers scare off the tourists.

As all this goes on, street kids from Paterson, New Jersey continue their business inside. They hit bags. They hit each other. They construct the kind of scenes men and women want to ogle and admire from afar in the hope of one day writing or singing about them. They endure pain on their behalf.

“They had a poetry session not long ago where all the great poets in the country gathered in the gym,” Shevack, owner of Ike and Randy’s Boxing Gym, explained. “Also, Jon Bon Jovi wanted to do part of a music video here. It got cancelled. He wanted off-duty cops to be his protectors. He wanted to pay them to be his security. They said, ‘No way in hell. It’s going to cause problems out there.’

“Imagine if Bon Jovi came. Imagine it.”

Ike & Randy’s Boxing Gym in Paterson, New Jersey

Beyond the growling dog the snarls of the fighters inside the gym would have most creative types spinning on their heels like Bon Jovi in search of a green screen. The smells here are sweat, fear and poverty. There’s not a towel in sight, let alone a flunky on hand to pass you one. Nobody smiles for this business is too serious for that. Anything but show.

Yet, despite their differences, there can be no denying the two businesses, hurt and show, have long been sparring partners and that songwriters, poets, moviemakers and authors have often flexed their intellectual muscle in and around boxing. In lieu of working out they have spent years trying to work it out. The hunger. The need to fight. The feeling of hitting and being hit. But why?

In the Seventies, Simon and Garfunkel released their song ‘The Boxer’, about a man who “carries the reminders of every glove that laid him down or cut him”, while Bob Dylan would feel strongly enough about Rubin Carter, a fighter whose life he believed had been ruined by the American justice system, to write the song ‘Hurricane’.

A decade earlier Dylan had taken to performing ‘Who Killed Davey Moore?’ at various festivals, so effected was he by the death of Davey Moore at the hands of Sugar Ramos during a 1963 boxing match. “Why and what’s the reason for?” Dylan asked ahead of pointing the finger at Ramos, the referee, the manager, the crowd, the gambling man and the boxing writer, only to determine by the end of the song not one of them was responsible nor, however, were any of them entirely absolved of guilt, either.

rubin carter
Dylan was fascinated by Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter

The Eighties, meanwhile, gave birth to the Morrisey song ‘Boxers’, which dealt with a fighter suffering defeat in front of his hometown crowd. More about loss in a general sense than in the competitive sense, ‘Boxers’, like the other songs mentioned, required not even a basic knowledge of the sport for a listener to relate to the character or the situation described.

That’s a testament to a songwriter’s ability, sure, but equally it speaks to how boxing somehow feels a natural act to many – even if diluted down to a simple fight or struggle or an emotion like anger – and transcends age, race, religion or upbringing. You can dislike it. You can be opposed to fisticuffs packaged as entertainment. But you will at some point in your life have fought either against someone or for something and will therefore be familiar with the energy and emotions required in that moment. Or so we would all like to think.

In 2003, songwriter Mark Kozelek, formerly of the Red House Painters, started releasing music under the name Sun Kil Moon (a former super-flyweight and bantamweight world champion from South Korea). This name had always stuck with him – “It’s three words that contrast: sun, death, moon.” – and on ‘Ghosts of the Great Highway’, Kozelek’s first album released as Sun Kil Moon, he got to the heart of what makes boxing such a tragic yet utterly compelling sport. On the album, as profoundly moving as any classic fight or comeback, were songs titled Duk Koo Kim, Salvador Sanchez and Pancho Villa, and death, needless to say, was a constant theme throughout.

“Young guys laying their lives on the line because it’s in their blood. It’s all they know how to do,” Kozelek told Boxing News via email. “They get out of poverty and end up with things they dreamed about but sometimes don’t know how to handle – like motorcycles, fast cars, drugs. Some die in the ring. Some die going too fast on motorcycles. Some mysteriously die like (Arturo) Gatti and (Sonny) Liston and some, like Vernon Forrest, because they chased down some asshole who wronged them. It’s endless. (Pernell) Whitaker, (Hector) Camacho. I don’t know how a songwriting boxing fan wouldn’t pay tribute to these guys.

“Boxing is analogous with life; knowing when to hold back and when to move forward; mental strength. It’s also a good series. Once you’re hooked there’s endless history to look back on. Who fought who? Who was whose kid? And the sport doesn’t discriminate against weight or race.”

Sometimes it’s simpler than all that. Sometimes it’s just a name – a name as story or at least the bridge to one. Take Livingston Bramble, for instance. Bramble wasn’t a fighter about whom many were in a rush to write in the eighties yet Kozelek saw potential in the name and penned a five-minute song about him. He then did the same with Tavoris Cloud, a solid but largely overlooked former IBF light-heavyweight champion defined by a 2013 defeat to Bernard Hopkins.

“At the core of the song is my hurt over the passing of my friend Tim Mooney,” Kozelek explained. “My songs are all over the place. Like (William) Faulkner books, you’ve got to read close a few times to know what’s going on. Maybe it was the ‘Cloud’ part. Tim’s in the clouds when I look at the Northern California sky.”

Salvador Sanchez works the speedball

Some, like the Dropkick Murphys, can have a more personal connection to a boxer. Coming from Boston, Massachusetts, they considered it something of a rite of passage to write a song about John L. Sullivan, before eventually, having long idolised ‘Irish’ Micky Ward, a legend from Lowell, penning ‘The Warrior’s Code’, a song about Ward, to feature on an album of the same name. An album with Ward’s image on the cover.

“If you meet Micky outside the ring you would say, ‘My God, can there be anybody more soft-spoken, quiet and humble?’” Ken Casey, one of the band’s primary songwriters, told BN. “That’s the paradox you’ve got to love in a fighter. That’s why I’ve always gravitated more towards the Micky Wards than the Floyd Mayweathers who are always flashing their money and bragging about how tough they are. I like the guys who just do their deal and their heart speaks for itself.

“Micky walks the walk. He’s from the same cloth as us in the band. You don’t put on any façades around here or you get found out quick.

“We came at it more from the approach of paying homage to him. That’s why we wanted to put him on the cover. We felt like we owed that to him. He doesn’t get half the accolades he deserves around here because he’s quiet. He’s revered, respected and loved, but he’s never been someone who’s trying to get in front of the camera.

“The melody for the song came to me and I walked in and sang it to the guys the next day. Then it was a song. I mean, we could probably write a whole album about Micky. You’d get into a lot of the stuff he’s done out of the ring and how he is as a person, never mind the characters in his circle, like his brother Dicky (Ecklund) and all that. There’s a thousand songs there.”

micky ward
Micky Ward and Arturo Gatti go to war (Marty Rosengarten)

As a child, the knee of his grandfather, a former amateur boxer, was often used by Casey whenever he looked for a place to sit and watch fights on Friday nights. Taken early, his obsession with the sport then led to him later worshipping Marvin Hagler and even occasionally rubbing shoulders with him in bars and clubs, such was Hagler’s accessibility in the Boston area back then.

Casey did some scrapping of his own, too, both at the McKeon Post, where they ran a youth programme, and on the streets, though is quick to stress he’s “all grown up and old” now. These days, in fact, Casey, 50, runs Murphys Boxing, a promotional company looking after the likes of Danny O’Connor, TJ Doheny, Gary ‘Spike’ O’Sullivan and Mark DeLuca, and believes the entrepreneurial spirit and hustle required to simply survive in boxing has reinvigorated his songwriting.

“I’m not going to make the analogy that being in a band is anywhere near as gruelling as being a boxer in the ring or training for a fight, but we do both have to deal with promoters,” he explained, laughing. “We’re writing a new album now and when I get to that point I’ve got to shut everything off, the outside world, and meet every day with the band to get this thing done. It’s like training camp.

“When we rehearse for a tour we practice in an industrial park in South Boston and it’s like this little tin roof storage area and everyone in the office park can hear when we’re practicing. It might last ninety minutes as we dust stuff off but other times it will be eight hours a day. We make a racket.”

Mark Kozelek is, by his own admission, no natural athlete, much less a fighter. He wrestled a bit in high school but realised the day he found himself pinned “by a guy named Scott” it wasn’t the sport for him.

Be that as it may, he has for the past three or four years been training in a gym, jumping rope and hitting bags and mitts, intending not to fight but instead find peace amid the chaos. At 52, he says it is vital. “They’ve got a Parkinson’s class in there,” he added. “Nothing is more inspiring than watching the Parkinson’s class.”

Make no mistake, Kozelek’s a boxing fan through and through. A fan, he tells me, of Pernell Whitaker, and of Johnny Tapia, and of Roy Jones Jnr, and of Manny Pacquiao, and of Arturo Gatti, and of Jorge Paez, and of Diego Corrales, and of Angel Manfredy, who, he explains, “wasn’t amazing but he was intriguing and he beat Gatti.” And that, I suppose, is the key for any songwriter or storyteller – intrigue, a hook, something that separates a boxer not only from his fellow athlete and man but from his peers, the bravest of the brave, the weirdest of the weird.

When asked which current fighters lend themselves to songs, Kozelek said, “Tyson Fury is a song. (Deontay) Wilder is a song. A lot of times it’s about the name. Henry Akinwande would be a tough one, but I could make it happen. Him clinching (Lennox) Lewis is a song. (Oliver) McCall breaking down in tears is a song. Ike Ibeabuchi. That guy was on his way to being the next Mike Tyson, in my opinion, but he f**ked up. David Tua played the ukulele. There’s a song in there. I can make a song out of anything. It might not be a hit, but it’ll be a keeper.”

Lennox Lewis
Oliver McCall breaks down in tears (Action Images/Nick Potts)

If Kozelek looks for stories within names, Casey’s approach owes more to sheer admiration of skill or, in Ward’s case, heroism. He cites Vasyl Lomachenko and Gennady Golovkin as two of his favourite boxers of recent times, the two most likely to move him to write about them, but then concedes a song should be more than just a celebration of talent.

“My favourite fighter right now is Lomachenko but I think it would be hard for us to write a song about a fighter unless there was that personal connection,” Casey explained. “I guess I’m just such a fan of his huge raw talent. Golovkin as well.

“The other thing about writing a song about a current fighter or anybody still alive is that it’s risky business. You don’t know how they’re going to turn out.”

Declan Ryan, whose pamphlet of poems, Fighters, Losers, was as good as anything I read on boxing last year, has no fighting pedigree to speak of yet finds liberation in this. Rather than battle pride and pretend, as so many do, he instead accepts his disadvantage and attacks the sport from a different vantage point, utilising angles the rest are too busy grandstanding to see, never mind explore. Which is to say, he pauses for thought. He listens.

“I have no right to write about these people,” he said to BN. “I haven’t been anywhere near doing it, so it felt right to let these people talk in their own words rather than trying to imagine what they might be feeling. I didn’t want to do that weird ventriloquist thing. I don’t have a clue what it would be like, so why pretend?

“I would look at and read a lot of interviews with these great fighters and what struck me was how epic their accomplishments were and how they were almost god-like figures and yet, despite this mythology, some of the stuff they said was so lo-fi and low-key. They had just done these extraordinary things and yet were so understated. I was really drawn to that.

“When (Jose Luis) Castillo says about (Diego) Corrales, ‘We’ll be linked forever,’ it was a really nice way of tying it all up. He didn’t feel the need for any histrionics even though the fight they had produced was one of the greatest of all time. He said it all in that one line.”

Ryan created poetry from Tyson’s demolition of Berbick

In poems about Corrales and Castillo, Gatti and Ward, Tyson and Berbick, and Ali and Foreman, Ryan hit mute on the shouts and screams of the commentators to recalibrate and reframe the whole affair. He stripped it all back to just a single crucial moment and the fighter’s interpretation of this moment. He gave voices to the silent, understanding to the misunderstood, and renewed life to the dead.

“Some of the stuff (Muhammad) Ali said, or (Mike) Tyson said, was pure show but some of it is just really unguarded and understated,” he explained. “They don’t need to make a song and dance of it because they have just done these incredible feats in the ring. They can express themselves really plainly and it still has that resonance because of what they have done.

“What also fascinates me is how these fighters are at the top of their game for so long but know they will one day encounter someone who is better than them. Even Ali, despite his boasts and self-belief, would have known the day would arrive. Then he had to come again. He had to evolve as a fighter and a human being.”

For those not burnt out by the sport at a young age, the appeal of boxing will invariably grow as a person gets older and possesses, or is battered by, a greater degree of life experience. At first, it will of course seem a sport like any other, entertainment, a violent way to pass the time, yet in time, once realising it’s not so much about dealing with punches as dealing with pain, its hold will become stronger.

“There’s so much imagery to it,” said Casey, who is currently petitioning the city of Boston to erect a statue in honour of John L. Sullivan outside McGreevy’s, a bar he owns. “To me the inspiration behind boxing isn’t so much what happens in the ring on fight night but knowing these guys and watching the sacrifices they make in their lives. The effort. The peaks of high emotion when you win big fights and the crushing lows when you lose big fights. I’ve experienced both with boxers. I’ve had guys who have suffered devastating knockout defeats and to be by their side in the locker room when it’s over it’s something else.”

Kozelek, for his part, has a theory about why the sport appeals to likeminded individuals. “Do you know who I talked boxing with this year (2019)? Joyce Carol Oates,” he said. “We talked about her book, On Boxing. She asked me my favourite and I said Johnny Tapia and she said hers was Ali. Classy people like boxing: Liev Schreiber, Rosie Perez, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Miles Davis, Tom Jones. Boxing is chess. Artists are risk takers, we’re outsiders, and we’re compelled by people who put their lives on the line.”

Perhaps, as well as its artistry, the appeal of boxing to outsiders is similar to the appeal of a well-executed horror film. Because, much like a horror film, the attraction of boxing lies in its distance and this distance being safe. It lies in the image of pain being inflicted not on us but someone else, an avatar, and the peanut gallery, that’s us, being able to watch it unfold on tenterhooks out of harm’s way. Scared but ultimately safe, this dynamic allows us to both experience the drama vicariously and then quickly turn it off when it all gets a little too real.

“With fighters you don’t have that get-out clause at the end,” said Ryan. “You can’t hold anything back. There is no escape. You’re stripped back completely, both in terms of clothes and any fat on your body. You’re then getting hit in the head by somebody who is trying to hurt and damage you. There aren’t many places in life where you experience that.

“I have read various books on the subject and a lot mention the fight being the metaphor for something. But it’s dangerous to go too far down that road because it isn’t just a metaphor. It’s also an actual fight. It isn’t just this thing you can use as a great poetic device. At its roots, it’s a fight. It’s two people, one against the other, and that’s it. That’s what makes it thrilling, it’s stripped back nature, not any metaphorical value it also carries.”

They say art becomes a shared experience once released into the world and that our enjoyment of a poem, book, film or piece of music will often depend on our ability to relate to a character, plot, situation or theme. Yet, in the case of the noble art, the lure for the majority appears to stem more from the fact that what they are watching take place in a boxing ring is to them an alien experience, something beyond their wildest imagination, one unable to be sampled or shared. Rather than its relatability, then, it’s perhaps the not knowing – how it feels, what it’s like, if they could do it – that ultimately captivates the curious.

Either way, once you open yourself to it, you’re hooked.

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