My Favorite Songs about Boxers
In my youth, I was a Golden Gloves boxer who had some success in the novice ranks. I got out when I realized God gave some of us a wealth of talent and others of us a wealth of desire.
"The Boxer" By Paul Simon
This is the quintessential song with a boxer at its center. The "lie-la-lies" and "lie la lie lie lie lie lie" of the chorus began as syllable placeholders. Simon thought the real words would come later. However, these were not be-bop-a-lula or Oom papa doom. And the more he played it for other people, the more they found meaning in the words. They were lies even if Simon hadn't envisioned it that way. The first verse was added to accentuate the new meaning so that I am just a poor boy, though my story's seldom told I have squandered my resistance for a pocketful of mumbles, such are promises All lies and jest, still a man hears what he wants to hear And disregards the rest comes before the classic beginning "When I left my home and my family." The boxing itself is never really the focus of the song. Though the chorus is punctuated by the resounding echo of Hal Blaine's bass drum simulating a heavily landed punch, there is no allusion to it in the song aside from a rising dramatic line in a later verse, "every glove that laid him down or cut him." It is left to the listener to infer the image from the auditory clue. It is the overall affect of the song which conveys the battered boxer still standing, yearning to go home, but too tough to quit.
'Til he cried out in his anger and his shame I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains
"Tiger Tom Dixon's Blues" by Slaid Cleaves and Rod Picott
After starting a song about his great uncle, Picott shared what he had with his long-time buddy, Slaid Cleaves. Together, they finished the song.
They each have their own arrangements and recordings of the song. Although, they are essentially the same, they are distinctive renditions. I have both versions on my mp3 player.
The song is the archtypical story of the fighter who lives his life as fast and loose and his blazing hand-speed.
Tiger Tom Dixon had a gift from God
He could hit you quick, he could hit you hard
In a world where a man’s hands are put to the test
Tiger Tom Dixon’s hands were the best
He’d step into the ring, gloves tied on tight
After humbling a man Tom would tie one on in spite
Kick back into a whiskey like it was an easy chair
Drink to anything that the devil may care
In a haunting Cleaves' twist, the story turns back upon itself as one day he climbs into the ring and recognizes his opponent: "It was himself without the bottle..."
"The Pugilist at 59" by Tom Russell
From Love & Fear
I don't know if you have to get to 59 years old to really appreciate this song, but I think you have to be able see it on the horizon.
It is less about the loss of a dream to be a champion and more about the day to day living that saps the days remaining and stacks the toll of all the days lived. In the mind, the desire, the hunger, the want is strong, but the body wears down.
A handful of vitamins, drop them on the floor
My ex-girlfriends’ are laughin’ from the icebox door
I put their photos up there, yeah, we talk all the time
But they ain’t talkin’ back now, the pugilist is 59
Archie Moore, perhaps the greatest light heavyweight champ of all time, who fought into his 50s, some claimed late 50s, makes a cameo whispering in his ear "Get up, kid, you’re in your prime."
And the rock and the roll
And the fight for your soul
goes on and on
You put on the gloves
You’re always ready for love
Pray your passion ain’t used up and gone,
But then there's always tomorrow morning:
Roll out of bed, water on your face Twenty-five sit-ups - run in place You put the coffee on but the pot ain’t clean Yeah, all you little devils of alcohol and caffeine...
"Black Lights" by Jason Myles Goss
According to Goss, he was thinking a lot about boxers and songwriters:
Why is a boxer an athlete and not an artist? What would I, as a songwriter, benefit from approaching songwriting like I was a boxer -- that this is something you have to dedicate yourself to doing every day, that you have to love it and breathe it in, not just when you get to play the big stage, but when you have a 7 hour drive to a gig in West Virginia to play for a handful of people and make eight dollars - you have to love it then, especially then.
He had read that some fighters, when they are hurt, they describe what they see as "black lights."
This image of "black lights" stuck with me, I wrote it down, and kept thinking about it, the image of the neural circuits in a fighter's brain flashing dark, deathly lights.
All I see are black lights
Rushing through like headlights
The screaming of the crowd tonight
Pulls me in just to let me go
He wrote "Black Lights" about: "...a young fighter who does the work, who takes his lumps, yet ultimately is defeated. It's a story how sometimes the fury of defeat can be just as sweet, just as transcendent, as the sweet smell of victory."
The song also illuminates the difficulty of balancing the discipline of living right with the violent, flamboyant nature of the profession:
I was twenty one and zero, top seed in the welterweight class
I was staying out all night, sobering up during morning mass
I was hurling myself at a break-neck speed
Amphetamines and the Apostles' Creed
Until, "The last thing I remember was dropping my left on down, and spinning around..."
"The calm after a fist fight Is the hollowest sound I know."
"The Hitter" by Bruce Springsteen
The disowned and disillusioned fighter returns to his mother's door, asking for nothing this time, only a place to get out of rain.
He leaves her with his hard knock story of boxing his way across the south, knocking men down and taking the good money green and the women red, "for the men in their silk suits to lay down their bets. I took my good share, Ma, I have no regrets."
He's an old man before his time and his days in the ring are over.
Ma, if my voice now you don't recognize
Then just open the door and look into your dark eyes
I ask of you nothin', not a kiss not a smile,
Just open the door and let me lie down for a while
But his fighting days are not done as he makes a living now taking on all comers:
Tonight in the shipyard
a man draws a circle in the dirt
I move to the center and I take off my shirt
I study him for the cuts, the scars, the pain,
Man, nor time can erase
I move hard to the left and I strike to the face
"Boxers" by Morrissey
This is a sad song, a song very much about losing and loss.
Losing in front of your home crowd You wish the ground Would open up and take you down
Much is left up in the air, but the sentiment is clear:
Your weary wife - walking away
Your nephew, it's true
He still thinks the world of you
And I have to dry my eyes Oh...
All things in good songs do not need to be explained further.
"Dream Street" by John Gorka
I saw the champ running down by the river with his trainer and his stretch limousine
I don't recall the year but it was late in his career when he was featured in those glove magazines
This is a song for all the champions who couldn't stay retired. They knew it was time to go and they did, but they remember how good they were and they know they could beat this guy pretending to be the new champ.
I guess you take it as a given that a champion is driven
so he can always win one more time
Some do it out of pride, some do it for the dough
some do cause it's the only thing they're ever gonna know
Gorka attributes a line near the end of his song to Larry Holmes: "promoters take the money, the fighters take the pain."
"Boxer" by Gaslight Anthem
Like in many Brian Fallon songs, I may not grasp everything. There are often allegories laced with metaphors and symbols. He is sometimes obtuse and a clunker rhyme or lack thereof will knock me out of the song, but they are never dull and never lack for fascination.
I know you got your pride and your prose
Tucked just like a Tommy gun
Somewhere in the smoke,
just in case you need it, son
I heard it's been a ride rougher than the last one
What'd you used to say? Oh, the harder they come
Just as there are three or more different versions Fallon has recorded, this song also works on several different levels. There is boxing imagery throughout. In places, combined with a songwriter's craft.
You took it all gracefully on the chin
Knowing that the beatings had to someday end
You found the bandages inside the pen
And the stitches on the radio
There are also hints that the singer is merely relating another's story.
Remember when I knew a boxer, baby
"John O'Reilly" by Charlie Robison
They called my right a cannonball and my left they called the same
I left em' all lyin' half in blood and half in shame
This one has the perfect feeling of an Irish drinking song, but also is a rouser like one of those epic ballads about some hero or legend. Instead, it's about an ordinary guy. The real inspiration for the song is the supposedly crooked boxer's trick of being paid to take a fall and then betting on himself to win. It reminds me of Brad Pitt's character in Guy Ritchie's movie, Snatch.
They rang the bell two times before I let him have my nose
And I let him work my left until my eye was swollen closed
Then I let loose a right that they still talk about today
For that guinea didn't know that I had bet the other way
Such a dangerous gambit depends entirely upon getting away with it. The seemingly ordinary guy has it covered, so maybe he was a hero of sorts after all.
They covered every dock and every port there on the coast
Looking for that double crosser who had turned into a ghost
But I was on a train my friend that rode the other way
And i'll sail from California back to Dublin one fine day
"No Mercy" by Nils Lofgren
Lofgren gained most of his fame and accolades for his musicianship supporting Neil Young, Lou Reed, and as an honorary E-Streeter behind Springsteen, but he has also put out over 20 albums of his own or with his band Grin. This is one of his most popular songs, Several slightly different, electric, acoustic, and solo, versions appear on many of his albums. It is the age old story of the younger challenger trying to wrest the title from the aging, but still proud champion.
Out for the first, the atmosphere is heavy World title lays on the line
Strong and proud he is much older I am the faster I'm in my prime
The song is more about the old champ. The kid wants the title, but he respects and feels for the man he must take it from. He hears the old man's girlfriend crying, his old mother glaring at him. He wishes he could get the title some other way.
I wish another could do this thing for me
His eyes are flooded, doubt he can even see
I hungered this title but now it don't seem right
I fight back tears while I destroy his life
The refrain repeated like a bloody relentless attack says it all:
Cry, no mercy, no quarter
No place to hide for me or the man
Right and wrong never came in harder
No mercy, take it while you can, now!
No mercy, take it while you can