It’s “Songs Tom Russell has written about boxers” Sunday on IchLugeBullets.com!
Tom Russell is a 58-year-old man who wrote songs for Johnny Cash, taught English in Southern Nigeria during the middle of the Biafran War, and kept Charles Bukowski as a penfriend. He then went on to record an album about his friendship with Bukowski from the viewpoint of a fictitious circus midget. He’s written detective novels, produced in-house music for circuses and strip bars, and has to me what a ravaged voice is meant to sound like, not some fucking Tom Waits “If Alex Higgins was American” shit. Proper grit 40 sandpaper vocals. You don’t listen to enough Tom Russell, for reasons that are beyond me. His back catalogue tends to deal with three things: ballads for lost Cowboy America, Mexican criminals, and boxers being hella fucked up. Here’s a Sunday tribute to the four best songs he wrote about the final of those three.
Muhammad Ali (from the album “Modern Art”)
Pro record: Won 56, lost 5, drawn 0. 37 knockouts.
Best rap lyric that also mentions this guy: “From New York to Cali, none’ll fuck with the awkward/You think Muhammad Ali used to talk shit?”
It’s a brave man who performs a song that has to go head-to-head with Kellz’s “The World’s Greatest” for the title of “Best Tribute to Everyone’s Favourite Sufi”, but Russell copes with the pressure here. It’s a simple-as-anything retelling of the Ali story – throwing belts in rivers, whitefeathering Vietnam, being a little bit mean to George Foreman – but it plays well because it’s a folk ballad, folk ballads support great heroes of the people, and who the fuck else came out of the 20th century with as much compound goodwill as Ali did? I can only think of Archie Gemmill, and nobody’s writing tunes celebrating him.
The Eyes of Roberto Duran (from the album “The Long Way Round”)
Pro record: Won 103, lost 16, drawn 0. 70 knockouts.
Best rap lyric that also mentions this guy: “I’m trying to hit you then put you in the middle of the round like I’m Roberto Duran, no mas”
This actually reminds me of a relationship with one of my ex-girlfriends, although to be fair to the girl in question she was nothing like Roberto Duran. She would have boxed at heavyweight, for one. Tom Russell appears to be implying throughout this track that the reason that the “Manos de Piedra” became one of the greatest pugilists in history was because Hispanic women can be a fucking nightmare to deal with, and so he took out all his aggression on Sugar Ray Leonard, Carlos Palomino, Paul Thorn et al. It’s certainly a theory.
The Pugilist at 59 (from the album “Love and Fear”) (which mentions Archie Moore)
Pro record: Won 185, lost 23, drew 11. 131 knockouts.
Best rap lyric that also mentions this guy: Umm… the one where Big Pun says he has “the skills of a mongoose?”
Still can’t believe there’s no rap tune shouting out Archie Moore. There’s an entire fucking rapper who named himself after fucking Vinny Pazienza (50-10-0), and yet the hip-hop community doesn’t show the Mongoose any love back? Lame. “The Pugilist at 59” is taken from Russell’s most recent studio album, “Love and Fear”, 11 tracks that catalogue his lifetime experiences with women, hence the “My ex-girlfriends laughing from the icebox door/I put their photos up there/Yeah, we talk all the time” line. A stunningly haunting song, although it does remind me of that “Hardest game in the world, that” guy from The Fast Show.
Shipwreck Kelly (From the album “Museum of Memories”)
Pro record: Won 1, lost 2, drew 0. 1 knockout (record incomplete)
Best rap lyric that also mentions this guy: Fuck rap, Shipwreck Kelly was the original “flagpole sitter”, so it’s time to cut off my legs now I’m an amputee goddamn you.
Earl, or possibly Alvin depending on which website you look at, Kelly was a stuntman and boxer from the late 1920s who gained his nickname from his habit of being “shipwrecked” against the ropes, on account of him being fucking useless as a boxer (1-2-0 is a heavily incomplete record, bizarrely enough nobody was keeping tabs on 20s schlub boxers’ w/l records back in the day). However, what he did excel at was gimmicky, leading him to invite the concept of “flagpole sitting”: literally sitting on top of a flagpole for weeks, months on the bounce, in order to drum up interest in his fights, movie pratfalls, or just him as a fantastic human being. Russell’s song imagines him to have ended up his days drunk (both punch and gin-induced) in a pub moping about his life’s failures. Which is a pretty accurate guess.