The Mountain Goats - Beat the Champ
Acquired: Merge Records Mail Order, New, 2015
The day after I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, John Darnielle announced the new Mountain Goats record. I took it as a silver lining and immediately ordered the deluxe edition, no questions asked. I remember something about the color of the vinyl: one gold, the color of the championship belt. One green, the color of the money made. Holding the records now and having spent significant time with this beautiful record, it's bittersweet. There's the glory mixed with the fact that pro wrestling is a job done by hired professionals to sell it as reality.
What JD does so well here is drive home the fact that while the outcomes may be scripted, wrestling isn't fake. It's an industry populated by real people making the most of their chosen profession. These are tales from a time when heels might still get the shit beat out of them in the parking lot. Years before the nod and the wink of the WWE and wrestling's acceptance as a sort of people's theater.
I'm sure every review of Beat the Champ has featured the writer's own personal history with professional wrestling, because I'm sure most of us have one. If you were a child, there was no doubt a phase where you and your brother practice frog spashes and suplexes on oversized stuffed animals (and each other) on your parents bed when they were at work. We made gimmicks modeled after our heroes: Stone Cold Steve Austin, the Undertaker, Edge, and all three faces of Mick Foley who might as well have represented the Holy Trinity in those days: Mankind, Dude Love, and Cactus Jack. The father, the son, and the hardcore holy ghost. The gods of the Attitude Era. We fiercely despised Ted Turner's WCW and tuned in diligently every week to Monday Night Raw even though our tuning in didn't influence the ratings of the Monday Night Wars. This will all sound like white noise to those who suffered through more highbrow childhoods reading books while being raised by parents who took them to museums on weekends, but for me, there were a solid three years where I lived and died by wrestling.
I'm writing this from my childhood bedroom in the basement of my parents house where I am staying in isolation due to the radioactive iodine therapy that will allegedly wipe out the rest of the thyroid cells in my body. There's a notebook buried down here that contains the complete kayfabe history and lineage of the matches, feuds, and title changes amongst the giant tub of WWF wrestling figures now sitting in the laundry room. I printed images of belts off the internet and superglued them to pieces of felt affixed with tiny pieces of velcro. I hand painted the Jakks Pacific figures when their gimmicks changed. I was SERIOUS about this shit. At 12 years old, I thoughtfully booked my own federation in the Hrabe Basement Territory. I told stories, crafted drama, and had insane matches. I made my dad take me to the hardware store to buy chicken wire so I could build a Hell in a Cell (complete with a trap door in the roof to recreate Mankind getting choke slammed through the damn cage and onto the mat below). I cut the hell out of myself building it and every time I played with it, but every major “Pay Per View” in my lineage had to have a hell in the cell match. My Luna action figure featured “real” hair, which ended up getting singed off in a no holds barred no disqualification match for the women's title. Other wrestlers were blown up with firecrackers. Thrown off the deck. Nearly cooked alive in a “Grill Match.” It was an insane fantasy playground, and it's the main reason I fell in love with storytelling. It's why I love books and movies and why I write. It facilitated a creative awakening and though I no longer follow “sports entertainment,” as it is called these days, I take offense anytime someone throws shade on wrestling.
John Darnielle understands this, and it's why these amazing character studies are some of his best work in a body that has consisted of solidly great work consistently since 1999. There are a lot of ballads to pair up with a lot of heartbreak, and the quietest moments—as on the showstopping “Unmasked” or the heart wrenching closer “Hair Match”--leave you breathless. Then there are the big, rollicking tributes to Chavo Guerrero Sr and Bull Ramos that really capture the larger-than-life legacies of these regular dudes who meant so much to so many people. Especially Darnielle, who in “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” notes in regard to his abusive stepfather: “You let me down but Chavo never once did/ You called him names to try to get beneath my skin/ Now your ashes are scattered on the wind.” Fuckin' A.
Some of the songs get violent, like the surprisingly joyous “Foreign Object” which is about stabbing someone in the eye with the titular object, and the brief, fist pumping “Choked Out” where the subject absolutely glamorizes his hardcore style and issues no-bullshit statements like “Everybody's got their limits/Nobody's found mine.” And then like the genius he is, Darnielle twists that line on the next track (and the album's finest song) “Heel Turn 2.” “You found my breaking point, congratulations” proclaims the beloved babyface actively turning the crowds cheers in to hissing boos. It's full of quiet desperation, sadness, and bittersweet satisfaction. Beat the Champ is maybe the most goddamn bittersweet album I've ever heard, based on the fact that I've used that word like four times and that word runs through my head every time I play the album.
I only had a chance to listen the record on vinyl once before going into isolation, but it was a wonderful experience. I was running around the house, baby in arms, trying to get everything ready for my extended leave from the household (read: getting my gaming consoles packaged up for transport). Thyroid cancer is a highly beatable cancer and Beat the Champ has helped my attitude tremendously these last few months. Whenever I started feeling uneasy about facing mortality, I just put on “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” or “The Ballad of Bull Ramos” or “Werewolf Gimmick” and said fuck cancer. When the doctor brought out the radioactive iodine in a lead container this afternoon, I thought of it like a folding chair or a foreign object. It might not make it a fair fight, but when you get ambushed all bets are off. I felt like Ric Flair talking trash when I muttered, “Cancer, kiss my ass” before I threw back the radioactive iodine pills, no doubt embarrassing myself in front of the doctors but feeling goddamn great about having so much power put in my hands after months of feeling powerless. Beat the Champ isn't Tallahassee or The Sunset Tree and some of the melodies feel cribbed from All Eternals Deck and Transcendental Youth, but it's probably the best songwriting you're going to find anywhere in 2015 and I love this album more than words can adequately express because it was the album I needed.
"The Legend of Chavo Guerrero"
"Heel Turn 2"