Friday, January 23, 2015

Boxing's Last Chance Saloon: Jonathan Rendall's This Bloody Mary Is The Last Thing I Own and Scream: The Tyson Tapes

I've long been fascinated by boxing, no doubt stemming from having spent my childhood watching televised boxing in the 1950s and 60s with my dad, who, as a ringside photographer in Chicago and Detroit during the 1930s and 40s, shot photos of any number of fighters like Joe Louis, Barney Ross, Henry Armstrong, Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta. So I have fond memories of watching fighters like  Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, Archie Moore, Willie Pep, Kid Gavilan and Carmen Basilio, on TV every Friday night, as well as local boxers like Art Aragon, Carlos Ortiz, Lauro Salas, and Pajarito Moreno on Wednesday and Saturday night live from the Hollywood Legion Stadium (presented by Lenny Bruce's pal Hank Weaver) and the Olympic Auditorium. I continued watching, following it fairly closely through the era of Ali, then Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Tommy Hearns, up to early Tyson. I also watched, but was usually disappointed by most British boxers, with the possible exception of the Sheffield boxer Herol Graham, known, during the 1980s, for being unhittable until a glass-jaw contradicted that notion, turning the canvas into his best friend.

Still, it's the precision and intelligence of fighters  that I've always liked, which is why I've always preferred boxers rather than battlers. It was only during the Tyson's era that my interest really began to wane. It seemed that boxing had turned into even more of a spectacle- though I suppose that began The Rumble In the Jungle- and, in addition, more blood thirsty than ever. Maybe it was Tyson's remarks about wanting to make his opponents suffer, or watching what amounted to vengeance fights. In the UK, boxing, for me, reached its saturation point in the Eubanks and Benn and Eubanks and Watson fights. The atmosphere in those fights was genuinely scary.  Moreover, by that time it had become normal for a fighter to bad mouth his opponent. Perhaps that also had started with Ali, though no one after Ali did it with the same panache and humour. Suddenly fighters and fans alike seemed to be baying for blood, as if they were watching animals rather than humans fight. Boxing was never pretty but suddenly it had turned downright ugly.

Having said that, I still enjoy reading about past fighters, particularly from the era when I first started watching the sport. And there are a number of such books to choose from, most, if not all, typified by an  strong emphasis on style, a quality they share in common with their subjects. Amongst my favourites are  classic texts by A.J. Liebling (The Sweet Science), Budd Schulberg (The Harder They Fall) and Mailer (The Big Fight), but also Joyce Carol Oates (On Boxing), Katherine Dunn (One Ring Circus), W.C. Heinz (The Professional), F.X. Toole (Rope Burns), as well as Jose Torres and Geroge Kimball. And, of course, my favorite boxing novel, Leonard Gardner's Fat City (also my favorite boxing movie).

To that list of books I'll gladly add  Jonathan Rendall, having recently read Jonathan Rendall's This Bloody Mary Is the Last Thing I Own (1997) and the posthumously published Scream: The Tyson Tapes (2014). Both provide an inside look into the sport, from everyday, even low-life, aspects to how it functions at the highest level.  Rendall, an Oxford-educated Brit, died a few years ago, at age 48, was legendary amongst journalists. His ability as a writer matched by his inability to meet a deadline. Yet he could conjure up the atmosphere of the sport with the best of them, a sport that he, like myself, loved and hated in equal measures.

In between the above two books he managed to grind out two others. In 1999 there was Twelve Grand: The Gambler as Hero. An offer he couldn't resist: a publisher fronting him £12,000 to gamble with as he saw fit on the condition that he would write about it.  With an obvious nod to his literary hero, Dostoyevsky, Rendall recounted his adventure with humour and pathos. He then parlayed that book into a three-part Channel 4 TV series, and, of course, another twelve grand. In the TV series he travelled to various race courses and gambling sites in Britain, Las Vegas and Australia, always observing, always involved in whatever action happened to be going down, including a two-day relationship with a woman he picks up in a casino.

Then there was Garden Hopping in 2006, about the search for his birth mother- a search that ended in disappointment. He also penned a drinking column for the Observer, entitled The Last Chance Saloon, as well as writing for the Times, The Correspondent, The Telegraph and The Independent on Sunday. Clearly, Rendall had problems when it came to drinking and gambling, which led to some tricky situations. Like the time a Sunday newspaper commissioned him to interview boxing trainer Brendan Ingle, which ended in Rendall hiding out in a sauna to avoid some thugs who wanted to beat him up. Or in This Bloody Mary... when he's held hostage in a hotel by some menacing security guys who demand money from him.  The opening sentence of The Last Bloody Mary... captures Rendall's writing style and full-tilt manner perfectly: "It was a few hours after Frank Bruno attacked me at Betty Boop's bar in the lobby of the MGM Grand that I decided to get out of boxing."

This Bloody Mary... was good enough to win the Somerset Maugham Award in 1998, previously awarded to Angela Carter, John Le Carré, Ted Hughes and Dorris Lessing.  Rendall not writes about boxing, but he writes about about writing about boxing. Which is unusual. Or maybe I'm partial because I share with Rendall an appreciation of the nimble Herol Graham and his shadow Prince Naseem.  Not only does Rendall enjoy hanging-out with old-timers like the East Ender and former champion Jack Kid Berg, as well as an assortment of insiders, might-have-beens and never-would-bes, but he wasn't afraid to actually manage  the formidable and stylish Colin McMillan, which he writes about in some detail.  Sad, funny, obsessive and insightful, This Bloody Mary... gives you a picture of the fight game that few other books offer. And worth reading if only for Rendall's search for the legendary Cuban boxer Kid Chocolate, whom he eventually finds living in distressing circumstances in Havana:
"Kid Chocolate sat down on one of his chairs and opened his mouth to speak. But rum trickled out instead through his cracked lips stained with tobacco, like lava suddenly spewed from a long-extinct volcano. His voice when it emerged was a hoarse whisper, and he formed words with difficulty, each syllable accompanied by the widening of the eyes and a grin, as if greeting every tortured sound as an old, forgotten friend."

Scream: The Tyson Tapes once again displays Rendall's double-edged attitude towards the sport, but he demonstrates this in a totally different way. Unlike This Bloody Mary..., Rendall is anything but the centre of the narrative.  In fact, he's barely present at all. Edited after Rendall's death  by the always perceptive sports and music writer Richard Williams, it offers, through a number of voices, a total picture of Tyson, not missing out on any of the latter's ups or downs. You come away from the book feeling pity for the former heavyweight champion,  who, given his early years, seemed to lack the most rudimentary social skills, relying, instead, on a jail-house mentality that demanded he use others before they could use him. Which both he and they did, including his former friends and boxing team, as well as the women around him. Rendall lets them all speak for themselves, with everyone contributing a different take on Tyson. In the end it's a rather touching if not totally sympathetic portrait of a once great fighter.  Rendall, like a gaming table version of Hunter Thompson crossed with an adventurous Jeffrey Barnard, died too young, having produced too little.  But what he did produce is well worth seeking out.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Young Bird: Kansas City Lightning by Stanley Crouch

Though I've sometimes disagreed with him,  I've always had a soft spot for Stanley Crouch. Even in that hot-house tete-a-tete with the likes of one-time Miles sideman Mtume, I admired Crouch's defence of pre-electronic Miles, though I also had time for his adversaries. And I've long admired Crouch's essays in books like Notes of a Hanging Judge and Celebrating Genius. A musician, essayist, novelist, poet and radical traditionalist, Crouch is as qualified as anyone, and more than most, to revise Charlie Parker's life and legacy. Thirty years in the making, Kansas City Lightning covers Bird's early Kansas City years, up to his first trip to New York and return to K.C..

Crouch has certainly done his research, a good deal of it deriving from oral testimony.  The opening section on the Jay McShann's arrival at the Woodside in Harlem, with young Charlie Parker on alto, is pretty much worth the price of the book on its own.  Every sentence is a gem:

"The rest of the country may have been gearing up for war, but these musicians, known as the Jay McShann Orchestra, had been at war most of their lives. They were jazzmen, and that meant fighting with many a rival band for the affections of the dancers, and fighting with other individual musicians and aggregations for a place in the world of music- whether second chair or first chair, local fame or national recognition... The point was to work at it and think about it and think about it until you'd produced a tone as recognizable as the texture of your own voice. Just as an outstanding individual has a walk, a way of carrying the body through space, or a way of adding unique particulars to a dance, an outstanding player had to work till he developed his own phrasing, his own rhythm.  Like a cook who can reinvent a familiar meal, he had to know how to mix his own musical batter, how to balance his own spices, how to fry an idea on one side before turning it over. All those things formed your style and style was what led to recognition. It was the difference between being an artisan and an artist."

While Ross Russell's forty-year old Bird Lives remains an excellent and important book by that Chandler and Hammett-influenced writer, Kansas City Lightning fills in the gaps in greater detail,  and does so in a manner that befits its subject, Crouch's style an amalgam of black bop prosody and American modernist prose. Though, as Crouch points out, Bird, during this period, was an elusive figure, like a character in a film in  one scene only to vanish and pop up somewhere else.

But Crouch responds with a vengeance, delving into Bird's early life. And there seems to be much there to discover.  Evoking America during the Depression,  Crouch is particularly good when describing the music coming out of those territorial bands, both with and without Bird. And he's fond shifting from the particular to the general, in this case from the biographical to the cultural. Some segues might seem a bit stilted, but they are invariably interesting and thought provoking. For instance, when Bird holds a gun to his wife's head after Rebecca has called him out for lying about a sexually explicit letter from another woman, Crouch shifts from Rebecca's defiance- "If you're going to point at my head ahead, you'd better kill me"-  to what lies behind that defiance,  i.e., how African Americans, particularly women, were meant to behave as opposed to how they were being portrayed in news reels of faraway places, making the gap between fact and fiction more than superficially important, the gun being something real rather than a prop or something carved from the imagination. In the real world, the likes of Rebecca were ready to give it all up for the truth. As was Bird when it came to his music. In fact, Crouch's book is as much about world surrounding Bird, as it is about Bird himself. Which doesn't nor shouldn't obscure the fact that KC Lightning is about the education of a musician, and no ordinary musician at that.

It's also about how Bird came to sound the way he did. Crouch is quick to point out that it wasn't that his playing was a reaction to Lester Young, Chu Berry or Coleman Hawkins. He wanted to be playing with, if not like, them, to be recognised for who he was and what he played. Of course, Bird had and an ear and an ability like no one else. But this is certainly no hagiography. In fact, Bird as a person doesn't come of it looking all that great. After all, because he gave himself totally to the music, personal relationships, unless they were directly related to the music, were likely to take a back seat. Likewise, Crouch doesn't shy from depicting Bird's callous treatment of his wife and child, whether selling Rebecca's clothes to buy drugs, or leaving her to fend for herself.

Because there are blank spots in Bird's day to day Kansas City life, Crouch is left to improvise on what he has uncovered or suspects. And he manages to improvise admirably. This is particularly the case regarding Bird's initial visit to NY. Though that period remains sketchy, Crouch points out that during that time Bird managed to stay drug free, though perhaps he felt he had to lest he trade his music for a life of crime. Still, the paucity of information doesn't stop Crouch from riffing on his subject, while deploying some stylish prose:

"By the time Charlie Parker arrived in New York that winter, he'd been wearing his shoes so long that his feet and legs were swollen out of shape. He had come the hard way, freezing in boxcars between towns, getting a roof over his head and breakfast from the Salvation Army, then taking to the rails again. But he took the bumps, scrapes and pricks of his journey in stride, because he'd finally gotten to the place at the far end of the country where he wanted to be. Slight or acute, pain was a traveling partner by now. He'd learned the weight that hypocrisy and chaos brought to his sense of life, how it felt to be alone and the target of contempt; how to bear the soreness that came with mastering his instrument..."  

Of course, Crouch has much information here that will be new and illuminating to those familiar and unfamiliar with Bird's biography. But Crouch moves from the particular to the general, interpreting Bird, and sounding fairly convincing in the process:

"There was a high-minded, contemplative side to Charlie, too, a habit of wondering how things would feel if the world were vastly different. As fascinated as he was by innovation and invention, he was more intrigued by the inspiration behind the invention- by how some human mind thought of each new idea. He recognized that thought was a pure thing not impeded by social circumstance. It had independent power. A C scale was a C scale, no matter who played it or why, which gave those notes- any notes- a spiritual quality. That's why the bandstand was a sacred place, and why it would have been difficult to ascertain much about the social conditions of the 1930s by listening to the Negro musicians of Charlie's era. They didn't evade life when they performed, whether in public or private; they entered its condition of freedom through their craft, discipline and inspiration. In the pure universe of musical tone, they were able to express themselves as exactly who they were, not as the limited icons that others, black or white, might mistake them for."

Parker's elusiveness even extends to the date and circumstances of his first known recording- Body and Soul/Honeysuckle Rose (see the clip below). A private recording from either 1939 or 1940, location unknown, on which Bird plays unaccompanied. It's there that Crouch ends the book, suggesting, with that recording, that something monumental was about to take place: "Parker, the young talent, was beginning to realize that no established genius, however rough, tough and dreamily hypnotic, could hear what he was hearing. Perhaps what he heard was his and his alone."  One thing for sure, this book will make you want to dust off or acquire recordings by the Blue Devils, Bennie Moten, Buster Smith, Jay McShann, and, of course, Bird.  It also made me want to go back to some of the old school critics, like Albert Muarry and Ralph Ellison, not to mention Langston Hughes. Based on this volume- another is in the pipeline- Crouch's combined book looks certain to be, if not the definitive Bird biography, one of the best biographies of a jazz musician you are likely to read in this or any other year.