Marcus Dowling is a current music journalist and former independent professional wrestling manager. No one associated with BYT knows more about the squared circle than Marcus so we asked him to review the brand new The Mountain Goats record, Beat The Champ, a 13-track concept album about wrestling.
In 1982, at the precocious age of 15, Mountain Goats lead singer John Darnielle was likely exposed to San Antonio, Texas-based Southwest Championship Wrestling (SCW), then airing nationwide on the USA Network. One year later, in 1983, by the time Darnielle was 16, Vince McMahon and the Stamford, Connecticut-based World Wrestling Federation had swooped in, purchasing the one-hour time slot from SCW promoter Joe Blanchard. Given that Monday Night Raw is still shown on the USA Network, in one fateful move, pro wrestling history was forever changed. Intriguingly enough, the idea of what could have been if Blanchard and his promotion didn’t become a historical footnote is explored via Darnielle and The Mountain Goats just-released indie rock album Beat The Champ.
Just like rock and roll, pro wrestling is amazing because it’s one of the few uniquely American art forms that when performed at the height of its craft can accurately portray the full depth and scope of human emotions. Thus, for as much as every journal you’ve likely read discussing Beat the Champ prior to its release has this album pegged as some sort of “kitschy hipster wrestling story,” it’s actually something much more. In using pro wrestling as a backdrop for plunging into the depth and scope of the human condition, it’s unique, instantaneously connective, and possibly one of 2015’s tour-de-force releases to date.
Ask Barbara Goodish if “Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan” is some sort of cutesy public interest story. Well, in her case it’s not, as the song is the Mountain Goats’ moody and rumbling retelling of the very real murder of her husband (and occasional SCW combatant) Frank “Bruiser Brody” Goodish in San Juan, Puerto Rico prior to a wrestling event. The reason for Jose “Invader I” Gonzalez (who yes, is still very much alive, still wrestling and amazingly enough fully exonerated in the case of Brody’s murder) murdering Brody is still unknown, and one of pro wrestling’s most significant real-life mysteries.
“The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” and “The Ballad of Bull Ramos” are terrific, as if Joe Blanchard were still alive today, he’d be amazed that the Mexican and Native American he cast as a babyface (good guy) and heel (bad guy) respectively in order to placate the many Mexican and Native American fans of his San Antonio-based territory had actually gotten over (become popular) with a white guy. Darnielle is obviously very much a lifelong wrestling fan, as mentioned in “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” are Chavo’s brothers Hector and Mando, as well as Chavo’s son Chavo Jr. and Chavo Jr.’s now deceased uncle Eddie. Eddie, for more recent wrestling fans being one of the most legendary and decorated veterans from wrestling’s modern era. Briefly alluding to Chavo and Chavo Jr.’s brief period of working together in the WWE in 2004? That’s the kind of adding on that’s done for super-aware wrestling fans (and one-time wrestlers like myself) who are listening and would light up the internet in protest if the mention was not made.
Most of this album plays with tropes of the ring like foreign objects, heel turns (when good guys become bad guys), throwing fireballs (aka lighting balled up flash paper with a lighter in the palm of your hands and then throwing the flaming flash paper at another wrestler), hair vs. hair matches and being masked and un-masking as ways in order to “solve” the conundrums of life within a 20 foot x 20 foot wrestling ring. However, when these concepts are removed from the squared circle, we find an artist and band mightily at struggle with themselves and their humanity.
Great albums feel like they showcase an artist that has come full circle, in the end excelling because they’re now able to take a step ahead and break a cycle. For roughly three-quarters of his life, John Darnielle has watched pro wrestling and clearly used the squared circle to assist in solving issues within his own life. Committing those existential struggles to a record that examines them through 30-year-old wrestling tales is brave. Even braver yet is finding the strength through these songs to don the metaphorical cape, tights and boots of Chavo Guerrero, brandish the wooden folding chair like a wild-eyed Bruiser Brody, or don the mask of Mil Mascaras and vanquish the various Bull Ramos villains apparent in his own life. In feeling the euphoric relief of being convinced that Darnielle’s emotional burden has been released via the album, it – more so than any accomplishment from any of the Hall of Famer’s mentioned in 45 minutes – may be the recording’s greatest victory.
Comparable to what is stated in album-opening song “Southwest Territory,” life is oftentimes a main event that’s a two-out-of-three-falls contest. Though a crafty heel might choke you out in the first fall, there’s still two falls remaining. Can Chavo win with the Gory Guerrero Special in the exciting third fall? Of course. More often that not in wrestling, the babyface reigns supreme.