What I’m Reading: Singer-Songwriter Mark Kozelek (or Sun Kil Moon, if you prefer)

 

– Photo courtesy of Caldo Verde Records

Maybe the most convincing evidence of Mark Kozelek as a boxing fan, I mean the tried and true variety, is not that he sings about spending 17 grand on Mayweather-Pacquiao tickets in “This is My First Day and I’m Indian and I Work at a Gas Station,” but the fact that he named a song “Tavoris Cloud.” There was a brief stretch in the early years of this decade when Cloud had the look of a contender at Light Heavyweight (175 pounds), but a decisive 2013 loss to then-48 year old Bernard Hopkins threw water on that claim. Cloud has since lost to Adonis Stevenson (a largely risk-averse champion at Light Heavyweight) and Artur Beterbiev, a hard-punching Russian fighter, albeit one with somewhat crude technique. My point? Cloud is a marginal figure, and boxing today is a niche sport. Fans who haven’t abandoned ship by now simply aren’t going to, and Kozelek is one of those fans.

I’m wary of using a particular sport as a metaphor for life. Baseball in particular seems to get that treatment, probably thanks to the fact that tedious old men like George Will are fans. If I had to go that route, though, boxing is the obvious choice. Even as the sport has lost relevance culturally, language from it remains a touchstone. Beyond that, though, there’s the fact that, with the same meager equipment and relatively simple rules, two fighters enter the ring, match strength, speed, skill, and endurance, and one emerges victorious (barring the rare draw). “Duk Koo Kim,” from Ghosts of the Great Highway, is Kozelek (as Sun Kil Moon) at his best, deftly linking mortality (his own, as well as that of the people dear to him) with a tragic episode from boxing history, Duk Koo Kim’s death following a fifteen-round title fight against Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini in 1982.

If you’ve ever seen the Mancini-Kim fight, it’s unforgettable, the electric atmosphere of it and the looming disaster you can hardly believe is coming, Kim fights so hard, so relentlessly in the face of Mancini’s greater skill and punching power. It was a Saturday afternoon fight, outdoors in Las Vegas, outside Caesar’s Palace. There was sunshine, a CBS broadcast, and celebrities were on hand to see the acclaimed American Mancini take on the largely unheralded Kim, who, legend has it, wrote words variously translated as, “Kill or Be Killed,” or “Either he dies or I do,” on his dressing room mirror prior to the fight.

 Kim was knocked out in the 14th round – for more on Mancini and Kim, try Mark Kriegel’s book The Good Son. Kozelek sings,

Woken up from a dream last night
Somewhere lost in war
I couldn’t feel my feet or hands
I didn’t feel right anymore

I knew there I’d die alone
With no one to reach to
But an angel came down
And brought me back to you

Two verses later, he shifts to what seems like a mundane detail at first – “Watching an old fight film last night/Ray Mancini and Duk Koo Kim” – and goes on with admiration of Kim, singing, “The boy from Seoul was hanging on good,” before making the turn and noting, “But the pounding took to him.” We flash to the end of the fight then, and Kozelek sings,

And there in the square he lay alone
Without face, without crown
And the angel who looked upon him
She never came down

There aren’t a better two dozen words about boxing than that verse, and a great many talented writers have tried their hand. Kozelek has a feel for the magic of the language around boxing – think “felled by leather/So alone but/Bound together” (from “Salvador Sanchez”). I’m not saying he’s AJ Liebling, or that “Duk Koo Kim” is The Sweet Science, but as good as Liebling was (and if asked, he’d tell you he was “better than the fastest and faster than the best”), he never wrote one good song. Kozelek ends the Kim section of “Duk Koo Kim” by noting that, “You never know/What day is gonna pick you, baby,” and he seems to be singing about Kim and himself and someone he loves, all at once.

It’s been said that Kozelek is a misanthrope, or a curmudgeon, or something in that line. I don’t know the guy, or much care one way or the other, so I can’t confirm or deny those rumors. The music I can vouch for, on its merits. What I can also tell you is that he readily shared a list of boxing books he loves (and yeah, I made sure to grab a copy of the Fraser Scott book before posting this). So, without further ado:

Weigh- In (Fraser Scott)

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  • Photo via abebooks.com
    This one is about Fraser Scott’s grappling with being a fighter in the northwest during the late 60s peace movement. There’s a great story of his love affair with a hippy and a detailed account of being poisoned by opponent’s promoter, plus his build up to his big fight with Nino Bevenutti.

Going the Distance ( Ken Norton)

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  • Photo via amazon.com

Great rags to riches story, covering his early days in the military to his trilogy with Ali, to his retired days as an intimidating dad who scares his daughter’s dates away.

Dark Trade (Donald McRae)

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  • Photo via amazon.com

Great look at 90s politics in boxing including an extensive interview with Prince Naseem Hamed.

Atlas ( Teddy Atlas)

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  • Photo via amazon.com

One of the most interesting trainers in boxing history. Great behind the scenes stories of training young fighters. He tells us how he got his  face slashed  by a razor blade in a street fight. He gives a detailed account of threatening Mike Tyson with a pistol, his stuggles with trying keeping the eccentric  Michael Moorer stable during his training for his George Foreman fight, and his days as a commentator for ESPN.

Rebel Sojourner JACK JOHNSON (Theresa Rundstedler)

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  • Photo via amazon.com

Encyclopedic account of Jack Johnson’s life. covers his early days in Galveston, TX,, being embraced by France while escaping harassment by racist USA authorities , his days in Fort Leavenworth, his journeys to Australia and Cuba for big fights.

Mark Kozelek/Sun Kil Moon will be touring New Zealand and Australia in May and June. He’ll be back in the US this fall. 

 

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