The hardest lesson any wrestling fan learns while growing up isn’t that wrestling is fake; it’s learning that wrestlers are real. The men and women behind the death-defying stunts and gaudy outfits all battle with their own demons — ones that don’t fall within the good guy/bad guy dichotomy like the morality play they perform on a daily basis. Maybe it’s a grotesque injury that awakens the realization in a young fan of pro grappling. Maybe it’s the news that a former wrestler had to enter rehab for a painkiller addiction picked up during his time in the squared circle. Maybe, it’s something much worse and more permanent. Whatever the case, it happens to every wrestling fan, and it happened to John Darnielle.
On the Mountain Goats’ Beat The Champ, out this week, Darnielle turns his narrative songwriting eye towards professional wrestling, but he mines the darkest corners of the industry for his stories. Specifically, he paints evocative pictures of the wrestlers who never got their moment in the sun. These are not the wrestlers you know, the ones that have made enough money to support their broken-down bodies and multiple alimonies. They are the ones that bleed, and hurt, and ultimately die for the chance to be a legend. They are the road warriors that traverse this country, or the world, to wrestle in front of 30 people in a dilapidated high school gymnasium. They are the forgotten troops in the battle for the audience’s attention — a battle professional wrestling seems to always lose in the end, but one it feels comfortable fighting over and over.
To say that pro wrestling is looked down upon is to say that it is even looked at in the first place. Aside from the few crossover moments and even rarer crossover stars, wrestling is seen as a weird, immature niche that perhaps invades your Twitter feed every so often. Why, then, would a band as intelligent and beloved among pseudo-highbrow indie fans as the Mountain Goats deep dive into historically lowbrow territory, and in such a heartfelt way? Because Darnielle, like the devoted fandom that follows wrestling, was not just entertained by weekly shows on grainy black-and-white televisions; he was saved by them. The men and women who stepped through those ropes touched his younger self’s sense of wonder, telling stories of justice and righteousness and otherworldly conquests that helped them fight their own battles against an unforgiving outside world.
In a way, this is what wrestling and songwriting have most in common, what sits at the heart of Beat The Champ: storytelling as salvation. While the rules and boundaries of each medium differ, the broad aim is the same: to tell a story that touches people through the ages. The same way a particularly uplifting chorus might warm the heart of someone a decade after it was first recorded, the joyful culmination of a career’s journey can send shivers through the sands of time, regardless of what happens afterwards. The unique stories that wrestling tells, despite its scripted nature and at times vile sensibilities, are all cut from the same cloth as the most powerful songs, because they come with the context that these characters are played by real people with real wounds opening in front of the eyes of the world.
And it is those wounds that Darnielle explores here, because they are far and away the most important ones that wrestling has to offer. Beat The Champ is oozing with loss and demise; unfortunately, that is what you are left with when you put your body through wrestling’s rough roads. These are the songs between the ropes, the ones of injury and death that come from the search for triumph and glory. The 27 Club is a very real result of living hard and chasing musical immortality, and unfortunately, the same concept applies to wrestling. It just takes longer to play out, all in front of our very eyes.
“Heel Turn 2,” which feels like the tender heart at the center of Beat The Champ, sees Darnielle singing about a good man turning evil, the titular heel turn that exclaims, “I don’t want to die in here” as trash rains down from the ceiling, thrown by angered fans. But really, he’s singing about the beating one takes attempting to be a virtuous man in such a violent business. An oft-quoted future evildoer once said, “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain,” and it appears that wrestling tattooed that mantra onto its very soul. The punishment taken by these performers either claims them young and glorious (like it did Owen Hart when he propelled to his own death inside the ring, a symbol of what this entertainment does to the characters within its twisted play), or molds them into broken versions of themselves (like Chris Benoit, whose fractured brain led him to murder his loved ones and then turn his rage on himself).
These are all things Darnielle understands, which is why his band’s wrestling-inspired album is so obsessed with, and so consumed by, death. The growing pains of wrestling within society are nothing compared to the very real injury these men and women inflict on themselves, especially in days now gone by, when Darnielle was a young boy searching for a colorful hero to help him overcome the demons in his own life. Their importance to his upbringing shines through Beat The Champ, particularly because their value is contrasted by the price they paid to get there. Though wrestling may be considered by most to be “fake” and tasteless, Darnielle understands and truthfully depicts that, to the wrestlers of legend, there is nothing fabricated about the toll paid for their place in history. That dichotomy might be the most powerful and the most tragic story of all.