From the March 18, 1971 issue of Rolling Stone…
After earning the title Heavyweight Champion of the World, “The Greatest” turned to a higher power—Allah.
Muhammad’s not been nailed that often.
It’s not something he’s used to. He’s gone 17 years in the ring without a scratch—not a lump, not a bump, no stitched tissue on his eyebrows, no crumpled cartilage in his nose, no errupted ganglia pushing through like gherkins under the skin. That delicate scar en his right eyelid’s from when as a kid in Louisville he ran his bicycle into a wall. Even his nipples are more like moles, no bigger than a penny. He’s still like brand new.
“Seventeen years! Unscratched! Seventeen years! This thing don’t worry me like it do you.”
His 39th pro fight and he’d never been beaten. Yet here he was, hurt and hanging on to this clumsy hog from Argentina who was trying to chop him down. About two minutes into the ninth round, that’s when Ringo was supposed to splinter and crumble like a hollow log, according to Muhammad’s prediction—and remember, he’s called the round right lots of times in the past, enough times that any fighter with his eyes open should be just a little bit more apprehensive coming into the voodoo round, watching for the bolt from the blue, challenging not just the most sensational heavyweight champ the world has ever seen but the decreed ambush of destiny.
And in case he had forgotten, surely Ringo could hear Howard Cosell agitating at ringside, reminding us all that this is the one—watch out—this is it, round nine, Bonavena’s Waterloo. But Ringo blundered cheerfully headlong into destruction—he was asking for it—paying no mind at all to Muhammad’s jive.
Then about two minutes into the round, the fates blinked, and he clobbered Muhammad with a cruel rib-cracker left. And, gasp, the champ sagged, his knees buckled. Ringo nearly had him! Already, in the fourth or fifth, Bonavena had bulled inside and belted him hard enough to slow his pace, and now. . .it can’t all end here.
Howard Cosell kept peaking. Where’s that lightning speed? Where’s that mystifying footwork? A unique kind of Japanese he speaks, with equal threatening stress on every resonant syllable. A lot of sportcasters talk like that, especially racecallers and ringsiders cool and constipated in the crossfire of living history. Walter Winchell started it, perhaps, but these days Cosell does it best—he’s the Caruso of sportstalk—and that night you could hear his sinuses vibrating. And he was right. Muhammad looked like a loafer.
Up against Jerry Quarry in Atlanta a few weeks earlier, his first fight in three and a half years, he had it pretty easy. Quarry’s a burly brute and he’s knocked out some powerful pugs. But he’s a lunkhead, and Joe Frazier cut him up so savagely it looked like the sucker’d been worked over with brass knuckles and a switchblade. Muhammad went for his eyes. Quick jabs opened up those old wounds, and within three rounds Quarry couldn’t see too well. Even if he could’ve his defense was shredded. So Muhammad hit him often, until he didn’t exactly drop but was slowed down to a blundering stumble, and they stopped it. Even so, it took too long, he escaped too often. Muhammad’s timing faltered. A lot of his punches were just pokes. He was rusty and underdone and never really hit his natural fascinatin’ rhythm.
And now, here was Ringo, that comelately upstart, soundly chastised if not almost thoroughly whupped, and the whole thing was starting up again.
The whole Muhammad Ali karmic boogaloo. The insolent goldenboy from Louisville, too beautiful to be beaten. Cassius Clay, didn’t that name have a righteous winner’s ring to it? Cassius Marcellus Clay, who put the hex on the heavies the way Joe Namath did it to the Baltimore Colts. Like when he was training for the Floyd Patterson fight, he christened Floyd “Rabbit” and went visiting with a few heads of lettuce and a bunch of carrots; and Floyd, poor bunny, had to fight for his dignity as well as his record and lost all around.
And when he fought the baddest man the pug-game ever produced—bad Sonny Liston—for the championship in Miami in 1964, Cassius appeared in a denim jacket with “Bear Huntin'” stitched on the back and kept on about how ugly Sonny was, just an ugly old bear, you so ugly you have to sneak up on the mirror so’s it won’t run off the wall, taunting and mocking, straining Liston’s lethal primeval cool which never cracked. But, sure enough, on the night, after six rounds, Sonny crumpled like a stricken grizzly.
The Louisville Lip, they called Cassius then; he was so brash and cocky and downright loudmouth arrogant and unsporting, downright uppity, and his poetry was such glorious street lingo sweettalk japery. Everywhere he went was an event, and he was always somewhere—strutting down Broadway stirring things up and swatting moths for the crowds, gatecrashing other fighter’s pressrooms.
Or tooling up to challenger George Chuvalo’s training camp in a shocking red Greyhound with Heavyweight Champion of the World painted four amazing feet high on both sides, loaded with champ-scuffs along for the ride, his cornermen and aides and valets and cooks and photographers. (And one of them was Bundini Brown, a particular companion who made up his mantra for him. They’d sit there and stare and glare at each other, their faces perhaps two inches apart, and bellow, “Float like a butterfly! Sting like a bee!” followed by three bloodcurdling, whooping war-cries. Cassius would sit back after that, aglow like neon, his blood humming. It was like shooting up, bellowing the mantra like that.) Even old uncle Stepin Fetchitt was on the bus for a while, bugging his eyes and shuffling his dogs just for shucks. And on that trip to Chuvalo’s, didn’t the Champ run the bus right off the road somewhere up in the Catskills? Wasn’t it in all the papers? Everywhere he went was an event, an appearance. People in the street flocked to him to feed the flame and catch his act. “The only difference between me and the Pied Piper,” he said, “is he didn’t have no Cadillac.”
Made you think of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion and the most flamboyant Southern nigger white America had ever seen back around the turn. And there’d been plenty since then—great infidels like Joe Louis and highgloss Sugar Ray and debonair Archie Moore. But the Lip was different. Here, after all, was The Greatest.
Consider his record: He fought 138 bouts as an amateur, starting when he was 12, won 130 and lost eight. In 1960, he won a Gold Medal in the 175-pound division at the Rome Olympics, which was the last anybody ever heard of the loser, Poland’s Ziggy Pietrzykowski.
It took him just four years to thrash all the ranking pros. Those he didn’t KO cold he magicked out—bewildered them with his fleet and graceful defensive choreography, forever quickstepping to his left, his left hand dangling low, inviting the other sucker to try, just try and mess his pretty puss, seductive and tempting, flirting with the sucker, daring him to get aggravated enough and foolhardy enough to wade in and try and nail him. And then, so fast the sucker never saw it coming, Cassius would unleash a combination of jabs and hooks and stingers that’d stop him in his tracks; and it was no use swinging a goodnight sledgehammer because already he’d be gone again, circling, backpeddling, devildancing, shifting his mass from foot to foot.
“I’m somethin’ new. I’m a pretty fighter. There ain’t never been a fighter as pretty as me. There ain’t never been a fighter that had my speed, and my grace.”
The fastest heavyweight ever, only twice knocked down (by English battler Henry Cooper and the late Sonny Banks, both times caught by sheer providence—lucky left hooks), never beaten, defying anybody to beat him because he was The Greatest. He said it so often it became an unproven fact in the national imagination. Then he proved it against Sonny Liston.
They called Sonny evil because he was a gangster and an ex-con and an alley-cat, and he kept unsavory company. And he mangled Floyd Patterson in Chicago in one minute flat. Sonny was, as Joe Flaherty put it, “a blatant mother in a fucker’s game.” And he was doomed, although few would’ve guessed then they’d find him face down in the garage this Christmas ten days dead of an overdose. Back then, Sonny was just the biggest and most barbaric ox ever to escape the slaughteryards, more than a match, we thought, for a loudmouth like Cassius. Well, after six rounds, Cassius had whupped Sonny so mercilessly he couldn’t get up off his chair. “A shokin’ and a dreadful night,” Cassius called it in case anybody had missed the terrible majesty of his performance.
It was 1964 and it seemed like he was invincible. He’d done everything he said he’d do, and he’d done it with such swagger and cavalier class and his own kind of voodoo braggadocio. He was the biggest star in the world. And all that time, here’s what he was thinking: “Fighters are just brutes that come to entertain the rich white people. Beat up each other and break each other’s noses, and bleed, and show off like two little monkeys for the crowd, killing each other for the crowd. And half of the crowd is white. We’re just like two slaves in that ring. The masters get two of us big black slaves and let us fight it out while they bet, ‘My slave can whup your slave.'”
Cassius was sponsored early in his career by a combine of oilmen and champagne millionaires known as the Louisville syndicate—Dixie czars, still dreaming of plantation days, rocking away long summer afternoons on first—floor verandas while ladies sipped sticky grenadine and black folk groveled gratefully in the dirt. Cassius’ own mother, in fact, had been a cook in one of those households. And now Cassius was Heavyweight Champion of the World, and like he said, “Nobody’s as great as the Heavyweight Champion.” What greater glory could he possibly seek? So you can imagine what they thought, these czars, sitting so proud and polite and secure on the veranda of uncurdled white lineage, when the Champ announced he’d found a new sponsor. Allah.
That’s where the whole karmic boogaloo left the rails, and Cassius changed roles. As Cassius Clay, the Louisville Lip in his big red bus outdazzling every opponent he could find, he’d been just another superstar—perhaps the greatest Champ in history—and the hottest celebrity in the world—but no more than that, no more than sheer sensational fame. Not to mention that many Decent People think boxing’s pretty lowlife anyway, some brutish bloodcrazed ceremonial that degrades the soul of the lunkheads in the ring and the perverts watching—and not just watching, you understand, but yelling, screaming some of them, running at the mouth, crowds of thousands gathered in the sweat and smoke, agog with violence. Even fight fans, who certainly don’t care if all that’s true, even the fight metaphysicians like Mailer and Baldwin—everybody who dug Cassius for his skill or his style got fooled by the Ali Shuffle. When Cassius accepted Islam, joined the Black Muslims and pledged himself to Elijah Muhammad, he renounced one national identity and took on another. As Muhammad Ali, he became a threat to the civilization that had adored Cassius Clay. He became a black avenging angel.
This was back in 1964, remember, when the Muslims had the country spooked. Elijah Muhammad was calling for a separate black republic, and blacks all over were just starting to get the rage, rejecting the benevolent paternalism of all those people who truly thought they’d been doing their best by singing folksongs in Mississippi and offering themselves up to the police dogs of Selma in sacrificial acts of conscience. So when Cassius got the rage and turned on the hands that had fed him all along, his defection resounded. “He upset the odds,” Malcolm X said at the time.
In William Klein’s film, Float Like a Butterfly/Sting Like a Bee, there’s this scene in a Muslim restaurant up in Harlem with all these menacing blacks sitting squashed in a booth—James X and Henry X were two of them, both of them talking with the monotonous ferocity of all true believers. And Henry X is saying: “Islam removed fear from Muhammad Ali. He crashed out of the prison of ignorance. This is what the white power structure is frightened of,” and going on about how whites for certain fact are all devils, and Malcolm X is a traitor (Malcolm X having recently quit the team, unable to front for some of Elijah Muhammad’s more august, not to mention imperial, messages from The Prophet, and beginning then to consolidate a much more essential radicalism of his own; soon to be shot).
Henry and the other Xs may have been the drones of the faith, but they were right about the Champ. He’d made a critical move.
Like Jack Johnson, he’d violated the bloodsport morality, he’d double-crossed the pug game, and he’d undergone the first change of heart alienating him from his national role. Unlike Jack Johnson, though, he didn’t feed the wrath of what the boys who run the pug game like to call the boxing fraternity—which is a powerful generic and helps to cohere as well as describe the international underworld of greedy schemers and meat-eating manipulators and mysterious pimps and unseen investment cabals and paunchy thrombotic commissioners who do the showbiz and handle the percentages, and all the plain bullies and shattered hulks with faces like puddings and the sly little trainers with spreading bellies and thinning scalps and vaseline on their hands who take care of the gristle—and what makes it a fraternity is the common fabulous conceit they all share that what’s at stake here is athuhletics; and they believe it, the way the Mafia believe they’re honest businessmen taking proper care of the community.
Johnson outraged the fraternity, and a great mass of the common public, by evil-eyeing all those fancy white foxes, worse still actually marrying one of them, and just generally carrying on like a profligate sultan on a bender, until they finally busted him on a frame-up for violating the Mann Act. Cassius, on the other hand, despite his flashy manners, was a moral Spartan. He’d always been an upright Sunday school Christian youngster, didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, didn’t even play golf. All his scandals were pranks.
Which only made him more menacing as a Muslim zealot: here was this black prince in his prime, still so fresh, blessed almost, not a single scratch, and he wasn’t out partying and shooting the shit and just generally jiving about in his palomino Eldorados. All of a sudden he’d got the rage and he’d become a terrible black scourge, holy-light in his big mischievous eyes, scorning the fraternity, putting the mau-mau on the ringsiders, getting up at a press conference before the return bout with Liston which was due not long after Malcolm X’s murder and all those assassination rumors fingering the Muslims were skidding around the pug game and there was even a scare that some crazy might take a shot at Muhammad in the ring for revenge, but he wasn’t afraid. “There are only two men scarin’ me,” he got up and said, “Elijah Muhammad. And Allah.”
And when they asked him about being The Greatest, feeding him leads, stoking for a bit of the old Lip, he said, with the utmost burning Pauline ardor—”Allah is the greatest.”
That, anyway, was the first fright. He shed himself, jilted the Championship. The fraternity, and the nation, weren’t sure anymore just who they had, he’d magicked them out, and it wasn’t long before the backlash began. There were stories about the Muslims shaking him down for vast sums of money. As for that, he said:
“That’s a joke. They went and made a special law for boxers, the Joe Louis Law. The group in Louisville made an agreement with the American government that I could get none of my money until I paid 90 percent of the maximum tax to the government first, just because they feared me helping my religion. They feared me helping to educate black chilren and take them out of the slums.”
The stories kept up, but meanwhile, of course, Cassius apostasy worked both ways, and for all the blacks all over just starting to get the rage, get the pride, letting that conk grow out, letting that natural sprout, getting rid of all those fake-leather drape coats and getting into dashikis—for them, and for anybody hooked on the metaphysics of boxing as the pure carnal root of all metaphor, for everybody who ever woke up one morning and figured out they were enslaved, Muhammad was like a renegade El Cid, defying history, whupping all comers, defending his very soul, in mortal combat with the heart-attack machine. . .
And then he took a big risk, and they martyred him. He’d been classified I-Y by the Louisville Draft Board in March of 1964, deferred indefinitely because he could only manage a 16 percentile in the Armed Forces Qualifying Test when you need 30 to pass. Two years later, they set him up, dropped the passpercentile to 15 so that they could get more fodder for Vietnam, and reclassified him I-A. The State Athletic Commission of Illinois wasted no time banning Muhammad’s upcoming fight against a big bullock called Ernie Terell due in Chicago the coming March. (They finally met a year later in the Houston Astrodome, and Muhammad took the full 15 rounds carving the big bullock up into mince, really took his time to scramble his brains.) In that year he whupped every contender around, here and in Europe. And then, in April of 1967, he was summoned for induction in Houston, and he refused to take the oath.
He was a minister of the Muslim faith, he said, recognized by his leader, and the Muslims had no quarrel with the Viet Cong. He was convicted that June, sentenced to five years and a $10,000 fine. Every State Athletic Commission in the country withdrew his license, and just in case he had any ideas about compounding his treachery and fleeing into exile the way Jack Johnson had done, the court ordered his passport confiscated.
The Houston decision has since been appealed and upheld and sent back for review, and the issues further addled when it turned out the FBI had been tapping Muhammad’s phone, and there were conversations kept secret that were rumored to include courtesies exchanged between Muhammad and the UAR. On the day he refused induction, the same very day, before he was heard and convicted, the New York Commission—the real barons of the pug game because they control the Big Ring, Madison Square Garden—they declared the Championship vacated.
It was ruthless, an attempt at total assassination. We all know by now how stupid and vindictive this whole entrenched system can be, but how could they be that stupid, just purely strategically? Forget the morality of it because it boomeranged and all they succeeded in doing was wrecking boxing’s vestigial credibility (and that’s their own livelihood), depriving us all of the spectacle of Ali in the ring but thereby counter-canonizing him as a beleaguered black saint; and he’s been on the haunt ever since.
There was that night last May on the Cavett show, when Muhammad was on with Norman Mailer, and he’d been in a haughty mood, talking way down in his throat so his voice had so much husk in it it was almost cracking, saying, “The reason I’m not fighting today is because I was too good for my time,” and then Mailer had come on in his good pinstripe, all lathered up for existential TV, harumphing his shoulders, dangling his short arms and jabbing from a crouch, his hands clawed, mauling his own ideas, and he said he’d come because he wanted to pay his respects to the Champ:
“I think you got the worst shake of anybody in professional athletics in this country. When America took away your title it hurt itself more than it hurt you, and it hurt you plenty.”
Now, Muhammad doesn’t go for that kind of approach, he never bleeds for anybody. “I’m not hurt at all,” he said, with the same aloof monolithic Muslim cool that withered Cavett, disdaining to discuss almost. “When you’re not relyin’ on people for nothin’, they can’t hurt you. Their God’s not my God. You can’t please God and the Devil, too. And I’m pleasin’ God.”
And then Mailer asked him if he was familiar with Kierkegaard’s bleak notion that one can never know one’s own moral nature, never know whether one is morally good or not—that’s Soren Kierkegaard, the melancholy Dane, author of Either/Or, and don’t forget Muhammad only scored a 16 percentile, so there were a few mis-connections for a while, but then Mailer finally talked himself into a corner, which is when he’s most likely to find his pitch and rescue a resonant image, like cracking a nut perfectly, and he put it this way:
“Muhammad Ali was the most exciting, certainly the most beautiful champion to ever come along in the heavyweight division. They took the championship away, and how good he is became an empty question. Frivolous questions are the death of a nation.”
That’s what happened. For three and a half years Muhammad has been the champion in exile, the champion on the street, the phantom champ, as invincible in his absence as he had been before they tried to freeze-dry him.
“I was too good, and that’s why they had to get rid of me. Only it backfired didn’t it? They couldn’t take away my Championship just because of my religious beliefs, or because I said I didn’t have no quarrel with the Viet Cong, or because I wasn’t about to go into no Army. The only way a Champion can lose the Championship is for a challenger to whip him. . . You cannot stop a real Champ! People still recognize me as the Champion.”
Joe Frazier knows that. There’s always some dizzy little turd in the shoeshine parlor busting to remind him. Every time he fights, the chant rises from the bleachers—Muhammad A-Lee! Muhammad A-Lee!—even in Tahoe or Vegas when he’s on stage with the Knockouts. That’s the name of his singing and dancing act, Joe Frazier and the Knockouts. Even there, at the Flamingo or somewhere, some meathead cabdriver will yell out, “Ali’d whup yo’ ass!”
It’s been getting on Joe’s nerves. It’s not his fault. He just came along in Muhammad’s tangible absence and devastated all the heavyweights left over, and now he’s the official sanctioned Champion of the World.
I don’t just represent boxing,” Ali was saying back in 1968, “I’m taking a stand for what I believe in, and being one thousand percent for the freedom of the black people. . . I got hundreds of places to go and talk, and I’ll always have them as long as I’m talking for freedom.”
Keeping the faith. . . he appeared at schools and colleges and “old Negro groups” and funky ghetto soul shows, and he’d just strut about so as the brothers and sisters could see for themselves that he was unbeaten and unbound, not a mark on him that showed, for all his trials and labors and miserable oppression he was as mighty as ever and he was keeping the faith. Kids in the street, he’d spar with, tell them about Allah and the Muslims. Talking’s not fighting, but it was some release, and what he said, the litany, didn’t matter so much—by now the whole world knew his agony—what mattered was the appearance, the sheer lustre and radiance of him.
The first time I ever saw him was a couple of years ago, when his ego must’ve cross-wired and he must’ve mistaken himself for some Ali-totem and he must’ve thought that Broadway was still Broadway, where the glamorous toffs came for culture, or perhaps he just needed a dose of an audience to feed his starved performer’s soul, all those hearts beating, all those hopes pinned on him, all that bodyheat—whatever it was, he showed up on Broadway in an overhaul of a piece of trash called Big Time Buck White that had raised some gooseflesh off-Broadway because it was loud and angry and brimming with the rage.
It was a kind of blackface minstrel musical, I can’t even remember the bones of it, but there were a lot of cool cats on the corner slappin’ skin and cussin’ and just generally motivatin’ and bull-shittin’, waiting for Big Time to get back from somewhere and tell about their liberation! And then right at the end of the first act they all hush up and—here he comes—down the aisle, naked to the waist except for a flapping leather vest, and he was magnificent. He walked right past me, ascended the stage, strode to the center, and, without saying a word, thrust both clenched fists into the air above his head. And just stood there.
It was, as I said, a corny show, so they’d pasted on a fake Rap Brown beard and fake Afro to give Muhammad the proper black devil look, but even so, just standing there, mute and majestic, his countenance locked up shut in such a frown you knew there wasn’t going to be any kidding around tonight, he was here tonight as a wrathful messenger of Allah, he was like a magnificent chocolate-golden ikon—Othello couldn’t beat it, he was radiant.
He did a lot of street preaching in the second act, and he even maneuvered through a couple of non-songs, like Isley Brothers songs—and it wasn’t his fault, the whole thing was foolishness, but anyway he wasn’t much good. If you can imagine Othello gigging with, say, the Isley Brothers. . .luckily, it only ran a week or two, but I’ll never forget it, I’ll never forget that entrance.
It was the same kind of thump as the first time I saw Elvis stride on stage at the coliseum in LA, all in heavenly white, his hair sleek, slathered back a-round the corner to what you could tell was a perfect cleft at the back, and then he pounced and hit his mark: arms outstretched, wrists crooked, legs apart, one knee bent, crotch thrusting, head bowed (forelock tumbling). And because there was a demi-cape attached to his shoulders and floor-length fringe on his sleeves, it looked as tho he had wings, and because his whole figure was still shivering from the impact, he looked like a beautiful white predatory bird, with the sin-struck face of an Arab whore, expecting to fly. It’s not often you get that thump, when you actually get to be there, after years and years, and gasp! there he is, a thoroughbred.
Buck White was a mistake. In the long numb years he spent in exile, Muhammad’s been up a few blind alleys. (His Champburger franchise was a slow starter down south—perhaps the people have been eating their favorite hamburgers and shakes too long to switch.) And he’s said many times he’d never fight again, he’s even damned the pug-game altogether—”It’s a barbaric European sport. The more religious I get, the more I don’t miss it.”—but he’s still the phantom champ, and this year, when the boys who run the pug-game had a deep think and and owned up finally that he is the only fighter that the whole country, the whole world, will gladly pay a $10,000,000 gate to see, because a country needs to know who its champions are. . .and when a federal court in review took a swerve and decided he could have his license back for the time being, the New York Commission capitulated. (Muhammad didn’t insist the commissioners crawl on their knees and beg him, on national television, to accept their abject apologies, but he once swore he would.)
And then, last November, here was the resurrection. Here was Muhammad Ali in the ninth round against Bonavena, the Argentine, and Ringo nearly had him. Muhammad’s fuses looked shot. He couldn’t seem to get moving, his choreography got him nowhere, and Bonavena was a hulking great target but Muhammad missed his moves, missed his openings—and the voodoo hadn’t worked. It was as though he’d lost touch with his own soul, his instincts were dimmed, three and a half years out in the cold had wearied him more than he could tell, he no longer knew his way around his own territory. He didn’t seem to want to fight. He was a stranger in his own zareeba.
It looked like the whole karmic booga-loo was going to take a fatal thrashing from the Argentine, but Muhammad managed to keep Ringo guessing for the next five rounds and came into the 15th, and last, ahead on points. Bonavena after all, was a hog, and most rounds he didn’t connect at all. In the 15th, Ringo was hunting for a knockout. He came thundering after Muhammad, throwing wild mauling sledgehammers, and then with not much more than a minute to go, Muhammad knocked him flat. It was a perfect left to the crag of the chin.
Twice Ringo tottered to his feet, but Muhammad was awake now, he had the old venomous taste back in his mouth, his pretty face was contorted into a ferocious snarl, his eyes were blazing gammarays, his blood was humming, he probably couldn’t hear it above the blood raging in his ears, but the crowd was berserk, and he sprang after Bonavena like an enraged Captain America and chopped him down for good.
Something connected, some switch fell, some cellular telegram arrived, Muhammad remembered who he was, and he was sore and bruised and it had been hard work, but as Ringo hit the floor the third time, Muhammad couldn’t feel any pain, he was exultant, towering over the stricken Argentine with both hands high above his head in an ecstasy. Next minute, Howard Cosell’s in the ring—Cosell’s the mouthpiece of the pug-game, when he’s kvetching he poses as its conscience, but one thing you can’t deny him, he’s always on the spot—wherever there’s a winner, here’s this big plebby weasel with three fingers under the guy’s elbow, asking rude questions, breathing all over him, spraying in his face, stealing the thunder—the agitator, Muhammad calls him, he’s even got a poem about him:
After the fight is over,
And Frazier don’t answer the bell,
I’m gonna jump over the ropes
And I’m gonna whup Howard Cosell.
Howard’s on the case. He’s up there in the ring in his shotsilk double-breasted suit with the luminous satin tie, and he zeroes in on Muhammad while he’s still towering over Ringo like a statue—Howard, you feel, would step in the Argentine’s mouth if that was the quickest way to get where he was going—he gatecrashes Muhammad’s ecstasy, and starts agitating straight away, weasling right in there.
What’s that! A telephone? The truth is, Howard’s got his telephone with him, and Joe Frazier’s on the line. What a stroke! Unhappily, with the way the phones are these days, we can’t hear Joe—is Howard faking?—but no, he’s nattering away into the receiver, and then into his big Acustofoam mike, and then up at Muhammad, hitting every syllable, and nobody knows who he’s talking to, because as soon as he gets halfway through asking Joe if he has any fears about fighting Muhammad next (and you can imagine Joe, sitting in Philly, watching him talking to him on the phone and hearing it in his ears, trying to imagine just how hard Muhammad hit Bonavena that first time) and meantime Howard’s left him with his mouth open because he’s seen the camera and now he’s asking Muhammad how come Ringo didn’t splinter and crumble in the ninth, and meanwhile, speak of the Argentine, he’s up on his feet and dripping water and he comes oinking over, deliriously oinking “Me no chicken! Me no chicken!” surprisingly refreshed, surprisingly, too, a pipsqueak castrato when he opens his mouth.
It’s mayhem, but Muhammad does have a few words with Frazier, and he’s polite, he doesn’t call him a flat-footed chump who’s had his job for the last couple of years, but then Howard caught him off guard, still giddy with victory, still feeling it, the carnal vengeful bliss of it.
(Pete Hamill, I think it was, said Howard should broadcast the moonshots. Then we’d see those bloodless humanoids raise their perfect eyebrows.)
If Muhammad hadn’t decked Bonavena and just baffled his way home on points, there’d be more confusion and huggermugger and deep, aching, ominous doubt about his second coming being rather what A. J. Liebling used to call a pug’s next-to-last-stand-maybe. But the way it turned out, there’s just one Last Task left now, Muhammad’s ultimate rendezvous with all the conspiring tides of destiny. El Cid’s last ride. The karmic boogaloo’s racing at express speed now and if it’s to end with your standard cosmic orgasm, it’ll happen this week, in the Big Ring at Madison Square Garden, when Muhammad fights Joe Frazier for the title he never lost and Frazier never won.
The Fight of Champions, they’re calling it. Muhammad likes to loosely compare its possible impact on the national psyche to either the assassination of a Kennedy or the first moonshot—either a paralyzing national disaster or America’s most Faustian triumph.
If it’s a disaster, if Frazier wins, the infinite pug game is intact. Frazier would disown this role, of course, and I wouldn’t want to be the one to suggest it to his face, I wouldn’t even want to be there to see what happened to the sucker who did, but still: he is the boss’s man. He’s doing the dirty work for the fraternity and the powers in the shadows, the entire totalitarian structure that martyred Muhammad and left him hanging out in the cold for three and a half years, gathering moss, forbidden to practice his art, robbed of his life, with his cells going stale and his sinews stiffening and his best instincts dimming. Frazier’s the company slave, bought muscle. He’s owned, in fact, by an unseen syndicate of Philadelphia businessmen called Cloverley Inc. (Original list price for one share in 1965: $250. Currently: $14,400.) He’s the commission’s annointed. But don’t be fooled, don’t underestimate him. He’s formidable.
If it’s a triumph, if Muhammad wins, then there’s still hope that in America a gifted and courageous and militant outlaw can still choose his own life—and indeed his own death—according to—the mysterious private promptings of his soul. And all that.
“I represent the truth,” says Muhammad. “The world will recognize me. Not the commissioners. The world. Russia. Red China. France. Germany. Africa. Egypt. Syria. Egypt and Israel’ll quit shootin’ for a few minutes. When I fight the world watches. The world is full of oppressed people, poverty people. They fo’ me. They not fo’ the system. They fo’ the villain. All the black militants they all for the rebel, the one they consider the most militant. All your hippies, all your draft resisters, they all want me to be the victor.”
Downstairs at Toots Shor’s in New York City, strutting for the press after the official signing of contracts with Frazier, Muhammad says it again, “I represent the truth!” And looking over the assembled, ah, dignitaries of the pug game, one is relieved the truth is in such good hands.
All the top bananas are here—big ring promoters from all the fight towns, Philly and Miami and Chicago and L.A. Writers from all the ranking dailies. And that’s just the bleachers, the floor tables. Then along the far wall, seated at his long Last Supper table, are the, ah, dignitaries—the New York commissioners, the Meat Board from Madison Square Garden, the fighters and their factions.
Towards the far end there’s Yancy Durham, Frazier’s manager. “We gonna stop you in seven!” he says in a delightful basso. Next to him, Smoky Joe himself, pitch black and looming large, in aqua turtleneck and natty overcheck double-breasted. Moving right along now towards the center mike, there’s Jerry Perenchio from Chartwell Artists, the people who brought you Andy Williams and Glen Campbell and Elton John. Jerry personally talked up the cool $5 million cash from California moneybags Jack Kent Cooke—$2-1/2 million each for Frazier and Muhammad. Now he’s so busy hustling up a $30 million gross in gate receipts (ringside seats list at $150 each, scalpers expect to get $1,000 by fight-night), closed-circuit TV payoffs, foreign broadcast rights, souvenirs and maybe a movie, he’s only got time today for a quick recitation:
“This is the single greatest event in the history of sports. It will attract the biggest audience in history. And we intend to merchandise it to the best of our abilities. And. . .” oh yes, just in the nick of time, “And may the best man win.”
Just this side of center mike, there’s Angelo Dundee, Muhammad’s trainer, his eyes like little excited inkspots behind his black-rims, his hair chemical black, his jacket a racy houndtooth. This is the shrewd little man-handler who’s trained and managed seven world champions, the urgent voice in Muhammad’s ear since he turned pro ten years ago.
“He and I have been friends from the beginning, we’ll be friends at the end,” confides Angelo. “There’s no racial problems. I mean, I’m not blue. He’s not green. I mean, I think the racial problem situation’s always overdone. I’m like ice cream on pie with this kid. We jive together. We’re buddies.”
They’re all lined up behind the Last Supper table, and every now and then one will whisper in another’s ear and they’ll share a secret satisfied chuckle. Another whips out a handkerchief as big as one of Toots’ napkins—perhaps it is one of Toots’ napkins—and has a good honk, and—you don’t see this so often these days of disposables—sneaks a quick look at it, his own chow mein, before stashing the handkerchief back in his pants.
In the middle of them all, in his shirtsleeves, there’s Muhammad himself, up on his feet, jabbing a stiff finger at Frazier and yelling, “He ain’t no Champ!”—doing a little shadowboxing and putting the mau-mau on the front row tables, finally taking hold of the mike and rattling through his act, gloriously insolent, warning the sportswriters that after he wins they’d better watch out or the brothers might burn their houses down, scorning Frazier’s record because Joe himself has already left (saying, “I’m not, you know, the mouth-y kind”), blowing Muhammad a kiss as he passed. Muhammad gives everybody a good fierce dose, and—and this is the weird thing, all the time he’s up there, all the top bananas keep fawning over him, they keep touching him. . . slapping him on the shoulder, looping a meaty arm around his neck, stroking him, fondling him almost. In their gruff and seedy way they’re all in love with the outlaw, and they can’t keep their hands off him.
Chris Dundee’s 5th Street Gym is in Miami, down at the end of Miami Beach way past the Eden Roc and all the other kosher Camelots, down in, so to speak, historical Miami—all the smaller peeling sunbleached last-stop cheap hotels where the very aged have been left abandoned on the porch, and at first glance they look like corpses put out for tanning—embalmed, the merest chill draught would be enough to set them free. . . Down the road from a few empty junk shops (what junk is there in Miami, there are no old attics hiding old trunks, there is no past, and the corpses didn’t bring but a few trinkets with them), one flight up above a drugstore, is where Muhammad has been training for The Fight.
Chris Dundee, Angelo’s older brother, has been in the pug-game since the war, he’s the top promoter in Miami, and his Gym’s the real thing. It stinks. He should put it in the World’s Fair.
It’s the same place you’ve seen in Body and Soul and all those other John Garfield fight-pictures, with a little old potato-face gnome called Mo who sweeps up, and he’ll tell you stories about the night Kingfish Levinsky fought Joe Louis if you catch him when he’s in a good mood and the fog’s cleared—the atmosphere stinks of all the decrepit glories of the pug game: the yellow and black fight posters going dusty on the walls advertising long-forgotten nights, pictures of long-forgotten fighters glowering out of the past with their dukes up, alongside relics of Dundee’s American Flagism, citations from the Miami Beach Optimist Pony League and from the Damon Run-yon Memorial Fund For Cancer Research (and that last one, if you dwell on it, is the whole scene in a kernel).
All around are old Manischewitz cartons half full of damp bandages and dirty tape and torn jockstraps and cigarbutts and unmentionable gym-garbage and they all look like any moment they might spontaneously combust. Shoved beneath one corner of the ring, there’s an immense pail for spitting in, a three-foot spittoon about four swampy inches deep; it looks like it’s not been emptied out for weeks, it looks like bouillion spawning tadpoles. The whole place is a set left to go to ruin on a backlot, left over from Garfield and Bogart days, the paint on the windows is faded, only if you look twice at a couple of recent posters can you tell that living pugs work out here, the former Champ trains here. (That “former” has been scratched out on the Ali-Bonavena poster; on Muhammad’s picture someone’s written “Beauty,” on Bonavena’s, “Beast.”) The air in here, when the Gvm’s empty and Mo’s sweeping up after the day’s training, stinks of crotch.
Come back the next day after 12, and it’s seething in here. A dozen young black prelim fighters are slogging at the 200 pound bag or skipping rope or just bobbing about on their toes shadowboxing until they’re drenched in sweat (most of our best young prizefighters are blacks these days, because education’s ruining boxing by taking all the bullies off the street just when they’re discovering their true assassin’s gifts, and, as yet, education tends to be less pernicious in the ghetto, especially in a town like Louisville; besides, black households don’t generally share the burgeoning scruples of a lot of Irish and Italian households these days who don’t fancy their boy leaving home to become a prizefighter and end up with his nose pasted to his lips after all, it’s not what you’d call an honorable profession, in the statuspheres of white civilization; in fact it’s as prole as you can get). In the midst of them all are the trainers, seconds and cut-men and one particular mute old Zulu mop-up man, whose job it is to sponge off the fighters when their on the exercise tables and massage their overstressed muscles.
You’ve got to shout to be heard because some kid’s working out on the speedball and it’s hammering like a machine-gun and the bell in the training ring keeps ringing three minute rounds even when there’s nobody sparring in it—it’s like being in the middle of a brawl, except that nobody’s getting hit. The remarkable thing is that every now and then, as though by some divine KO, there’s a sudden total hush, everybody stops for breath, the speedball is quiet, there is a long stolen moment when nobody moves, and then the bell rings and all hell breaks loose again at full mad pitch.
Mo’s on the door. You can come and watch Muhammad train for a dollar, and every day about a hundered fans show up to be in the movie—gangs of black kids, bellbottom kids, busdrivers on holiday, local gamblers, a lot of oldtimers, a few beards from the Grove—he same hundred odd prole faces you’d see on any subway in New York City except that they’ve all got a trace of Tanya tan and they’ve all got Instamatics. One of them, a timid old nonno, offers Muhammad a sip of his coffee—”How do I know who you are? What’s in that coffee? Check it fo’ a test!”
Lightning strikes! This is what they love, Muhammad showing his pow-ah, snarling and jiving, and who cares if he’s scared the salts out of the old nonno—”You didn’t put no pill in that coffee, did you? How do I know you not with Joe Frazier?”
And the old nonno just stands there struck by lightning, and Muhammad prowls off, back to the full-length mirror, still scowling like a Chinese dragon—eyes bulging, snout flaring, breathing fire. He does a few knee-dips and torso-stretches, and then he just stands there brooding on his reflection, the perfect chocolate-golden colossus, glistening with oil, all wired up after three fast rounds with Stanford Harris and now that little extra zing bawling out some treacherous old deadbeat who was trying to poison him—”I don’t want no rednecks in here!” he yells.
That’s what they love. They love every inkling of every move he makes, every flex of his pow-ah. They feed him, the bolder black kids taunt him, they’re all fishing for dragonfire, something they can go home and tell folks about. Everybody knows the old nonno’s not trying to poison him, Muhammad’s just jiving, just doing like he does.
Yet sometimes it’s hard to tell just when he means it and when he doesn’t. It’s his pride that has sustained him out in the cold—that’s his strength, his absolute apostolic faith in his own invincible power. So that’s where he’s tender. He’s always cocked, ready to duck or dive or go for the throat. And what these agitators in the crowd are doing is insulting him, assaulting his pride just by saying Frazier’s name, insulting his majesty simply by reminding him of that neanderthal chump who’s been walking round claiming his title for the past couple of years. It’s a very touchy maneuver, baiting Muhammad Ali, because when he’s tuned, he’s on the boundary line between kidding and killing, the ghetto outlaw poised for bloody murder.
Usually he starts out just bantering a bit, tossing off a few of his best one-liners. “If Joe Frazier came in here, seven days later he’d be a week-old ghost.”
“If Joe Frazier ever dreams he can whup me, he’s better wake up apologizin’.”
And then, if he’s feeling skittish, he might really camp it up, get down on his knees and crawl across the ring, baaing like a lamb the way he promised to do if Frazier beats him.
“That shows you how I feel. I won’t have to put myself on that spot.”
It’s all just antics, until they start really needling him. Another nonno about 80 years old who looks like a geriatric Sergeant Bilko starts arguing how Frazier softened up Quarry and Bonavena for him, how Frazier’s going to whup him in five rounds. Then another old fart yelling—you hear this one every day—no matter how good a boxer he is, he’s not going to box that long. A fighter always beats a boxer, just look at Rocky Marciano. They’re really hitting sore points today, because any mention of Marciano recalls the computer—fight fraud—when some conniving knave fed all the data on Muhammad and Marciano into a computer—and Marciano won.
“Marciano fought Joe Louis when he was old, he fought Ezzard Charles when he was old, he fought Jersey Joe Walcott when he was old. Joe Louis, Ezzard Charles, Jersey Joe Walcott would’ve run Marciano out of the ring when they were right young and in their prime. I ain’t takin’ nothin’ from him, but you folks make him great because he was white. Marciano wasn’t nothin’ but a wild fighter—no skill, ugly face, and everybody whupped him!”
Muhammad’s really getting lathered up now. He’s getting a big charge out of these meatheads, they’re really feeding the flame. Like this lump of British lard muddling on about the night Henry Cooper had Muhammad on his ass in the fifth.
“I was on my whaaat? Why you usin’ profanity around all these ladies? If I had a lower IQ I could enjoy your conversation.”
But still there’s old Sergeant Bilko upstaging him, telling him he’s going to bet three-fourths of his life on Joe Frazier.
“Old man, you don’t know how bad I wanna hit you in yo’ nose, do you? I’m gonna hit you in yo’ nose and name you Rudolph. Your beneficiary’d have to sue me. You wouldn’t be around to sue me after I hit you.”
Next thing, the old bloke’s climbing over the ropes, Muhammad’s chasing him ’round the ring and Angelo Dundee’s having a heart attack in case the old bloke has a heart attack. He starts tossing orders and does a little flamenco like running in place on an anthill. And when he’s really peaking he can’t even speak.
“You see that old man,” Muhammad asks later. “Did you get a picture of me and that old man? That old man’s got more nerve than a toothache!”
Then Jimmy Ellis goes by. Ellis used to be one of Muhammad’s sparring partners back in the old days, and then, in his tangible absence, he was actually Champ for a while, Ellis recognized by one commission, Frazier by another. Frazier dumped him in four rounds. Dundee trains and manages him too, and these days he’s staying in tune and talking about fighting the winner of The Fight. Which, when you think about it, is too much of an insult for Muhammad to suffer in silence—this thief going around talking trash, reminding folks that back when they were both amateurs in Louisville, Ellis had once actually beaten Muhammad. “Beat him with ease” he’s saying.
So Muhammad catches Angelo’s eye and whispers, “Hold on to me” out of the corner of his mouth. And then he starts stamping and cursing and threatening to blast Ellis clean out of circulation right there. If he could. . . only. . . get loose from Angelo’s restraining embrace, he’d hush Jimmy Ellis’ ugly mouth.
But that’s nothing. The other day, you should’ve seen the way the Champ kicked in the shower-room wall.
“Joe Frazier! Joe Frazier! I’m gettin’ sick and tired of hearin’ that name Joe Frazier! I’m gonna straighten out this mess once and for all!”
This time the delicate balance is shot the pantomime’s amuck. Forgotten for a few moments that he’s just jiving. His tantrum’s turning into lunatic fury and he’s kicking in the shower-room wall like a crazy, the plywood’s splintering. “I’ll show you! I’ll show you who the Heavyweight Champion of the World is! I’m gonna straighten out all you suckers!”
It’s all instinctive strategy, all part of the voodoo. The living-theater shootouts with the meatheads in the crowd, the running feud with Jimmy Ellis, the spite and scorn for Frazier—all of it’s as much a part of his training as getting up at five in the morning and running on the golf course or punching bags or working out with Stanford Harris and his other sparring-partners.
Professional prizefighters meet not as natural enemies but as matched attractions. They haven’t sniffed each other out in a bar or an alley, there’s no cellular hostility between them. It’s a professional, not a carnal, encounter. So Muhammad scares up a grudge. He keeps punishing himself with psychic wounds to avenge, so he can enter the Big Ring March 8th and look across at Frazier and feel certain in his soul he’s got to whup that man or die trying.
“D’you know how Joe Frazier has to whup me? One way. Knock me out. He cannot win on points. It’s impossible to outspeed me and outmove me, humanly impossible. Especially for a flat-foot slow man like Joe Frazier. He ain’t nothin’. He’s got you all scared because you’re frail and skinny and know nothin’ about the sport. Joe Frazier’s got two chances, and that’s slim and none.”
The hex is on.
Joe’s doing his best not to take too much notice. Early on, when he was scuffling, he used to work as a butcher skinning cows in a slaughterhouse, up to his elbows in entrails and tripe. That’s how he fights, like a bloodthirsty butcher, barging after his opponent. He’s not too quick on his feet, so he gets hit a lot on the way in. But he’s used to pain. It’d take a toothpick under the fingernail or red ants at his scrotum to really hurt him now, and even then he’d stay on his feet till he passed out. For him, fighting’s a suffering labor, and he’s had to work like a slave all the way, harder than he ever worked chopping cotton as a kid in South Carolina or butchering beef in Philly. And that was brutally hard.
“Prizefighting,” he says, “is like a business. Otherwise it’s no fun. We don’t say, ‘Hey, let’s have a little fun and go out and hit each other in the head.'”
Business is good. He’s won all his 26 pro fights, all but three of them knockouts. He owns half a dozen cars and a seven-bedroom residence in discreet Philadelphia. Best of all, they say he zooms around the neighborhood on a chopped Harley with hand-tooled boxing gloves for handlebars. He doesn’t give a shit about not being able to read; he’s got these special telefoto glasses that pick up distant highway signs in plenty of time to work out the names syllable by syllable.
His nose is mashed flat, but otherwise he’s survived quite remarkably well. And he looked like a most distinguished butcher among the lunkheads on the Kraft Music Hall last month, the night Don Rickles hosted. It was a big night for Joe and the Knockouts. The butcher was to premiere his new disc, Sinatra’s “My Way,” with additional lyrical tripe by Paul Anka. First, however, there was this humiliating vignette with Rickles where Joe was persuaded to strip to his satin shorts and suffer one of Don’s rank little routines. And he manfully resisted his urge to bust the creep in the mouth, even when they ended in a clinch and Don dropped all these butch-fag in-nuendos and actually—imagine it—gave Joe a big slurpy kiss on the neck.
Later, Joe got into his Rosey Grier gear, all ruffles and velour, straddled a chair backwards to indicate he was about to do something real meaningful, and sang “My Way”:
Now, the time is near, the time is here,
To take my hopes, and prepare, to take the dare,
It’s time to climb, right thru them ropes,
To face a man, who has a plan,
And states his plan, not in a shy way,
Well, that’s his right, but come the fight,
I’ll fight him my-hy-way.
I’ve come a long way, and like they say,
It took some doin’,
I’ve played the boxer’s role, to reach the goal,
We all pursuin’,
My friends, I’ve fought, like I was taught,
And never in a low, or sly way,
I’ve fought them square,
I’ve fought them fair,
I fought them my-hy way.
Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew,
When I bit off, more than I could chew,
But through it all, when there were doubts,
I never once reneged a bout,
I faced them all, and I stood tall,
And did it my-hy way.
I’ve lived, I’ve laughed, I’ve cried,
I’ve had my fill, of good and bad, now,
There’s much I’ve not tried,
And when I think of all I’ve had, now,
I’m proud to say, I’ve done OK,
I’ve travelled far along the highway,
And right or wrong, I stood real strong,
I did it my-hy way.
For what is a man, what has he got,
If not himself, not such a lot,
He’s got to be one block of steel,
He’s got to stand, Lord, never kneel,
The records show, I took the blows,
And did it My Way.
Flat, off-key, tongue-tied, as crude a performance as I’ve ever seen. But even so, there was something so forlorn about this rhino in gladrags confessing a feeling and trying so hard. Somehow he came out of it with his dignity intact. He had a weird kind of neanderthal beauty.
Muhammad’s tighter on TV. He’s done lots of it and he enjoys the glare. He’ll pose for every Instamatic in Dundee’s Gym—whatever way you want, his dukes up, cradling a toddler, or pretending to punch you in the chin. He relates to masses and nations, but he’s much less at ease when he’s actually got to look a single, strange, adult human in the eye and talk. In fact, he just doesn’t do it, unless it’s a little kid and he can play the jolly giant.
“Do you box?” he asks this one 12-year-old. “What do you box? Oranges, or grapefruits, or bananas, or what? Let me see your left jab!” And the kid shoots him a couple, and Muhammad’s blocking and feinting, saying, “Stick it in again! Shoot it!” And all of a sudden, the kid throws a sneaky right and slaps Muhammad’s face. “Try that stuff again, chump!” he says, and clips the kid on the ear. For what? Safety? The faintest irritation of hurt pride?
Every day at the gym, he fools with the little kids. But he’s suspicious of strangers, and when he’s pinned he veils himself in a mask of wrath, freezes, and mutters into his glass of milk, “You get what you see. You don’t get to see me shuffle for no dollar.”
It’s this shyness toward non-violent intimate encounter that makes Muhammad stiff and forbidding on TV. He was frozen that night last year with Mailer. And just lately, on the Flip Wilson Show, he didn’t look too gassed by Flip’s naughty Sambo style. And the Champ was almost solemn when he recited his Frazier poem, his hands clasped shyly in front of him. Which was a shame because it’s a beauty, like a good Joe Tex song—fantasy perceived with irony, selling a sound moral:
Ali comes out to meet Frazier, but Frazier starts to retreat;
If Frazier goes back an inch farther, he’ll wind up in a ringside seat;
Ali swings with a left, Ali swings with a right,
Look at the kid carry the fight.
Frazier keeps backin’, but there’s not enough room;
It’s a matter of time before Ali lowers the boom;
Now Ali lands with a right, what a beautiful swing,
But the punch lifts Frazier clean out of the ring
Frazier’s still risin’, but the referee wears a frown,
‘Cause he can’t start countin’ ’til Frazier comes down.
Now Frazier disappears from view, the crowd is getting frantic;
Our radar stations have picked him up.
He’s somewhere over the Atlantic.
Who would have thought when they came to the fight
That they would witness the launching of a black satellite?
Frazier came out smokin’, and Ali wasn’t jokin’
He was peckin’ and a ‘pokin’, pourin’ water on his smokin’,
It might shock and amaze ya, But Ali destroyed Joe Frazier.
Later, Muhammad had to just stand like a dumb statue while Flip got into his mini and blonde wig and made passes at him. Even so, Muhammad dug that. He’s seen chicks like Geraldine, and Flip’s a ravishing hooker. Muhammad, in fact, talked about Geraldine a lot that week, even borrowed Jimmy Ellis’ fluffy white robe, letting it slip off a hunk of shoulder, and minced off to the showers, crowing, “Geraldine could whup Joe Frazier!”
Just four weeks before The Fight, Muhammad scared up a queer headline, said he needed one more fight before Frazier. Against Jimmy Ellis. Not the kind of move you’d expect, almost makes you wonder if he’s got, well, doubts. There must’ve been nights during his three and a half years out when he sat in the dark and sensed the stirrings of doubt, when the thought ocurred, never after to leave his mind, that he could be beaten in the ring.
For Muhammad there is nothing after Frazier. Beating Frazier is the answer to all his doubts, the solution of his life. For Frazier it’s not such an all-or-nothing thing—he’s never truly been the Champion anyhow. He’s fighting Muhammad because he must. He badly wants to win, he’s tempted by greatness and enthralled by showbiz, and he knows that if he beats Muhammad he will be the greatest, Muhammad himself has promised to crawl across the ring on his knees and crown him—the Champ at last.
And Frazier knows something Muhammad doesn’t. He knows how much pain he can take and still keep bulldozing. He can take it all. He can even take losing. This fight is a $30,000,000 karmic showdown. Whatever the convulsion it wreaks on the national psyche, for Muhammad it could be his last night on earth. (RS 78)
A piece Jon Landau wrote for Rolling Stone in the Jan. 4th, 1969 issue…
A Recap of the Year in Music, from Best to Worst
1968 was a year of flux in the pop music scene. Soul music failed to extend its influence on the music as a whole, country music contributed some new ideas, but did not achieve acceptance as a form in itself, and English blues bands were again very popular. As the year closed, no one style dominated the scene.
1967 ended with the death of Otis Redding. In 1968, some of his finest records were released. “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” was probably the best selling soul record of the year, and, in my view, the best artistically as well. The album of the same name was a top seller and included some of Redding’s most brilliant performances, such “Don’t Mess with Cupid” and “Open the Door.” All through the year Atco continued to release new tapes. Of special interest were The Immortal Otis Redding and In Person at the Whiskey a-Go Go. Read the rest of this entry »
This review comes from Zack Ruskin, Consequence of Sound, dated March 22, 2016. Bob Mould’s excellent new album…
Leave it to former Hüsker Dü rocker Bob Mould to ruin the party. On “The End of Things”, he compares a birthday party to an act of “gradual decay,” a fitting comparison for a musician who has built his sound in the crevices between the bright and the bleak. Patch the Sky is the third part in an unofficial trilogy of albums that began with 2012’s Silver Age and continued with 2014’s Beauty & Ruin. The run has marked a bit of a resurgence for Mould, who in the same time frame has also released a memoir and had his music championed by the likes of Dave Grohl. Still, on Mould’s latest offering, there is more sorrow than joy.
Opening track “Voices in My Head”—which also serves as the album’s lead single—is anthemic and uplifting, pairing rousing guitars with a lyrical tone at contrast with the music. In the notes accompanying the record, Mould explains that Patch the Sky is his darkest album, but also “the catchiest one.” It’s true. Even as Mould sings of hallucinations and final conversations, there is an undeniable sonic exuberance shining through. Mould seems fully aware of the contrast, embracing it with lyrics like “in this sun you cannot breathe” on “Losing Sleep” and “I keep searching, hoping, waiting for the sun that always shines so bright on everyone” on closer “Monument”. Patch the Sky is, in essence, the battles of a dark man born in a bright world, a place where the cobwebs of the past seem to constantly obstruct his passage to the welcoming arms of the future.
Not every song on the album follows this train. “Lucifer and God” is a fairly generic exploration of pining for a “come to Jesus” moment that is destined to never arrive. While the song is hardly cliché, it somehow fails as too universal for an album clearly examining the personal. On “You Say You”, the powerful backbeat tries to maintain the poignancy of frayed relationships, but the generic lyrical content doesn’t ring true like the specifics elsewhere.
Mould is at his best when he goes for the extreme, the macabre in a stranglehold with the melodic. That’s the case with “Hold On,” an existential power ballad about the tried and true punk thematic of surviving. The song embodies angst hitting middle age, built on a bruising guitar line and emphatic percussion from long-time collaborator Jon Wurster (Superchunk, Mountain Goats).
Given Mould’s mastery for ebullient sorrow, it comes as no surprise that the album highlight is “Losing Sleep.” Adopting a slightly more laid-back sound, Mould employs the additional sparkle of chimes laid over fuzzy guitar to perfectly recreate the pensive solitude of a solo drive up California’s Highway 5. Anyone who’s taken the spin from San Francisco to Los Angeles (or vice versa) will know the absence of intriguing scenery and abundance of Arby’s and strip malls leaves one with little more than their thoughts and the undulating heat.
On “Daddy’s Favorite,” Mould touches on themes of loss tied to the death of his father in late 2012. In the time between Beauty & Ruin and Patch the Sky, Mould also lost his mother, an unfortunate reality that has offered him plenty of fodder for his ruminations. “I try to be happy every day, but my black heart it burns,” he sings on “Monuments,” the record’s final track. It’s difficult not to believe him. In this latest chapter of his career, Mould has turned his music into a personal reflecting pool, a watery blank canvas into which he expertly casts the stones of his regrets and longings. Just don’t plan on booking your birthday party there.
The new, unexpected album by Paul Westerberg, singing with Juliana Hatfield as the duo The I Don’t Cares. This review comes from Rolling Stone, Jan. 29, 2016 and written by Jonathan Bernstein…
Paul Westerberg, Juliana Hatfield team up for a debut packed with unexpected gems.
When Nineties alt-rocker Juliana Hatfield started working with Paul Westerberg last year, she soon realized that much of the Replacements singer’s greatest work remained unreleased. “She brought a lot of this to life that otherwise would have just sat down in the basement and sort of rotted,” the notoriously reclusive Westerberg has said.
Enter Wild Stab, Westerberg’s first proper record in a dozen years, and his inaugural collaboration with Hatfield. Recording as the I Don’t Cares, the duo assembled 16 ramshackle tracks: a mix of original material, never-before-heard gems from Westerberg’s basement archive, and re-recorded solo tunes from his back catalog.
Opening tunes “Back” and “Wear Me Out Loud” are old Replacements outtakes that gracefully channel the Minneapolis singer’s Don’t Tell a Soul-era pop craftsmanship. Elsewhere, the duo tackle gentle alt-country (“½ 2 P,” “Sorry for Tomorrow Night”), melodic power-pop (“Need the Guys,” “King of America”), and indignant, rockabilly-tinged punk (“Love Out Loud,” “Done Done Done”). Hatfield is front and center on several tunes, dueting with Westerberg on soft-spoken ballads (“Kissing Break,” “Just a Phase”) and taking the occasional lead. Most often, though, she sticks to the background, providing sweet harmony vocals and lead guitar throughout.
Wild Stab chugs along pleasantly enough until “Hands Together,” the 7-minute, album-closing showstopper that serves as a devastating sequel of sorts to 1985’s “Here Comes a Regular.” “Dreams I had before are now too bored to even show up,” Westerberg sings in his scraggly mumble, proving that he can still pull off weary resignation better than anyone.
Written March 1, 2016…
Okay, is there any Democratic voters who really, honestly still think that the Democrats are the “good guys” who are going to protect us all from the big bad Republicans??
This election has really opened my eyes more than ever to how corrupt BOTH parties are, and how neither one is looking out for our best interests.
Do you really think Republicans give a shit about repealing Obamacare? My guess is that they don’t give a damn. They just make a spectacle of it in public to make their supporters think they are “fighting the good fight.”
Do you really think Democrats care about poor people, minorities or the middle class? They pass bills that clearly screw ALL OF US over, and they go out in public and make it look like they are actually “fighting the good fight” on our behalf. It’s a total illusion. They are in bed with Wall Street and Big Pharma and anyone else that will make them rich. Any Democrat who is worth hundreds of millions of dollars is NOT looking out for me or you. So get that naive idea out of your head. It’s funny when people think Bernie is living in utopia. I think any person who still thinks the Democratic Party is for the poor and middle class is living in utopia.
There is NO difference left between the Democrats and the Republicans. At least not enough of a difference to be worth a damn. I guarantee you that they are all making shady deals in back rooms together, and saying, “Okay, we will vote your way, but we have to go on TV and pretend that we are against it, so our supporters will think we are standing up against you… but in reality this bill will help line all of our pockets.” Then the other side makes the same kind of compromise.
Only a few are willing to stick their neck out and do what is right. They are usually silenced within their own party, and marginalized, because their convictions will cost everyone a shitload of money. Stop thinking that your party is on your side. They are not! They don’t give a shit about you. They will sell you out for a buck. Politics is totally corrupt. And it’s ALL ABOUT THE MONEY.
That is why I will only vote for people that I think are doing the right thing. I don’t give a damn about the Democratic Party, any more than I do the Republican Party. They can both disappear off the earth, for all I care. They are both corrupt, incompetent, slimy, greedy and totally unscrupulous. And they are both in cahoots. Wake up and smell the coffee!
Written Jan. 21, 2016…
I will not accept the status quo any longer in this country, and neither will millions of other people. Hence, movements like Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street and Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump doing so well in the polls. People who follow Trump are completely misguided and ridiculous, of course, but it shows how disillusioned with the Republican Party conservatives have become. On the Democratic side, Sanders has surged in the polls due to millions of liberals being fed up with the liberal establishment and the DNC.
People say Bernie is “pie in the sky.” I disagree. Bernie has been in politics for over forty years. He is not some wide-eyed kid just starting out. He has been through a lot and fought for a lot, including getting arrested for marching for civil rights in the early ‘60s. That took guts for a white person back then. He has been fighting against the establishment status quo all his life, voting for things that were considered career suicide, but he did it because it was the right thing to do. He didn’t give into cynicism or what was politically expedient at the moment.
There are a lot of people out there who mean well, and probably consider themselves liberal, but who don’t seem to want to see the boat get rocked too much. Maybe they simply like the idea of liberalism more than the actual reality. Or maybe they have too many scars from fighting for what was right over the years and have just become too cynical and disillusioned, and just want a more simple life now and are okay with the status quo… but I’m not. And neither is Bernie. Or millions of others. I’m a cynical person by nature but the passion that he and fellow supporters have shown have me excited again, and believing that something great is actually within grasp… if we allow it to happen and don’t give in to the fear and the cynicism. I want to see the good things that happened under President Obama be taken to a much greater level with the next president.
I have met some Bernie supporters who are about the most passionate people I have ever seen in my life, and it’s been a real eye-opener. It makes me realize we have been swallowing lies and garbage for too long in this country and we need to stop doing that. We were going in the right direction back in the ‘60s and then took some horrible turn along the way, and we’ve never gotten back on track. We have allowed greed and cynicism and money to control us as a nation. We have allowed racism to become perfectly acceptable again. We have allowed sexism to become normal again. And here we are having to re-fight all the same old battles again.
I’m sure there were plenty of black people, not to mention whites, who told Dr. Martin Luther King to just accept what little gains he had made and not try, or even hope, for anything better. That could get you killed. It was hard enough just to get to this point… don’t try to go any further. But he kept fighting for a better life for black people, as well as all people. It cost him his life but he never showed fear. It makes me wonder what more could have been achieved if his life hadn’t been cut short with a bullet. Bernie is one person who is trying to carry on his work and yet some people just think he is delusional, naive, angry, etc. They are perfectly willing to accept what little gains have been made and not hope for anything better. Well, I will gladly follow the candidate who is trying to fight the status quo establishment. I will back the candidate who wants to see super PACs gone from elections. No more big money politics, no more Wall Street ass-kissing, no more taking money from billionaires and Big Pharma and the insurance companies. No more special interests and shady deals in back rooms. No more Wall Street CEOs getting away with murder. If you are a politician you cannot take huge amounts of money from Goldman Sachs and others like them, and then claim you will be tough on them. If you believe that, then that is “pie in the sky” thinking and delusional.
When I hear Hillary supporters say that Bernie is “too angry,” all I can think is: Why aren’t you as angry as he is? Why is every person in this country not angry as hell? Are you okay with the 1% getting richer and richer, and the rest of us getting poorer? Are you okay with your rights slowly being taken away, little by little? Are you okay with politicians who make tons of promises and never come through on them? Are you okay with a Congress that gets paid big money to do absolutely nothing? Are you okay with Democrats doing things that you would never tolerate from any Republican? Shouldn’t you be holding your own candidates to a higher standard? If not, then why? Democrats have voted for horrible things like the TPP and the Patriot Act. They have voted in favor of the Iraq War, which was one of the biggest foreign policy blunders and embarrassments in our history. They have voted against gay marriage and gays in the military. They have voted for NAFTA. Well, Bernie Sanders didn’t vote for any of these horrible things. That should count for something. It certainly does for me. It’s not just where you are now on the issues, but where you have been in the past as well. Voting for the right thing is very easy when it’s politically expedient to do so. But where were they when it was not politically expedient? And believe me, if Bernie gets into office and keeps none of his promises, then he will be held accountable just like anyone else. He knows we will not let him off the hook or give him a free pass. But I also hope that Bernie supporters don’t turn on him the first time he has to make a compromise that we don’t agree with. No president is going to do everything that we like. And no president is infallible. I don’t expect him to be the Second Coming. That would be naïve. But obviously he needs better people in positions of power to help him with his plans, or it will be all for nothing. He also needs all of us to get more involved in the political process. As he always says, it’s not “when I become President” but “when WE become President.” We need to start throwing out all these establishment career politicians (regardless of what party they belong to) and start voting in people who actually want to make a real change.
I want a candidate who is looking out for the 99%… not the 1%. Voting for Democrats who are only slightly better than Republicans is not going to do us any good and not change a damn thing for the better. All you are doing is just trying to keep things from getting any worse. Is that really what you want??? Are you okay with settling for so little? Isn’t that what we have already been doing for decades? And how has that worked out for any of us?
We need to stop fooling ourselves and suffering from cognitive dissonance, thinking that the Democrats are all that different than Republicans. They sadly are not much better. The Democratic Party has been moving steadily more to the right over the years, and only seem “progressive” because the Republicans have gone completely batshit crazy into the extreme zone. But we need to start holding the Democrats to higher standards and stop accepting the status quo and mediocrity. We need to stop accepting the “lesser of 2 evils” and start demanding better.
I find it very interesting that establishment Democrats are all of a sudden coming out of the woodwork to go on TV and bash Bernie, in favor of Hillary. It reeks of desperation and pure cynicism, if you ask me. Look at her poll numbers and tell me that she isn’t growing more worried with each passing day. Tell me that some of these politicians aren’t hoping for Hillary to win, because they know it will be good for their own careers. And tell me also that Bernie can’t beat her when the same thing happened in 2008 with an unknown black senator that nobody thought stood a chance. Everyone said he would lose, he couldn’t possibly beat her, he would lose the general election, he couldn’t beat a war hero, etc. We all know how that turned out. And yet here we are, once again, hearing the same exact garbage from the same exact “experts.” But less and less people are swallowing it.
When people say that Bernie can’t win, I say bullshit. He is surging in the polls more and more each day. And now the attacks are starting on him. The man who is about the most respected politician in the country. The man who has never once ran a dirty campaign. But yet they are comparing him to communism and Trump and all kinds of ridiculous nonsense that is total garbage. They also say that he can’t possibly win a general election. They say that he is unelectable. Who says this? The so-called “political experts” who have gotten almost every single prediction wrong so far. Every poll shows Bernie doing better against Trump and other Republicans. Every poll shows him doing better with independents. And he has accomplished this with zero support from the media and the establishment. And yet they still keep pushing the lie that he can never win. Don’t believe it. They said Trump would be gone by now. He isn’t. They said Bernie would never beat Hillary, yet he has overtaken her in the polls in some states. He draws bigger crowds than anyone, and he has the most passionate, loyal supporters.
If you are perfectly okay with the status quo and mediocrity, then keep voting for the same corporate-loving, big money hacks. But not me. I have never voted for the “lesser of 2 evils” and I damn sure am not going to start now. Do I think Hillary would be a better president than Trump or Cruz? Of course I do. But I don’t think we should be voting for someone simply out of pure fear. I want better for America. And so should you. If not now, then when?
Written Jan. 11, 2016…
Avant-garde provocateur, glam rock messiah, plastic soul man, mainstream pop star, hard rock bandleader, actor, painter, producer. David Bowie was all of these things in his career and yet none of them. He was innovative, groundbreaking, pretentious, inscrutable, chameleonic, strange, mercurial, baffling, brilliant, a wizard and a true star. He was rock’s quick-change artist, unafraid to explore new vistas of sound and style the moment he grew bored with his current surroundings. He was always hard to pin down, always moving forward. The word genius gets thrown around far too often, but in the case of Bowie it was absolutely appropriate. The musical landscape of the past fifty years would have been a far different, far lesser place without the man born David Robert Jones in the south London district of Brixton on January 8, 1947.
I, along with millions of other Bowie fans, woke up this morning, though, with the tragic, shocking news that the Thin White Duke had passed in his sleep, after a long battle with cancer and heart problems. And so here we are, collectively grieving for a man that only a lucky few knew well, but all of us loved deeply. I would have liked to have been able to say that Blackstar (stylized as ★), an album he released only 3 short days ago (on his 69th birthday) was an exciting new direction for him instead of a final destination.
I was fortunate enough to listen to it a couple of times over the weekend, before hearing the tragic news, thinking that it was simply his latest album, rather than his last, so I can objectively say that it is a brilliant, forward-looking piece of work. But now I have no choice but to listen to it forevermore from a bittersweet vantage point, knowing there will be no follow-up, no more worlds to conquer – knowing that this was his final statement to the world. But what a statement it is.
The adventurous Blackstar is an amalgam of jazz, electronica, rock, and even a bit of pop and hip hop thrown in, but yet it’s none of those things. It’s Bowie at his experimental best, but yet it’s accessible enough as not to be off-putting. Working with electronics and a small jazz combo, the album starts off with its most challenging song, the ten-minute, two-part title track (which most resembles “Station to Station,” the title track to his 1976 cocaine psychosis masterwork, in structure if not in sound) and steadily moves closer to more normal song structures. It ends with the song “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” which most resembles something from his 80s pop era – albeit shot through with effects and Donny McCaslin’s excellent sax playing. It ends the album, and his career, on a high note.
Two songs are remakes: “Sue (or in a Season of Crime),” which was released as a single in its previous, jazzier incarnation (taken from his 2014 compilation, Nothing Has Changed) and its B-side, “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore,” titled after John Ford’s seventeenth-century play that dealt with incest.
There are several references to mortality in the lyrics, but it may be too tempting to scrutinize every word, looking for clues predicting his death. Longtime producer Tony Visconti stated today that this album was David’s way of saying goodbye to his fans. It would be a shame, though, if this album was looked at as nothing more than the last will and testament of a dying man. It has far too much life and forward-looking motion for that. Still, certain lyrics jump out:
“Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried…
I’m a blackstar… I’m a blackstar”
“Look up here, I’m in heaven
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen”
Even if you choose to ignore the lyrics, though, there is much to admire in David’s singing and the music itself. David channels one of his oldest influences on the first half of the title track: Scott Walker, from his influential Nite Flights period, or perhaps even from some of his more recent, dissonant material. It also slightly resembles Elvis Costello’s 2013 album with The Roots (Wise Up Ghost) in its sound and malevolent atmosphere. This is an album for late-night listening, full of darkness, desolation and shadows. But it never gives into despair. At only seven songs, the album might have you wishing for more, but this is a perfect album just the way it is. Blackstar will surely make many “best of 2016” lists come year’s end.
Bowie never really fit into the rock ‘n’ roll world nor the pop world – he just existed in his own beautiful, strange orbit. He could make the weird seem normal and the normal seem weird. He made countless others feel that they could also be weird and it was perfectly okay.
I can’t even begin to state just how much of a loss to the music world Bowie’s passing truly is. But he went out at the top of his game, and how many artists can you say that about? Especially fifty years into their career. He left us with more brilliant music than we had any right to expect. Some artists have one or two great albums in them and then disappear. Bowie had an endless supply of them. He also had a few mediocre ones along the way. It was all part of his restless spirit though. He wasn’t afraid of falling flat on his face. Most of the time he soared high – as high as any artist ever has. It was a fifty year tightrope walk, and he went out in a blaze of glory. He was one of the greatest rock stars this planet has ever known. He will be forever missed, and we shall never see anyone like him again.
Goodbye Major Tom.
David Fricke’s recent Rolling Stone review (from the Jan. 14, 2016 issue) of David Bowie’s brilliant new album, released yesterday…
Bowie Stares Deep Into the Void
The arty, unsettling Blackstar is Bowie’s best anti-pop masterpiece since the Seventies.
Three years ago, with little warning, David Bowie ended a decade-long break from studio releases with The Next Day. The second album he’s released since that unexpected return to the limelight is an even greater surprise: one of the most aggressively experimental records the singer has ever made. Produced with longtime collaborator Tony Visconti and cut with a small combo of New York-based jazz musicians whose sound is wreathed in arctic electronics, Blackstar (★) is a ricochet of textural eccentricity and pictorial-shrapnel writing. It’s confounding on first impact: the firm swing and giddy vulgarity of “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore”; Bowie’s croons and groans, like a doo-wop Kraftwerk, in the sexual dystopia of “Girl Loves Me”; the spare beaten-spirit soul of “Dollar Days.” But the mounting effect is wickedly compelling. This album represents Bowie’s most fulfilling spin away from glam-legend pop charm since 1977’s Low. Blackstar is that strange, and that good.
The longest reach is up front, in the episodic, ceremonial noir of the title track. Bowie’s gauzy vocal prayer and wordless spectral harmonies hover over drum seizures; saxophonist Donny McCaslin laces the stutter and chill like Andy Mackay in early-Seventies Roxy Music. The song drops to a blues-ballad stroll, but it is an eerie calm with unsettling allusions to violent sacrifice, especially given recent events. (No who or why is specified, but McCaslin has said the song is “about ISIS.”) “Something happened on the day he died/Spirit rose a meter, then stepped aside,” Bowie sings with what sounds like numbed grace. “Somebody else took his place and bravely cried: I’m a blackstar.” His use of an ideogram for the album’s title makes sense here – there is no light at the end of this tale.
The album includes a dynamic honing of Bowie’s 2014 single “Sue (or in a Season of Crime)” with less brass and more malevolent programming; the title song from his current off-Broadway musical production, Lazarus (that’s Bowie firing those grunting blasts of guitar); and a blunt honesty at the finish. Bowie turns 69 on January 8th, the day Blackstar comes out. In “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” he states his case for the dignity of distance – his refusal to tour (so far) and engage with the media circus – against guitarist Ben Monder’s lacerating soprano-fuzz guitar, a sly evocation of Robert Fripp’s iconic soloing in 1977’s “Heroes.” “This is all I ever meant/That’s the message that I sent,” Bowie sings in a voice largely free of effects – clear, elegant and emphatic. This is a rock star who gives when he’s ready – and still gives to extremes. (RS RS 1252)
Chris Gerard’s recent PopMatters review (dated Dec. 14th) of Prince’s 2nd phase of Hit N Run. This album has not yet been released in physical form, only as a download…
It’s been a mere three months since Prince dropped Hit N Run Phase One first on Jay-Z’s Tidal streaming service, and then a few weeks later via more traditional outlets. Arguably the single worst album of his legendary career, the sterile and soulless Phase One quickly sank like a stone, notable more for being the first product under Prince’s highly publicized deal with Tidal than for its music. At the time there was speculation as to whether a Phase Two would materialize—that speculation can now be put to rest. On Saturday, 12 December, without any warning whatsoever, Prince fans awakened to the news that Hit N Run Phase Two is available via Tidal to either purchase and download or to stream via the subscription service. Happily, even though it relies heavily on previously released material, Phase Two outshines Phase One by a mile—it’s not even close. Phase Two boasts enough classic Prince moments to sufficiently wash the worst memories of its vapid predecessor out of fans’ memory banks permanently. It has a completely different vibe than Phase One, eschewing producer Joshua Welton’s impotent and amateurish digital wreckage for a funky, horn-heavy sound that’s altogether more real.
Hit N Run Phase Two opens with “Baltimore,” which Prince first released back in May 2015 following the riots in Baltimore sparked by the ghastly murder of Freddie Gray while he was in police custody. Featuring prominent vocals by Eryn Allen Kane, “Baltimore” is Prince’s obviously sincere call for peace, love and understanding as the country grapples with ongoing turmoil in the wake of numerous incidences of police brutality caught on video. It’s not hard to figure out which side of the controversy Prince stands on, as he takes up the rallying cry of the protesters, “If there ain’t no justice, then there ain’t no peace!” “Baltimore” is slick and highly polished, lacking the emotional power of Prince’s strongest works about social justice (it ain’t no “Sign o’ the Times”), but it’s still an engaging song that captures for posterity a moment in our history that may turn out to be a tipping point for the better—or so we can hope.
“Rock N Roll Love Affair” is a brisk guitar rocker that first appeared as a standalone single in late 2012. It was barely promoted and disappeared without a trace, but it’s a solid tune worthy of resurrection and it fits right in with this Princely mix. “2Y2D” is a blazing slab of funk with a sizzling horn arrangement. Prince returns to one of his favorite topics—sex—with the main hook, “She’s old enough to do ya, but too young to dare.” His work has been somewhat sanitized in recent years compared with his notoriously raunchy past, and while “2Y2D” is a far cry from Dirty Mind it’s still sexy enough to show that whatever religious leanings Prince may have these days, he hasn’t left his career-long preoccupation with the joys of the flesh behind.
“Look at Me, Look at U” by itself blows anything on Phase One out of the water. A smooth mid-tempo R&B gem with a terrific vocal by Prince, “Look at Me, Look at U” is notable for its shimmering electric piano, flute and the sensual sax solo that closes the song. “Stare” is a slice of “Musicology”-type funk that Prince released as a standalone track via Tidal this past summer. With its wildly popping slap-bass and tightly-wound horn riffs, “Stare” is among the hottest tracks that Prince has released this millennium. It also finds Prince embracing his past as he includes sly sonic references to two classics, “Kiss” and “Sexy Dancer.”
Speaking of classics, “Xtraloveable” is a song that’s been percolating in Prince’s vault since at least early 1982, when he recorded it for potential inclusion on his 1999 album or perhaps for his all-female protégé group Vanity 6’s self-titled album, both of which he was recording simultaneously. Prince’s original recording, a white-hot funk/rock epic with some decidedly racy lyrics and scorching guitar, ended up not making either album but has been widely bootlegged over the years. In 2011 he released a newly recorded version of the song, and then another take featuring a prominent brass section was issued in 2013 via his website. It’s the 2013 version that appears here, and while it isn’t close to being on par with the electrifying 1982 recording, “Xtraloveable” is still an eminently funky tune that deserves to finally land a spot on a proper Prince album.
“Groovy Potential” is another killer track that first appeared on Prince’s website in 2013. It’s a long and sinuous piece with an elaborate arrangement and an outstanding vocal performance by Prince. It begins with delicate piano and guitar over a simple backbeat as if it’s going to be a mellow soul track, but soon builds layer by layer to a thrilling climax with horns, guitar, and thunderous percussion ascending in waves of musical bliss. The sweet soul waltz “When She Comes” sounds like it may have been recorded around the same time as “Groovy Potential”, although with Prince it could just as easily be a nugget he plucked from the vault after leaving it to gather dust for who-knows how many years. Whenever it was recorded, we are fortunate that he decided to unearth it. Prince’s falsetto vocal is gorgeous over an exquisite musical backdrop that includes an accordion humming faintly beneath the glistening brass. “Screwdriver” is a fiery guitar rocker that Prince recorded with his backing band 3rdEyeGirl and first released as a standalone single in February 2013. With the mischievous catchphrase “I’m your driver, you’re my screw”, “Screwdriver” harkens back to Prince’s edgy, more sexually brazen work from his younger years.
The smoldering 7+ minute “Black Muse” dates back to 2010 when it was performed live on Prince’s Welcome 2 America tour and sung by backing vocalists Elisa Fiorillo (now known as Elisa Dease), Shelby J. and Liv Warfield. The version included here has Prince taking the lead, although prominent backing and harmony vocals remain. It’s an ambitious and densely complex track that unfolds a little bit more with each listen. It’s hard not to wonder how Prince could leave a track this fine sitting on a shelf while releasing so much inferior material in the five years that it took “Black Muse” to see the light of day. “Revelation” is another breathtaking reminder of how great Prince can still be. A simmering, sexy ballad with elegant riffs of sax, “Revelation” features Prince delivering a knockout falsetto vocal performance and an absolutely scalding guitar solo. This is Prince operating at his highest level, a song destined to rank with the best work he’s done since his ‘80s creative pinnacle.
Phase Two closes with “Big City,” a buoyant rocker with big horn riffs and a heavy, infectious groove. “Big City” is another song that’s been stewing for a couple years at least, as it has occasionally appeared in his live performances starting in 2013. It’s an upbeat, raucous jam that closes Phase Two with an exclamation point.
Yeah, Phase Two is a grab-bag of older recycled tracks and a few newer recordings that were obviously not originally intended to be grouped together as an album. That in itself isn’t a problem—some of Prince’s best works have been similar hodgepodge collections of diverse material. After all, over the course of his career he’s often used older material when he felt the time was right for a song to finally emerge (although not necessarily previously released material, as is the case here). Whether the songs were originally intended to be collected on the same album is completely beside the point—Phase Two hangs together remarkably well as a cohesive listening experience that is as exhilarating as it is unexpected. As for its predecessor, the less said about it the better. Phase Two makes it very easy to pretend that Phase One never existed. Does it stand up to Prince’s very best material? No. But it does stand up to his best work of the 2000s (3121, Lotusflow3r, and Art Official Age), and it’s certainly true that even an average album by Prince’s standards is better than just about anything else out there. For those disillusioned by Hit N Run Phase One, Phase Two is good enough to renew faith in the mercurial Minneapolis wunderkind. He may have had to trawl through the vault to make it happen, but who cares… Prince is back with an album worthy of his name.
Written Dec. 8, 2015…
I am watching Chris Matthews’ show and he is playing part of a rally speech that Donald Trump gave on Monday. It’s seriously like listening to a speech by Adolf Hitler. Just take out the word “Muslim” and replace it with “Jew” and we are right back in Nazi Germany. I actually have the chills watching him rant on incoherently, knowing that this madman is actually being taken seriously as a candidate. And his words are echoing around the world.
He has the hate speech and fearmongering ramped up to 15. It’s all about bringing back torture, showing brutal force around the world, building up the military to insane levels, calling President Obama stupid and incompetent, demonizing all Muslims, calling the media “scum” (in otherwords, anyone who dares disagree with Der Führer), constantly bragging about his poll numbers (an obsession with him), and, of course, saying that no Muslims should be allowed into the country. He has made it clear that if a Muslim family, who are already American citizens, went on a vacation overseas, they would not be allowed back in. I’m confused on whether Muslim soldiers would also not be allowed back into the country. I’m also confused on whether all Muslims living here already, would be kicked out. The biggest confusion I have is how he would even accomplish this insane task, being that it’s unconstitutional and would have to first get by Congress and the Supreme Court, who surely would never go along with this madness. But Trump clearly doesn’t care about that. If he said he will do it, then consider it done.
His rambling speeches are all about hatred, division, fearmongering, bigotry, Obama’s failures, blaming everyone and calling them stupid… and, of course, constantly praising himself. A lot of it is just blatant lies and exaggerations. None of it is based on anything concrete. All of it is reprehensible and sickening. Everything he says goes against what America claims to stand for. England has condemned him. Amnesty International has condemned him. He has become a total pariah and made us look bad all around the world. Even Dick Cheney, of all people, has spoken out against him, saying that banning an entire group of people on religious grounds “goes against everything we stand for and believe in.” You know you have reached the Age of Madness when even Dick Cheney speaks the truth.
Trump plays on his followers’ fears about Muslims and terrorists, yet you never hear him talk about how gun violence, committed mostly by white gun-owning Americans – mostly like the ones that support him – are the real danger in this country. The people that go to his rallies are much more likely to be killed with a gun by each other than they are by someone connected with ISIS. But they have been brainwashed into thinking that guns are not the problem – only Mexican immigrants and a billion Muslims.
And his goosestepping followers are going crazy for all of it, chanting “USA! USA!” in the most xenophobic, blindly adherent manner. He has become a cult of personality – a demagogue. It’s disgusting and sickening beyond belief – not to mention extremely dangerous. These are exactly the same type of racist, uneducated, xenophobic, angry, blindly following bigots who gladly lined up behind Hitler to murder 6 million Jews. No, they didn’t do it overnight, but slowly and methodically Hitler pushed their buttons and played on their fears, and got them to go along with his insane ideology – all the way to the depths of hell. The people here are no different. Some that were interviewed said there was nothing that would stop them from voting for Trump. They really and truly believe he is looking out for their interests, and that he is going to save and protect them. They worship a false prophet.
It’s not just that I disagree with everything that this man stands for, as any educated, liberal person would – it’s that his rhetoric is playing right into the hands of ISIS. Demonizing all Muslims is exactly what ISIS wants to hear. Instead of making us safer with this insane talk, it’s putting more people in harm’s way. ISIS will hear his speech, and see his followers agreeing that all Muslims are a danger, and they will think that all Americans feel this way. He is putting Americans in more danger all around the world, including our military and people on vacation. He has everyone convinced that another 9/11 is just around the corner. Yes, ISIS is a real danger, but as I said, the gun problem, which is responsible for hundreds of thousands of lives over the past several years – not to mention mass shootings – is a much bigger problem. But the answer to that, according to people like Trump and Wayne LaPierre, is to simply go buy more guns and prepare for the coming Armageddon.
The thought of this vile fascist becoming President is a truly frightening thought. I fear what happens when he loses, which I’m sure he actually will. All these followers of his are going to be still out there. He has unleashed a monster, the genie in the bottle. And I don’t imagine that they will just go away quietly. I also don’t believe he will either. This country is heading in a very, very dangerous direction.
Remember one thing though: Nobody thought Hitler could ever rise to power. People underestimated him and we all know how that turned out. Let’s hope we don’t make the same mistake here. That is why I will vote for Bernie Sanders, a man who is the complete polar opposite of this evil demagogue, and who actually wants to make America better for all people.
But I just want it known to the world that Donald Trump does not speak for me. He will never speak for me. I will never call him my President, and I seriously don’t think I would be able to continue living in a country who could vote someone like that into office, if, God forbid, we should be so stupid.
But for now, we are stuck with this guy on the news every night, where he has a forum to espouse his racist, vile rhetoric. And he doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. I don’t know what can finally stop him but, for the time being at least, Adolf Hitler is alive and well and living in America. And we all have to suffer because of it.