Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Interesting Intersection of Sports and Music...

It's taken me awhile to come to terms with the veritable distance between the worlds of sports and music. I don't need to be reminded that Detroit Lions Mel Farr and Lem Barney sang backing vocals on Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" (and that Gaye actually tried out for the Lions) or that Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott (both San Francisco 49er's at the time) sang backing vocals on Huey Lewis' "Hip to Be Square" with equally as successful results. It's more complicated than that (and yes, I know Lewis also had an album titled Sports).

As a precocious pre-teen, I saw absolutely no difference in the inherent coolness of Sportscenter hosts like Craig Kilborn or guitarists like Kurt Cobain. They were both, in their own way, edgy, ironic, subversive and mind-expanding to a kid like me traipsing easily through the path of middle school.

While I've spoken a lot about my thoughts on Cobain, it's worth noting that I wanted to be a sportscaster way before I ever wanted to play music. Kilborn, along with other hosts like Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann, seemed to love what they were doing and make it look effortless. As an adolescent, it was clear to me that I could do that. And it seemed way more achievable or attainable than being a musician.

(a recent visit to has me belly-laughing reminded of all the brilliant catch-phrases these guys came up with)

I also want to relay the story of a little bit Kilborn once did. It went something like this (I am paraphrasing)...

"Everyone remembers getting their first baseball mitt. For most folks your dad bought it for you, maybe some of you it was your mom. For me it was the older man who lived down the street who lived by himself and didn't have a wife or kids. He just really enjoyed giving presents to the kids in the neighborhood."

When the White Stripes debuted on national television on The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn in July 2001 I happened to run into him in the hallway. Neither Jack or Meg or anyone else in the crew would end up even meeting the guy. I told him what a big fan I was and also repeated the story above. "Oh yeah, I remember that...we got a lot of angry phone calls about that one."

But for me, by the time I hit high school, it felt like I could play/enjoy sports or be really into rock and roll. Those two paths, in my opinion, failed to intersect at any point. While seemingly benign, Kurt Cobain's excoriation of so-called "jocks" in interviews and more-specifically the book Come As You Are was all the indication I needed that the "rocks" weren't hip to that scene, in spite of any inroads made with MTV's annual Rock'n'Jock softball challenge.

(side note: current Milwaukee Brewer Prince Fielder caught the final out of one of these Rock'n'Jock games. I played against Prince in PAL -Police Athletic League- baseball around this same time and remember thinking he wasn't anything special. Clearly my scouting skills have a ways to go)

(side note 2: a live quote from Cobain seems to sum it up succinctly: "I spent all of my life trying to stay away from sports and here I am in a sporting arena.")

Luckily for me, as my interest and skill in sports waned, my interest and involvement in music increased. The prime illustration of this point is that while I played soccer for all four years in high school, I actually skipped my final game (against Lutheran East High School…I believe a fight broke out) in order to rehearse with the band I'd just joined, Hell's Belles.

Sports had become too competitive, too serious and too draining. I never was a fan of conditioning or off-season work and at my high school, that shit was taken very seriously. I played baseball my freshman year, but felt that because I didn't play on the right travel team (travel baseball, an insidious world of backstabbing and intensity I wish upon no one) or wasn't one of the Italian buddies of the coach that I was kept from playing while I had legitimate skills. The situation reeked of politics and punk rock couldn't have been further from that structure.

So the subsequent years entailed my general disregard for anything remotely athletic coupled with the absolute zealous fervor consuming all things garage, rock, and roll. It was only once I hit the vague maturity of 25 or so that I realized the worlds of sports and music are not mutually exclusive.

Things like Stephen Malkmus referencing Bobby Abreu's legendary 2005 Home Run Derby showing in the liner notes to a Pavement reissue. That seemed...odd to me. Like something that just wasn't done. Or curiously noticing that folks in the band Weird War being SUPER into NBA basketball and even being in a fantasy league with guys from the Walkmen, a band who took it a step further and even sponsored a youth basketball team for a season (still one of the coolest things I've ever heard a band doing).

Or any number of the writings of Chuck Klosterman, whether it be subtle nuances in his writings about music/pop culture or his outright coverage of things like the Super Bowl or Final Four. I'd even referenced here before Klosterman tackling the topic of football strategy in Eating the Dinosaur that actually fascinated me in a way that only records or musical esoterica ever had.

This all manifests itself exquisitely in a piece Klosterman wrote titled "Three-Man Weave."

I will not even attempt to try and describe this thrilling piece and instead say that if you trust me at all, even the tiniest bit, you should read it.

It was with this piece I became aware of the website, a site owned by ESPN but seemingly tailor-made for someone like myself who enjoys sports but is patently put off by the tone and approach offered by ESPN, it's eight off-shoot channels and all-around sports coverage in general.

(my interest in Grantland also been buoyed by the recent successes achieved by the Detroit Tigers and Detroit Lions, as hometown connections always make it a little easier for me to be interested in just about anything)

Grantland takes on sports and sporting without the traditional tone or demeanor and almost comes off as a less-snobby Pitchfork for the sports world. And while I sincerely despise Pitchfork and its "taste" I avidly read the site as it is essentially Indie Rock News where I can catch up on the latest tourdates, releases, gossip and bullshit. For informing me factually, Pitchfork cannot lose. For informing me taste-wise, Pitchfork perpetually loses.

At this point, I am reading Grantland as often as I read Pitchfork and it feels exciting.

The overall feeling I'm left with amidst all of this is that sports and rock and roll do co-exist in much of the same atmosphere. What Cobain got wrong was his blanket accusations of "jocks", ie, athletes. The problem does not reside within the athlete, it lies within the jock-mentality, which surprisingly, many athletes do not have. That jock, bully, overly-competitive attitude is wholly gross in just about every facet of culture except (sometimes) in sports. In any other environment, you'd just look like a right dick.

Again, for one of the best things I've read in quite some time, check out "Three-Man Weave" here. I do not recommend very often and do not do so lightly.


Lee said...

You know, I thought there was no way I could care about reading about sports, but that was a good read. Thanks, Ben.

Anonymous said...

Did you ever hang out at Lindell AC's? Closest thing there was to an authentic sports bar and a hole-in-the-wall rock venue.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ben, Great read and I have struggled with this scenario of straddling two different groups for over 25 years. As a two-time All-American Softball selection my teammates knew me as the guy who likes weird music. And to my music friends, at many a show, refer to me as the dumb jock who can't let go of his youth.

There were maybe two other teammates that enjoyed shows and music as much as I do. But there were never any other music guys that enjoyed playing competetive sports on a state or national level.

Dave - Bristol, RI

Tony said...

Right-on Ben....

For me, both rock-and-roll and sports (baseball) have the connection of youth and bands are even like "teams" in a way...probably like Dave from Rhode Island...I spend a lot of time telling my sports friends that I play with that us traveling from city to city and partying is a lot like a "tour" that I'd do with the band. It's like the MC5 talking about the Grande as "their home-field advantage" or this from the Black Lips:

Keep up the good work!

-Tony Paris (The Adrays)

Anonymous said...

Did you happen to play on the Detroit Hornets?

Roxxan said...

I was always under the impression that musicians don't like sports. I guess it stems from my dad hating sports and loving music (though he was never a musician). When I met Joe, I found someone who knows every little bit of sports trivia. It really helps out when he's on my team for Trivial Pursuit. Today is Thanksgiving and the joy he has knowing that he'll get to watch the Lions game knows no bounds. He rarely gets to watch them since we live in NYC, though he listens via internet every week. I love having other my per-conceivd notions of people smashed.

Ragnor relay said...

Thanks for sharing some valuable information. I enjoyed reading this article. :D said...

Very nice read Ben! I grew up in a household that always played music and always watched sports on TV. In high school, I was almost bullied from the basketball coach to join the team because of my height. Instead, I took part in less popular sports; Cross Country track, Fencing, Ultimate Frisbee (the game was invented at my school; Columbia High) and was even in the Chess club, though not really a physical sport, but one of the growing mind!
When mentioning the sometimes connection of sports and rock-n-roll, we can not forget about the influence of hip-hop at one time. I wouldn't say these records are good, far from it but definitely very enjoyable if you have a sense of humor and like a good old cringe....

Top Ten in my book:

1. Superbowl Shuffle - The Chicago Bears Shufflin' Crew (Red Label Records, 1985)
2. Just Say No! - The Lakers (Capitol Records, 1987)
3. Chocolate Strawberry - Darryl Strawberry featuring U.T.F.O. (Macola Record Co., 1987)
4. Lets Ram It! - The L.A. Rams (Red Entertainment Music, 1986)
5. Football Rap - DJ Rappinstien (Rhino Records, 1982)
6. Get Metsmerized - The New York Mets (Passport Records, 1986)
7. Together - Walter Payton & William Perry (Chicago Record & Filmworks,Inc, 1986)
8. Dr. K - Dwight Gooden Featuring The MCL Rap Machine (Vine Street Records, 1986)
9. The San Francisco 49ers Sing We're The 49ers - The 49er Squadron (Megatone Records, 1984)
10. The Silver/Black Attack - The Los Angeles Raiders (Rhino Records, 1986)

For years I would end my weekly FMU show with the "novelty rap record of the week", these songs above all made the cut....