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.