I try to talk to everybody all the time but I have a special word for all my fellow abuse survivors tonight ok. if you make it to midnight tonight do you understand what that means? TOTAL VICTORY YET AGAIN. AND AGAIN. AND AGAIN. so here’s to us & here’s to all of us because I bet this year had its brutal speed bumps for more people than just me but guess what. surviving is what we do, and yet again, we did. Thanks to everybody who saw me through this one. And understand this, too: even if you feel like you’re barely scraping by, your survival is meaningful to others. To me, for example.
–John Darnielle via Twitter, Dec 31 2012
Beat the Champ opens in such a hopeful way. John Darnielle sounds so alone, as he sings, one voice in the darkness like a match flaring, and it should be bleak but it isn’t, somehow. It sounds like nostalgia and the future all at once, a dreamy recalling of what it will be like to die a legend. Beat the Champ is an album about legends, an album about pro wrestling, but it is also about a light against the darkness. It is also about survival.
I said this before when I reviewed “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero,” the first single off this album, but I’ll say it again: I know literally nothing about pro wrestling. I know that the Rock did it, once upon a time, and I also know that that fact being the one fact I know is probably infuriating to people who care about pro wrestling, but that is the entire scope of my knowledge. And despite that – despite my total unfamiliarity with the premise of this entire album – I love Beat the Champ, truly and deeply. It resonates with me, it makes me want to fight someone in the desert. That’s a good thing.
This album, for me, is about survival. Survival as a victory, and victory as survival. This album is about heroes, and how we make them, and how they are broken, and how they remain heroes nonetheless. This album is about saving and being saved. Listen to “The Ballad of Bull Ramos:” an old, retired wrestler, going blind, losing his leg, and the doctor asks him if he’s that wrestler. And he says yes, sir, that’s me, I’m him, and then the chorus goes never die, never die. Rise, rise, in the desert sand. Rise, rise, surrounded by friends. What does it mean, to have been someone? What does it mean to know that the person that you were is gone, but that you are also still that person? How do you look back and say not “That was me, I was him,” but that is. I am. You were a hero once and you still are, you still can be, if you simply claim it. Survival as victory. Listen to “Foreign Object:” One of these days my legs will both snap like twigs. If you can’t beat ’em make ’em bleed like pigs. Fighting through a mist of blood and rage, sharp thin something concealed in a fist. Nothing matters but winning and if you can’t win you will make them pay for it in flesh and you deserve that. Victory as survival. (An aside: this track also contains the delightfully well-enunciated line I personally will stab you in the eye with a foreign object, which I am probably going to embroider on a throw pillow. What a fucking beautiful, pointed, straightforward message. This victory is my survival. I digress.)
It is worth it to note that victory – that survival – is often ripped from the jaws of something still alive, and John Darnielle is no stranger to that idea. This album’s victory is earned and deserved and righteous, even when its muzzle is soaked in blood. Let him who thinks he knows no fear look well upon my face, he says, and I shudder as my soul snarls in agreement. It is perhaps not the honorable thing, to pray for the death of your hero’s enemies, but it is the truth and it is your heart and it is bitter and it is your survival.
Listen: even in the midst of carnage, of the blood-spattered faces of the audience, there is love. Even as your vision swims and you drop to one knee there is such joy, such exhilaration, a pure sweet fierce thing that leaps in your veins and reminds you why you fight. Even defeat is not defeat when you have fought well, because you continue to survive. You are a hero and you will remain a hero long after this is over, when the present is only memories. You will survive, that continued survival which is something sharp in the eye to those that would see you broken. You have this wolf inside you, this great and terrible thing which claws its way forward to the victory of life, this great unending fight that demands everything. You are constantly fighting, and because of that you are constantly victorious. Your existence is a triumph and a miracle and something you have bled for, and you are a hero. Rise, rise.
Beat the Champ is available now from Merge Records.