by Jochen Markhorst
In April 2014, BBC Radio 4 starts with the entertaining theme series “I Was …” and they are actually always fascinating shows. The broadcasts of half an hour focus on a completely unknown main guest with one special merit. “I Was Johnny Cash’s Tailor“, for example, or “I Was Ernest Hemingway’s Secretary” or “I Was John Lennon’s Trauma Surgeon“.
On Thursday, June 1, 2017, Dylan fans tune into BBC 4, when Daniel “Catfish” Russ can tell his story in the broadcast “I Was Bob Dylan’s One-Off Sparring Partner“.
Dylan’s love for boxing is well known and with some regularity an anecdote pops up demonstrating that love. In 2014, he visits a training session of world champion Manny Pacquiao, who immediately posts a proud photo on Twitter. In interviews and speeches, Dylan sometimes mentions that he visits boxing fights, in the 70s he trains with former professional boxer Bruce ‘The Mouse’ Strauss and director Quentin Tarantino has an amusing story how an old Dylan manages to hit him full and hard in the face at a sparring party. “He got one in there when I wasn’t paying attention. I think it was a right jab. I let my guard down for a minute, and he just thumped it in. It was a good punch.”
The technical details then come from one-off sparring partner Daniel Russ, who in a boxing school in Austin, in the spring of 2008, to his astonishment suddenly faces Bob Dylan. Russ is a former amateur boxer, trained as a rabbi, a moderately successful writer and reasonably talented blues harmonica player, but above all a well-to-do advertising man in Texas. He actually just came in to say hello to the owner, an old friend of his. The 51-year-old Russ is no longer boxing, but when his friend asks if he could please spar with some old guy (“don’t even hit him. I mean not at all… just move around”), he is willing to put on the gloves for this one time. To his astonishment, he faces his great idol Bob Dylan a minute later. “If you paid me by the shot, I wouldn’t hit this guy….EVER.”
Russ is verbally gifted and has more than enough perspective on the sport, so on the radio show he can explain well how Dylan boxes.
“I got to spar him two rounds. And he knew what he was doing, he knew the mechanics of fighting and everything. He threw a couple of jabs, you know, like, instead of just doing pop – pop, when the jab comes, I put this hand up to catch it, and then he’d throw a double, so I put my hand down, the second one went through my guard and hit me in the head.
So, he knew how to do that, because your second one has to go further than your first one. So that’s something he practised. I was crowding him a little bit, I mean, I was getting in his space, forcing him back, and he hit me with a hook in the ribs. That was really good, good shot.
You either stay outside the shots or you stay inside the shots, you don’t wanna be where the shots are perfectly thrown. And when I stepped in on him, he hit me in the body with a hook, I thought that was cool. Bob Dylan hit me with a hook. He knew how to punch. He knew how to throw a jab and step with it, he knew how to defend himself, like his jab started at the shoulder, and went out and came back to the shoulder, he didn’t drop it, he knew how to hold his body, he knew how to move, he knew how to throw a jab right-handed hook, he knew how to mix the shots up.
Boxers put their feet apart, okay, you don’t put them together, because that’s when you get knocked-out, when you can’t move back. So you always keep a nice space between them, and he seemed to be doing that perfectly. Because it’s Bob Dylan, he does everything perfectly. He sings perfectly, he plays perfectly, that’s how he is. He probably doesn’t do anything half-ass. He probably, when he first learned how to throw a jab, he probably threw a thousand times.”
Russ takes the gloves home and still cherishes them. “I remember how I came home and I thought to myself: Two old jews got in the ring in Texas. And I was one of them.”
Relatively little can be found in Dylan’s work of that boxing love. Twice a song revolves around a boxer, but not around boxing (“Who Killed Davey Moore” and “Hurricane”), in his entire catalog there is no more than a handful of hints to the noble art of self-defense (in “Clean -Cut Kid”, in “Gotta Serve Somebody” and in “The Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar”) and he covers “The Boxer” on Self Portrait.
At the time, in 1970, covering that particular song was a bit spicy. Around the song there is a rather thinly founded story, that Paul Simon would have meant it as a sneer to Dylan. In Greenwich Village, Dylan’s boxing love is well known, he has also left his home and his family to go to New York, and with that lie–lie-lie-chorus Simon shouts “lies lies lies” to the bard. Out of spite about his alleged betrayal of the folk movement, or something like that. Simon’s biographer Marc Eliot calls that interpretation utterly nonsensical (in Paul Simon. A Life, 2010), Simon himself has a radically different, credible story with regard to the genesis of the chorus and Dylan’s own answer, that cover on Self Portrait, is of course the most elegant.
But one time, somewhere at the start of his career, Dylan sheds light on his love of fist fighting in an own song: “I Shall Be Free 10”.
The song is an odd duck out, on side 1 of Another Side Of Bob Dylan (1964). The famous report by Nat Hentoff, the lucky wilbury who is allowed to attend the entire recording session on behalf of The New Yorker, does show the main merit of the song: it brings air, it is a comic relief. Producer Wilson laughs, the two technicians have fun, Dylan stumbles over the words a few times and eventually needs an extra insert to come to a complete recording. It is followed by “other songs, mostly of lost love or misunderstood”, and after the last recording, “My Back Pages”, the session ends at half past one in the morning. Dylan recorded fourteen songs in five and a half hours, eleven of which will appear on the album.
The decision to record the entire album in one fell swoop is based on commercial motives, as we are led to believe. Usually we don’t do this, says Tom Wilson, but record company Columbia must have the record before the fall sales convention, the fall fair that is scheduled for seven weeks later, late July, in Las Vegas.
That seems silly. Dylan is Columbia’s golden boy, can, again according to Tom Wilson, record whenever he wants to, and why he could not record a few songs on this Monday, a few others on Tuesday and the rest on Wednesday, is not clarified with this nonsensical fall sales convention argument.
It does provide insight, though, into how the questionable choice for “I Shall Be Free No. 10” as an album track was realised, at the expense of, for example, the also recorded, infinitely nicer “Mama, You Been On My Mind”, one of Dylan’s most beautiful love songs anyway. Apparently the still overheated decision makers think that “I Shall Be Free No. 10” on the album will create the same relaxing breathing space as during that monumental recording session.
It does not. Certainly, the song is entertaining, has music-historical value and indeed provides a comic relief the first few turns – but that effect does not last, it does not have the indestructible, granite charm of “To Ramona” or “Chimes Of Freedom” … or “Mama, You Been On My Mind”. In fact, the song is like a warm-up act in the theater. Dylan brings a series of unrelated, comic anecdotes, or rather, coathangers for witty one-liners (“I’m going to make your face look just like mine”), one of which even survives the twentieth century: Yippee! I am a poet and I know it.
But then again: it is of course the only Dylan song that gives a glimpse of his boxing fascination – that humourous second verse in which the narrator, shadow-boxing, fantasizes how he knocks The Greatest, triple world champion, Olympic champion and Sportsman Of The Century (Sports Illustrated) Cassius Clay, “clean out of his spleen”.
In that respect, Quentin Tarantino and Daniel “Catfish” Russel got away pretty well.
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