John Darnielle announced Beat the Champ yesterday, an album by The Mountain Goats that is entirely about professional wrestling. His post about the record’s upcoming April release is triumphant, a post-National Book Award nomination victory lap titled after a “Macho Man” Randy Savage promo, and came with the link to the above song, “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero,” a jam about a childhood hero who happens to be the oldest brother of a lot of folks’ childhood hero, mentioned here as “young Eddie G.” It’s stripped down and fleeter in comparison to a lot of the offerings on Transcendental Youth that I often find running through my brain, absent that record’s horn section and covering a litany of career highlights with the same sort of nimble grace that typified a Guerrero match. For those unfamiliar with Chavo beyond maybe his brief run seconding his son in World Wrestling Entertainment, here’s a 1976 match from the LA Coliseum against “the star of Beat the Champ” himself, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper:
Piper and Guerrero feuded for years if the scant footage I’ve seen on YouTube is trustworthy, and when Darnielle sings that he wished death upon Chavo’s enemies, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that he means the Rowdy Scot, or any of the men he brought to California with him in an effort to wipe Chavo and the rest of the Guerrero family off the map. When he couldn’t do it in the ring, Piper pestered Chavo as a referee and as a manager. He ruined awards ceremonies. When Roddy Piper appears on television today with an “aww, shucks” attitude towards his enduring fame and adulation, I suspect a lot of it is genuine. He was a mean, skinny, race-baiting, gay-bashing prick at his finest, somebody too smart for a fan to handle, sure, but also too smart for his own good. He’s a perfect foil for a guy like Guerrero, who always hovered around the America’s Title and America’s Tag Team Title (he teamed with Al Madril, as Darnielle notes—Hector, in 1977, would chase after Piper with Gama Singh by his side) because the Los Angeles crowd was with him no matter how terrible the odds.
For me, seeing any member of the Guerrero family as a white meat, ethnic champion babyface is new territory. I was 10-years-old when Eddie Guerrero turned heel and feuded with my hero, Rey Mysterio Jr., and 11 when Guerrero psychologically tormented his nephew, Chavo Jr., over his refusal to cheat in his matches. Before finding this Los Angeles tape on YouTube, the oldest Guerrero family footage I’d seen was Chavo and Hector’s run in Florida as a pair of cartoon banditos wearing bullet belts and calling every white person they saw “gringo.” It’s really simple stuff, but also really, really great in a way that’s hard to explain while trying to write about a song that’s never encountered that version of Chavo Guerrero. In this match, in The Mountain Goats’ song, Chavo Guerrero is a hero in the classic mode of territory-era wrestling, a defender not only of his people, but anybody who believes in justice. There’s something unrelentingly sweet about the idea of a white kid from the Midwest coming to see Chavo Guerrero as an avatar for good in a world he sorely needs to see good in, and it’s not unique to Darnielle. My mom and her brothers grew up rooting for Bobo Brazil in Detroit. White fans wept for the Junkyard Dog when the Freebirds blinding him with hair cream, preventing him from witnessing the birth of his child. I had Mysterio, whose mask and oft-injured left knee was the source of much childhood agony. Wrestling is a battle for the heart and for the soul. Often, the man or woman battling on your behalf looks nothing like you. That’s the beauty of the sport, the beauty of this song.
Roddy Piper wins the above match after beating Chavo Guerrero silly with a piece of his bagpipe, Red Shoes Dugan blinded by salt on the canvas. I don’t know if anybody owns the rights to the California territory’s tape library or if what we’ve got is whatever some enterprising fellow managed to record and not erase over the course of 40 years, so I’m going to have to take Darnielle’s word for it that Dugan does, in some instances, raise the eldest Guerrero brother’s hand high in triumph. What pops here aren’t the facts Darnielle employs in building Chavo Guerrero’s legend, but way his deft, poetic lyrics—often deployed after a bit of information that’d register as meaningless to a non-fan—convey the impression those accomplishments leave upon a devotee. None of the Guerreros were large men—Eddie Guerrero accomplished what he did despite his size—but watching Chavo Guerrero on television, in black and white and in another language, he seems larger than life—exactly the sort of man who could be champion of all the Americas.
I’ve had this song on repeat since it was released yesterday. I’ve been trying to dig deep into what Darnielle calls “the blood and fire of the visions that spoke to me as a child” for years now, writing poems, going to and dropping out of wrestling school, being the “wrestling guy” in all but the most select company. I read almost every literary thing published about wrestling, but I have very discerning taste in such things. I can tell when we’re being made fun of, those of us whose early identities were bound to the tanned flesh and rippling musculature of professional wrestlers great and small, and I can spot members of our tribe. I didn’t need an entire record about professional wrestling to know that J.D. was one of us, and I didn’t need this song to know that the idea of an album about wrestlers wasn’t exactly left field for him. Ox Baker, after all, has been stomping through The Mountain Goats’ territory for some time now, and one of their spent gladiators was a boxer “in shining colors” who showed up just to get hit.
Talking about wrestling as a kind of pugilism is largely pointless as a grown man in 2015, but this is a song about childhood visions. Chavo Guerrero showed up to the L.A. Coliseum to get hit, too, but his was a greater purpose than a payoff. He took his beatings for kids who were picked on and bullied, adults crushed by the machinations of working class life. He was one of us, but he slipped the system somehow and became a face on TV. There were always men like Piper there to remind him of his place, but the essential fantasy of professional wrestling is that the powerless become powerful and overcome that adversity. This is powerful stuff, a force in the universe that exists across generations and languages and race. Not all of our heroes get to grow old, as Chavo Guerrero has, but in a sense they live forever. They are the justice we’re all waiting for. They are the promise that this justice will soon come.
“The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” is from The Mountain Goats’ forthcoming Beat the Champ, which is available in North America on April 7. It’s out in Pacifica on April 3, and in the Europe on April 13. You can pre-order Beat the Champ from Merge Records.