Weary Optimism Permeates The Mountain Goats’ “Southwestern Territory”

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With his new album Beat the Champ The Mountain Goats frontman John Darnielle strips the world of professional wrestling to its bare essentials and showcases what makes and often looked down upon pursuit truly a unique form of art.

From the opening notes of the album’s first track, Southwestern Territory, you can tell that John Darnielle is a true wrestling fan. The title of this song refers to, as does most of the album, a time in the world of professional wrestling before 1985, when Vince McMahon destroyed the territory system, formerly the bedrock of professional wrestling, and slowly mutated it into sports entertainment, which is what big corporate wrestling (WWE) wants to be be called because, these days, professional wrestler is a dirty word. This first song, with its optimistic, dreamy piano and woodwind backing, really helps set the mood for and define a narrative arc for the entire album. In this song, Darnielle takes on the persona of a wrestler just on the cusp of making it. With lyrics like:”Where the legends get made/ Out with the boy’s brigade/Part of the motorcade,” the audience can almost sense the speaker’s longing to be one of the greats. The music provides a pessimistic beauty to life on the road and hanging out with more experienced wrestlers. The next lines in the song really speak to the grind of a professional wrestler’s schedule, even back when wrestlers were not wrestling five days a week: “Flew home from Texas last night/ Slept on the flight /Work like a dog all day.” In this time period, a lot of wrestlers had to take day jobs to support themselves, and one would assume this is especially true of the speaker here if he isn’t yet a known quantity in the business. The song’s chorus accidentally gets at the monotony of the life of a professional wrestler when Darneille intones, “Climb the turnbuckle high/ Take two falls out of three/ Black out for local TV.” By making these lines the chorus, we hear it two of three times. Frequently, wrestlers will work with the same guys on a tour. The chorus embodies this action.

There have been many songs that talk about life on the road, but none that explore the niche business of professional wrestling. When the speaker talks about standing in cold, empty halls and waiting until his name gets called, that is right up there with, “On a long and lonesome highway east of Omaha.” The climax of this song sees our unnamed wrestler and his opponent work the crowd into a frenzy:”Burn like hillsides on fire/ In the squall of the ringside choir.” The imagery invoked here is the point in a match where the two competitors are working together so smoothly there’s almost a call and response nature to their movements. This is a phenomena wholly unique to the world of professional wrestling because the performers, at that point in the match, are feeding completely off the crowd, and the crowd is on the edge of their seats. Everybody knows the most memorable part of a match is usually the end. In the finish of Southwestern Territory, the up-and- coming wrestler almost kills his opponent:”Nearly drive Danny’s nose back into his brain/ All the cheap seats go insane.” These lines expose the primal gladiatorial lineage of which pro wrestling is a part.

In most interviews with professional wrestlers the majority of them talk about how hard it is to come down off an adrenaline high after a good match like the one described in Darnielle’s lyrics.The narrator then talks about driving back to, presumably, his hotel room: “Keep my eyes open and try to think straight/ No one drives on the 60 this late /Feel like the last person alive.” I can only imagine that the weariness of life on the road is magnified when coming down off an adrenaline high. It’s a very lonely way to live.

There are several songs on the album that are about real wrestlers, as is the case with The Legend of Chavo Guerrero…. so keep it tuned here for walls of text about wrestling songs.

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