“Why have they gone/Fell by leather/So alone, all bound together.”
- from the Sun Kil Moon track “Salvador Sanchez”
It's not often that boxing appears a central theme in music, but recording artist Mark Kozelek has given the combat sport a starring role in his work since disbanding alternative rock band, Red House Painters, on the eve of the millennium.
The frontman for a nearly twelve-year stint (which saw their biggest selling U.S. album “Songs for a Blue Guitar” in 1996, as well as contributions on film soundtracks such as that of Cameron Crowe’s “Vanilla Sky”), Kozelek laid the Red House Painters to rest in 2001 in order to focus on his solo career. Two years later, he and the other founding members of RHP resurrected the band under the moniker Sun Kil Moon, inspired by former South Korean two-division world champion and namesake, Sung-Kil Moon. According to Kozelek, he considered Sun Kil Moon a continuation of the Red House Painters but changed its name to pique the interest of critics who got bored with, or stopped paying attention to, SKM’s previous incarnation.
The band’s debut album, “Ghosts of the Great Highway” (2003), which includes the aforementioned “Salvador Sanchez,” “Duk Koo Kim,” and “Pancho Villa” among its eleven tracks, reveal pugilism as a main Muse — in this case, a trio of fighters who suffered an untimely end (Sanchez, Kim, and Villa all passed away at age 23).
“Salvador Sanchez” and “Pancho Villa” are in fact the same song, the latter an acoustic rendition of the former. Sanchez, Villa, and Benny “Kid” Paret, another boxer who met an early demise, are profiled in separate verses; all are referenced in the above quote.
So how and why, exactly, did Kozelek begin to integrate boxing into his writing, given that it was a rare if nonexistent theme in the Red House Painters catalog?
“I have a soft spot for all boxers,” Kozelek told TQBR.
“Their backgrounds are extremely harsh and they work very hard to move up in their careers. I was in attendance at the Manny Pacquiao-Agapito Sanchez fight in San Francisco in 2001. When I heard Sanchez was murdered shortly after, it had a profound effect on me. It hurts when anyone dies young, but when you see the backgrounds of these guys and the path they've taken to try to find some light in their lives, it hurts to see them die young.”
Kozelek himself admits that his boxing fandom was not established until adulthood. However, the San Francisco resident experienced the emotional epiphany which has created hardcore loyalists out of the most casual fans — and hasn’t turned back since.
“Growing up, my dad's best friend was a huge boxing fan,” Kozelek said.
“He always told everyone he refereed a Sugar Ray Robinson fight, but I never believed it. I'd go over to his house and watch wrestling and boxing with him and my dad when I was a kid, and honestly, it bored the hell out of me," he said. "Boxing didn't interest me until the mid '90s. My girlfriend would work late, until 1 or 2 a.m. One night, a fight came on and it occurred to me that the goal was to knock the other guy unconscious before he does it to you. Something just ignited, and I was hooked. At that point, I started watching fights, taping them, watching them over and over. It gave me something to do other than play guitar, and gave my brain a rest from the music business.”
More recently, Kozelek has found himself being featured on the upcoming Desertshore album, “Drawing of Threes,” which saw its release this past November on Caldo Verde Records. Desertshore consists of former Red House Painters guitarist Phil Carney and classically trained pianist Chris Connolly. In addition to co-producing the album, Kozelek co-wrote six of the ten tracks and offers both his vocals and talents on bass and nylon-stringed guitar. In a song titled “Turtle Pond,” a passing mention is made of slain fan favorite Arturo Gatti. As well, the song “Vernon Forrest” is dedicated to the fighter and philanthropist whose life ceased only two weeks after Gatti’s.
“I was a huge Arturo Gatti fan, but the Vernon Forrest story, I get choked up even thinking about it,” said Kozelek.
“He was such a great person, involved in so much charity work. When I saw the story about it on Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, it just killed me, those interviews with his stepson. The lyrics I wrote for the song were written and sang on the spot in the studio upon hearing the music for the first time. I hope people like it and look into the story of Vernon.”
Any boxing fan would agree that our sport offers a wealth of incredible stories that deserve attention, though film (both dramatized and documentary-style) seems to be the most oft-employed medium. Kozelek, in framing the civilized violence with his soul-stirring melodies, offers a new angle.
And unlike some celebrity enthusiasts, Mark Kozelek’s interest extends far beyond a ringside seat for solely the Floyd Mayweathers and Pacquiaos.
“I've seen several fights in Vegas; Lewis-Holyfield, Vargas-Quartey, De La Hoya-Carr, as well as fights in Washington, Georgia, and many in San Francisco," he said. "There is a boxing gym down the street from me in SF called the Polk Street Boxing Gym that puts on amateur fights every once in awhile.”
For such a prolific musician, it is a wonder how Kozelek fits his penchant for pugilism into an already busy schedule. Boxing is not a sport friendly to the casual follower, hence its current “niche” status. But Kozelek enjoys a solid collection of retro favorites coupled while keeping his finger on the pulse of the current fight landscape.
“I follow it as much as I can,” said Kozelek.
“I have HBO, but miss fights now and then due to traveling. Hagler-Hearns is up there as one of my favorite fights. Leonard-Lalonde was exciting. I like the weird stuff too, like Lennox Lewis getting knocked out by Hasim Rahman. I was in Alaska watching that fight in bed. I couldn't believe he got knocked out!
“I loved watching Roy Jones Jr., Pernell Whitaker, Johnny Tapia, and Arturo Gatti. I love Mayweather too; I live for those 24/7s on HBO," he said. "I don't like boxing movies much but I loved “The Fighter.” I like boxing documentaries, particularly ‘Ring of Fire,’ ‘Assault in the Ring,’ and ‘When We Were Kings.’ My favorite book on boxing was maybe ‘Dark Trade,’ and I love ‘Weigh-In’ by Fraser Scott.”
If you’re curious whether or not the musician ever crosses paths with fellow boxing fans while performing, the answer is yes, though not often.
“Yeah, I meet boxing fans on tour sometimes, and I love that. It's a great diversion, talking about other things besides the usual.”
Kozelek's music has without a doubt made a fight fan or two along the way, and for that, we should be grateful. Now more than ever, boxing could use a good word — even better when that word is relayed by an advocate as talented and popular as Mark Kozelek.
Mark Kozelek's music can be found on MarkKozelek.com and SunKilMoon.com. Desertshore, on DesertShoreBand.com.