Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Song for Sonny Liston

Maybe some of you know who Sonny Liston was.  I had never heard of the man.  Not until I heard this song.

[The song is written and performed by Mark Knopfler.  He was the driving force behind the band Dire Straits, and is abso-fucking-lutely amazing.  An amazing guitar player, song writer, singer...  His sound I guess is a rock/blues thing.  Jeff was really into his stuff, and while I had heard some of it, really listening to Knopfler's CDs was life changing.  He's my top Pandora radio pick.  We've seen him perform here in San Diego - I cannot recommend this guys music enough.  Try the albums 'Get Lucky' or 'Golden Heart' to start]

So many mouths
To feed on the farm
Sonny was the second
To the last one born

His mamma ran away
And his daddy beat him bad
And he grew up wild
Good love he never had

He had a left
Like henry's hammer
A right like betty bamalam
Rode with the muggers
In the dark and dread
And all them sluggers
Went down like lead

Well he hung with the hoods
He wouldn't stroke the fans
But he had dynamite
In both his hands

Boom bam
Like the slammer door
The bell and the can
And the bodies on the floor

Beware the bear's in town
Somebody's money says
The bear's going down
Yeah, the bear never smiles
Sonny's going down
For miles and miles
Sonny's going down
For miles and miles

The writers didn't like him
The fight game jocks
With his lowlife backers
And his hands like rocks

They didn't want to have
A bogey man
They didn't like him
And he didn't like them

Black Cadillac
Alligator boots
Money in the pockets
Of his sharkskin suits

Some say the bear
Took a flop
They couldn't believe it
When they saw him drop

He had a left
Like henry's hammer
A right like betty bamalam
Rode with the muggers
In the dark and dread
And all them sluggers
Went down like lead

Joe Louis was his hero
He tried to be the same
But a criminal child
Wears a ball and chain

So the civil rights people
Didn't want him on the throne
And the hacks and the cops
Wouldn't leave him alone

Beware the bear's in town
Somebody's money says
The bear's going down
Yeah, the bear never smiles
Sonny's going down
For miles and miles
Sonny's going down
For miles and miles

At the foot of his bed
With his feet on the floor
There was dope in his veins
And a pistol on the drawer

There was no investigation
As such
He hated needles
But he knew too much

Criss-crossed
On his back
Scars from his daddy
Like slavery tracks

The second-last child
Was the second-last king
Never again was it the same
In the ring

He had a left
Like henry's hammer
A right like betty bamalam
Rode with the muggers
In the dark and dread
And all them sluggers
Went down like lead

They never could be sure
About the day he was born
A motherless child
Set to working on the farm

And they never could be sure
About the day he died
The bear was the king
They cast aside

Beware the bear's in town
Somebody's money says
The bear's going down
Yeah, the bear never smiles
Sonny's going down
For miles and miles
Sonny's going down
For miles and miles

*********
Charles (Sonny) Liston was a beast of a man.  Became heavy-weight champ and then lost the title to Cassius Clay (Mohammad Ali).  But it's Sonny's story before that bout that we're looking at, the life story that Knopfler wrote about.  And it's that story - that childhood, that saddens and enrages me.

He was born somewhere between 1928 and 1932 - nobody knows for sure and he doesn't appear on the census reports until 1940.  It was that kind of life - nobody recorded your birth.  The event wasn't that big of a deal.  YOU weren't that big of a deal.  Just another baby in a long line of babies and who cares anyway?

Evidently his father had been widowed in his fifties and had already fathered twelve children with his first wife.  Reading the rest of the story I can easily believe she died of starvation, stress, or was beaten to death.  Once his first wife was dead, he took up with a 16 year-old child named Helen Baskin (don't know if they were married) and moved her to Arkansas in 1916; she then gave birth to 13 more children.  Read that again.  25 CHILDREN TOTAL.  Tobin Liston, called Tobe (Tobe.  TOE BEE - srsly) was a black sharecropper in backwoods Mississippi and Arkansas in the early 1900's.  He was dirt. assed. poor.  Here is a picture of a white sharecropping family from 1916, there are almost no pictures of black families from that time.  This family only has a few children:
I cannot fathom the poverty.  The despair.  A sharecropper is a euphemism for slave - it's what slave owners turned into after Lincoln freed their property.  Sharecroppers got to keep 1/4 of the crops they picked.  ONE. QUARTER.

That 16-year old girl kept on getting pregnant.  From the rest of this story, I'm going to assume she was getting beaten and raped by this Tobe piece of shit.  13 CHILDREN.  Giving birth 13 times, alone without pain meds or after care, without decent food in a dirt hovel - in the miserable summer and winter weather with no bathroom.  And NO JOY whatsoever.  Thirteen times.  Imagine how tired and afraid and weak and NARCED OUT this girl was.  Living this life of never ending days, never ending nights, never ending fear, never ending demands, and never ending children.  A couple of the eldest kids may have been gone, but for sure you can bet that he 'married' poor Helen Baskin in order to have childcare and to warm his bed - so I am going to assume (again) that there were probably at LEAST 8 children to take care of already, before the babies came and kept on coming.  ALWAYS pregnant.  Always.  Your body never your own.

The 'house' was more than likely a one room gig.  25 bodies.  No bathroom.  More than one baby nursing at a time, more than one toddler being potty trained without water, without diapers.  Everything that happened in that place was heard and seen by all of them.  Every time he yelled and hit and thrashed anyone, everyone was there.  Any time he forced sex on that girl, the kids heard it.  She gave up.  Sonny was quoted as saying she was 'helpless' - what could she do?  You fight, you get beat.  You cry, too bad, you have 3 kids sucking at the teat and 4 or 5 more needing wiped down and food for 20 or so to pluck out of the air and cook and - *shrug* you give up.  When he says "bend over" you just do it.  Why fight it - you can't fight it.

Talk about PTSD.  Wonder what happened to the rest of the family.

Feeding around 25 people on a sharecroppers wages.  All the kids put to backbreaking labor as soon as they were what - 5?  6?  weaned and out of diapers?  Tobe's opinion was quoted by Sonny as being "if he can sit at the table, he can work".  What would you cook?  How would you wash clothes for that many people - where do you go to get the water, the wood - the flour and beans?  Where does everyone sleep, and what do they wear?  Books.  Music.  Toys.  JOY.  What in the fuck kind of life is this.

This is reminding me of 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' - another thoroughly depressing story.

Sonny is believed to have been the second-to-the-last child and youngest son.  When Sonny was 13 his mother left with all the other kids and escaped to St. Louis.  She left Sonny behind.  I am halfway screaming furious at this, and halfway accepting of her choice - she took ALL THE OTHER KIDS STILL AT HOME and ran.  Old Tobe probably insisted on keeping one boy to work with him on the farm.  Sonny's back was already so scarred from whippings (A WHIP ACROSS HIS BACK) so many times before that the scars were visible for DECADES, and in fact are a juicy tidbit in the biographies written about him.  So she took a Sophie's Choice and ran.  As Spock said, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" - and yeah.  If you can save a dozen or more by leaving one, you go.

Imagine that day - the day she was leaving.  No WAY would Tobe have just LET her and all those kids go - those kids were HIS slaves, his way to food.  He worked those kids.  So how did she get out?  Either in the dead of night or with a nuclear war, and where did she get the strength?

AND - why leave the youngest boy?  Why didn't old Tobe insist on an older boy, one that was more used to the work, one who could help more?  Sonny - I mean, she called him 'Sonny'  (nope, bad info, that was a nickname given to him in prison) Maybe she doted on that boy - maybe he was something special to her.  Which would have made Tobe FURIOUS.  He would hate whatever she loved, right?  He had a special hatred for Sonny - so he yanked him back from freedom and made his life an even bigger slice of hell.

Exhausted, out of your mind with terror, weak, hungry, filthy and desperate.  I keep trying to get my head around that life.  I cannot.  Trying to save any of the babies you have, any at all, from the monster.

They ALL got beat.  A man like this, with this many children, does not have a golden child.  But Sonny?  Became the scapegoat.  THE scapegoat.  For all that went on, for all that was wrong before. 

From this website:  http://www.thesweetscience.com/news/articles-frontpage/15175-a-birthday-for-sonny-liston (Tobe Liston) was, by all reports, a man whose hostility could not be contained in the meager five-foot-five frame God had given him. It spilled out in torrents of abuse and the oversized boy who didn’t pick cotton fast enough and whose silence was mistook for a simple mind, bore the brunt of it. Sonny wasn’t sentimental about his childhood: “The only thing I ever got from my old man was a beating,” he said.

Sonny was abandoned (in his mind) by his mother and siblings, left alone with the monster who now had nothing else to focus on.  Sonny became the target - and imagine the mind fuck of all of this.  While I understand Helen's choice to cut and run, I can MORE imagine Sonny's state of mind at discovering he was to be the sacrifice.  His Mother didn't save him, his father was a terrifying demon.  He ended up working for one of his brother-in-laws, thrashing pecan trees for the nuts and selling them.  With what money he could scrape together, he traveled to St. Louis to re-join his mother and siblings.  Where else was he going to go?  A kid wants his mother, and wants answers.  Wants that Time back that got stolen - the time he should have been away from the demon like the rest of them.  I cannot imagine her pain - she loved him, no doubt:
A human being would want pay-back from the gods.  Retribution for the shitty hand he was dealt, and for the fact that the rest of them left.  There was no therapy then - no Dr. Phil show or internet websites.  There was only the noise inside your own head.  A cacophony of terror and rage.

He became a gang-banger - a mean street thug and served time in prison.  He was a 'bone breaker' for the Italian mafia.  He worked for some pretty bad dudes, he was a pretty bad dude.  He never complained about prison - he had 3 meals a day and a clean place to sleep.  Imagine that - prison is better than my other life.  It was in prison that he learned to box.  He had an amazing boxing career - I know nothing of boxing so I am going to give you a link to Wikipedia so you can read about it and research it yourself.  They called him 'The Big Bear' : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sonny_Liston

He was associated with the 'under world' and had a pretty long rap sheet.  He was essentially fighting for his life both in and out of the ring - his reputation caused a vicious circle of adulation and vilification.  When he won the title for Heavyweight Championship of the World, Liston had prepared a speech for a crowd that his friends had told him would be there to meet him at Philadelphia airport. But when he arrived, Sonny was only met by a few reporters and some public relations staff.  Where was the big celebration he felt he was entitled to - the celebration any other winner of that title would have been guaranteed?  Well, he was just kind of an asshole thug, is what.  Black people didn't get TV time unless they could be 'admired' - we all know the shame of the history of the way they were treated in this country - even Sammy Davis Jr., star of Vegas with the rest of the Rat Pack, wasn't allowed to stay in the very hotels where he was headlining.  So give a black man a history of prison time and rap sheets - there was no way they were going to celebrate him.

The Civil Rights movement didn't want him either - he wasn't the type of person they wanted to be a spokesman for them. 

Everybody both hated and loved him.  Then he evidently took a fall in the fight with Ali - was forced to take a fall - and his career went directly into the shitter.  I found a book written about him and the Ali fights, here : http://www.sonnyliston.net/.

There was huge controversy over his death in 1970.  It was declared a heroin overdose but there is incontrovertible evidence from many sources that Sonny hated needles, and even refused a celebratory over-seas exhibition tour of Europe because of the shots he would have had to get.  There are still to this day suspicions that he was murdered.

But what my point is - I guess - is his childhood.  The abuse <--that word just doesn't seem big enough for what he went through.  And?  He rose above it.  In his own way, he found a way out.  Yes, crime and prison, but he also had the stamina and drive to train his way to several boxing matches which he WON - and became Heavy Weight Champion of the World.  That is some serious dedication right there.

"Liston married Geraldine Clark in St. Louis, Missouri, on September 3, 1957. He had a stepdaughter and they subsequently adopted a boy from Sweden. Geraldine remembered her husband as, "Great with me, great with the kids. He was a gentle man."  He had a STEP daughter, and adopted another kid.  There were several more born out of wedlock - not sure of the timeframe, before or during his marriage.

He wouldn't have made himself an easy person to love.  He was damaged, and we all know how that goes.

Evidently he was very generous with his children and his wife.  He helped his sister Alcora financially during a very difficult time.  By all accounts he didn't pass on his legacy of abuse and neglect.  He stopped it dead.

He had not only tasted poverty, he had eaten a buffet of poverty.  If crime would buy him food and shelter - if that was the way to get money and therefore respect, then yes - hellz yes.  He went from that hovel, that hideous abusive shack in the backwaters of the south, to sharkskin suits and Cadillacs.  Hell yes he was a criminal.  I don't applaud the crimes but I do understand the motivation, the willingness to do whatever it took to not be that poor ever again.  And to not EVER be beaten and whipped again.  To be the toughest fucking dog in the pack.  Yeah, I get that.

He made mistakes out of the fear and rage in his head.  But he didn't swing at his kids.  And isn't that what we are all always talking about - how narcs always say "but my childhood was bad, I'm a victim, waaah" when NONE OF US did it.  And even someone who had it as bad as Sonny Liston didn't do it.

****************
From  http://www.sonnyliston.net/
"Sonny’s immense talent has been largely ignored but it has never been equaled. Half a century ago, he was to boxing what Babe Ruth was to baseball, what Tiger Woods became to golf, and what Usain Bolt is to track.

The legendary Joe Louis called Liston the greatest heavyweight champion in history.  Boxing’s three best big men of all time were in awe of Sonny, as was the entire sports world. Gilbert Rogin’s characterization of Liston as the nearest piece of talent to Godzilla, was an accurate description both of his ability and the public’s perception of him when he was champ. Veteran trainer Angelo Dundee said Liston stood over the division like a colossus. When Louis said, “Nobody’s gonna beat Liston ’cept old age,” there was no reason or indication to think otherwise."

17 comments:

  1. I hated Dire Straits the first time I heard them. That song about the jazz band. "he's got a day job he's doing alright" wasn't my cup of tea. The next song I heard was "money for nothing" and I was hooked. I really liked the "Romeo and Juliet" song . http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BMjrp6qm-iI
    A song off the same album. Those were the days when I was very provincial with my tastes in music. It was CSN&Y or Yes or the highway I Missed out on a lot of good music because of my narrow mindedness because bands would come to town and I would stay home. I was so much older then I am younger than that now. Lemme see if my Liston trivia cap is up to snuff today he died in '68 at the age of 38. ..I think.. I will get thee to google and see if my memory serves me today

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    1. That Romeo & Juliet song brings me to tears every time I hear it. It's the most perfect fucking song ever written - I can feel it in every part of my body.

      Boom Like That is a song about Roy Kroc, the guy who stole McDonald's and made it a huge success. Knopfler has some amazing stuff - but Sultans of Swing was Dire Straights and not my bag either.

      This Song for Sonny Liston is just wonderful. I recommend it two thumbs up.

      Also - Don't Crash the Ambulance. And Monteleone. OH, I could go on for days here.

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    2. So Knopfler released solo stuff. I thought it was all dire straits. Neil Young has Crazy horse. And what he does alone usually is nothing like what he does with the horse.

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  2. The sources I found state he died in Las Vegas in 1970. His age is contested because nobody was ever certain of the day he was born. As I said up above, it was just the kind of life they were living - who cares what year it is. 25 people in one 5X5 shack with no electricity and no running water, no toilet.

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  3. I saw the 70's date on wikipedia and re read your piece and realized I wasn't paying close enough attention. My ten year old self remembers his death being real close to bobby kennedy's assassination and that happened in 1968 while we were suiting up for the Barbarians trial so all that time period runs together. I see I need to expand my Knopfler horizons. We didn't have indoor plumbing at my grandmothers farm until the 70's. They just never upgraded it. It embarrassed the shit out of me to have friends over. We had running water because of the pump on the well but if it was 20 degrees on a winters night and you had to go you went to the out house. And to bathe we heated water on the stove. It wasn't that bad. you just knew what was in store if you were going to grandma's. It was more than offset by the fresh food from her chicken house and garden.

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    1. Shit Q - Bobby Kennedy's death, Sonny Liston's death, your sweet dear mother on trial for murder... I'm surprised you remember anything from that time. I'm not surprised it all melts together into one goulash for you.

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    2. We had indoor plumbing but no central heating or hot water until I was 13. Bath water was heated on the wood stove which was pretty brutal in the summer! We didn't have a fridge until my bother was born in 1954. For years, even if I invited kids over to play, their parents wouldn't let them.

      I remember Sonny Liston well but don't really know why.

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  4. But there was usually just me and sis and my grandmother and her mother in a fairly large house

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  5. Great research, Gladys. I remember Liston from my childhood and it always seemed somehow as if he "didn't fit" in any world. At least that was my kid impression but what a phenomenal fighter he truly was...makes me wonder who he was actually fighting during those bouts, yk?
    The kinds of rural poverty/deprivation described in this Post resembles a fair amount of what I see where I've lived these last many decades-only a whole lot colder. Rita my antique BFF (a local/"From Here") also grew up without indoor plumbing and a pump for a dug well. She attended a one room schoolhouse for years until a school district was somehow patched together eventually. She's remarked repeatedly being the youngest child when she first started school was a real advantage as she learned material not only at her Grade Level but was also able to benefit from the lessons of the older children. She never had a "submarine sandwich" or a slice of pizza until she was 18. They lived on a back road off another back road. Her mother didn't drive, Dad was away working for the most part and they did not have a phone for years-and then it was a Party Line, aka, "Gossip Central." ;)
    The one quality that makes a huge difference in any child's life regardless of their economic situation was the unconditional love of her mother-and Dad, when he was around. Despite the deprivation and poverty, she was loved as were her 3 younger siblings. Sonny Liston had nothing "on his side" from the moment of his birth especially love. Bruises fade. Burns scar over, broken bones mend.
    I don't believe the absence of unconditional love as a child regardless of their family's economic situation can ever be remediated. It's a loss, an ache IMO that's as familiar to me and likely other ACs we-or I-have accepted to what ever extent. It doesn't hurt less over the years; it just becomes different. More than factual, it's at times been an almost visceral experience.
    Like phantom limb pain yk?
    TW

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    1. YES tw, I know what you mean. That absence of unconditional love becomes your bones. Becomes who you are, on a cellular level. You stop thinking about it, like you said, 'it just becomes different' - it just becomes who you are.

      And you always miss it. JUST LIKE a phantom limb.

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  6. Yeah TW. I didn't get beat frequently (thank god for small favors) But we had to watch my mother keep us perpetually deprived and watch my father watch her and not step in. We were always on guard because my mother could go off on a dime and like a dog that only hears pitches that humans cannot, it was like living in a war zone, something anything could/would set her off and she would drag us all down with her. By god they created us so we were obligated to be their audience whether we liked it or not.

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    1. Reverse the roles and you have my parents. Dear old dad raging like a maniac in the blink of an eye and mommy dearest quietly watching. A lifetime spent walking on eggshells until you finally realize the old bastard will go off like a rocket regardless of what you do.

      My dad beat the crap outta my older brother but never touched me. Mommy liked to slap my face and bash my ear with a hairbrush which has a lot to do with my deafness. They both made sure I knew my place at the bottom of the pecking order.

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  7. It just amazes me - he lived through all that abuse and violence and DID NOT PASS IT ON.

    So how do people justify our narc parents? "his childhood was terrible! You have to understand and forgive!" BULLSHIT.

    Even someone who had it as B.A.D. as Sonny Liston didn't abuse HIS kids. There is no argument, no excuse for child abuse.

    NONE.

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    1. IMO There's even fewer excuses for the parent, like my NM, who silently watches it happen. I never really expected her to have the balls to intervene but a few private words of comfort would have made all the difference to her kids. Let's just suppose my NF really couldn't control his violent temper, what's her excuse? Scared to put herself on the firing line but didn't mind watching her kids up there getting hammered. Thanks, mum!

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    2. you would think my father would have manned up but he would have been cut off from the pussy.

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  8. I'm a big Sonny fan (I know quite a bit about boxing, especially the heavyweights). I LOVE that song, and it sums up Sonny pretty well. I used to live in Las Vegas. That's where Sonny died and is buried. I visited his grave. Just a simple marker. Sonny wasn't an angel but his life was never easy. Here's a story I heard (it's been corroborated) that speaks volumes. When Sonny beat Floyd Patterson and won the heavyweight title he was so proud to be going home to Philly with the belt. He was expecting a crowd there, including a media deluge. But when he arrived there was nobody waiting. An eye witness said they saw him visibly sag. Sonny did some bad things, but he was a guy who deserved a chance at redemption. But sometimes people just won't give it to you.

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  9. This account says there were a few reporters there:

    "On winning the Heavyweight Championship of the World, Liston had a speech prepared for the crowd that friends had assured him would meet him at the Philadelphia airport. But upon arrival, Liston was met by only a handful of reporters and public relations staff. Writer Jack McKinney said, "I watched Sonny. His eyes swept the whole scene....You could feel the deflation, see the look of hurt in his eyes....He had been deliberately snubbed. Philadelphia wanted nothing to do with him."

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