The Mountain Goats

Beat the Champ

(Merge; 2015)

By Robin Smith | 13 April 2015

This album is about wrestling, but let’s talk about snooker.

Snooker is a lonely sport. It is popular in a handful of nations. Here in the UK, it gets broadcast on the BBC to people annoyed that they aren’t watching Literally Anything Else—or to old diehards and idiots like me who consider watching it something like listening to The Disintegration Loops with pitiful commentary—and the zero sum number of people who tune in to Eurosport. It’s a one-person sport (almost always dudes, because old guard misogynists like Steve Davis have kept it institutionalised within gender roles and refuse to encourage anything different) based on forced formalities, dated sponsorships, and endlessly long matches. To approximate, matches can be longer than some Peter Jackson trilogies, but are shorter than most general elections. It is grueling and pointless, and it’s the only sport that celebrates proficient leaning.

We won’t be debating whether snooker is a sport in this review, by the way. Not that it matters, because none of you know what it is. Good for you.

I have had three favourite snooker players. First it was Ronnie O’Sullivan, the greatest of a sorry bunch by an astronomical mile, and the game’s one accepted “genius.” He has been made and ruined by snooker—persecuted by commentators for not giving a shit and then caring to the point of perfectionism, essentially criticised for living with depression, O’Sullivan has lived the sport and it has hurt him. Watching him play at his best feels bittersweet; his speed and grace forget him.

If O’Sullivan appears on Beat the Champ, and in my version he does, he is “Werewolf Gimmick,” Darnielle’s piece of work song about being so aggressively perfect at something you forget that you are not actually that thing. A song of unstoppable storytelling, told maybe in metaphors but probably not. Impossibly fast and poisonously hateful. Like lightning with teeth, O’Sullivan once made the fastest maximum break in snooker, clearing a hundred and forty seven points in five minutes and a handful of seconds. They call him The Rocket, but that implies science. Rockets stop when it’s time to land. If everyone else is just participating in this twelve by six charade, then O’Sullivan is elsewhere, marching to Darnielle’s untenable beat, bringing it all down from the inside.

In the time it took O’Sullivan five minutes to pull off snooker’s most remarkable feat, his nemesis and antithesis, Peter Ebdon, made a break of twelve. He is “Foreign Object,” by the way: spitefully slow, dancing around the listener, offering taunts and jabs but nothing in practice. Ebdon impresses his snooker upon the table without playing it—thinking, humming, and scratching his head like the balls are travelling along his nerves. And Ebdon plays his player, not his game. If you watch snooker just once, you’ll know just how reprehensible that is. Darnielle’s trumpets would make good Ebdon Fanfare. They’re the sound of playing with your food.

After O’Sullivan, I loved Ken Doherty—winner of one world championship, an exaggerated “defensive” player who basically made his best shots on total insecurity. Doherty was like a really lame Britpop band, obvious songs with the most intuitively relatable platitudes. To me, he was essential; a dozen steps down from the genuine excellence of O’Sullivan, an okay journeyman. Qualmless. There are plenty of characters in Darnielle’s new album that prefer picking up cheques to playing gimmicks, and I submit Doherty to play them in the rock opera adaptation. There was love in his game, but I always felt like it was for someone other than the table.

I could insert Doherty into my own version of “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero,” because I stood for him, and I made him glow when the television didn’t. He played boring snooker, but to me every lame shot was one of Darnielle’s excited upstrokes. When it was his turn to break it was like watching an expert dictate rhythm. Now I realise he’s more what you make of him—like Darnielle celebrating Chavo G with handclaps, I look back on Doherty and I feel silly. But I still feel. I guess he’d make a good “Legend of Bull Ramos,” too, because I’m talking about him in the past tense. Doherty now mainly serves as a BBC pundit, and as a hasbean, he is delighted. I love that. Groove with your insights, Ken.

My favourite snooker player of all time is Mark King, who I have only ever passively watched. He is the “oh, him” of channel-flickable snooker players, an unremarkably not terrible player who is also conventionally passable at interviews. I don’t know if he has ever won a match, but it seems like he’s endured a good hundred.

In the one King match I actively watched, he made what is indisputably the worst shot in the history of professional snooker. Watch it now, if you will, but the quick version: he walks up to the table, wringing his hands and squinting his way to a decision, and plays a safety shot. As he rests on the table to take his shot, though, he collapses on a change of heart: driven by the potential for muted applause, he decides to take the pot on. That’s what I think happens, at least. In his mind, the whole thing could be playing in reverse. Either way, the result is the same: a limping and limbless march of the white ball to a blue that feels the contact, shrugs, and wobbles a bit. Like if the earth failed to turn on its axis because it was too early in the morning.

The important moment isn’t the shot, but King’s reaction to it. He makes the defeated walk back to his seat, as every snooker player must after an unsuccessful attempt. But more than that, it looks like he’s going home. His body rewinds and his eyes close as if it’s time to sleep it off, right now. Despite many airless attempts by the BBC to get to know snooker players—and why bother, because what a boring a prospect, right?—this is the one moment I have felt close to one. Watching that clip, as I have a hundred times, I feel myself walking into King’s house after the match: switching the lights on, sinking into a chair, he finally feels watched—for all the worst reasons. For the sake of a character obituary. I forget if he even lost that match, but whatever the answer really is, he definitely did.

Losing happens more than winning does. Most of the people in any given tournament lose; applause corners in on them, like two walls made of nails. In snooker tournaments, thirty-one players are failing so one can have a twenty-minute ceremony before the whole thing recycles. In snooker tournaments, people are given nicknames that have nothing to do with their personality or demeanour—like, The Jester From Leicester has never told a joke. All anyone does is remind you of that one good snooker tournament that happened to people wearing oversized glasses in the ‘80s, the one that made everything that came after it redundant. Snooker is so fucking Loveless.

Maybe the scariest thing about being an actual, documented loser—athletically, artistically, or emotionally—is that you haven’t achieved anything while existing in the sphere of achievement. We rally success, the idea of a lived life, against death: losing is a scratch, but not a mark. You can’t leave like this, with an open offer for someone else to make peace at your expense.

I think of Mark King driving home from his snooker match, much the way that so many of the wrestlers on the Mountain Goats’ Beat the Champ seem to be perpetually driving home, described in the dark after being assigned loser patrol. I think of him hoping he’ll get to make a shot that’s the total opposite of that one, a glorious long pot with the white ball cued off of one corner of the snooker table’s awkward cushion. I think of that feeling where life is tipping out of balance, towards the bit you don’t want it to be in, towards a losses over wins ratio. Who do you become then? Someone who wants another match for the sake of finality. The wrestler who gets beaten and broken on “Heel Turn 2,” only capable of rising up to admit receding fears: “I don’t wanna die in here.” If winning is the only thing that makes dying worth living for, then imagine a rigged match. Imagine setting the lowest bar or wearing the most mysterious mask. The acts that define you against anything that could possibly be true of you in any other waking moment.

Mark King’s shot looks the way the universe sounds when Darnielle sings on behalf of it in “Unmasked,” muted and cracked, promising transcendence to the masked fighter in the mirror: “I will reveal you,” as if a costume choice or a particular swipe left could creep up on you and become the whole truth. His shot leads me right into the dark recesses of “Southwestern Territory,” which isn’t about anything but constant darkness. Its excited piano flourishes and woodwind motifs, and all their actively evolving changes, sound like nothing at all. Just a routine reconfiguring into death. “Die on the road some day,” this particular character mumbles. Until then, what to do? Be heroic, or be someone’s hero. Be remembered. We will remember you for anything that happens.