The Music of Sports and the Sports of Music: Get Your Sporty Groove On!

Guest post by Colin Fleming

I’m often amused when people roar about something they don’t like—as if said roaring attests to some value or characteristic they wish to have—when what it is they’re roaring about actually has a lot in common with what they’re more than happy to tell you they’re into.

I experience this a lot as a writer who also loves sports. The latter can be bad in the writer world. The stuff of hoi polloi. The dirty rabble! The folk! And middle school memories—and nightmares!—of getting pegged in the head in dodge ball, and letting in every last little bleeder when tasked with being the goalie in floor hockey during gym for a humiliating 81.00 goals against average. The horror! The future therapy sessions! Dash it all, down with sports, the artistically-inclined individual will typically say.

Not always. So chill. I am not making sweeping generalizations here. I like you, reader, whatever you may like. We are friends. But what I’m trying to get over in a semi-jocular manner is the gulf people normally believe exists between sports and music, when in many ways, they’re the same. We’ll expatiate on that as we go. When I was in high school, I was a hockey star who stayed after school having long discussions with an English teacher about Shakespeare. I came home from the hockey game and wrote poetry. I essentially poured music into my brain. Going to school, coming home from anywhere, and then at home. I did all of my homework and writing to the sounds of Beatles bootlegs, Dylan albums, and the likes of Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963, which I think had some role in me writing a book about the record for the 33 1/3 series.

My hockey player teammates enjoyed cranking Metallica on the way to the rink. Getting pumped. You know exactly what I mean. I knew this one kid who said—erroneously—that if AC/DC’s “Back in Black” was playing in his ears, he could beat anyone in a sprint. His boast—which was also honestly how he felt—reminded me later of a girlfriend who remarked, “Don’t you feel invincible when you orgasm?” What can you say? Sure? These weren’t the nuance guys, necessarily. Volume and power was what was on the call sheet. The music had utility, just as Bach’s cantatas have their utility on the concert program at the church on a Sunday. The smart listener understands that Bach and Metallica can be thought about, studied, discussed, in the same way, though with different terms. The one can also get the other. Bach would be a Black Album guy; Metallica can be a pretty fugato-y band.

One of my best friends was decidedly a non-sports guy. The arty type. Weed, mushrooms. We poured over recordings by the Yardbirds, Doors, Kinks, Who. Searched headshops for unreleased music. He’d go to a hockey game if that was the big event in our Connecticut town that night, on account that that’s where his friends were. There’s a divide at work here, but there doesn’t need to be. Something I wanted to convey in my book about Sam Cooke is how physical music can be. Somatic. Listening is a bodily experience, just as playing sports is. And if you really understand sports and music, you begin to see a lot of overlap.

We were talking about high school. I think about the kid who comes home after having the rough go of it. He got dinged up in lunch when some peers made fun of him, or the girl he finally found the courage to ask out said no as two of her friends looked on, giggling. Bad day! What’s he do? Comes home, puts on the tunes. Radiohead, I don’t know. There is likely headphones and volume. The latter is physical. You feel volume in your body. Music as a set of ideas, of thoughts expressed, is something we feel in our emotions. Volume is as much about the ribs and making it seem that your clavicle vibrates. This side of music is a form of embrace. It’s touch. It’s a punch to the shoulder saying, “Dust yourself off and go out there and get ‘em!” It’s pretty damn sporty. Sometimes, there’s not a lot of difference between a locker room speech and the Who’s Live at Leeds when you’re down and in need of being picked up.

Sports, or a workout, help us deal with what’s troubling us. You feel better after. Listening to music is similar. Often we do both at the same time. I run thousands of stairs most days here in Boston, listening to what I’m listening to as I go up and down (3000 stairs today, to the backing of Exile on Main Street). I may not want to go out at all and have to force myself to, but inevitably I am glad that I did. I’m engaged physically and mentally. I can practically feel some form of pulley system that connects my body and my brain. That system operates on the premise of sports, and the premise of music.

There are a number of pre-reading surprises in my book—what I think of as conversational surprises. That is, if you say them to someone who has yet to read the book, they’ll sound surprising, as if a discussion of Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 couldn’t logically feature these other elements. But if a person reads the book, they won’t think twice or call out any incongruities, because it’s all just a logical extension of what is happening, and the argument being made. The world of the book. Books have worlds if they’re any good. They are worlds unto themselves, which are true to our world on the outside, in the ideas and truths they evince. And all of that can be pretty far-ranging.

For instance, Schubert is in there, in relation to Sam Cooke. And so is this hockey player—who probably wasn’t even an average player—from the Boston Bruins in the 1980s. I’m a writer who doesn’t reach. It’s not in my writerly DNA. I don’t make a fancy comparison just to make one, or try to prove I’m smart. It’s simply not who I am. But if I know something that helps flesh out a point, and I can bring that thing in, I bring it in. Why wouldn’t I? That’s what knowledge is there for. And if you know a lot about a lot of different things, you can end up seeing how there’s more overlap in life between what some might think are disparate subjects than is typically believed.

I used to watch this particular Bruins player, and he was their energy guy. The spark-maker. Running around the rink, popping people who needed popping, within the rules of the sport, the context of the game. I think that’s what Sam Cooke does on Harlem Square Club. He’s the energy guy. The ultra-energy guy, who does great popping. Pops his listeners, pops people who might be resistant—for all the wrong reasons—to what he is offering the world. Pops himself to reach deeper, bring out more. Wows the people in that room, and us all of these years later.

When I was in a really bad stretch of my life, and I didn’t want to go out, didn’t even want to move, I’d force myself to walk across Boston, and I’d do so listening to Sam Cooke. Sure, walking is exercise, but this listening experience had a workout component. My body was responding to the music. And as my body went, so, too, did my spirits. I wasn’t fixed or happy. But I was able to keep going. To play the next game on the schedule, as it were. In life, that can be going from Tuesday to Wednesday and on to Thursday.

Recently I was watching a documentary called Four Falls of Buffalo about the Buffalo Bills teams of the early 1990s that lost four Super Bowls in a row. They were this punchline, but I’ve always thought they were among the coolest teams in sports history, because they kept fighting to go back, rather than just cave. They were willing to risk another loss. Personally, I’d rather go to eight Super Bowls consecutively and lose, than never go to one. Don’t play sports safe, don’t play life safe. Play all out. That’s admirable. As the documentary starts, you get this big earful of Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers doing “One More River to Cross.” Perfect marriage of sound, sense, cinema, sports.

There are other examples. Take a listen sometime to Marvin Gaye singing the national anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game. Given that this is the season of March Madness, think about the relationship between a crack jazz or soul band like the one Cooke had on that night in Miami in 1963 and basketball. The flow. The anticipation involved. The well-calibrated team makes the extra pass on offense, getting the ball to the man on the weak side for the wide-open corner three. His teammates on the bench stand up as the ball leaves his hand, knowing that it is about to touch nothing but net. Teamwork. Knowing the soft spots in the defense. Unselfishness. Technique. Practice. But spontaneity. Knowing what to do and what is best for the group in the moment. That’s jazz. That’s being a part of a tight as hell soul band out there on the road. You listen to your bandmates. The singer. Pick up on cues. You understand what is happening, and where the music can go. You anticipate what you’ll do before you do it. Your playing feeds the playing of the people around you. You’re an individual, but you’re part of a team. Sure, there are differences. I’m not going to say that the outcome of a basketball game can change anyone’s life the way listening to a work of art can. But there are similar principles.

Too often we do the whole “music people and sports people are separate” thing. Or, to be cruder, the whole “jocks and nerds are separate” thing. Don’t do that! There’s no need, and there’s also not a lot of truth to be had there. I’ll think about two of the best bands ever to come out of America in the Grateful Dead and Duke Ellington’s orchestra. They have so much in common, though you might not think they do. Virtuosic players, ensemble grooves that other units can’t match, vast and varied repertoires, structure and improvisational grandeur, and they make art music we can study. Of course we can. We can study Bach, we can study Picasso, we can study Proust, and we can study Ellington and we can study the Grateful Dead. But you know what both bands most fundamentally are? Dance bands. Dance bands emphasize the physical. A workout. A certain sportiness.

I have this buddy who knows his music big time. I posted something on Twitter about the Dead and how they’re a dance band, and he cracked wise—good-naturedly—about how he didn’t know “Dark Star” was something you could dance to. Look, I’m not saying that after running stairs, the C-Dawg gets naked before his shower and dances around a bit to the super long version of “Dark Star” from Cleveland in 1973, but I’m not saying he doesn’t. You definitely can dance to it. But you have to let yourself get in that headspace. It’s the same headspace that allows us to see how musical sports can be, and how sporty music is.

Think about that as you watch the tournament this year. Then play some all-time tunes as your brackets inevitably fall to pieces, and feel those endorphins charging hard through your body. Everything really is a form of trying to hit that open man on the weak-side for the corner three, if you play it right.

Sam Cooke's Live at Harlem Square cover

Colin Fleming writes about music, and has written about soul, jazz, and blues for dozens of venues including The Atlantic,The New YorkerThe GuardianRolling StoneVanity FairThe Washington PostMOJODownBeat, and many others. He is a regular guest on NPR’s Weekend Edition

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