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Requiem for a Hustler

Charles Farrell played with Sonny Rollins and promoted Leon Spinks.
Lyssa Oberkreser

"Some day," former heavyweight champion Sonny Liston once mused, "they're going to write a blues song just for fighters; it will be for slow guitar, soft trumpet, and a bell." Liston knew boxing was a lifetime of heartbreak doled out in three-minute doses; he just got the instruments wrong. Jazz prodigy turned boxing promoter turned avant-garde musician Charles Farrell has created the blues that Liston only imagined, although Farrell's version hardly resembles that classic form.

On his new album, Hope Springs Eternal, Farrell combines his piano playing with sax and answering machine messages from his days in the fight game -- boxers, promoters, con men, and gangsters, all leaving messages for the missing Mr. Farrell, who, at the time, some ten years ago, had taken a powder and gone to Puerto Rico. Seems there were some gentlemen who wished to do him bodily harm. If the backstory plays like a noir, the CD doesn't. It's much too immediate, too much of an experiment in sound to be summed up so easily.

"About five years ago," says Farrell, sitting in a booth at Lester's Diner on State Road 84, "I came up with this thought that music, by and large, is obsolete." It is a declaration that runs counter to Farrell's beginnings in the biz. "I was a pro from the time I was 12, sessioning with people who were famous or ended up being famous," says the 53-year-old, who grew up in Boston and left school in the eighth grade to pursue a career in music. "I worked with Sonny Rollins when I was 20."

He continued to make a living as a musician until the late '70s, though even then he realized that, musically and philosophically, he was moving away from his contemporaries. "I wasn't temperamentally suited to performing," Farrell admits, scooping up some home fries. "I'd be sitting in with a group, and they'd be doing one thing and I'd be doing something else."

Slowly, Farrell drifted away from music and into the shadow world. By the early '80s, he was living in Las Vegas, "doing some professional gambling, mostly on boxing." By the early '90s, he had gotten back into music, but on the moneymaking side, representing artists like blues-rocker G. Love. Then things got interesting. "In the midst of all that," he remembers, "I started talking to these Japanese wrestling promoters who wanted to do mixed matches, you know, boxers versus wrestlers." Also, as luck would have it, an acquaintance of his, retired heavyweight Mitch Green, was looking to get back into the ring. Farrell, still drifting, became a boxing manager and promoter.

In South Florida for a few days visiting old friends, Farrell brings to mind a high school English teacher on his way to a parents' open house. He wears a lightweight, dark-green suit over a black- and gray-striped shirt, his face framed by salt-and-pepper hair and eyeglasses. Sitting at Lester's sipping coffee, there is little in his manner or appearance to suggest that he can work more angles than a roomful of NASA engineers.

Farrell told Green that, if he wanted a big payday, there was only one way to get it -- fight Mike Tyson. After all, the two men had squared off before; once, in 1986, in Madison Square Garden, where Tyson had taken an uneventful ten-round decision. The second time was in 1988, when Green and Tyson mixed it up on a street in Harlem. Tyson hadn't been so lucky in the second fight -- he broke his hand. Farrell assured his fighter that people would line up around the block to watch Green and Tyson go at it again. There was only one problem: At the time, Tyson was serving a three-year prison sentence for rape. Farrell saw this as only a minor obstacle.

"I told Mitch, 'Look, we're going to go down to this minimum security prison" where Tyson was doing his time, Farrell recalls, flashing an impish grin. "We're going to set up a meeting with him. And I just want you to hit him. When he gets out, it'll be the only fight people will want to see. You'll make a million dollars." The scheme, though, never came off. "Mitch kept asking me how much Tyson would get for the fight. He kept saying, 'I don't want to give Tyson any publicity,'" Farrell sighs. "I said, 'What do you care?' You'll get a million dollars."

For the next few years, Farrell promoted fights for an assortment of old pros (including former heavyweight champ Leon Spinks), up-and-comers, and never-would-bes, in the process gaining a graduate education in America's dirtiest spectator sport. Boxing is a blood ritual, and not just in the ring: Crooked managers and venal promoters exploit young/promising/old/broken-down fighters for the pleasure of the suckers who flock to Vegas or Atlantic City for the big night or plop down millions in pay-per-view dollars. Occasionally, and then only among the best boxers, there is courage and nobility and even beauty -- you just have to look hard for it.

 

Farrell's boxing interests brought him to Broward and Palm Beach counties often; he still refers to resident impresario Don King as one of his favorite people in the sport. It is a relative judgment, to be sure, but one that suggests the depth of the snake pit. When he had had enough of the vipers (and, to the extent necessary, had become one himself), Farrell walked away. "About seven years ago, after being a gangster for most of my adult life," he says, "I ran into my ex-wife, who had earned her Ph.D. and was teaching, and she said, 'Look at you; what happened to you?'" The meeting turned out to be a rebirth of sorts for Farrell, personally and professionally. He and his ex-wife, Elizabeth Hirsh, a literature professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, remarried (making her the first and fourth Mrs. Farrell), and he turned his attention back to music, or, at least, sonic experimentation.

Hope Springs Eternal, to be released July 1 through Farrell's World Tribe label (CDs may be purchased at www.farrellworldtribe.com), is the culmination of his long, strange trip through the worlds of music and boxing. For the project, Farrell recruited respected British sax man Evan Parker, whom he calls "the best saxophone player since Coltrane." The pair recorded in studios in London, Tampa, and Boston (Farrell splits his time between the latter two). At least, once Parker got the gist of what Farrell wanted. "The first time we got together, he played music," Farrell says, laughing. "I said, 'No, we're doing something else.' As music, this project fails. As narrative, it fails. I think it has to be listened to in a new way."

Indeed. The elements that comprise the final product -- Farrell's plaintive piano, Parker's sometimes mournful, sometimes dissonant riffs, John Stephan's guitar feedback and programming, various music samples, and the answering machine messages -- don't so much create a coherent listening experience as they do a cacophony or sonic wash. It is an approach Farrell thinks is in keeping with the way people experience the world: "Younger people [especially] have been trained to hear information in a much more complex way, to accommodate parallel lines of information."

Of course, it is the answering machine messages that stick out: promoters trying to make deals, fighters looking for a payday or just someone to tell their troubles to, friends and foes alike wondering where the hell Farrell is. "Charles... I want you to get ahold of me some which way," one caller says early on. "I'm setting up this thing with Don [King]. I'll set it up for Monday or Tuesday... uh, probably in Boca Raton or wherever his office is at... Fort Lauderdale... I'm going to set it up, you know what I mean?" Another message, presumably from a fighter, bleeds desperation: "Please look out for me. Charles, don't leave me in the cold like this. Help me out, man; let's get this thing together... You said you was wrong, I said I was wrong, I know I fucked up... Charles, please, return my call."

Then there's this: "If I don't hear from you in two weeks, we'll have to resolve this in a different way... I know you're in Puerto Rico; Chris told me. I mean, if I have to take a trip to Puerto Rico, we can discuss this. That's entirely up to you."

Farrell smiles wryly, recalling the circumstances surrounding that one. "That's a death threat," he says. Which is why Farrell wasn't home to take those other messages. Sometime in the early '90s, a couple of wise guys made him an offer he couldn't refuse -- take over their fighter, help bring him along, maybe even get him a shot at a title. There was only one problem -- the kid couldn't fight. So Farrell arranged for him to face an even-less-accomplished practitioner of the manly art, in the hopes of building up his record. Farrell's fighter won but not exactly according to plan. Which was enough incentive for Farrell to duck out of the country for a while.

The episode is the reason a man catalogs his answering machine messages. "There was a good chance [having the messages] would keep me alive," Farrell says. "But I also had a feeling that I would get away from that life. I kept the [messages] the way people keep scrapbooks or photo albums." In that sense, the CD is an articulation of his interior state at two different times, "when those calls were made [1993-95] and now."

 

But if the project is, by its nature, intensely autobiographical, it is also something akin to the blues song Sonny Liston once spoke of, an ode to the bottom rung of the boxing food chain. "I won't say it's a work of expiation," Farrell offers, "but I'm sorry how hopeless [fighters'] situations are. The answering machine messages are looped and layered. What I tried to do was construct a hierarchy of the business -- the promoters say very little; the chatter is almost all from fighters, who have no power at all. It's a musical hierarchy. It provides one look into how a group of disenfranchised people live."

Which is not the same as saying it's a sentimental exercise. Hope Springs Eternal is, of course, an ironic title. It isn't hope that springs eternal at all, Farrell knows; it's the instinct for survival, inside the ring and out.

Hope Springs Eternal is available now at www.farrellworldtribe.com.


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