(Low)life: A Memoir of Jazz, Fight-Fixing and the Mob by Charles Farrell
Hamilcar Publications, June 29, 2021, 312 pages, $25.95 Hardcover
Review by Andrew Diamond.
Charles Farrell’s Low(life) is a tour of the underworld from the 1960s through the 2010s told in a series of anecdotes and reflections that are sometimes entertaining, sometimes cringeworthy, sometimes enlightening and almost always fascinating.
In the 1960s and seventies, Farrell worked as a musician in mostly mob-run clubs in New England and New York. Later, he worked as a boxing manager and fight fixer. This isn’t a crime memoir, though those who are drawn to pulp fiction, classic crime novels and movies like Goodfellas will find plenty to like here.
Farrell’s underworld consists of musicians, fighters, promoters, loan sharks, enforcers, opportunists, and misfits. The one thing they all have in common is that the stable, rule-bound institutions of society–corporations, schools, government–have no place for them. His lowlifes have no safety net and no guarantee that their world will be here tomorrow. They all have to hustle for a living. Some are good at it, some are not.
In these lower reaches of society, there are two types of people: the exploiters and the exploited. The exploited often have talent and vague dreams. The exploiters have vision, concrete goals, and a practical, unsentimental understanding of what it takes to make a buck. For both sides, each day is about survival, and the only resources they have are each other.
Sounds like a bad setup, doesn’t it? Welcome to the low life.
Farrell was born into a Boston family with little money but generations of musical talent. His streetwise grandmother, an orphan bounced from home to abusive home, occasionally had to turn to prostitution to survive her youth. His grandfather was a respected musician and bandleader. Both lived for whatever joy they could find in the moment.
Knowing his family’s history of alcohol and drug abuse, Farrell chose at a young age never to drink or touch drugs. He found another vice though, and he found it early, when he bet a nickel at a sea-side carnival and won a box of Baby Ruth candy bars. That was a 24–1 payoff.
“Like all gamblers,” he reflects, “my addiction was triggered by early luck–the instantaneous gratification and reward for guessing right. You put your small money down and it came back to you a minute or two later as big money. If you win early, there’s a good chance that it won’t matter to you that you lose forever after. You will spend the rest of your life chasing the feeling your first scores brought.”
Farrell is an unusually bright, insightful man. Despite a rough start in life, his mind and will, his talent and drive, self-respect and determination would have been enough to pull him out of the roller coaster low life if not for his fatal flaw. When things are going well, the innate gambler can’t help but think that his current hot streak is the right time to take a big risk.
He trusts his gut, makes his wager, and then he’s broke, back in survival mode, looking for opportunities and putting his sharp mind to work to get out of the hole he just put himself in.
In crime fiction, authors deliberately construct characters like this because they’re most interesting when they’re in trouble. Sharp minds become dull in a conventional life without challenge. The most fascinating characters are the ones who are smart enough to get out of trouble, but not smart enough to stay out. Charles Farrell is this person, and the joy of (Low)life lies in his ability to vividly convey the atmosphere of this world of drifters, dreamers, misfits, and scammers.
He describes the drive to an early gig at the Grey Finch in 1960s Nantasket Beach, “a tawdry, dying carnival town on the Atlantic Ocean”:
It took over an hour to get there from Boston. You had to pass clam shacks, fried-food takeout places, soft-serve ice cream carts, pre-computerized arcade games, and a decrepit amusement park that had once been wildly popular but was seeing its last days. By the time you finally drove down Nantasket Boulevard to reach the Grey Finch you had made your way to the end of the United States, where life seemed to drain into the ocean.
The Northeast club circuit of the 1960s and seventies is filled with performers working off gambling debts to the mod. The hapless singer Buddy Ray “just seemed out of place–someone who had drifted into the lower depths and couldn’t work his way out.”
Buddy was a tall, pretzel-shaped sad sack who resembled the legendary poker hustler Amarillo Slim. Without a rigid bone in his body, he melted over the mic, poured himself into a chair when he sat with customers, and collapsed in a heap on the back-room couch during the band’s breaks. His default impulse was to try to achieve the next level of recline, whatever it might be.
Unlike many of his fellow performers, Farrell is able to stand up for himself and demand decent pay and working conditions. After an encounter with John Coltrane, Farrell finally heeds his grandfather’s exhortations to practice and develop his natural talents instead of just sliding by on innate gifts.
He practices six hours a day, and it pays off. He finds himself playing with members of Coltrane’s group. Later in life, he records with Evan Parker and plays with Ornette Coleman. But despite his skill, the only steady living he can find is in mob-run clubs, where drunk audiences demand familiar sentimental standards. To heighten the cheap emotion his audience thirsts for, he bangs out “schmaltzy melodies while flinging my hands around theatrically and throwing in arpeggios that would have made Liberace blush.”
No one in Farrell’s underworld is living the life they want. Even the universally feared hit man, Franny the Killer, admits he only does what he does because it pays well and he happens to be good at it. Franny’s real dream is to own a restaurant. As he gives Farrell a tour of the kitchen into which he pours his murder-for-hire earnings, he throws his arm over the musician’s shoulder and says, “It’s funny how a guy will do things he doesn’t want to do just to be able to do the one thing he does.”
By age 27, Farrell has been in the music business for over a decade, and he’s had enough. Public performance is demanding and demeaning. He looks for a new life, and he finds it in boxing, where he has a knack for assessing talent (or, more often, lack thereof, which is a good thing to be able to recognize if you like to bet on fights).
In the boxing world, Farrell finds another version of the music world. Management exploits talent. Only in boxing, there’s a place for the untalented because the fighters on their way up need someone to beat.
Part of a fight manager’s job is to find those hapless opponents for his fighter. The manager wants to pad his fighter’s record and build his confidence by putting him in fights he can win.
Boxing matches, however, are notoriously unpredictable. On any given night, an overmatched journeyman has a chance of beating a world class professional by a simple twist of fate: a cut, a broken hand, a lucky blow. It happens even at the pinnacle of the sport. In a moment of carelessness, the dominating Lennox Lewis gets knocked out by little-known Hasim Rahman, and the seemingly invulnerable Anthony Joshua loses to the unheralded, out-of-shape last-minute stand-in, Andy Ruiz, Jr.
As a manager, your job is to maneuver your fighter toward a big payday. That’s a long-game effort that requires picking the right fights over a period of months and years. The last thing a manager wants is for a hand-picked loser to get lucky against his fighter, the way Rahman and Ruiz did against the reigning champs. So even though you’re ninety-nine percent sure your guy is going to win, you throw some extra money to the challenger to make sure the fight goes as planned. You make him understand what’s expected of him and how and when the fight is supposed to end.
Because most casual fans have only been exposed to championship-level boxing, most don’t know how little the average fighter earns for an undercard bout at a small venue. Often, it’s just a few hundred dollars.
The fight fixer’s extra payoff of a thousand might be double what the fighter expected to make in the first place. Some fighters will take the extra cash without question and do as instructed. Some of the more naive, by Farrell’s account, actually break down and cry when they learn what they have to do.
Sometimes the fix sprung on them at the last minute, just before they walk into the ring. Sometimes it’s understood well in advance. The manager tells his fighter he’ll get a decent payday if he can look good for three rounds, not hurt his opponent, and then go down when instructed.
Boxers are a fragile investment working in a brutal environment. Even the best may have only a few great fights in them. Fixes are the savvy manager’s best shot at maneuvering his fighter toward the big payday. No manager wants to see years of hard work go up in smoke in one bad night.
Farrell’s accounts of the sordid boxing world are often funny. His characters are always human. They can be horrifying and endearing, uneducated and wise, brutal and tender at the same time.
His fighters run the gamut of the boxing world, from lightweight champion Freddie Norwood to the hapless Chris Gingrow and the clueless Martin Foster, neither of whom understand they’re in the wrong business. About Gingrow, who couldn’t win a legitimate fight, Farrell says, “He was a man not quite smart enough to figure out that, in the business he’d chosen, you couldn’t be not quite smart enough.”
Meanwhile, Norwood is so good no one wants to fight him at all. One of the recurrent themes of (Low)life is the lack of opportunity for true talent and genius. Farrell had to dumb down his music to satisfy undiscerning nightclub audiences. In Las Vegas he meets the beautiful stripper/prostitute, Vanessa, who “sang earnestly and with great feeling” with a “soft, rich voice, perfectly in tune” as tears formed in her eyes. She begs him to use his connections in the music industry to help get her singing career off the ground. All he can tell her is, despite her talent, “There’s no audience for that kind of music here.”
He walks away from the woman both he and his friend agree is the most beautiful they’ve ever seen, leaving her to find her own way in a world that only values her for her body. As in music, so in boxing.
In Freddie Norwood, Farrell has one of the best boxers in the world, but he can’t make money.
Networks didn’t believe that Norwood’s style was marketable. This kind of racially mediated determination had long been used in boxing to marginalize great black fighters who were defensively adroit and offensively efficient. Norwood was part of a dwindling list of Black Code fighters.
Black Code fighters had honed their techniques down to pure essence, winnowing away all extravagant display. Not only did you have to be a sophisticated fighter to master the style, you had to be sophisticated to appreciate it. Defined more by subtlety than bombast, the aesthetics of Black Code fighting floated over the head of most viewers and commentators alike.
George Foreman made a similar comment during one of Floyd Mayweather’s fights, when the champ was making easy work of a tough challenger. “Boxing at this level,” Foreman said, “is like jazz. The better it is, the fewer people there are who appreciate it.”
Farrell concludes his section on the Black Code fighters:
Years after Freddie Norwood’s time had passed, Floyd Mayweather, Jr. employed a similar style on his way to amassing more money than any fighter before him. Tellingly, his wealth came not from the style, but from his ability to talk about the style as part of his multitiered negative public persona marketing.
Farrell and Mayweather both understand that selling fights depends as much on a good backstory as on the quality of the fighters. The backstory doesn’t have to be true, it just has to be compelling.
When a scout tips Farrell off to a promising undefeated heavyweight from Kansas, “a fat, farm-looking white motherfucker” in search of a manager, Farrell smells money.
He puts the fighter in against one of the toughest heavyweights in Pat Petronelli’s Brockton gym, a Nigerian tribal prince turned loan shark named Josh Imadiyi, a fighter for whom “there was no such thing as sparring… every fight was a war.” Farrell confides, “No sane person would get in the ring with Josh Imadiyi.”
To everyone’s astonishment, the fat white farm boy shakes off Imadiyi’s thunderous punches as if they were nothing. They don’t seem to bother him at all.
But to Farrell’s disappointment, the white guy can’t fight. He’s only good at getting hit.
Still, the manager sees a fighter he can sell. Being white and tough is more valuable than being Black and talented.
Farrell starts working out the game plan for this ungainly, untalented fighter. Build up his record against easy opponents so he can get a title shot, which he’ll certainly lose. A few years of work for one big payday, then he’s done.
But what’s the narrative? What’s the backstory that will sell this guy?
He was big, but his size was unimpressive somehow. Instinctively, I started grasping for usable descriptive terms that could mitigate his obvious liabilities: farm-strength, throwback, and Pat Petronelli’s standby ‘just a rough, tough kid.’ I rejected ‘goober,’ ‘yokel,’ ‘hayseed,’ and ‘Klansman’ as counterproductive.
Farrell’s great white hope turns out to be a bust. He loses when he’s supposed to win, but even then he’s valuable. Another white heavyweight on his way up needs to beat a tough-looking opponent to get a shot at the title. Farrell’s man becomes the sacrificial lamb. The fighter knows what’s expected of him before he even signs the contract. He’s good at taking beatings, and he should let his opponent show off his beating skills for a few rounds before he finally folds. The hayseed takes the fight because he needs the money.
This is the world of (Low)life. No one cares about the beautiful Vegas prostitute’s extraordinary singing, but they’ll pay for her body. The farm boy, likewise, can make a buck by volunteering for a public beating, selling his body to the cheering crowd.
How do people wind up in this world? Some, like Farrell, are born into it. Some, like the prostitute, are lured in by their dreams. Some, like Buddy Ray just fall into it. For most, the trajectory of their lives matched what Farrell saw in the mob-run clubs in his teens: “Things always moved downhill.”
Farrell provides an interesting parable late in the book when he describes one of the bust periods of his gambler’s boom-and-bust life. He owned a small apartment building but couldn’t afford to maintain it. The roof was leaking and the heat only worked part time through the harsh Massachusetts winter. As the building began to deteriorate, the tenants inside did too. They stopped cleaning up after themselves. Their apartments became pigsties. They stopped grooming, they stopped being civil to each other. Eventually, violence broke out.
Put people in bad enough circumstances and they’ll become lowlifes too. Even the Harvard scholar on the top floor of Farrell’s deteriorating building started to look like a drifter.
Those born into the low life have no choice but to adapt to it. The first consideration in every decision is making sure they’ll survive until tomorrow. They don’t have the luxury of long-term thinking, and they can’t wrap their heads around success and security even when they do make it.
Farrell describes the bewilderment and paranoia his friend Ornette Coleman feels inside his lavish 3,000 square foot Manhattan condo:
Recent years had brought Ornette a Pulitzer, a MacArthur, and a Grammy, along with the wealth that went with them… [He] hated his condo. He was certain his neighbors in the building didn’t like black people… I sort of got it. This sudden elevation of his standard of living had been thrust upon him through channels he didn’t understand by sources he didn’t know.
(Low)life is about those locked out of the security and opportunity of the “legit” world. But it’s not all dark. It’s not even mostly dark. Floyd Patterson, Marvin Hagler, the Petronelli brothers, Ornette Coleman and Evan Parker rise to the top honestly, through talent, hard work, intense commitment and luck. Others, like Mitch “Blood” Green, never quite make it.
Though Farrell’s world is tough, his story is human, compelling, and often darkly comic. It’s about the resourcefulness and creativity of people who have nothing but their own resourcefulness and creativity to rely on. The resourceful become hustlers, the creative become musicians, the tough become fighters, and Farrell’s vibrant narrative makes it all come alive.
Andrew Diamond is a life-long boxing fan and the author of award-winning mysteries Gate 76 and Impala. He writes at www.adiamond.me.
Charles Farrell has spent his professional life moving between music and boxing, with occasional detours. He has managed five world champions, and has played and recorded with many of the musicians he most admires — Evan Parker and Ornette Coleman among them. Farrell currently resides in the Boston, Massachusetts area.
(Low)life is available to buy now from Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/Low-life-Memoir-Jazz-Fight-Fixing/dp/1949590194), Bookshop.org (https://bookshop.org/books/low-life-a-memoir-of-jazz-fight-fixing-and-the-mob/9781949590197), and many fine retailers.