CONCUSSIONS AND SONGS : Tex Cobb Lives in Nashville and Dabbles in Music Arena
Randall (Tex) Cobb, who has followed the confusing career progression of fighter-actor-country western songwriter, is pacing about his modest bungalow. He has gotten on the subject of Earnie Shavers, another retired heavyweight.
Cobb, his songwriter wife by his side, has been warm and accommodating up to this point. But the mention of Shavers has made him positively menacing.
“That (wimp)!” He suddenly roars, in a room-clearing roar.
Understand this about the roar: If you were a neighbor, you’d call the police.
“That chicken- . . . ! That miserable bag of pus! That . . . “
He stops, just as suddenly, lowers his head into his hands and then speaks so softly he can barely be heard.
“That tough-hitting son of a bitch. Goddamn it, he hit hard. He hit you so hard, it just amazes you you’re still alive. You just can’t believe it.”
What’s frustrating, what makes him even more menacing for the moment, is that Cobb can’t describe it. This is a rare condition in Cobb’s life. The concept of concussion, which he is now desperate to describe, eludes his powerful vocabulary. This causes him to simulate a psychotic episode, one of several that enliven the day.
He springs to his feet and goes to another room, which happens--odd, it occurs to the visitor--to be filled with flowers, Valentine’s bouquets from the day before. He returns with a phone book.
“You’ll love this,” he says. “Put that . . . down and stand up boy.”
He puts the phone book against his visitor’s chest--"Hold that"--and stands back.
Some confusion follows, and very quickly. However, because a tape recorder has been left running, it’s possible to reconstruct it.
There is, first, his surprisingly normal wife saying, “Stand him in front of the couch, honey.”
There is suddenly a loud popping noise. There is a considerable clatter--it seems to go on for a while--and, if you listen carefully, you can hear a soft voice saying, “Jeez, Tex.” But that is nearly a minute after the sounds of impact.
“Now that,” says Cobb, bringing his huge head inches in front of his visitor and roaring again, “is what I call concussion. And that is what Shavers did to my . . . nose, white boy! On my . . . head! See, you can’t tell that. You try to write it, you can’t tell it. Nobody can.”
His wife, Sharon, says: “I think what he’s trying to say is, he didn’t have a phone book with him.”
They help the visitor out of the couch--now how in the world did he get there?--and, all in good spirits again, leave to do a bit of work, which is song plugging, followed by some relaxation in a number of cafes where Cobb, larger and even meaner looking than we remember him from his days as a boxer, will drink no fewer than 19 cups of coffee and will cause many citizens to scuttle out of his way with a laugh that would intimidate a SWAT unit.
THE SONG PLUGGER
What does a song plugger do? Actually, this song plugger does very little. Sharon, who met Randall nearly six years ago when she was a disc jockey in Texas, has two demo tapes of songs she has written for a certain country-western singer. Today’s work is to drop them off at Tree Publishing in an area of Nashville known as Music Row.
This is a quiet looking neighborhood, ordinary houses, but it really is the actual capital of country-western music. There are studios and music publishing houses, bordered by a more commercial area of museums and T-shirt stands. Barbara Mandrell’s Country Music World, things like that.
At Tree Publishing, Sharon Cobb points to a portrait in the lobby. “He wrote all Patsy Cline’s songs,” she says. “Still going strong.”
Although Sharon is the talent in this outfit--she produces albums as well as writes songs--Randall is an eager protege. And he has quickly come to understand the notion of song writer as hero in this town.
So it is that he has taken to writing his own country songs, most notably, “She Doesn’t Hold Me Down, She Holds Me Up,” which sounds very professional and radio ready on the demo tape.
One appeal is just how easy it is to do.
“In Philadelphia, it was ‘could you jab?’ ” he says of his boxing training ground. “In Tennessee, it’s ‘can you pick and fiddle and make it rhyme?’ That’s all they do. Every whore in this town, they make them lies rhyme.”
Challenge-wise, this has it all over acting, which has Cobb periodically depicted as a particularly disturbed biker--"Raising Arizona,” and some dozen other films shot or coming. “On the left coast, you ain’t got to make up nothing. They tell you what lies to tell. You ain’t got to make no rhyme, babycakes.”
It’s fairly amazing.
According to Sharon, her husband is wonderfully adept at making lies rhyme.
“He’s a walkin’ talkin’ country song,” she says.
He has a flair for the dramatic, is one thing. Like his proposal: He called Sharon from Los Angeles and advised her to leave the door open or he’d just break it down. But Cobb, as anyone who covered his fights can recall, is extraordinarily verbal. He can’t help himself from pulling these song hooks out of the sky. He speaks in song titles.
Of course, such invention can be a curse. Cobb says many a domestic argument, as well as moments of high passion, have been interrupted when Sharon scurried away to record something he’d said.
“It’s got so, I won’t whisper a pretty nothing no more.”
But mostly there is the appeal of what Cobb calls “forever money.” Apparently the royalties from an especially durable song can provide a fabulous living, without ever having to work again! This is why it seems that everybody in Nashville is a song writer. This is certainly why Cobb is a song writer.
As far as song plugging goes, Cobb makes it sound as though there might be occasional moments of intense involvement, as he himself might describe them.
“I go into a song publisher and I reason with him,” he explains in the car. “I say, ‘Now this song, it’ll only take you three minutes to listen to. On the other hand, it might take the police five minutes to get here and if they know who they’re dealing with, why, I can see maybe they wouldn’t be even in that much of hurry. Of course, it’s up to you. I surely believe in free choice. Three minutes of your time or five.’ ”
In fact, today’s delivery is rather more businesslike. Sharon learns that none of her contacts are in at the moment and she leaves the tapes with the receptionist. If Randall is disappointed because he can’t turn a studio over, he hides it.
“Well,” he says, once out of the publishing house, nuzzling his wife, “Our work day is now done.”
He throws his enormous head back and laughs. The howl fills all of Music Row.
To hear Cobb tell it, this actor also does very little.
As his boxing career was winding down, he began to get calls to portray upsetting individuals, first in “Uncommon Valor,” which earned him surprisingly good reviews.
By then he had become famous as the guy who went the distance with champion Larry Holmes and, in doing so, had become the ultimate upsetting individual. It was a revolting enough presentation of gore and glee (Cobb leaving the ring: “Let’s party!”) that it actually retired Howard Cosell.
More to the point, it cast him as an upsetting individual from that point on.
After “Uncommon Valor” was released in 1983, Cobb went to some lengths to disparage the profession.
“Anybody who can live with the same woman for four months can act his . . . ,” he said at the time. “I just say four months because I want to limit this to personal experience.”
He said he much preferred boxing, “which I kind of like for its immediacy. In boxing, nobody asks did you do well or when can we see the dailies.”
All in all, Cobb thought everybody involved was some kind of fool or another and felt obliged to promote the film “only to the point of admitting I was in it.”
Of course, things change. We’re in Mack’s Cafe, a hole-in-the-wall off Music Row that is distinguished by an excellent juke box. Cobb is seen coming in off the street and there is a mug of coffee at the table by the juke box before he gets to the door. Over six cups of coffee, he explains his new admiration for the craft of acting.
“I had the good sense, six months later, to impregnate a young lady,” he says. “I had to go back and ask for a job. They could have hired me to be a . . . coffee boy!”
Makes him laugh to think about it. Laugh loudly, in fact. Some customers at the cafe, out-of-towners maybe, turn around, irritated, to see who this fool is. They sight the hulking Cobb and quickly return to their food.
Since he’s made himself available to Hollywood again, he’s appeared in about a dozen movies and several TV series, such as “Miami Vice,” “MacGyver” and “Moonlighting.”
His movie roles have been less varied.
“I’m trying to do something besides being a biker,” he says. “I’ve had half the biking roles that exist. And, God’s own truth, I ain’t been on a bike but three-four hours in my life.
“Great to hang out and look tough with the wind in your face, but it can’t keep you out of the cold, can’t sleep in the back seat and, if you’re old and fat, you’re not gonna . . . “
He laughs at that, shaking the room, and some customers stare gloomily into their eggs.
Cobb was the ultimate upsetting person-biker in “Raising Arizona,” in which he threw grenades at rabbits--"A real stretch,” he says--and menaced the most adorable infant ever filmed. “I don’t think I was anybody’s hero for picking up a tiny baby and setting him on a full road,” he says.
But the worst part about his biker roles is that, however forbidding he appears, he always gets an awful comeuppance.
“I’ll tell you what,” he says of a new film, “I got a handicapped guy kicks my . . . . Ain’t that something! People that park in handicapped spots are now kicking my . . . ! A blind guy! Sure, he’s got a sword. But, my God, I’m carrying a gun! I can’t get a job but to get my . . . kicked!”
If he can’t play a good guy, he says, at least let him whip somebody his own size, which would be something like real life.
“Put me in a room with Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger, get all your steel-pumping, pig-iron pukes.”
“I guess you got to remember, King Kong was only three feet tall.”
That’s the thing about acting, which Cobb has no difficulty remembering: It’s not anything like real life.
This is hard to believe but even in his prime, Cobb was saying all you had to do was train two hours and act tough the rest of the day. Newly retired--his gloves are actually hanging on the wall--he doesn’t upgrade the calling regarding effort.
“Acting, song-writing, fighting--you got to understand, sunshine, I’ve just been able to find one category to dodge work after another.” He laughs.
After this day’s dodging, we have walked down an alley from Mack’s Cafe to the Left Coast Cafe, a yuppie kind of place. Cobb walks straight from the door into the kitchen and returns with a mug of coffee. As at Mack’s, everybody who works there is glad to see him. He continues to nuzzle Sharon.
“I say this with some portion of integrity in not having worked for a living,” he says. “I guess that’s the one aspect of myself, I take pride in, if not some comfort. It wasn’t always comfortable, wasn’t always pretty times. But it certainly beat working.”
Oh, he did have the odd summer job, growing up in Galveston and those parts. Running a jackhammer, unloading cement, hauling drywall in Houston.
“Training me to be a doctor or nuclear physicist,” he guesses.
“I want you to know, I’m gonna find something if I’m gonna kick ever . . . in this world, and you can’t find the . . . I won’t fight to keep me from doing this. I ain’t gonna fight eight hours. I’m gonna fight 30 minutes and then, win, lose or draw, something gonna happen one way or another. I’m through. Babycakes, we’re talking actual man-hours here.”
Of course, Cobb never shied from a brawl in any event. His few years at Abilene Christian, where he played football, are memorable for their barroom brawls, not to mention the time he was trying to provoke some folks by standing atop a dormitory, wearing an athletic supporter, and firing flaming arrows from a cross-bow.
Still, it was the prospect of leisure time rather than violence that got Cobb into boxing, he says. In fact, the most driven boxers are those who can’t abide the idea of working for a living.
“You take Earnie Shavers,” he begins.
His visitor, thinking Cobb might be getting altogether too jittery from the coffee, says, “No reason to talk about Earnie if you don’t want to.”
“You take Shavers, laziest man alive. He wanted to win so bad, so bad, he’d do anything to keep from having to work. He punched me below the belt and as I leaned over he head-butted me and then he grabbed my head and began punching me. The ref finally steps in and says, ‘Aw, Earnie.’ ”
This causes Cobb to throw his head back and laugh for a full minute.
“ ‘Aw, Earnie!’ Why not remind him about a week-old parking ticket about that point? I say to the ref, ‘Don’t bother the man, he’s busy.’ Earnie had to let me go, was laughing so hard. Sweetest man ever lived.’ ”
What you remember Cobb for, though, is his Holmes fight, the most thorough, most famous, most disturbing loss in all of history. That fight turned him from a conventional contender into a kind of phenomenon.
Up to that fight in 1982, Cobb forged modest credentials as a tough, rugged survivor. Although his record was just 20-2, keep in mind that he sent that troublesome Shavers to the hospital.
But Holmes was then in his prime and Cobb was outclassed, at least athletically. Yet as Holmes continued to puff up Cobb’s face with his stinging jabs, Cobb just kept coming.
Over the years, this fight has been transformed into something comic, not helped by Cobb’s retelling. But at the time it was kind of scary. Cobb’s nose was bloodied in the fourth, his eye in the 13th and his nose again in the 15th. The punishment was so relentless that, toward the end of the fight, the Houston Astrodome began to buzz with renewed interest. How could he last?
What they were seeing wasn’t pretty, was barely a fight. But it gradually became heroic as Cobb, unmindful of his chances, slogged on.
Of that fight, Cobb says it proved only one thing, that no matter what, he’d keep firing.
“Nothing can keep me from firing. I often wondered, what would I do if I was captured? Turn state’s evidence? I know now that they can’t stack a deck high enough to keep me from firing. I don’t promise results, cause I ain’t on no results committee. But I’m gonna fire.”
And what did it cost him?
“I’d had worse Saturday nights. Course, you got to understand, I’ve had some . . . hideous Saturday nights, but I’ve had worse than what Holmes did. He was aggravating, but he wasn’t bad.”
There seems a bit of regret that he emerged a folk hero for his losing effort. He didn’t plan it that way.
“You think . . . like this turns out the way I want it to all the time? You’re talking to the greatest single loser in the history of sports. You think I said, ‘Now, what I need to do is take the greatest . . . -whipping ever seen. Yes! That’s what I’ll do! You know what I’ll do, I’ll go 50 rounds and the first 50 rounds of my career I’ll fight (Ken) Norton, I’ll fight (Michael) Dokes and I’ll fight Shavers, that miserable . . . And then I’ll go on the Johnny Carson show and in front of the world he’ll ask what was it like to get your . . . whipped.
“Aw, guess what, sunshine? It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
His real regret is having to stop. He can be made to appear serious when he talks of his retirement, which began only last year at the age of 34.
His voice drops to a whisper, and this may even be scarier.
“There’s something that can be real pure, a form of self-actualization, that you can do at least physiologically. At least one moment in my life of self-actualization. How can you say what the potential really is? You don’t know. But I know, if I shift weight, create an angle, I know at least I brought to bear all I could at that point in time. Not perfection, but potential realized.
“I didn’t take a deep breath, I didn’t back up. Kept firing. Hard to give that up, babycakes, when you make that thing work just right . . . “
Then, in his normal growling voice: “Course it ain’t cost-efficient on the equipment, now is it!”
THE NEW TEX
Yes, Cobb actually does surprisingly little. Yet what little he does, is surprising. Reads the Bible most mornings, thinks the rest of the day and drinks enormous amounts of coffee.
“Learning and laughing,” is his much-practiced credo. Although he appears as spontaneous as ever--"Seemed like a good idea at the time"--his other great credo, he is given to much self-inspection.
He has given up beer and other substances, which is remarkable to those who know him. After the Holmes fight, he took his $500,000 purse to Australia and spent the entire sum on beer. Came back broke.
“I wouldn’t feel sorry for him,” a friend said at the time. “It’s not like he didn’t have fun doing it.”
But Cobb has since decided that feeling good is different from being happy, that feeling good can sometimes get in the way of being happy. He’s so sober, he says, it’s boring.
He admits, though, that he drinks frightening amounts of coffee--"Keeping that Juan Valdez in work, sunshine.” But he’s not letting anything get in the way of his search for happiness, which was all boxing was at the time, after all.
“You got to understand, I’ve always been searching. Nobody notices that I went to Abilene Christian for a reason. I was in search of something. I come to find they were equating God with religion which is . . . , but I come to find God works, sobriety works. Lying, for example, don’t work.
“I tell you, I’ve done everything wrong. I pursued, with enthusiasm, top-10 rankings in boxing, karate and partying. I raised some . . . . I’m the world’s most remedial student in the school of hard knocks. Nobody in history taken this long to learn. But I’m learning and laughing.”
He seems calm for a moment, leans over the table to kiss his wife.
“I want to be happy, that’s all. And if there’s something better than being happy, I’ll be happy till it gets here.”
Mrs. Cobb, who is looking at her husband with adoring eyes, snaps to. From the unlikely wisdom of Randall (Tex) Cobb comes at the very least a song title. She gets out her pen and writes it down. They both laugh and a man comes by with more coffee.