North American British Music Studies Association

“‘Let Me Take You Down’: The Beatley Genius of Dan Gable” by Donna S. Parsons

 

During the latter half of the 1950s young musicians were influenced by Lonnie Donegan and the idea that bands with guitars, drums, a washboard and a tea-chest bass could find chart success. With American roots in blues and folk hundreds of amateur skiffle groups formed across England.  Like many of their peers the Quarry Men were looking for fun, fame, and fortune.  Their love of rock ‘n’ roll and their pursuit of musical knowledge transformed a fledging skiffle group into the Beatles.  Five decades after the fab four made their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show we have yet to hear or see another musical group that arrives on the national scene fully developed or one whose music evolves at such an amazing pace as the Beatles did.  Their ability to mesmerize or inspire listeners can be found in a myriad of ways.  In the early music their raw energy is heard in moments such as the drum roll that launches “She Loves You,” the throat wrenching power scream of “Twist and Shout,” and even the flawless vocal harmonies of “This Boy.”  Live performances at the height of Beatlemania illustrated the fab four’s ability to create a flawless musical show while steadfastly holding their audience’s attention in the palm of their hands.  As a studio band their albums changed the way we listened to music and oftentimes their songs opened up hidden meanings to our own lives.  Revolver challenged our definition of popular music.  When before had we heard pop songs that featured drones, tape loops, or a sitar to enhance lyrical meaning?  Sgt. Pepper provided a unique, private Beatles performance that called attention to the unsettled nature of our own world, and with Abbey Road we heard the means by which symphonic form was melded to rocker mentality.  However, it was more than the sublime construction of an album that held our attention.  The Beatles’ quest for artistic perfection and their creation of hypnotic soundscapes challenged musicians and listeners alike to match their criterion.

Where else can we find such a tantalizing example of excellence?  An obvious place to look is in the field of sports.  Such moments arose when we watched Mariano Rivera closing a Yankees game, Michael Phelps swimming to a record 8 gold medals, or Shaun White flawlessly executing a Double McTwist 1260.  Just as the Beatles blew their competitors out of the water so too has another elite athlete.  In collegiate wrestling all roads lead to Dan Gable who defined perfection as a collegiate and world wrestler and then redefined it as a coach at the University of Iowa.  As a wrestler Gable laid the foundation for an aggressive style that drove him to build records of 64-0 in high school and 118-1 in college, win several world titles, an Olympic gold medal, and leave an imprint on the sport of wrestling that has not been matched or surpassed.  Wrestling for Harold Nichols at Iowa State University, Gable’s dedication to training and his relentless intensity led to his entering the 1970 NCAA tournament his senior year undefeated.  When he lost his final match to the unknown Larry Owings, the wrestling world was stunned.  The Russians believed that a flaw in Gable’s style had been exposed which would make him more vulnerable during the 72 Olympics in Munich.  They were wrong.  Just as the Beatles realized in 1966 that there were no more musical idols to seek for inspiration or to unseat, Gable looked within and raised the bar.  Because he was so focused and motivated, not a single takedown or even a point was scored against him in the Olympics. Gable’s superbly focused concentration and aggressive style made him invincible.  Like the Beatles Gable stayed true to himself and never backed down or turned away from a challenge.  As a wrestler he had the drive, desire, and determination that propelled his achievements to what others had once believed were unimaginable heights.

It is rather uncanny to contemplate traits shared by two seemingly disparate entities.  However, the most common attribute between the Beatles and Dan Gable is that all roads in their respective domain lead to them.  Let me explain.  The Beatles are still considered the most influential band in popular music history.  As they rise in popularity during the 1960s they change where and how we listen to music.  Their concerts move from small clubs to theatres, from television sets to boxing arenas and baseball stadiums, and finally to the rooftop of their studio and business, Apple Corps at 3 Savile Row.  During the early sixties aspiring British musicians launch their careers by performing covers of American rock ‘n’ roll. The Beatles change our musical expectations.  With the Lennon-McCartney songwriting partnership we find a competitive duo who seeks to write songs on par with Buddy Holly, Bob Dylan, and Brian Wilson.  It is a duo that utilizes their competitive tension to elevate the craftsmanship of songs as well as define their function in a fractious society.  The Beatles’ work in the recording studio changes the dynamics of recording forever.  While George Martin shaped their early output, he also had a deep understanding of and respect for their creativity.  He and his engineers acted as partners in the Beatles’ sonic exploration which led to singles such as “Rain,” “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” as well as set the standard of artistic perfection with the release of albums from Rubber Soul to Abbey Road.

 Dan Gable is the rock superstar of the wrestling world. Even after he stopped wrestling competitively in 1976 and retired from coaching in 1997, his eminence has not diminished.  Like Lennon during his New York City years, Gable walks freely around Iowa City and is approachable.  The first time you see him outside the wrestling arena you wonder what all the fuss is about.  The man is so low key, nonchalant and gracious that first looks lead you to believe he is a computer programming wizard rather than a ferocious athletic competitor.  You wonder what he did that still brings USA Today, the New York Times and Sports Illustrated to Iowa City repeatedly to write about his accomplishments.  It is only when you look him straight in the eye that you see the competitor – the man who won Olympic gold and who built a powerhouse wrestling program at the University of Iowa.  Once your eyes meet, the man’s genius is revealed.  Gable’s laser eyes lock on you and in a split second size up your strengths and your vulnerabilities.  Mentally, he will always be several steps ahead of you, and he will know your next move before you have even made the gesture.  Before Mariano Rivera, Michael Phelps or Shaun White, there was Daniel Mack Gable.  He is an institution in the sport of wrestling and is regularly called its greatest ambassador.  Not only is Gable the most celebrated wrestler of his time, he is the one who set the standard wrestlers across the world still strive to meet.

Just as today’s youth are mesmerized by the Beatles, young wrestlers are drawn to Gable.  His aura among wrestlers who had yet to be born when he won Olympic gold or coached the Iowa Hawkeyes beams brightly.  During home dual meets at Carver Hawkeye Arena aspiring wrestlers always know where Gable is.  One of their eyes focuses intently on the action at hand and the other on him.  If Dan is not doing color commentary for Iowa Public Television, he will be sitting in the stands with his family; that is, if the Hawkeyes are performing to his standard.  If things are not going well in an individual match or it is hard fought, then Gable moves closer to the action.  If he is disgusted with what he sees, he will head for the tunnel.  The eyes never lose sight of him and when he pauses in his walk around the arena – then it happens.  Gable finds himself surrounded by at least half a dozen boys who want to talk wrestling or get his autograph.  He is a true champion because he stops and talks with every single boy.  He may ask them to crouch a little so that he can keep an eye on the current action, but he never turns them away.  Gable takes care of his fans just as the Beatles had taken care of their devout followers in Liverpool.

Attaining perfection in any discipline is filled with years of hard work, sacrifice, and even tragedy. When Paul McCartney’s mother died from breast cancer in 1956, Paul turned to music.  It became his sanctuary and his public way of coping with a very private loss.  In many ways Lennon’s life was marked by death.  His uncle George Smith, a father figure, died in 1955, his close friend Stuart Sutcliffe died at the age of 21 in 1962, and Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager and another father figure, died from a drug overdose in 1967.  As horrifying as these deaths were, it was the untimely death of his mother Julia in 1958 that irrevocably altered his life.  Julia became John’s muse, and music was his way of trying to reach and communicate with her as well as coping with his pain and the uncertainty of living in a cruel world.

Gable’s road to becoming an elite athlete was also shaped by tragedy.  Just after his sophomore year of high school his 19 year old sister Diane was murdered in the family home.  It was Gable who summoned the strength to show his parents that life moved forward rather than standing still.  Like McCartney, Dan turned to wrestling to work out his pain and like Julia, Diane became his muse.  He trained with single-minded devotion until he became one of the best wrestlers in the country.  Then he trained some more and turned himself into the most dominant wrestler in history. Just as the Beatles’ work ethic set them apart from their peers, so too did Gable’s.  He trained longer and harder than his teammates or any other wrestler in the world.  Losing his last collegiate match in 1970 gave Dan added motivation for his work-outs and ultimately helped him forge the path toward an Olympic gold medal.  There were no shortcuts to the medal stand especially when the competition believed you were within their reach.

What made Gable so unique was that his legacy extended far beyond his accomplishments as a collegiate wrestler and an Olympian.  His work as a collegiate coach defined the parameters used to judge all who followed.  Gable was the head coach at the University of Iowa from 1976 to 1997.  In 21 years his teams won an unprecedented 21 Big Ten titles and 15 NCAA titles.  As a head coach Gable became an amalgamation of George Martin and his engineers as he molded his team to get the best out of each wrestler.  Gable’s foundation was built on fundamentals, work ethic, and honor.  From the moment a match began until its conclusion Iowa wrestlers were known for their ability to wear down their opponents and cast them aside in pursuit of the next great challenge.  During their seven minute matches many were relentless, merciless and methodical in the way they demoralized their opposition. The Iowa way of wrestling was known for its action in the center of the mat and with a focus on take downs, back points, and pins. Yet, Gable never put his wrestlers on a pedestal.  He knew what it took to perform at an elite level, but he also knew that his wrestlers were unique young men who had their own personalities and different training methods that helped them reach their peak.  Gable never denied his wrestlers’ individuality or their style of wrestling. He was the master psychologist who tweaked each athlete’s style to perfection.  Because he got to know his wrestlers’ mindsets so well, he knew how far he could push them and when to ease the intensity of that push.  Gable built the top wrestling program in the country because he had All-Americans and soon-to-be All-Americans wrestling each other every day in practice.  When a wrestler graduated or was withheld from competition due to injury, his heir stepped onto the mat without losing a step.  If your goal was to win a national title and a gold medal, then you came to Iowa.  Gable’s coaching tree offered yet another testimony to his impact on the sport.  Just consider the number of former assistants and wrestlers who have gone on to coach at the collegiate level: Tom Brands (Iowa), Barry Davis (Wisconsin), Jim Heffernan (Illinois), J Robinson (Minnesota) and Tom Ryan (Ohio State University).  While each program has its own personality and style, Gable’s imprint is firmly implanted in their foundation.

Whether attending a sporting event or a concert we are all spectators who are inspired by perfection or by seeing the impossible attained.  It does not matter whether we are listening to our favorite Beatles’ album or watching a wrestling meet.  The inner strength and determination we hear in vocal and instrumental lines and see in an individual wrestler provides motivation as we attempt to achieve our own impossible – to break through personal barriers as we pursue our dreams.  That is the legacy of the Beatles and Dan Gable.