When Paul Thorn says he'd rather be a hammer than a nail, he's not speaking metaphorically. The former boxer-turned-singer hammered his way through the ranks for four years as the No. 29 middleweight in the world until he was nailed by Roberto Duran in 1988 and retired a year later.
Thorn says his own ego is what beat him. His trainer-uncle told him that Duran was a counter-puncher who likes it when you come to him, so Thorn should peck and move. But Thorn wanted to look good in front of the Atlantic City, N.J., crowd. "I told my uncle if I don't go in there and try to rough him up, the crowd's gonna boo." His strategy pleased the crowd but cost him the bout. "When I moved forward towards him, he picked me apart," Thorn recalls. The bout was stopped in the seventh round because Duran had cut him so badly, Thorn couldn't see.
He fared better as a singer, composing "I'd Rather Be a Hammer than a Nail" about that experience, and expanding on it to include anybody who's ever been picked on and gotten payback. "I asked him why he had to knock me out/And he summed it up real well," Thorn sings. "I'd rather be a hammer ..."
You have to be able to relax and think clearly when you're boxing, he says. That was something he couldn't do inside the ring. "But in the singing world, when I get in front of a crowd, I feel completely at home."
By leaving his Tupelo, Miss., home to wander the world as a boxer, singer and primitive painter, Thorn gained real-life experience – the kind you can hear in his voice, similar to influences such as John Hiatt and Randy Newman. "Their songs come from a source of being out in the world a little bit," he says. "At some point they left their small homes and went out and experienced other things." His folky, humorous musings on trailer park life accompanied by stinging slide guitar are reminiscent of Hiatt's style as well. But Thorn's country-tinged rock has more of a Southern accent.
He personalizes his records with his own artwork in the style of his mentor, the Rev. Howard Finster, whose primitive religious art adorned the cover of Talking Heads' 1985 release Little Creatures, as well as a collaborative cover with Michael Stipe for R.E.M.'s Reckoning. "I've always liked to draw, but I'm no Picasso," he says. "But when I met Howard, I saw he wasn't as good as I am, technically. But what made his work so powerful is that he had a message he believed in."
Thorn became a frequent visitor to Finster's Summerville, Ga., headquarters, befriending Finster, who sang at his wedding and offered his advice on artistic endeavors. "When I spent some time with Howard and got to talk with him, I realized I should start doing my own art because art is not a competition, it's an expression."
Thorn keeps that expression under control with his own label, Perpetual Obscurity. Even though he has built quite a following over the last decade, he says he still wants to keep that name to remind him of where he started from. His goal in life is not to affiliate with any record label. "If you do anything on your own and you succeed, then they're gonna get it," he says. "I've just learned not to hang around with thieves and murderers. I try to surround myself with good people."
As a result, he says, he's led a charmed life. "I feel like that character in that movie Forrest Gump," the singer says. "He was like me, just a simple-minded guy, but sometimes just walking through life, wonderful things happen and the gods smile down on him. It seems things are getting better every day."
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