I never saw James Brown, who died on Christmas Day, 2006 in Atlanta at age 73 and was buried in a gold plated coffin that weighed more than 500 pounds, perform live, even though I had several chances. It didn’t seem necessary, somehow. I’d seen him perform on film early in his career, and I saw what he was and what he could do in the first instant I laid eyes on him. Nothing was ever going to top that.
That instant was in the late 1960s while I was at university. Exactly where and when this was, and what songs he performed (I think it was “Poppa’s Got a Brand New Bag”) I can’t exactly recall, but what I can do, and with precision, is recount the cascade of sensations that instant produced in me.
I also have an oblique private link with Brown that I only discovered while he was lying in state, as it were, in New York City ’s Apollo Music Hall a day or two after his death. The Apollo is where he recorded his world-changing live album on the night of October 24th 1962, which just happened to be a day or two after the Cuban Missile Crisis peaked, and a few hours before I was about to disembark from the S.S. Homeric in Southampton, England to make my terrified way into the heart of London—and into the nihilism of the 21st century nearly 40 years before it officially began. I’d spent much of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the radio room of the SS Homeric, watching its captain and officers trying to decide whether turn the vessel into the south Atlantic . As I watched and waited to see if the world was going to end, a crucial piece of the moral certainty I was born with broke apart and was washed into the Atlantic . I went off to London—and into my life—without preconceptions of how reality was supposed to be constructed, because the world I’d inherited had been exposed as something run by crazy people who were willing to kill everyone and destroy the planet to maintain their right to piss first on their imaginary fire hydrants. It wasn’t any longer a model I could use and its privileges would always be tainted. There were then no new models on the horizon, either.
By the time I encountered James Brown a few years later, there were new models coming out of the woodwork, but I was curiously diffident in the face of them all, and would remain so. But James Brown provided some dance steps to interpret what I’d learned in October 1962, and his music helped to expose the hapless partiality of the new models.
But the first thing I felt when I saw Brown sing and dance in the late 1960s was simple amazement. I’d never seen a human move that way—and I haven’t since, now that I think of it. I understood instantly that what I was witnessing wasn’t “beauty” by any concept operating within Western civilization at the time. Rather, it was a new way to be alive, and it established a new form of rhythm in both the musical and social sense.
The next sensation I felt was fear. No, it wasn’t racial fear. I was from the Canadian north, which was a world where I discovered that Fats Domino was fat before I discovered that he was black. The only black person I knew while I was a kid had dated one of my older sisters. He was tall, my sister was short, and my parents worried over that, not over his skin colour. Later in high school there’d been a few black airmen from the USAF radar base north of town, one of whom married a local girl. Since the girl was beautiful the main response was envy, not resentment: lucky guy. Then a black kid named Pete Gibbs spent a year in my high school. We didn’t becomes friends, but that was only because my social status wasn’t high enough for me to elbow my way into the line-up. And that was it.
So if it wasn’t racial fear, what fear was it? It was more like, “how do I do that?” or “Now how will I now move my body without knowing I’m a dork?” It’s a sensation that quickly enough ceased to frighten me, but which has never quite gone away. It didn’t seem—and still doesn’t—to have anything to do with race, but with dance.
It’s worth noting that James Brown seemed reluctant to embody stereotypes, racial or otherwise. He straightened his hair, he dressed more like Liberace than Eldridge Cleaver, and he behaved badly in ways that seemed pretty non-denominational. He was never what you’d describe as an exemplary human being, white, black or otherwise, and he wasn’t really what you’d describe as conventionally cool. But for all that, what he did manage was to be an absolutely black musician and an absolutely unique dancer at the same time. His music’s rhythmic instincts were as deeply lodged in the cultural trauma of the African Diaspora as any American this side of Aretha Franklin and her father. And like the Franklins , he was much more than a self-conscious expression of cultural fusion. He was utterly authentic in a non-ethnic way, and he was a thrill, moment-by-moment and move-by-move. I’ve never quite lost the tremor he sent up my spine the first time I laid eyes on him. All the other sensations faded, even the fear. But that thrill has remained, and I think I know why.
There was a vitality to Brown’s music that was both infectious and inclusive. That’s worth thinking about, because very little of today’s music is inclusive, notwithstanding the sentimental group-hug nonsense of the Global Village. Much of today’s music is liberative, yes—but the liberations lie within a narrow spectrum of the autonomic nervous system and tend to be indistinguishable from the 50 and 60 cycle hum rather than the universal human heartbeat. Next time you’re droning out on Techno, think about how different it is from the music of James Brown. Like most of the music of the last half of the 20th century, Techno is tribal, and tribality is the contrary of inclusion.
As a matter of private record, the sheer physical impropriety of James Brown’s music freed me, involuntarily, irrevocably, but more or less instantly from the particular tribal rhythm I’d grown up with, which was, and don’t laugh, that Anglican 4/4 time of “Onward Christian Soldiers”.
Most of us now understand that James Brown changed the nature of live performance for an entire civilization with his off-the-scale “enlivenments” of music. I could never quite decide if he was a singer or a dancer, and it never seemed an important decision to make. Maybe that was because he was beyond such categorizations: a life force, a hurricane, a wonder, a divine clown of a new sort that remained ineffable and indefinable throughout his life—sort of like the precise nature of the new world he promised at the Apollo in that moment in 1962 just before the rubble of the Cuban Missile Crisis began to pour over us.
Whatever he was or meant, RIP. And pass the shovels.
January 12, 2006 1219 w.