Addict (drugaddict) wrote,

James Brown part two

As we turned off Twiggs Street onto a narrow and particularly abject strip called Hopkins Street, Mr. Brown's mood turned sombre. The façade of a brick house on the corner was spray-painted with the words "Fuck the world," and farther along the real estate grew more dismal: tottering clapboard bungalows, half of them burned out, and the rest, he said, "probably crack houses now—you come from that, you use crack." In this setting, the limo looked like a spaceship, but none of the street's ragtag residents expressed any surprise. They waved from sidewalks and porches, and although they couldn't see through the rain-streaked one-way glass, they called out, "Hello, Mr. Brown," and "God bless, Mr. Brown." The vehicle could belong to nobody else: every Thanksgiving, he comes through passing out turkeys, and at Christmas he brings toys. Now he said, "They want me to help build this place back. What can I do? Get on my knees and pray, and ask, 'Mr. President, come—Mr. Bush, come in here and clean it out and put decent homes in here'?"

He told his driver to stop outside a broken-down shack, where an emaciated woman and two young men sat on a porch surrounded by household debris. One of the young men stepped forward in the rain, and Mr. Brown lowered his window and held out a fifty-dollar bill. The man bowed, and withdrew. "Wait a minute," Mr. Brown called after him. "Y'all split that. Give that lady some, too." When he rolled his window up, he told me, "I'm not doin' this because you here. I wasn't gonna do it today. I didn't want you to see me handin' no money out there. I wasn't gonna do it. That's the honest-to-God truth." He sounded embarrassed. "You look at this, it kinda take your breath," he said.

At the end of the block, we reached James Brown Boulevard, and he said, "Out here on these same streets, you may see my daughter, and she has no business out here. She don't have to be there. I give her a home, she got a new Mercedes, and her Mercedes just sitting there. I can't give it to her, 'cause I can't—'cause she shrug off everything I do."

Family life has never been Mr. Brown's strong suit; he has been married four times, divorced twice, and made a widower in 1996 when his third wife died from complications following plastic surgery; he had three children with his first wife, two with his second, none with his third, and on the day before my visit to Augusta his current wife (then still his fiancée), Tomi Rae Hynie, a thirty-three-year-old singer of Norwegian descent, who has performed and lived with him on and off for the past four years, gave birth to a son, James Joseph Brown II. In addition to these relationships, throughout much of his career he maintained a succession of girlfriends and mistresses, with a couple of whom he sired children, including the daughter he was keeping an eye out for on the street named after him. "She's got worse than a habit," he said. "When a person is just spooked, we say she got a monkey on her back. She got a gorilla on her back." He fell silent for a beat, then said it again, "She got a gorilla on her back."

So our journey into his past had brought him hard up against the present, and he did not seem to feel so at home anymore. As he spoke of his helplessness before his daughter's destitution, his earlier discomfort at being seen giving handouts suddenly made sense: he wasn't embarrassed for himself, but for the people who accepted his charity. After all, this was the man whose ultimate civil-rights-era message song was "I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door, I'll Get It Myself)." He had wanted to show me the "nothingness" he'd come from, but that nothingness, which had been created by a sense of exclusion, had been a full and vibrant world to him. Now it was gone—the door had been opened, and those who found a way had moved on through it—and he was at a loss to account for the new nothingness of oblivion that had taken its place, a genuine wasteland without the blatant boot-heel of Jim Crow to blame.

"I don't know whether this freedom is as good as segregation," he said at one point. "I'll let you figure that out." And he said, "I got a street named after me, and I'm still riding around—I can't say not one thing."

Mr. Brown has plenty to say, of course, and he does not hesitate to say much of it. He talked non-stop for more than three hours in Augusta, and once we'd put James Brown Boulevard behind us his mood grew easy again, and his words flowed more freely, in long, looping monologues. In his speech, as in his music and dance, he is at once fiercely controlling and wildly spontaneous, unpredictable even to himself. But, unlike his songs, his conversation can be nearly impossible to follow. The patchwork of his syntax and the guttural slipstream of his diction—a gravelly, half-swallowed slur whose viscosity has increased through the decades, in lockstep with his pursuit of perfect dentistry—are only part of the challenge. After deciphering what he's saying, it frequently remains necessary to determine what he's talking about. And much of the time he appears to be wondering the same thing, because his speech is a form of improvisation. So Mr. Brown speaks with an attentive ear, stringing words and ideas along in contrapuntal themes and variations, at times falling back on reliable old formulations to give the jam shape, until he hears some new riff emerging, at which point he works and worries the key elements, juggling their sequence and refining their emphasis, until they converge in a sudden burst of determined lucidity, or fade out and are forgotten.

In one characteristic outburst, he began by pointing to a block of abandoned buildings that were slated by the city for rehabilitation, and said the only way to go was to tear them down and start over from scratch. "What you see now is a shell of a building," he said. "At least if there was nothing there you could build good. You could imagine. But now you can't imagine—you got to think of how to salvage it and save it." He worked this vein for a while, and it soon broadened out: "America needs an overhaul. Overhaul. Go back. I made a song called 'A Man Has to Go Back to the Crossroad.' So America now needs overhauls. She gotta go back to the crossroad. She gotta go back to the drawing board. 'Cause what is happening to it?" He went on, "I mean, you got to go back to the beginning and rewind yourself. You got to do like a tape deck, you got to rewind and start all over again." He said, "I don't want to tear nothing up, I want to be able to—I want to own part of it. I don't want to tear it up, I want to build it up, and then own part of it. Or I want an opportunity to build one just like it."

He said, "Free enterprise is as good as it can be, but when you start going with one is educated and the other's not, it's not free enterprise no more. When one is educated, and the other don't know A from B, it's not free enterprise no more." He said, "The same intent they showed to keep us separated years ago, they should show that same intent to put us together." He said, "America has committed a lot more crimes on civilization than we committed trying to get into civilization. We was out of civilization. What we was livin' was not civilization, it was uncivil. Our whole thing was uncivil. It wasn't even civilized! The people know that. You gonna let people come in your house and cook for you—Look here, you gonna let people come in your house and cook food and plan for the whole family, little babies come and there'd be a nanny and let the baby suck the titty, and then tell 'em, 'Lady, you can't be eatin' with them'? Come on. It's crazy."

And he went on, "I ask you, let up a little bit. Let's give the small man a little more chance to be human. Let's not dehumanize the man and put him in jail for bein' a criminal. Dehumanize! I mean, you won't put a dog in jail for tryin' to eat out your garbage can or eat out your yard. So why you gonna do that to a poor man that has no guides. More schools. The people in jail need to go to school. Anybody with any less than a ten-year sentence should stay in school all the time. 'Cause you know that's a dumping ground. Even the toilet dumps into a refinery and goes round and back to you as clean. Even a toilet. O.K.? It goes to the reservoir and everything before it come back to the people as drinkin' water. But you take a man out of prison, who don't know nothing but killin' and doin' anything wrong, and put him out and expect him to function with people, like he can live with them. He cannot live with them. He can't live with nobody. I think of all this stuff, and I see it's a cause that's called L-O-S-T, lost—unless you put music back in it. Music right now, whether it's gospel, jazz, you need music. You need to have a music revolution to get these people's mind right."

Once James Brown gets talking, it is not easy to steer him. You may ask a question, you may get an answer—there may or may not be any correlation. I asked if he knew that he was not like other people; that he had a much higher level of energy. "Mmm-hmm," he said. After a moment, he added, "I'm not going to endorse marijuana for sale, but for health I will." He said, "A man should never confess, but I think that anything that's good for people—gotta do." Besides, if the alternative is hard drugs and a person needs something gentler, "you better bring marijuana back so you have some place to get off. You can't jump one-four. You know, one-two. One and two. Get 'em on the 'and.' Then we can bring 'em back home."

In the late eighties, Mr. Brown and his third wife were widely reported to have a habit of getting high on angel dust, or PCP, an animal tranquillizer that tends to induce paranoid and often violent psychosis in humans. On September 24, 1988, the singer, dishevelled, enraged, and carrying a shotgun, burst into an office next to his own in Augusta and accused its occupants—forty men and women attending an insurance-licensing seminar—of using his bathroom without permission. After a brief standoff, he retreated. "God said, 'Boy, go home,' " he later told a local reporter. He drove off in his pickup truck, and soon found himself pursued by a police car with flashing lights. He pulled the truck over and stopped, and when the cruiser stopped behind him he peeled back onto the road. The police stayed on his tail for four miles, until he pulled over once more. By now he was heading east on Interstate 20, and this time he waited for the officer to get out of his car before taking off again. He entered South Carolina at eighty miles an hour, shot off the interstate, and almost immediately found himself facing the flashing blue lights of a police car blocking the road, with the lights of another behind him. When he stopped, an officer approached and began questioning him through his window. According to Mr. Brown, another officer appeared at the passenger door and started smashing the window in with his pistol. The singer threw the truck into gear and floored it. By then, there were at least four policemen standing in his dust and they opened fire, striking the truck eighteen times, puncturing the gas tank and all four of the tires. "They act like I done rob ten banks," Mr. Brown said later. "I left to protect my life."

Driving full throttle on his wheel rims, he trundled back to Augusta at thirty miles an hour, and meandered through downtown, trailed by a posse of fourteen cruisers. When he finally lost control of the truck, and ground to a halt in a ditch, he was about a mile from the scene of his first arrest (for larceny), thirty-nine years earlier. This time, he was brought back to South Carolina, where he was convicted of aggravated assault and "failure to stop for a blue light," and sentenced to six years. Once again, he served three.

Mr. Brown keeps the crippled hulk of his truck in a shed at his home, a several-hundred-acre estate in Beech Island, South Carolina. There, behind a wrought-iron replica of the gate at Buckingham Palace, guarded by a bloodhound and a white security guard who addresses him with "Yessir" and "Nawsir," a winding two-lane road leads through a forest of pine and live oak, dipping past a large man-made pond (soon to be banked with "six foot of concrete, so people can stand back off and fish"), to his residence. He has been expanding the building according to his own design in recent years to become "just a monstrosity, it's unbelievable, a pleasure monstrosity—one that's gonna be good for you to show your kids to—and it's gonna be quite a monument, so you'll say, 'You know what, that James Brown got somethin' on his mind.' " He wouldn't allow me inside the house, but he made a point of showing me the truck. He claimed he'd turned down offers of as much as a million dollars for it. "That was the truck that started all my success," he said mysteriously.

"Goin' to jail in the nineties was really a great awakening," he added, "because I didn't know people were still that ignorant." I took him to mean his fellow-inmates, but it turned out he was speaking of the police, who had refused to just let him go home, as God told him to. "I stayed away from the ghetto too long," he said. "You living all this and you think musicians got a umbrella, till they come pick you up.You don't have no rights." He scoffed at allegations that he was high on PCP at the time of his arrest—"Not in my life," he said of hard drugs in general—but then he added, "Well, I wouldn't say as I did buy PCP. It might've been in the marijuana. And, if it was, I sure wish I had some more."

I started to say something, and he cut me off. "I'm'a say that again. Whatever I had, I need some more, 'cause everybody else is insane with them drugs they're using. Now, what was you goin' to ask me?" I no longer remembered, so I said, "How do you account for an insane generation?" He couldn't. He could only describe its insanity. "Black kids shootin' every one of each other, they got a quick temper. . . . But then the white kids, after they go in the service and all this stuff, come back—they shootin' and nobody cutting 'em, they shootin' at a whole room of people, shootin' at the teacher, they doin' everything. You know, whites are extremists, they go all the way with it." And he prescribed a solution: "We need a substance now to make us afraid. A-F-R-A-I-D. That's what we need. We need something—the kids need a pessimistic drug to slow them down, to make them, you know, 'I ain't gonna do that.' Ain't nothin' these kids wanna do today. Ain't nothin' you wanna do. They in a different bag. They need somethin' to make them pessimistic, and make them come out of this craziness so we can go to work and save this country."

There are no computers in the offices of James Brown Enterprises. "He's got this strange notion that they can see back at you," Maria Moon, one of his staffers, explained. "I guess he watched too many Russian-spy movies when he was young or something, but he thinks that they can see you and that they can track everything that you do." Mr. Brown put it slightly differently: "I don't want computers coming feeding direct off of me, 'cause I know what I got to tell a computer that it ain't got in there, and I don't want to. If the government would want me to be heading up the computer people, I would give 'em a basic idea what we should put in a computer—not just basic things, you know, but things that will be helpful in the future. We don't have that, but I could tell 'em a lot of things." He didn't elaborate, but he told me that on several occasions, while watching television news, he had foreseen the deaths of people on the screen. President Anwar Sadat, of Egypt, was one. "I looked at him when he got off the plane. I said, 'Oh, Lord.' I looked at the man's eyes. 'Oh, Lord!' I said. 'He's a dead man.' And he was dead." On an earlier occasion, during the Attica prison riots in 1971, he foresaw that the inmates who had taken over the prison would be slaughtered. "I was getting my hair fixed, and I looked up at the television," he said, and again his reaction was "Oh, Lord." His hairdresser asked, "What'd you see?" Mr. Brown told him, "All those dead men. They didn't even have no face no more, far as I was concerned. I looked at 'em, I didn't want 'em to be there no more."

James Brown is rarely unaccompanied; he employs a large court of attendants, whom he summons at all hours to listen as he speaks, and he told me, "I got all the friends in the world. My friends—that's all that matter to me." But he has the air of a man who is eternally alone. Even those who have spent a great deal of private time with him hesitate to describe themselves as knowing him. The Reverend Al Sharpton says, "I probably would have been as close to him as anybody for the last twenty-some years." But he is quick to add, "Close as he lets people get close. There's a zone nobody goes in. He draws a crowd, but then he's also centered, lonely, in the crowd." At his core—"deep down inside his solitude"—Sharpton believes, Mr. Brown is a mystical man who "probably has more faith than most preachers," and he said, "In the middle of the night, when there's no crowd, no nothing, that's all he talks about."

James Brown was living in New York, in a Victorian mansion in Queens, surrounded by a moat and decorated each Christmas with black Santa Claus lawn sculptures, when he was introduced to Sharpton, in the late sixties. (He liked New York, he said, except for one thing. "No wholesome people," he said, although in those days New York was a better place for interracial romance than the South, where if you met "a brunette, a blonde, a redhead, you can't even write to her—they'd hang the letter when it gets there.") Sharpton was nineteen when they met again, an unknown, aspiring black activist, and Mr. Brown, whose firstborn son, Teddy, had just died in a car crash, took him under his wing. Sharpton, who came from a broken home, and whose strongest memories of his father were "that we used to stand in front of the Apollo and he'd bribe the guys so we could get up on line to see James Brown," said, "I became in effect, over the next decade, his surrogate son, and he was my surrogate father." Sharpton, who eventually married one of Mr. Brown's singers (Kathy Jordan, who was a backup on a recording of "Tennessee Waltz"), in turn introduced the Godfather to his third wife, and for many years the Reverend was a regular member of their entourage.

Politically, James Brown and Al Sharpton make something of an odd couple. Mr. Brown has always defended his support for Richard Nixon, and a few years ago, when Rolling Stone asked him to name a hero from the twentieth century, he chose the reactionary senator from his home state, Strom Thurmond. He also performed at Thurmond's daughter's wedding, and sang "God Bless America" at a ceremony marking the ninety-eight-year-old senator's plan to retire. "But his style, his soul force, was very much an influence on me—and his whole thing of defiance and standing up against great odds if he believed in something," Sharpton said. "He's the only man I've ever met that doesn't need the acceptance and certification of the external world. He goes by his beliefs. He could care less about everybody else's."

By way of an example, Sharpton recalled accompanying his friend when he received a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement shortly after he got out of jail. Mr. Brown got a standing ovation, returned to his seat, said, "Let's go. I have my award, I'm not sitting here watching everybody," and they walked out. "And where do we have to go?" Sharpton said. "The Stage Deli, and eat Hungarian goulash." Similarly, in 1974 James Brown went to Zaire to play at the black-music festival that President Mobutu Sese Seko sponsored to coincide with the world heavyweight championship fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, and the day after the concert he went home. Sharpton couldn't imagine skipping the fight, but his mentor told him, "Reverend, I'm going to be over here making my next dollar while Ali's making his."

Sharpton doesn't see much of his mentor these days, and when I asked Mr. Brown whether he would ever endorse Sharpton for elected office he said, "I would endorse his intent." But he said he no longer meddles with political endorsements, and he reminded me that, "being an ex-offender," he has never voted. At this point, he said, black people don't need leaders—"We need jobs"—and he'd told Sharpton as much. " 'You don't lead us, we know how to lead.' I said, 'We don't need that no more. That was all right when we didn't have the nerve and the ambition, but now you can be anything you want to be, so you your own leader.' " Besides, he said, "leaders become dictators."

In late May of last year, the mayor of Cincinnati, Charlie Luken, asked James Brown for help. Seven weeks earlier, on April 7th, a city policeman had shot and killed an unarmed nineteen-year-old black man named Timothy Thomas, after a foot chase in the ghetto neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine. Thomas was the fifteenth black man to lose his life in a confrontation with Cincinnati police since 1995. His death was followed by several days of protests and rioting. Motorists were dragged from their cars and beaten; stores along a wide swath of the city center were looted; fires were set; a citywide dusk-to-dawn curfew was imposed; and although calm was restored within a week, the city remained deeply riven and on edge. Prominent black churchmen continued to lead protests, and were threatening to disrupt the city's annual Memorial Day outdoor food-and-music festival, Taste of Cincinnati. Mayor Luken wanted the festival to mark a return to normal for the city, and he wanted a musical act to set the tone. That meant he wanted a black act. The rhythm-and-blues band Midnight Star and the Isley Brothers were booked, but local black leaders persuaded them to withdraw. Now, with two days to go, the Mayor asked James Brown to come to town.

As it happened, Mr. Brown had just finished recording a new song, addressed to America's youths, called "Killing Is Out, School Is In," and he thought the message was perfectly suited to Cincinnati's plight. He said he would not get mixed up in local politics, but for fifteen thousand dollars, to cover expenses, he agreed to give a midday press conference and to sing his new song. The news of his intended appearance was not well received at the New Prospect Baptist Church in Over-the-Rhine, the hub of the peaceful-protest movement that had coalesced since the riots. On the morning the Taste was to open, the pews were filled with several hundred men and women (about a quarter of them white) who sang gospel hymns and listened to the pastor, Reverend Damon Lynch III, rally them to stage a boycott of the food fair. In the atrium, a middle-aged black-enterprise activist named Jim Clingman explained the prevailing attitude. "James Brown is being used. He's just window dressing," he said, adding, "I lived by James Brown for a long time. I don't want to hurt the brother, I want to help him."

Pastor Lynch's rhetoric from the pulpit was more high-flown. He spoke of Cincinnati's "economic apartheid," and said, "Every once in a while we got to rise up. . . . What we got now is a Rosa Parks moment in our lives." He spoke the name James Brown, and said the attitude of the city fathers was "If we can just get 'em dancin'—bring in Negro dancers and just get the Negro dancin', he'll forget about his anger, he'll forget about his pain." He explained that he was going to meet the singer before the press conference, and persuade him to join the boycott, because "he is and has been our brother," and "for him now to be drawn into this—we just gotta tap him on the shoulder."

It didn't happen that way. James Brown rode straight from the airport to the press conference, at a downtown hotel. He wore a gunmetal-blue suit and turtleneck, silver-toed black cowboy boots, and, until the Mayor was done introducing him, heavy dark sunglasses. Then he took the podium, with half a dozen of his loyal retainers arrayed behind him, and for the next twenty minutes he held forth in a characteristically kaleidoscopic manner, full of oblique personal references. He called Cincinnati his second home, on account of King Records ("I wouldn't have a career if it wasn't for God, America, and especially Cincinnati"); and he said he was born dead, but didn't elaborate. He said, "I was out there with Dr. King, I was out there with Malcolm, I was out there with Mr. Abernathy, and I knew a lot of people—trying to make it better." And he said, "I didn't come for the Mayor, I didn't come for the police, I didn't come for the people out in the street. I come for the kids." This was his key point: that children were in peril. He criticized TV violence ("You see a show on television today, they done killed twenty people already, and you ain't even got to the show yet"), put in a plug for school prayer, and said we shouldn't be hiring teachers from overseas. He talked briefly about volunteering to entertain the troops in Indochina, and how hot it was there, and about flying around Russia in an old bomber plane, and about going to jail as a teen-ager. He said he'd never met a person he didn't like, and he said that, whatever Cincinnati's current trouble was, "it's going to end in the courthouse, whether you like it or not, it's never going to end in the outhouse." He invoked Rwanda and Bosnia, and asked, "What are we doing killing each other in our community?" He said, "Ants can work together, why can't people work together?" He cited Scripture—John 3:17 ("For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved")—and said, "God don't want me to quit it, because Papa got a brand new bag."

Jim Clingman, the activist, ventured a question from the floor: "Brother Brown, one of your records that you made had the words 'Let's get together and get some land, raise our food like the man, save our money like the Mob, put up the factory on the job.' Speak on economic empowerment."

"All we got to do is get black Americans to put in one dollar, and from everybody build a company," Mr. Brown said.

"That's what I'm talking about," Clingman agreed.

"All we got to do is build our own stuff," Mr. Brown said.

"That's right."

"Not whether you're black or white."

"Thank you."

"Just have your own. And it's bad, see, if ballplayers, athletes, can't give one dollar apiece a year . . ."

"Thank you."

"It would be that much. They don't give no money."


He went on for a while longer—"We're all in it together, the Italian, the Jew, the German, nobody but all of us. Who am I? I'm 259-32-3801, not black or white, just that Social Security card"—then he rode the elevator down to his limo, and was driven to the festival stage. A thousand people had gathered in the midday sun to see him, most of them white, and around the periphery marched several hundred protesters, chanting, "James Brown sold out." Suddenly, a very loud, thumping beat blared from the sound system, and Mr. Brown appeared onstage, rapping out a karaoke version of his new song, "Killing Is Out, School Is In," with a vocal accompanist, who barked back, "I don't think they heard you, brother. Say it again." Despite the volume, their voices were barely audible over the chants of the protesters. From here and there in the crowd, people began hurling pennies at the stage. Two young black men looked on, discussing James Brown's presence in tones of disgust: "He's done. . . . He's finished. . . . Out the window with all them records—like Frisbees."

All at once, with the song still playing, Mr. Brown spun around and walked offstage. He did not wait for applause, or return for it. One second he was there, and the next he was gone. Protesters surged toward him as he climbed into his limo. Mounted policemen moved to hold them back. An old man screamed, "Bring Elvis back—they both dead now." James Brown got back out of the car to hug a well-wisher. A few protesters rushed forward, and he ducked back inside. With the police cavalry as an escort, the car finally began to move off. A new chant began: "Say it loud, we got him out now."

A few weeks later, in Augusta, Mr. Brown told me that he had just received an invitation to the White House to present President Bush with a CD of his new song. "He called me," he said. "I knew it had to lead to that, because when they saw us stop the riots in Cincinnati—that was a good thing." His manager, Charles Bobbit, sustained this fantasy: "It was a repeat of 1968—Boston, Massachusetts—and both cities, both mayors, called for help 'cause they couldn't do it." Mr. Brown chuckled. "You right," he said. "That was a repeat. I didn't think about that." He was moved to declare that the new song, with its heavy rap beat, and its obvious reproach to the mayhem-boosting lyrics of so much hip-hop, would be "the biggest thing ever happened in history." He said, "You know, the President didn't call for us to be talkin' jive. He gonna tie it in. And I don't blame him."

Before America was drawn into war last September 11th, James Brown and his handlers had been talking up the release of the new song in the fall, as a sort of back-to-school special. It was an article of faith among the inner circle at James Brown Enterprises that it would be a hit as big as his best civil-rights-era numbers. Members of his band thought otherwise: the words were too blunt, even mildly scolding, lacking the buoyant bravura of his enduring message songs; the arrangement was a bit ham-fisted, and audiences weren't taking to it. The consensus among his sidemen seemed to be that Mr. Brown was wasting his time trying to reach today's kids, and should go back to his roots by recording an album of the music he loves to sing best when he's alone with a few friends: his greatest hits, a little gospel, even some ballads—songs of pure feeling. Mr. Brown himself never seemed quite satisfied with the recorded version of "Killing Is Out," and his producer was constantly reworking the mix, with overdubbed vocals and patched-in instrumentals—a process totally alien to the way the singer has worked for most of his life. "He must've mixed that thing fifty times, trying to come up with something else. I mean, he not really understanding that when it come from me, it's the real thing," he said. "It's God. When I first go in and cut, it's God. If I go back to cut, it's me. You see, God is always right. All the records, I used to always use my first cuts. Bam! Cat say, 'You want to cut it again?' I say, 'For what?' "

I wondered what Syd Nathan, who had so often recoiled from Mr. Brown's best innovations, would think. For all their struggles over the years, it was at King Records that Mr. Brown had done his best work. But Nathan has been dead for more than thirty years, so I went to see Ahmet Ertegun, the Turkish-born éminence grise of record producers, who started Atlantic Records around the time that Nathan started King, and whose backlist of R. & B. and soul classics includes the best of Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and Aretha Franklin. Ertegun never recorded James Brown, but he has known the singer on and off for fifty years, and admires him as "one of the great geniuses of this most important kind of music." Rappers, he said, "are all James Brown freaks." (Indeed, James Brown earns millions each year on royalties from rap samplings.) "He's got hooks that will outlive most people's compositions," Ertegun said. "Just his little hooks."

Still, the moment Ertegun heard the title "Killing Is Out, School Is In," he shook his head. "Sad thing is those songs are sure to flop," he said. "The public is not looking to take lessons." (After many delays, the song is set to be released in August on Mr. Brown's new album, "The Next Step.") In Ertegun's experience, the black public is especially tough. "A black artist cannot keep a black audience," he said. "I mean, black audiences live this music. I mean, black audiences are the ones that create what black artists do, whereas white people imitate that, and they love it forever. We have white kids imitating Tampa Red, and they're playing Big Bill Broonzy, and they're students, they're scholars, who go back and listen to the old 78-r.p.m. records and get heavily into that, like all the English rock and rollers did in the sixties. They went back to that music. But black people, they don't study that music. That's the music they invented, and they don't give a shit about it, and they don't like what their mothers like. Their mothers like Billy Eckstine; well, they laugh at Billy Eckstine."

It's true that James Brown's audiences are now predominantly white, and that he gets his most avid response in Europe and Japan. "I'm ten times bigger over there than I am over here," he told me. Of course, Ertegun said, "they're the opposite of black audiences, they're just finding out about all of this." But, here in America, "there's the real expression of black people through, you know, all the rappers," he said. "It's dirty, but it's reality. It's reality for those people who live in the condition that we have more or less put them in. They can't write songs like Cole Porter, because they don't come from a Cole Porter background. They come from a rat-infested basement place somewhere in Compton, and you know that's a different life than putting on your white tie and dancing at the Savoy."

It wasn't the Savoy, but late one night in San Francisco, after playing a show, Mr. Brown returned to the Ritz-Carlton on Nob Hill, where he was staying, and stood stock-still in the center of the lobby. By the angle of his head, you could see that he was listening, and, sure enough, in the nearly vacant bar, a trio was playing: a gray-haired man hunched over a string bass, a young goateed fellow at the grand piano, and, on a stool, in a black evening gown, a woman singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." "Let's get a juice or something," Mr. Brown said to his entourage, which numbered about ten that night. He led the way, attired in a dusky-maroon three-piece suit, a purple shirt, and a necktie of golden silk with a pattern of blue slashes. The musicians beamed at the sight of him, and the dozen or so remaining patrons, scattered on banquettes around the edge of the room, sat up and began poking one another and pointing. When the singer, blushing, finished her song, Mr. Brown had one of his men give each of the trio a hundred-dollar bill. The singer asked for requests, and Mr. Brown said, "Anybody here mind if I do one?"

There was no objection. He conferred briefly with the musicians, grinning and joking, looking out at the room, where the audience of twenty had now grown to twenty-five, with an additional contingent of bellhops and valet parkers standing against the back wall. "Up-tempo or slow?" he said. "Oh, I'll give it to you on the up." He started snapping his fingers, his body swayed with them, the piano and bass came in softly, and he sang, "Time after time, when we're together . . ." There was sweetness in his voice, and grit, and as always, an ache, but, most of all, pure pleasure. He clipped the phrases, and juggled some words, making the song his: "Time after time, you hear me say that I feel alone tonight . . ."
After a verse, he sidled up behind the pianist and, gently nudging him to keep playing at the low end of the keyboard, reached in to pick out a liltingly funky right-handed solo. Back at the edge of the tiny stage, he crouched into the words until, making an abrupt signal to the musicians to cut, he finished, with a soft whispered "Aowh." Then, equally softly, he spoke the word "Scream.
  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.