Self-editing is overrated. Or is it?

Monday, December 25, 2006

James Brown - 1933-2006

Oh, I cannot begin to tell you how much I would not like to blogging about the death of James Brown on this day. Christmas day. I mean, I knew it was coming but, dammit, come on. Not today, the one full day off that I get all year.

Well. What can I say?

When I was 5 years old, I got my first record ever. It was a 45rpm of James Brown's "Mashed Potatoes (Part 1)". The first time I put that record on, it literally sounded like I was receiving a message from another planet. It was the strangest thing I had ever heard, the lyrics were indecipherable. There was something about mashed potatoes in there, but I swear to you, you can listen to that song today and you will absolutely not be able to tell me what that song is about. And then when it ended, I turned it over, there was "Mashed Potatoes (Part 2)", which was the same thing!

But the beat that came out of that little crappy record player made me get up and dance, and I didn't even know how to dance. I just got up and followed the beat, which was the greatest thing that I had ever heard.

That was the first time James Brown changed my life.

When I was 16 years old, I was working in a second-hand record store in North Carolina, a customer came in to sell a used cassette copy of James Brown's "Live At The Apollo 1962". Now, at the time, I didn't know it was the first live album ever recorded in pop music. I didn't know what the Apollo Theatre was. I just bought it from the guy on a whim, put it on that night driving home in my car and then didn't get home until 5 hours later, because I couldn't stop listening to it and I basically ran out of gas because I couldn't stop driving. I listened to this one moment on that tape over and over, which is 8 and a half minutes into the medley of his ballads towards the end of Side 1, where he's just riffing over "Lost Someone", and the band is like down to a whisper, and you can literally hear a pin drop in that auditorium, and James is just working the crowd like no one ever before.

He just sings "You know, sometimes I just wanna scream!" and all the young girls scream in return. He sings it again - "I just wanna scream", and the young girls scream again. And then James screams this amazing soul scream that is just unbelievable, and it just seems to last FOREVER as it slowly transforms into this beautiful sweet note that he lands like a feather on everyone. It's this spellbinding moment that literally takes your breath away, and at the moment that your jaw has hit the floor, James just takes the whole room and stomps into "Please Please Please" and the place is JUST FUCKING PANDEMONIUM. You can literally hear the entire place just lose their fucking minds, people are literally hysterical with what they've been given. My eyes are filled with tears as I type this, and it's exactly the way I felt when I was sitting in my car, unable to get out. It's the closest thing to a religious experience that I have ever had, and it was the second time that James Brown changed my life.

When I was 20 years old, I bought a James Brown cd called "In The Jungle Groove", which I will admit that I did not have high hopes for. It was around the time of Sinead O'Connor's "I Am Stretched On Your Grave", which had sampled the beat from "The Funky Drummer", and Polygram, sensing the chance to make a quick buck, assembled a bunch of outtakes from those sessions in an attempt to cash in on people who were attracted to the beat. Deep in that disc, however, is this MONSTER remix of "Give It Up Or Turnit Loose", and I mean, this was clearly recorded at the height of the JB's - you've got Clyde, Bootsy, Catfish, Bobby, Maceo, Fred, Pee Wee, they're all there. And there's this moment about 6 minutes into the track, where James breaks it down, and then builds the groove back up one instrument at a time. It's literally watching the anatomy of a funk locomotive built from the ground up, and it's probably one of the most influential moments that I've ever heard in terms of orchestration of a groove. That song stays with me every single time I begin to write a piece of music. It was the next time that James Brown changed my life.

When I was 22 years old, and starting to think about the direction that my band The Nubile Thangs would take as I was beginning to write songs regularly for them. Then, "Star Time" - the legendary box set came out, spanning The Godfather's career from the 50's through the 80's, and god damn! The variety was astounding! It just blew me away how many ways that he could find to lay down a groove. Every single track was a winner, and they were all different. I listened to those CD's over and over again, and learned about how to write a thousand different kinds of music, but that all have a cohesive identity. That was the next time James Brown changed my life.

Now I'm 37 years old. Last month, my 4 year old son and I were playing basketball in the back yard. He said "Hey, Dad, let's put on some music" and the first thing that I saw in my cluttered office was "Star Time". I grabbed disc 1, advanced it to "Mashed Potatoes (part 1)" and walked back outside, expecting to see my son playing.

He wasn't. He was dancing. He had no idea what he was doing, but he was dancing to James Brown. It was beautiful. It was the most recent time that James Brown changed my life, and the first time that it changed my son's. I'm sure it won't be the last for either of us.

There has not been one day since I was 5 years old where James Brown didn't have some part in my day, directly or indirectly. I literally owe what I've achieved to his influence. His music helped to make me who I am.

Now, he's not a role model for living. And, lord knows, the last two decades have not been good for him. I was THIS CLOSE to driving to see him in prison, during the drug charge in Sumter, South Carolina. Ironically, the day before I was gonna go, the prison actually closed visits from the public as there was a waiting list of 300 people who wanted to see him. To this day, I have no idea what I was gonna do when I got there. But I just felt that I had to go, and tell him what he meant to me, and to hang in there. It's probably for the best that I didn't go, but those feelings remain.

He's not perfect. No one is. But he changed music, he changed society and he changed me forever. Anybody working in modern music owes something to James Brown.

But to me, he'll always be Soul Brother No. 1.

Rest in peace, James. You've earned it.

Go here to listen to WMFU's 6 hour tribute show to JB.


Anonymous Lilly said...

Thanks for this. I had Malcolm sneak a few notes of I Got You in the background of the Old Joe scene yesterday as a tribute. You would have liked it.

12/28/2006 1:33 AM


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