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Books and Culture

Ian Penman
Did He Feel Good?
James Brown’s epic life and career
8 June 2012

The One: The Life and Music of James Brown, by R. J. Smith (Gotham, 464 pp., $27.50)

Gilles Petard/Getty Images

James Brown’s legendary reputation as the Hardest Working Man in Show Business was part virile boast and part canny PR. Had a bad week at work? The Man will give you a show to raise your spirits and cancel out the pain. He put as much work into his act as his audience put into their low-end jobs. Showbiz was man’s work, hard labor, as much sweat of his brow as swish of his cape. The audience got its money’s worth; and if Brown understood one thing above all else, it was the many uses and values, financial and symbolic, of money. He never went on tour without a big bag of ready cash—to grease wheels, ameliorate tensions, make obstacles disappear. After he died, people found boxes of dollar bills stashed in the walls of his house, or buried out back on his land.

Born in 1933, Brown learned his hard-headed ways in a 1950s music business that was a rough twine of Mafia hegemony and outta-sight profits. He believed in the redemptive power of hard work as others believed in the blood of the lamb. A true believer in the do-it-yourself ethos of the American Dream, he didn’t see why race should be a barrier to getting the good things in life. Hard work was how he shaped his destiny in a sectarian world, his eventual success the product of near tyrannical drive and will. He could be hard work personally, too. He rarely took no for an answer, whether it was a question of getting an encore, sleeping with him, or signing away your royalties. In his music as in his wiles, Brown was no suave pinkie-ring seducer. He had none of the snake-charmer sweetness of a later generation of soul men. If the key to musical seduction is hiding all artifice behind a carefully disheveled front of natural élan, Brown took another road, emphasizing all the stuff other artists tucked away. Listening to Brown’s classic hits—“Cold Sweat,” “Out of Sight,” “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine”—you could be eavesdropping on some 11th-hour rehearsal, the air jumpy with back chat, barked instructions, and flip, musicianly code. You can all but hear the effort that goes into summoning up the bumpy and volatile groove.

Brown’s music seems fully dependent on its front man, entirely led by his sandpaper rasp—but if you want to dig its secret flow, you have to listen down past Brown himself into a song’s boiler-room frequencies, where the bass and drums make things shake. If you’ve always been baffled by just what it is a bass player does, play “Sex Machine” and try tuning your ear to the sinuously pivotal bass line William “Bootsy” Collins lays down; bass and guitar supply the song’s true harmony, with Brown’s vocalizing so much scattershot percussion. This music is hard work, in the best sense: you can feel the sweat, see the crooked smiles on the musicians’ faces. It seems to bypass all rationale and go straight to the sacroiliac, its emphasis never quite where you expect it to be. Brown had his own code for this hypnotic way of playing off the beat: he called it The One.

Which is ostensibly what the title of this new biography of Brown, The One, by music writer R. J. Smith, alludes to—though it carries a supplementary meaning of the one and only, the exception to all normal rules. And at his peak, Brown was a country mile of contradictions. He preached black revolution but courted Republican power brokers. He loved being honored as Black Businessman of the Year, but his investments failed and he stubbornly resisted paying taxes. He needed to be loved and feted in his hometown Georgia neighborhood even as sullen murmurs persisted in the community about unpaid bills and broken promises. He craved public respectability but privately behaved like a Mafia chieftain. He wanted to be seen as a strong and dependable father figure but appears to have had no truck with the wearisome daily reality of raising kids. Officially, Brown had nine children with three or four different women (and some disputed additional offspring). For political reasons as much as anything else, Brown wanted to be perceived as the opposite of a part-time, deadbeat dad, but he seems to have been baffled by children—their presence, their spontaneity, their need for casual affection.

Brown himself had a horrific childhood even by the standards of the time—no real childhood at all, in fact. He went straight from the cradle to the street, where he got a street-corner education in amoral, get-it-any-way-you-can wheel and deal. Like Richard Pryor and Billie Holiday, he learned the relative valuations of love and money in a relative’s whorehouse. Perhaps because he didn’t have a childhood proper—a place of safety, play, and the unhurried formation of certain shared recognitions—this space remained empty and replete with anxiety for him. He couldn’t play with his own children, because he had never learned to play himself. For Brown, play was always work, but work was never play. You get a consonant feeling from the music: even at its most avowedly merciful or pleading, his songs carry an almost dementedly willful, near-threatening charge.

This bad start in life shaped his relationships with adults as well. Brown mostly preferred the company of people who inhabited the shady middle ground between hard work and outright hustle. He liked to test his wits against characters he knew were trying to outmaneuver him. He liked reptilian crooks and scurvy knaves, especially if they were white and Southern. (One of his most enduring—in fact only enduring—friendships was with, of all people, the wily and indestructible Southern politician Strom Thurmond.) He had a fatal weakness for beady-eyed chancers who didn’t have his best interests at heart, but he treated family and band members with feudal scorn and feigned incomprehension. In the long run this proved fatal, both personally and financially.

One close associate quoted by Smith says Brown was “exceptionally slick and conniving and he made sure—made sure—he was misunderstood.” With Brown, you couldn’t win. If you went along with his mind games, you were a weakling. If you stood up to him, you were exiled. When people eventually realized they were damned in either case, many walked away. (Some of the stories here can break the heart—including the daughter frozen out because she broke ranks and tried to get her father help for his various problems late in life.) Brown wouldn’t be told how to act. “You can’t tell me / how to run my mess!” he sang, or insisted, like a mantra. In the early days, this meant spurning the advice of white agents and managers to tone down the sheer blackness of his act. Later on, it meant not mouthing the safe ideological line reigning black power-brokers had prepared for him. Brown did make sure he was crystal clear on certain issues. “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up The Door I’ll Get It Myself)” is less a song title than an embryonic policy paper. He dubbed himself the Funky President, and in most important respects, he was a stand-alone black conservative: anti-drug, pro-school, anti-revolution, pro–hard work.

He urged black people not to riot. He was deeply suspicious of using the apologia of societal racism to excuse inertia or failure. In Brown’s world, you only had yourself to blame or praise. A man was what a man did: he had to step out there into a hostile world and shape it according to his own desires. Brown had no truck with blaming whitey; he was at war with destiny itself. In this sense, he was colorblind. Nothing and no one would halt the procession of his irresistible will. A part of this was mere grandstanding (one more street-theater way of getting the crowd to stop and look at him), but it also went deeper, provoking serious disaffection within his core black audience.

In 1972, Brown supported Richard Nixon for reelection over his challenger George McGovern because he liked the president’s policy of New Federalism. Nixon depicted the Democratic faith in big government as only skin-deep in its equity, being in reality deeply patronizing to anyone a few rungs down the socioeconomic ladder. Nixon presented his initiative as a way of putting start-up money where it should be: in the hands of states and individuals, not Washington. This harmonized with Brown’s own street-level ethic: he didn’t think black people should get any special breaks. Every black man could be a Brown man and make his dreams palpable if he put his mind to it. For Brown, there was more nobility in screwing money out of fools than in being given it for free. (He was distrustful of welfare and affirmative action because they catered to blacks en masse, where he considered himself special, incomparable, chosen: the One.) For Brown, there was no paradox in talking about Black Pride but privately demanding an appearance fee for same. If you came from poor, you went where the dollars were. And Brown put his money where his mouth was, opening up several businesses in black neighborhoods. He bought and overhauled radio stations, promoted other artists, started fast-food chains tailored to black appetite and aesthetics. Everything was done with daemonic flair (including the bookkeeping, unfortunately).

Brown stuck by Nixon, even when black Democrats organized a Brown boycott, black media mocked his supposed Uncle Tom-ism, and his audience did a slow fade. Later came another 45 with a pimped-out parenthesis: “You Can Have Watergate (Just Gimme Some Bucks and I’ll Be Straight).” This was always Brown’s bottom line: have you got the bucks or don’t you? Money was both the motor and the proof of self-improvement. Money, not social upheaval, was the key to freedom. His proudest boast was being a “perfect symbol of black entrepreneurship,” encouraging a whole nation of black-owned businesses like his own. “Now brother—DON’T—leave your homework undone,” sang Brown on “I’m a Greedy Man.” But businesses can’t stay afloat on symbolic pizzazz alone, and one after another, his investments crashed. Brown loved the idea of being chairman of the board, but he had neither the time nor the small-print aptitude for what that job involved. (It probably didn’t help that his formative years on the road gave him a combative idea of business ethics not taught at Harvard: a Colt .45 in his belt and deep pockets for filing returns.)

Consider again that quote above. Brown calls himself a symbol of black entrepreneurship. And as a symbol alone he was golden, preaching a gospel of being real, standing tall, even if no one can run an empire on such feel-good generalities (though talkin’ loud and sayin’ nothing is not bad training for running a modern political campaign). Brown also had to carry the same burden as other successful blacks, who found it was not enough to be brilliant in their chosen field. They also had to be 24/7 community role models. This could surely drive anyone crazy—without the added complication of different sections of the community wanting entirely incompatible role models. Succeed one way and people will call you a sell-out. Stick to your base and others will say you haven’t been adventurous enough. Get your affairs in order and you’ll be called an Oreo. Don’t take care of financial business and people will sigh: same old lazy-ass story.

In the 1970s, just as his business ventures were failing, things started faltering for Brown artistically, too. The soul music he’d helped fashion was enjoying a huge artistic renaissance. Popularity hit an all-time high in sales, artistic daring, and crossover success, as black artists—Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the O’Jays, Gil Scott-Heron, among many others—exploited and overhauled the LP format, producing gorgeous, resonant, suite-like worlds of sound. Brown came from a time when the concert tour, more than the studio, was the real work, and maybe he needed that instant audience feedback. All the great hits of Brown’s sixties and seventies heyday were seven-inch singles at a time when 45s were made and consumed like so many sonic headlines. Taken together, those 45s were like an alternative news wire or TV station. A volley of wild and wanton ricochets, they provided unforgettable catch phrases (“Say it Loud! I’m Black and I’m Proud!” “Get on the Good Foot!”), along with unlikely black superheroes like Mister Super Bad and the New Minister of the Super Heavy Funk. Brown couldn’t (or wouldn’t) make the switch to the LP-centered aesthetic. He did one thing and he did it well, and after a certain point he stopped responding effectively to change. It was one thing to grow out his Afro and cheerlead for Black Pride—some vital chamber in his thorny heart could beat loudly behind that mission. When he tried to hustle up a patchy enthusiasm for passing trends like disco and rap, the results were brittle, self-parodic, and unconvincing.

Brown made new shapes for American music, but they were shapes that moved the body and massaged the id. How much they touched the heart is another matter. Brown’s best music is an electrifying flare of movement, power, and hunger, but it’s not music you play at home to lose yourself in. When Smith says the music of Brown’s contemporaries “sounds finished, whereas Brown’s still mystifies,” it seems to me that he has things exactly the wrong way around. Brown’s music does a lot of things, but it never mystifies. (It never reaches into the mystic, either.) It is profoundly anti-mystification: with a bit of practice, any listener can hear the rig under its highway grind. There’s a lot of showbiz cheek and feint going on, too, which isn’t necessarily a criticism. You can’t expect any man to scream and plead and cry, authentically, night by night, tour by tour, year on year, for a lifetime—even if that’s precisely what many Brown fans would love to believe.

Smith notes how a new audience—younger, hipper, whiter—started coming to Brown’s 1980s shows, expecting to hear the band that made all those killer 45s. What they got was cummerbunds and tired showbiz routine. Smith offers a telling anecdote from Bootsy Collins—the brilliant young bassist who got his start with “Sex Machine”–era Brown but soon tired of the rip-off and run-around and left the JB orbit, first into the mad empire of George Clinton and then onto solo success with his own outfit, Bootsy’s Rubber Band. Brown bumped into Bootsy on the road, as the fortunes of the One were dipping, and the other rising. The only thing Brown had to say to his ex-protégé was: “How can you call yourselves a band, boy? You don’t even wear matching suits!” He wasn’t joking.

Brown could fake a lot of things, but he couldn’t fake vulnerability or regret or confusion. He didn’t do weakness or softness. He was James Brown! He was the One, and he always got what he wanted. Unlike other troubled soul-men like Marvin Gaye and Al Green, Brown had no Church in his soul. Sure, he put over some songs like an old-time preacher, but that was projective shtick, just like he borrowed bits of flash from drag queens and tap dancers in the street. He didn’t need God because he worshipped at his own rugged altar. His ego was impregnable. His music doesn’t have the carnal/devotional tension that marks the work of the greatest soul singers, many of whom were made personally unhappy by its grip but found a way to project the spiritual malaise into songs of unearthly bliss and strangeness. What’s missing from Brown’s music is any hint or breath of otherness, sweetness, light. His is a roar of certainty, done deals, and finality.

Smith is thrillingly good on Brown’s sound, on the meaning and place of all his different screams, licks, and riffs. There is some great writing here about how Brown worked (and played) the recording studio, how songs fell or fidgeted together in improvised studio jams. (If “songs” is what they are: Brown at his most characteristic is less a singer than someone who exhorts, declaims, and extemporizes—sometimes brilliantly, sometimes at the very edge of buzz-word vacuity.) At the time, this was a revolutionary way of putting music together (Miles Davis, among others, was listening closely), but Smith never quite dares the question of how much credit Brown deserves as against the claims of his various musicians. Brown’s studio sessions had no musical “charts”: Brown would hum a riff or issue a gnomic utterance regarding the mood he wanted, and it was up to the band to make it happen. Out of all the things Brown signifies, it’s his music that’s had the strongest afterlife: the actual sound of the One, its churning, jumpy, iterative texture. If Brown stalks rap and hip-hop and other hideouts of contemporary sound, it’s not through his vocal glory so much as what turntable mavens call the “breaks”: the never-bettered short-order alchemy of drums, bass, guitar, and horns. There’s a parallel here with Bob Marley and 1970s reggae. While high-brow critics devote books to Marley as natural mystic and ideological poet—Che Guevara with a Gibson guitar—it’s the edgy bricolage of dub and DJ talk-over that has claimed the cultural day, not the radical preacher man’s get-together, love-one-another jive.

Smith notes that Brown’s musicians never got their fair share of credit or royalties, but in the end he falls back on the safe idea that without Brown, none of it would have happened. While that’s certainly true of the extraordinary live show Brown put together in the 1950s and early 1960s—which exploded into the homes of un-black America via Brown’s white-hot TV appearance on The T.A.M.I. show of 1964—the recorded music remains a grey area. Brown could be an inspired conductor of chaos, but he could also be slapdash, meager, and funky-by-rote. In the doldrums of the seventies, he had a great opportunity to get back in the musical spotlight when producers wanted him to provide the soundtrack for a key “Blaxploitation” movie. He scrabbled together some outtakes from his studio archive and didn’t even bother to re-program them before posting them off. Brown’s then-bandleader, Fred Wesley, felt sorry for his boss—who was obviously too tired and troubled and busy to do his best—so Wesley personally wrote, played, and produced a whole new instrumental score for the film from scratch. The producers loved it. Brown was outraged and fired Wesley on the spot.

It’s a miracle how Smith manages to keep the telling of this increasingly sad, grubby, violent tale so buoyant. It’s a book I didn’t want to stop reading, even as part of me wanted what I was reading about to stop happening. Smith never pontificates. His story grabs you and won’t let go, just like the best of Brown’s music. It’s only afterward that you may feel a bit cheated that Smith kept quiet about all the wider resonances of Brown’s behavior. If you never suspect that this is a white guy hedging his moral bets because he’s writing the life of a huge black icon, you do sense that Smith got more of an education than he wanted in undoing the buttons and stays of this taxing modern life. If Smith is disappointed in Brown the man, he keeps it to himself: he simply lays out the evidence, leaving it to us to draw our own conclusions.

Mostly, those conclusions don’t reflect well on Brown or anyone who tended the myth down the years. Brown ripped off his bands—not through inattention but deliberately, peevishly; he beat up girlfriends and wives—not occasionally, but repetitively, recreationally, sometimes viciously; he neglected and then froze out his children; he . . . well, at this point you put the book down and go play the music again to remind yourself why you’re bothering. If you haven’t been put off the music for good, that is.

Maybe all subsequent problems were the result of a simple category error: when someone who was a brilliant showbiz act was proclaimed an important sociopolitical spokesman. It wasn’t so much in his songs as his very being that Brown’s importance as a figurehead lay. Brown was black, and loud, and proud, and successful, and in-your-face unrepentant at a time when just being quietly and submissively black could get you overnight jail time. This is the one area where Brown’s arrogance worked for the good: he demanded his part of the American Pie. But how does what is permissible on stage—wild abandon, exaggerated claims, world-encircling desire—find a roost in the gray maze of real life? Being proclaimed a prophet as much as a showbiz phenomenon may involve more hubris than any one man can handle.

And then, at the age of 52, Brown—who had been virtually drug-abstinent his whole life—took a bewildering swan-dive into the depths of drugged-out madness: he contracted a heavy and coarsening addiction to PCP (a.k.a. Angel Dust), a drug avoided by all but the most desperate street addicts. Even pre-PCP, Brown seems always to have been in motion, a multi-tasking blur for whom downtime was just a different form of work. This sudden and escalating intake of PCP meant his legendary testiness began to shade into genuine paranoia. He thought the trees on his estate had been co-opted by the FBI to capture his speech. A long-established gun fetish effloresced into trigger-happy mania. All sorts of stuff which had been kept under control (and under wraps) for decades suddenly exploded into public disgrace.

After one day of drug-stoked, gun-waving madness, Brown found himself facing real jail time. He had threatened members of the public he thought had used his office restroom without permission and then took the local police on a long car chase across state lines. When they finally ran his speeding vehicle to ground, Brown stepped from his pick-up truck, spread his gargantuan hands, and started singing “Georgia on My Mind.” It was only now that Brown lapsed into the sort of racial conspiracy-speak he would once have execrated. (There was a time he would rather have said nothing than solicit pity.) A huge outcry went up when he was finally jailed—how could the United States incarcerate someone like James Brown! What other country on earth? Had nothing changed? The truth was less dramatic and more squalid. Brown could consider himself lucky to have stayed out of jail for as long as he did. In the previous year alone, he’d been arrested seven times. Not only were there second-nature patterns of spousal (and other) abuse, ready violence, and tax avoidance, but there was, equally, a lifelong pattern of cover-up. Bad things had been buried, excused, and euphemized for half a lifetime.

Brown didn’t need to go to jail: all he had to do was plead guilty and he would have got off with a fine and lip-service rehab. But according to his own dilatory logic, it was better to be perceived a jail-bound martyr than to let his fans know he was a powerless addict. And once incarcerated, it was better (both for sales and his image) to play the inglorious race card and imply some racist setup, though plenty of whites (including his faithful friend, Thurmond) had done their best to ensure Brown’s liberty. It was his own choice to go to jail, to exploit the sorry situation with wink-wink insinuations that, hell, no white superstar would have faced such indignities. On another occasion, he pulled a literally unbelievable “I’m just a poor dumb colored boy” act to get around paying his back taxes. (Again, no conspiracy was involved; he undoubtedly owed what the IRS said he owed, probably more.) In a bizarre letter to the White House, Brown floated a risible line of sophistry: “You can only be a tax evader if you have intent. But seeing as I’m just this poor unschooled black man, I couldn’t possibly have such clever intent.” The letter is so wily it obviates its own premise.

Did a tired and disappointed Brown take PCP to feel how the younger Brown felt when normal? A fellow abuser’s comment that the drug is like “giving yourself a nervous breakdown” seems telling. Maybe after 30 years of being the driving force, the new black paradigm, the funky rule to which there was no exception, this elective chemical detour was one way Brown saw of dissipating the joyless pressure of always being the One. Maybe he needed a nervous breakdown—a long-postponed holiday from rigor, machismo, having always to be “on.” It has a kind of logic: you get to go crazy while insisting it’s only the chemical genie making you that way. Just because he was the epitome of funky doesn’t mean that the underlying ethos in Brownsville wasn’t unrelentingly rational, martial, and unyielding. From the beginning, everything was strictly choreographed and repeated every night to the same inch-perfect degree. (It was not enough that band members had their shoes shined; it had to be the right kind of shine, or they got docked pay.) Smith is acute on how even the wildest peaks of a Brown performance were actually closely practiced and drilled. Under the starry cape, he carried around his own suit of heavy, impenetrable armor.

Brown’s story surely illustrates the dark side of the American Dream—paranoid, reclusive, self-canceling—that can be seen in wildly divergent figures across the ideological spectrum, from Howard Hughes and Hunter S. Thompson to Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson. (Is it mere coincidence that Brown and Thompson were both attracted, in their different ways, to the same paranoiac nemesis and compadre—Richard Milhous Nixon?) Having it all doesn’t make the winner happy; if anything, it turns you into a permanent sentry at the CCTV gateway to your own life, waiting for raiding parties and enemies and ragged ghosts. Brown died a lonely old man, self-sufficiency become a Midas curse. He never stopped touring, right to the end—though it’s unclear if he did so because he enjoyed it, or because without it there was nothing else, or because on the financial front, he’d finally outwitted even himself and couldn’t afford to stop. Was any of it fun? Did he know what fun or contentment was? Brown had trained himself to keep singing, keep smiling, keep screaming I FEEL GOOD, when he perhaps felt nothing of the sort. Who do you run to, who do you tell, when you realize you’ve built a prison out of the things you thought were liberations?

Brown died in the same small patch of South Carolina where he was born. In his front room, in later years, he kept African slave shackles and sprigs of cotton for ornament. You wonder if the incredible journey he mapped finally took him very far out of his original bedrock orbit. “For me, the American Dream has been fulfilled,” he remarks, in one of his various autobiographies. He got everything he ever wanted, but life only seemed to get harder and meaner and more melancholy. In that sense, the life has a familiar classical shape: the Hardest Working Man in Show Business rubbed up against the worst dreams of men and ultimately paid a heavy, soul-consuming price. This fable of the One contains many cautions, and here is just one: following the council of your high-riding id may make for a wild and electric rise, but expect a deeply lonely and haunted final act.

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