The One: The Life and Music of James Brown
By RJ Smith/Gotham Books/2012
My favorite of the many excellent stories in RJ Smith's The One describes a gun hustle devised by James Brown's father Joe Brown, to whom Smith devotes more detailed and unfavorable attention than any other Brown biographer to date. Joe Brown and a confederate would approach any man visibly packing and challenge him to shoot them. When he didn't, they would take his gun. Simple once you think of it, right?
This story told me something I hadn't fully grasped about the roots of Brown's arrogance, which was as unmatched as his sense of rhythm in a calling that has made self-regard its currency since long before Little Richard or Al Jolson‑-since Charles Dibdin, say, or one of the Himalayan shamans Smith links plausibly to Brown. The One tells us more than we may want to know about Brown's people skills. It establishes that Joe Brown brutalized his son, who loved him all his life, as well as James's mother, who Smith believes was less absent than the singer always claimed. It documents James Brown's lifelong gun use, sometimes on the women he brutalized in turn‑-the Tammi Terrell sequence, which involves a hammer, is especially hard to take. It makes clear that he always supplemented his income from the multiple jobs he was working as of age eight by stealing whatever he could, and argues convincingly that his three years in youth detention taught him what he needed to know about the discipline he imposed on his bands for 50 years. It reports that his faithful guitarist Jimmy Nolen ordered his wife to convey to Brown his dying wish: that Brown treat his replacement better than he treated Jimmy Nolen.
Yet The One is no debunk, as even those who worship this incomparably crucial musician should understand. That's because‑-unlike Michael Jackson, say‑-Brown isn't loved as a saint but admired as a titan. All Smith does is put flesh on the control freak we already knew was there. And that isn't by any means the best, freshest, or most diligently researched thing about The One, because Smith excels in both his portrayal of Brown's specifically "Georgialina" and then also "Affrilachia" southernness and, even more important, his comprehension of Brown's art. He uncovers two crucial early Brown drummers: French Quarter-born Charles Connor and Clayton Fillyau, a Tampa-based Creole who got a life-changing lesson in the rhythmic concept of The One from Huey "Piano" Smith drummer Charles "Hungry" Williams. This prepares the way for a superb breakdown of the decisive tandem of the late '60s, when Brown was inventing funk and modern music: Mobile's Jabo Starks, steeped in both New Orleans second line and the stuttering float of Holiness soul-clapping, and Memphis's Clyde Stubblefield, whose straight eight provided a "strong, broad back for New Orleans drummers to climb on." But he's equally good on cheerful, acid-tripping troublemaker Bootsy Collins, who transferred the funk first from the drums to the bass and then from James Brown to George Clinton.
Although Brown got religion as his public power diminished, Smith makes the crucial point that when it came to gospel Brown "was of the music, but not quite of the faith." This is another way of saying he was his own God, his cape ritual an enacted rebirth that does indeed track back to shamanism even though Brown thought it up himself. He makes the link between Brown's nonstop touring and his prowess as a dancer who incorporated local moves from all over America into a single ever-evolving routine. He demonstrates that for all Brown's talk of black capitalism he was a terrible businessman‑-"analytic" to his bones, he couldn't delegate because he couldn't trust. But though he treated most of his musicians even worse than he treated Jimmy Nolen, his bandleading was beyond genius. "If you were with Brown for any length of time," Smith writes, "you understood what you would get out of it, and what would never be yours. If you wanted to be a star, this was not the place to be. If you wanted to get rich, or record your own music, or see your name on an album, that was not likely to happen. But if you wanted to see the world and play some amazing music for crowds huge and small, you could not do much better."
In fact, you could not do any better. Amen, Jimmy. Amen, Jabo. Amen, Clyde. Amen, Bootsy. Amen, Mr. Brown.
I remember buying Green the day of the 1988 election, the first US election I had voted in (I have a postal vote in US elections, being from Da Bronx). Let's just say I didn't vote for the winner. I didn't get to play the album till late that night, and on the last song I heard Michael Stipe sing "I stayed up late/ to hear your voice". It wasn't exactly validation but it made me feel a little better, less alone. That's one of the virtues of this place.
It's good fun but it's surprising how hard it is to put an hour's worth of songs together, unless you have a theme or some kind, which is why I was grateful for your suggestions and glad to use EW themes.
I used to record three shows at a time on Saturday mornings, now I record them during my lunch times and try to do a few ahead to cover holidays, etc. And I'm very grateful to the Dean and this site for not objecting to the links.
Excellent narrative by Tom
Sure is. As the most pathological Vietnam vet I know said, "Civilians will never understand what a release it is to kill people in the dark."
Speaking of deeper worlds we don't understand, I'm pleased by his pro-miner sentiments, but wonder why he has to (my italics) "hope the Russians love their children too," since I've always assumed they do.Bob C. on Sting, 1985.
2012, substitute Kandahar parents for Russians.
Tom Hull's Saturday and Sunday postings are worthwhile too. Saturday being about Sgt. Bales. Excellent narrative by Tom and then the expected relevant links.
When James Blake derided the new wave of American dubstep producers for “macho-ism” and for not appealing to women, it’s a foregone conclusion that he mostly meant Skrillex, though Skrillex now has more female fans than James Blake will ever have.
And then of course > > >
"Paint It Black".
p.s.: I've come to realize that a couple of thumb bombs are evidence that what I had to say was stirring and thought provoking. They are our greatest protection against groupthink.
p.p.s: Although thumb bombing Raul's latest seems misguided to me. I wish I could give that moving piece of prose poetry a thumbs up every time I read it. The last paragraph is gorgeous!
So! Onto tonight's self-indulgent business. As the EW community charges with vigor ‘n’ zeal into its even more productive and interesting second year, our primary uniting factor remains the sense that this matchless shebang could carry on forever. But there is of course a pall particular to 2012 that represents a threat to far more than just EW – the end of the world, fervor over which will have grown a lot more inescapable (and possibly fun) by about four days before Xmas. Though I don’t suspect anyone here is superstitious enough to be kept awake by Mayan-induced willies, the sorry state of our planet has admittedly given me pause/nightmares. So in order to help cope with my apocalyptic anxiety, as well as provide a solid soundtrack for that always-possible fiery exeunt be it impending or eventual, I thought it appropriate to construct a concept mix. I call it....... The Apocalypse Mix.
It’s early 2007, and independent visions of a bleak denouement for planet Earth are striking songwriters the Occidental world over. Predictions of resource depletion, cosmic disorder and mass destruction are horrifyingly validated when a stranger of unknown origin brings Rhett Miller the same message David Bowie was moved to sing about decades earlier – except this time, the foretold nigh-end is for real.
1. Frank Ocean – “Strawberry Swing”
2. PJ Harvey – “Big Exit”
3. Vic Chesnutt – “When the Bottom Fell Out”
4. Scissor Sisters – “Running Out”
5. Old 97s – “Five Years”
Collectively doomed, the world finds different ways deal with its premature deadline, with refrains both bleak and hopeful ringing throughout the sober streets. Some chanteurs and chanteuses are angry, some optimistic, some morbidly whimsical, and a few of the younger ones completely disinterested in concluding their fun for Armageddon’s benefit.
6. The Clash – “Armagideon Time”
7. St. Vincent – “The Apocalypse Song”
8. Bruce Springsteen – “Livin’ in the Future”
9. Britney Spears – “Till the World Ends”
10. The Handsome Family – “If the World Should End in Fire”
2012 has arrived, and as nervous anticipation gives way to mass hysteria, the tenor of the times becomes almost unbearable. Many succumb to a dread-instigated instability, preaching futile gospels, building futile bomb shelters. As unease over Iranian-Israeli relations spreads, dreams of a nuclear war and its subsequent devastation spread like Spanish flu. But the beat goes on.
11. Peter Stampfel – “Holy Terror”
12. Warren Zevon – “Splendid Isolation”
13. Yo La Tengo – “Nuclear War (Version 1)” (or whichever version you prefer)
14. Morrissey – “Everyday is Like Sunday”
15. Bob Dylan – “Talkin’ World War III Blues”
Though the year moves from month to month with no sign of our inconvenient doomsday, the people of the world are nevertheless resigned to an elegiac faith in a fate many remorsefully believe Earth has earned. And then all of a sudden, as abruptly and unyieldingly as any expiration of life, the cosmos lets our curtain fall.
16. Peter Gabriel, “Here Comes the Flood”
17. R.E.M., “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”
18. Wussy, “Little Miami”
19. Elliott Smith, “Bye”
20. The Handsome Family, “If the World Should End in Ice”
My inclusions were winnowed down from fifty ideal-seeming candidates that already existed on my iTunes, out of hundreds and hundreds of comparably appropriate and possibly superior numbers. I’m sure there are countless equally effective incarnations of this idea, and encourage you to go for your own. I think my version quite moves swimmingly, but if the program leaves you, you know, overwhelmingly depressed or unsettled, just tack on Jay Sean’s “2012 (It Ain’t the End)” – imagine that the rest of the mix is one epic shitty dream, and you’re waking up to the reassurance of an exuberantly bad pop song on your alarm clock radio.
Get it while we’re all still around: http://goo.gl/Sam4Q. Viva existence!
Not sure why 2 people thumbed down Ryan's pick.
about the blogger
Starting in 1967, Robert Christgau has covered popular music for The Village Voice, Esquire, Blender, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He teaches in New York University's Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music, maintains a comprehensive website at robertchristgau.com, and has published five books based on his journalism. He has written for MSN Music since 2006.