Jesse Jarnow

james brown? james brown!

It occurred to me over the weekend that, before it is all over, James Brown could still be arrested for something. As my friend Bill is fond of saying: even in death, he’s James Brown. So far, he’s died on Christmas, been pulled through Harlem in a horse-drawn carriage, caused lines down the block when he lay in state at the Apollo (check Amy’s photo-essay), had the locks changed on his wife, been at the center of a paternity test, and isn’t buried, but literally chilling in a temperature-controlled room in his own house until the lawyers figure it all out. I can’t say how it’ll happen, but there really is a chance that James Brown will once again end up in police custody. It also sincerely and deeply warms my heart to note that, during the last week of the year, Brown topped Saddam Hussein and Gerald Ford on the Google Zeitgeist.

Dude’s still the hardest working man in show business.

Oddly enough, just before the holiday break, I read the best book about music I’ve read in ages, and it happened to be about James Brown: Douglas Wolk’s 33 1/3 entry on Live at the Apollo. Check his mesmerizing science drop on hypeman Fats Gonder’s introduction:

Fats Gonder ramps up his delivery from a salesmanlike incantation to rabid enthusiasm. He’s got a singer to sell. What’s the man he’s introducing done with all that hard work? “Man that sang, ‘I Go CRAZY’!” The snare smacks as the horn section blares a G-chord. It’s really “I’ll Go Crazy,” but Gonder’s determined to out-country JB’s enunciation. “Try ME!” G-sharp. “YOU’ve Got the Power!” A. “THINK!” A-sharp….

Gonder’s speech has been setting up a couple of subliminal effects. Starting with “You’ve Got the Power” and running through “Bewildered,” there’s a steady 6/8 rhythm to the words he accents and the band’s stabs — a tick-tock swing that’s at pretty much the same tempo as Brown’s ballads. There’s also a hidden message in those emphases — Crazy-me-you-Think-Want-Mind-Be-WILL-Lost-Night-Shimmy! This is a night for total abandon, the suggestion goes; for thoughts to become desires and then to simply be, through sheer will; a night to be lost to shimmying.

All that, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Chitlin Circuit. Well worth the read — but, then, what about James Brown isn’t? One couldn’t ask for a better subject. Philip Gourevitch’s “Mr. Brown” profile from the New Yorker is a must-read, too, and contains perhaps my favorite section lede ever:

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.”

Jonathan Lethem’s Rolling Stone piece from last year ain’t nothing to sneeze at either. As Wolk points out repeatedly, the idea behind Live at the Apollo was for James Brown to sell himself as an attraction. Or, as the Tom Tom Club put it, in their “Genius of Love”: “James Brown? James Brown!” Even still, James Brown remains the answer to his own question.


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