In 1996 James McBride published his memoir The Color of Water, in it he describes a painful childhood moment in the 1960’s; raised in Queens by a black stepfather and Polish-Jewish mother, all eleven siblings were sent to predominantly Jewish schools, however, every evening upon disembarking the bus he entered a tribal non-literate world of the black underclass, McBride writes:
As a kid, I preferred the black side, and often wished my Mommy had sent me to black schools like my friends. Instead I was stuck at that white school, P.S. 138, with white classmates who were convinced I could dance like James Brown.
They constantly badgered me to do “the James Brown” for them, a squiggling of the feet made famous by the “Godfather of Soul” himself, who back in the sixties was bigger than life. I tried to explain to them that I couldn’t dance.
Throughout this memoir, McBride learns the hidden life of his mother and the consequences of elusive, conflicting identities fused seamlessly by the music of James Brown. Nothing quite captured the essence of this profound ambient identity than the exclamation “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”.
Twenty years after that memoir, McBride returns to a deft proleptic earnest that is James Brown in Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown & the American Soul.
By way of drawing upon the earnest of James Brown, we learn of McBrides home where food was scarce and attention scarcer, but ownership of Brown’s 45 rpm was like owning the Holy Grail. This was the time when the album Live at the Apollo (1963) debuted “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” launched Brown as something more than another pop phenomenon. In days dominated by the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, James Brown sought to dominate every act performing. He did just that and more. Live at the Apollo would stay on the charts for sixty-six weeks; a hypnotically involved ritual event without breaks or divisions, beginning indelibly with Fats Gonder’s roll call of epithets culminating in the famous scream. The act was the embodiment of a perpetual beginning. It was pure show business and the closest thing to a religious experience any performer could conjure.
It wasn’t the magic. It was the power summoned and asserted. A movement of passion as total restraint. Something even Marvin Gaye or Otis Redding acknowledged, but could never address formally in their respective styles.
With McBride, we see Brown’s repeated arrests for domestic violence, the troubled relationships with children acknowledged and unacknowledged, the byzantine business deals and concealed caches of money, the peremptory mistreatment of fellow musicians, addiction and imprisonment.
What do we learn?
We glimpse a man who didn’t really want to be known. We begin to accept that James Brown as a boy spent eons of time alone in a pine forrest starring aimlessly out a windowless shack; all before harvesting turpentine. What turns up is a Brown who confirms a stolid solitariness, paradoxically discovered only in dance.
A performance generating self-immolation.