From the Archives: Reflections on James Brown’s Death over Christmas

 

It’s already half-over, and I’m glad. This Christmas has already sucked massive donkey balls. I am only thankful that my father’s relatives have not shown up to toss more black magic spells against us (while simultaneously grinning in our face), that there is none of the spiked egg-nog and insufferable family intrigue that my pal Darius spoke about on his blog entry yesterday; just us, me, my three brothers, my mother and grandmother, coexisting uneasily for a few days with our asshole, racist, dope-pushing neighbors across the street from us. In a few minutes, the food will be ready, there will be more scenes when one of my brothers (who is handicapped) will attempt to choke an entire plate of food down his throat at one bite, or maybe throw a fit and hurl a plate at one of us. One only hopes it doesn’t go down like that–we’re still being jinxed.

And even on Christmas, I promised myself to maintain my porno site (i.e., my only real means of income, seeing that NATE–or anything else I write–has yet to become a moneymaker), uploading more titillating but ultimately tiresome pics of fat girls to satisfy my member’s increasingly jaded appetites. I promised I would get to page 100 on the second/third draft of my Berlin novel–I combined the two drafts when I found the structure I wanted in talking about the city. The concept I’m using fits the title, and the subject matter: Every tub on its own bottom. Meaning, every character/musician doing/saying his own thing; each chapter spoken by a different character with a different outlook, often conflicting with the other but still in harmony with the overall structure. (Yes, the book is about jazz musicians in Berlin.)

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Last night, just before going to bed, I saw a Monty Python skit in which four pallbearers are struggling to lift a coffin through the streets; as the skit winds and twists into other skits(as the thing goes on), all four pallbearers eventually land in the coffin and it moves by itself. The following morning, I was awakened by unusually loud, drunken insulting neighbors before going back to sleep–only to be woken up again around seven in the morning. My mother and brother were talking about James Brown as they were laying the presents down around the plastic Christmas tree. They talked of James Brown in the past tense, that he could have done better than a mere 73 years–which could only mean one thing.

Immediately I started playing “Dead Man Blues” in my mental jukebox.

How can one imagine a world without James Brown–especially when you grew up on him?? I know, he was completely, utterly past his prime by the time he died. It doesn’t matter. The fact is that his loss is incalculable. And given that we live in an era where an asshole like Snoop Dogg is considered to be a genuine cultural icon, we are not going to get an adequate replacement for him any time soon. (John Legend? I don’t think so.)

The very first recording of my own voice was made (around 1970) between me and my father, with James Brown playing in the background. (I think this tape is lost.) Anyhow, the Godfather had become so huge to people like myself, hearing his funk in the seventies and hearing him sampled ad infinitum throughout the eighties and nineties that it seemed as if he’d become something indelible, as if he’d always be around. Unfortunately, that just wasn’t true.

Even before I became a hard-core jazz fanatic (and part-time mouldy-fig of the Robert Crumb/Harvey Pekar/Joe Bussard school), I listened to JB. In fact, my main reason for turning to jazz in the late seventies/early eighties was that the disco crap that cropped up after JB fell off the radar in 1977 was so bad, I couldn’t bear to listen to anymore contemporary black music. (Let alone enjoy it!!) In 1976, you still had “Get Up Offa That Thing” (which I remember my mother buying, and bringing it home with high hopes, only to be disappointed in what she’d heard: it wasn’t the James Brown she remembered from 15-20 years before), “Get the Funk Outta My Face” from the Brothers Johnson, and some other goodies(not many), but the writing was on the wall for contemporary black music. The following year came “Saturday Night Fever” which acted like a kind of toilet flushing the entire music scene down the sewer, black sounds included(except for “Bustin’ Loose” by Chuck Brown’s Soul Searchers, a local band; a record that didn’t get much airplay, or else I would have remembered).

Anyhow, the James Brown I remembered, from the early to mid-seventies, was not quite the James Brown my mother remembered from the mid- to late-fifties, growing up in Short Pump, Virginia. My mother told me that when my great-grandfather, Philip T. Smith, heard one of James Brown’s early Federal singles being played over the airwaves fifty years ago, he simply said, “he ain’t goin’ nowhere, doin’ all that screaming!”

Well, the King is Dead. Long live….Jay Z????!?!?!?!

(late December 2006)

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