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“Why’s this so good?” No. 68: Jonathan Lethem and the godfather of soul

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Sometime in my last year of college, James Brown played a show in the small East Coast city where I lived. I had all sorts of reasons not to go: I had a midterm the next morning, for which I was woefully unprepared; tickets were $50, equivalent to 25 happy-hour pints at the pub where I worked and played; and I had no one go to with, anyhow. Still, I hesitated. How many more chances, I wondered, would I get to see James Brown perform live? I’d heard he was the live act of a lifetime, and that age – he was in his 70s by now – had hardly slowed him down.

Holland

I decided to stay home and cram for my midterm. Less than two years later, James Brown died. And so, in the end, the closest I’ve ever gotten to experiencing the James Brown Show is Jonathan Lethem’s epic 2006 Rolling Stone profile, “Being James Brown.”

The story begins with a description of James Brown’s statue in his hometown of Augusta, Ga. But James Brown, Lethem points out, is nothing like a statue: Rather, “James Brown is kinetic; an idea, a problem, a genre, a concept, a method.” James Brown is also a live, lived experience, and so Lethem leaves the statue behind and introduces us to the Show:

This we know: the James Brown Show begins without James Brown. James Brown, a man who is also an idea, a problem, a method, etc., will have to be invoked, summoned from some other place. The rendezvous between James Brown and his audience — you — is not a simple thing. When the opening acts are done and the waiting is over, you will first be in the hands of James Brown’s band. It is the band that begins the Show. The band is there to help, to negotiate a space for you to encounter James Brown; it is there, if you will, to take you to the bridge. The band is itself the medium within which James Brown will be summoned, the terms under which he might be enticed into view.

From there, the story moves to James Brown’s Augusta recording studio, where Lethem spends several days watching the man and his band in action. That time makes up the bulk of the story’s 13,000 words, and part of the greatness of the profile is its depth of access. (“You’re very lucky, Mr. Rolling Stone,” James Brown tells the writer at one point. “I don’t ordinarily let anyone sit in on a session.”) Lethem is on hand to transcribe Brown’s scat-like monologues, his tyrannical rule over his band, and the band’s complex reactions to their boss: amusement, frustration, awe, and a protective fondness. The James Brown that we see in the studio is alternately professional and focused, insecure, and filled with bravado; he’s unexpectedly guileless, and quite possibly insane. The details of his studio process are fascinating, and Lethem reports them all with just a hint of humor, never straying into mockery.

Beyond access, though, what makes this story great is its insight. The first pages of the story are laced with references to James Brown’s “extraterrestrial quality,” his “otherness” and otherworldliness. Finally, Lethem unveils his central theory: James Brown is a time traveler, “a man unstuck in time.” Like Marty McFly inspiring a young Chuck Berry in Back to the Future, James Brown’s near-single-handed invention of funk in the late 1950s and into the 1960s is a result of his forays into the future of sound. Lethem presents this theory straight-faced and remains committed to it throughout the story. And why not? Has anyone got a better explanation for the origins of creative genius? Lethem goes on:

This time-traveler theory would best explain what is hardest to explain about James Brown, especially to younger listeners who live so entirely in a sonic world of James Brown’s creation: that he made it all sound this way. That it sounded different before him. This time-traveler theory would explain, too, how in 1973, right at the moment when it might have seemed that the times had caught up, at last, with James Brown’s sonic idea, that the torch of funk had been taken up and his precognitive capacities therefore exhausted, James Brown recorded a song, called “The Payback,” that abruptly predicts the aural and social ambience of late-1980s gangsta rap.

The time-travel theory also explains the existence of what Lethem calls the James Brown Zone of Confusion – that is, Brown’s forgetfulness and occasional historical revisionism. It smoothes over the awkwardness of watching James Brown fumble and preen like any other once-great old man. It makes his angry outbursts in the recording studio, his strange “raps” and his odd asides to “Mr. Rolling Stone” much less embarrassing for us to read. James Brown at 72 could be a pretty pathetic spectacle, but Lethem’s theory rescues us from that discomfort while still allowing him to share every squirmy detail. “We all dwell in the world James Brown saw so completely before we came along into it,” he writes. “James Brown, in turn, hasn’t totally joined us here in the future he made.”

“Being James Brown” ends where it began: with the James Brown Show, live on stage. Lethem’s second-last paragraph, published more than a year after I skipped that concert and just months before James Brown’s death, is prophetic:

When the James Brown Show comes to your town, life has admitted its potential to be astounding, if only for as long as the Show lasts. Now that James Brown is old, we want this to go on occurring for as long as possible. We almost don’t wish to allow ourselves to think this, but the James Brown Show is a precious thing that may someday vanish from the Earth.

Of course, if Lethem’s time-traveler theory is correct, the James Brown Show may yet reappear. For those of us who aren’t content to wait, “Being James Brown” is an exquisite stopgap.

Eva Holland (@evaholland) is a freelance writer and editor based in Canada’s Yukon Territory. She’s currently working as an associate editor at Up Here and Up Here Business, sister magazines that cover the Canadian North, and she’s also the senior editor of World Hum and a contributor to Vela. Her most recent story is about a planeload of gold that went missing in northern B.C.

 

 




3 trackbacks

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