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October 17, 2016

Filed under: culture»america»usa

Kill 'Em and Leave 'Em, by James McBride

"Can we hit it and quit?"

When it came to rhetorical questions, nobody beat James Brown. And the more you learn about him, the more layered his shouts during "Sex Machine" become: behind the "unscripted" banter, he was a harsh and unforgiving despot to his band, driving them relentlessly through a tightly-rehearsed show. No wonder their answer is always "yeah!" Yeah, you can hit it and quit. Whatever you say, James.

It is hard, as a white person born in the 80's, to fully appreciate the impact that James Brown had on America. Michael Jackson is easier for me to grasp: I grew up in a poor, racially-diverse neighborhood in Lexington, Kentucky, and I can still remember going over to a friend's house with my brother and seeing portraits of Jackson on the wall, in much the same way that the father in The Commitments keeps a picture of Elvis hung in the living room (right above the pope). James Brown was before my time and out of my sphere, so my appreciation, while sincere, is always more cerebral than heartfelt.

But if you want to get a little closer to understanding, this decade has been a good one for books about the Godfather of Soul. R.J. Smith's endlessly quotable The One came out in 2012, and now James McBride has tackled his legacy with Kill 'Em and Leave 'Em. Despite McBride's background as a musician, this isn't a deep dive into soul music. It's also not really a biography, in part because as McBride discovered, James Brown didn't let anyone into his confidence. He kept everyone at a distance, both fans and friends. The title is a quote, from Brown to the Rev. Sharpton: "kill 'em and leave 'em," he'd say, before slipping out from his shows, unseen by the fans waiting outside.

McBride interviews everyone he can find who knew Brown, ranging from his distant cousin, to his tax lawyer, to Alfred "Pee Wee" Ellis, the bandleader during Brown's greatest hits. Many of them are reluctant to talk about him, either because the memories are painful, or because he kept them at arms length, or both. Instead, what emerges is a kind of portrait of how James Brown left his mark on American culture, by way of his friends, family, and business partners.

It's a tribute to McBride's skill that he's able to weave these disjointed, scattered viewpoints into a compelling narrative. But part of what makes the tale so gripping is that unlike a traditional biography, McBride doesn't stop with his subject's death. In his will, James Brown left millions to fund education scholarships in South Carolina and Georgia, but not a dime was spent: lawsuits from disgruntled family members, and interference from the South Carolina government, immediately tied up the fortune and eventually all but depleted it.

Before he died, Brown told his friends that they wouldn't want to be anywhere near his estate when the end came. Indeed, the fallout was colossal. His attorney and accountant, both men who had helped haul him out from under IRS investigation, were ruined in the process. For all his faults, Brown deeply cared about giving poor kids like him a leg up, and to watch the estate disintegrate this way is painful. It's a tough pill to swallow at the end of a biography.

But let's be clear: any biography that claims to frame its subject neatly for the reader is kind of a fraud anyway. Who was the real James Brown? I don't think McBride really knows — I think he'd say that nobody really knew, not even the man himself. More importantly, he hints that it may be the wrong question to ask. Kill 'Em and Leave 'Em chronicles the impact that James Brown had on those around him, how that rippled out through communities (black and otherwise), and how it continues to inspire Americans today. James Brown is gone, McBride argues, but he's still telling our story.

June 20, 2016

Filed under: culture»america»race_and_class

Under our skin

This week, we've launched a major project at the Times on the words people use when talking about race in America. Under our skin was spearheaded by a small group of journalists after the paper came under fire for some bungled coverage. I think they did a great job — the subjects are well-chosen, the editing is top-notch, and we're trying to supplement it with guest essays and carefully-curated comments (as opposed to our usual all-or-nothing approach to moderation). I mostly watched from the sidelines on this one, as our resident expert on forcing Brightcove video to behave in a somewhat-acceptable manner, and it was really fascinating watching it take shape.

May 3, 2012

Filed under: culture»america»usa

The One

One of my favorite sections in The One is when author R.J. Smith tells the story of James Brown firing his backing band and hiring Bootsy Collins' band, the Pacesetters, as a replacement (renaming them the JBs). The JBs are rawer, less tolerant of his fines and his abuse, but they're also talented and on the cutting edge of the new funk sound. Few artists would have had the nerve to make such a huge change--particularly few artists whose music was so dependent on the sound of their backing players. But the change revitalizes Brown: the result is the classic "Get Up (I Feel Like Being Like A) Sex Machine (Parts One and Two)."

Byrd grunts "Get on up!" like a hog hot on some truffles, and then the guys enthusiastically second the boss--yes, as a matter of fact, a sex machine sounds like an excellent thing to be in the present situation. The brothers are laying down a whole new sound: Bootsy's bass a flickering, alive thing, [guitarist] Catfish evoking the metallic chank of Nolen but lighter, freer. Brown spontaneously sat and decanted a little aromatic piano. Two takes and they were outta there. Seeya.
Or maybe my favorite section is when Smith describes Brown's habit of shooting up clubs in Georgia:
In the emergency room, a witness remembered the scene as nothin' but "Who shot you?" "James Brown."

"Who shot you?" "James Brown."

"And who shot you?" "James Brown."

One person came in who was stabbed. "Who cut you?" "James Brown."

He was a bad, bad man. But then again, since I was reading a biography of the original b-boy on the way to the International Soul Society Festival, I also loved this passage near the end of Smith's book about the qualities of Brown's dancing:
He is more than good enough, an embodiment of what Zora Neale Hurston called "dynamic suggestions," a quality she considered the essence of black dance. However explosively or fiercely he moved, Brown telegraphs that there's more we don't get to see--his actions exert maximum impact with a minimum of exertion (coolness), a withholding that compels the viewer to follow the gesture through in the imagination. His dance wasn't supposed to be appreciated with detachment. It was meant to pull you over to where he was, to engage you in the act. You can't sit still.

Asked to demonstrate the boogaloo by a TV show host, Brown danced around a Hollywood soundstage in a way that looked exactly like a boxer throwing punches and owning the ring. To Brown, dancing was competition--"Can you jerk? Watch me work/Can you do the slide? Then watch me glide..."

I could quote this book all day. It would be hard to write a boring book about James Brown: the hardest working man in show business, his drive and temper were both legendary. The great strength of Smith's book is that it's based on an enormous number of interviews dating back to Brown's childhood friends and family. As a result, we not only get a ton of great stories like the ones above, but it also makes a strong case for why James Brown was who he was. A man who grew up in a constant blur of conflict and motion, he didn't know any other way to be: when his younger band members thank him one day for pushing them to be more disciplined, Smith writes that Brown's reaction was one of surprise, as if the concept of a relaxed workplace had simply never occurred to him.

Smith's book is roughly chronological, but he still finds ways to give each chapter an approximate theme. Some of these are more interesting than others: the chapters midway through the book that examine Brown's complicated political views and alliance with Nixon are particularly fascinating: Smith notes that "Say It Loud" and "I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing" were recorded only a few months apart on opposite sides of the election, forming a bizarre diptych. But later, as Brown's music falls out of style and his work ethic begins to exhaust even his energy, Smith turns to darker subjects, like Brown's abusive relationships with women, his shaky financial arrangements, and his use of PCP before his death in late 2006.

Today is James Brown's birthday, and it's hard to think of many people who had such a tremendous effect on popular music. Rooted in gospel but (more importantly) riding on that always-important downbeat, James Brown's music was a worldwide sensation that influenced musicians from Atlanta to Africa. It was the soundtrack to the early hip-hop movement (literally!). It kicked off careers ranging from Parliament to Al Sharpton. That's a lot of ground to cover, and The One does it well--even if, as Smith told NPR, there are still stories from those interviews that remain untold. And maybe it's best we don't know quite everything. He was super bad, that James Brown. Say it loud.

March 21, 2012

Filed under: culture»america»race_and_class

A Life of Reinvention

When I speak, I don’t speak as a Democrat, or a Republican... I speak as a victim of America’s so-called democracy. You and I have never seen democracy; all we’ve seen is hypocrisy. When we open our eyes today and look around America, we see America not through the eyes of someone who have — who has enjoyed the fruits of Americanism, we see America through the eyes of someone who has been the victim of Americanism. We don’t see any American dream; we’ve experienced only the American nightmare. We haven’t benefited from America’s democracy; we’ve only suffered from America’s hypocrisy. And the generation that’s coming up now can see it and are not afraid to say it.

--Malcolm X
I have always found Malcolm X fascinating, even before I had any idea of who he was beyond that of a Black Power boogieman. The Autobiography of Malcolm X sits on my shelf of favorite books--ironically, right next to Gene Sharp's Politics of Nonviolent Action trilogy. Obviously, though, I never lived during Malcolm's actual lifespan. I never experienced the political environment and struggle of his times. So it's easy to be more taken with the legend than with the actual person. It was with that in mind that I devoured Manning Marable's Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention these last few weeks.

Reinvention opens with a description of Malcolm's assassination, then jumps back to tell his story from the beginning, from his family's Garveyite black nationalism through his criminal youth, joining the Nation of Islam, and then his protracted shift into independence and orthodox Islam before his death. Marable draws extensively on historical documents and interviews, which sometimes reveals interesting new angles on his subject: although the evidence that the young Malcolm may have had sex with an older man for money has gotten a lot of attention, the most fascinating tidbits may be those that explore his relationship with his wife and children, which was often contentious and distant (or contentious because of his distance). Marable is also able to produce a detailed portrait of Malcolm's complicated dynamic within the Nation of Islam, which bloomed under his attentions but also continually worked to rein in his political ambition.

Marable describes his book as a "deconstruction" of the Autobiography, and I think that's a fair description. Haley and Malcolm's narrative is that of an acutely intelligent man struggling from low beginnings to enlightenment. Marable's digging does not contradict this, but it exposes a more complicated story: as he points out, Malcolm and Haley both had their reasons to exaggerate the arc of redemption, Malcolm for the purposes of legend-making and Haley (as a liberal Republican) to drive it towards an sensational, integrationist conclusion. The Autobiography thus tends to play up Malcolm's criminal youth (which was never really that criminal), and it short-changes his organizational struggles with the civil rights movement and with his own independent groups, the MMI and OAAU (not to mention his Nation of Islam connections with white-supremacist groups like the KKK). That filling in these details does not diminish the man is a tribute to both Marable's skill and the force of Malcolm's character.

In his epilogue, Marable looks for the core of Malcolm's impact on America--as he puts it, "the social architecture" of his subject's life:

There is now a tendency of historical revisionism, to interpret Malcolm X through the powerful lens of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: that Malcolm was ultimately evolving into an integrationist, liberal reformer. This view is not only wrong, but unfair to both Malcolm and Martin. King saw himself, like Frederick Douglass, first and foremost as an American, who pursued the civil rights and civic privileges enjoyed by other Americans. King struggled to erase the color bar of stigmatization and exclusion that had relegated racial minorities to second-class citizenship. As in the successful 2008 presidential campaign of Barack Obama, King wanted to convince white Americans that "race doesn’t matter"—in other words, the physical and color differences that appear to distinguish blacks from whites should be meaningless in the application of justice and equal rights.

In striking contrast, Malcolm perceived himself first and foremost as a black man, a person of African descent who happened to be a United States citizen. This was a crucial difference from King and other civil rights leaders. ... Malcolm perceived black Americans as an oppressed nation-within-a-nation, with its own culture, social institutions, and group psychology. Its memories of struggles for freedom were starkly different from those of white Americans. At the end of his life he realized that blacks indeed could achieve representation and even power under America’s constitutional system. But he always thought first and foremost about blacks’ interests. Many blacks instinctively sensed this, and loved him for it.

The Malcolm that Marable reveals was a charismatic leader and an intriguing thinker, but a mediocre organizer and an absent family man. He spent his entire life struggling his way free of one toxic system, often only to fall headlong into another--too big to fit within the apolitical confines of the Nation of Islam, while unable to completely grow beyond its restrictions. His story is in many ways a tragedy, and like the best tragedies it was partly due to forces beyond his control, and partly built on the strength of his own principles. Marable explores how time and time again, Malcolm reinvented himself, but couldn't completely shed the legacy of prior reinventions.

Historical revisionism has served to sanitize both X and King--the latter's history as a strong anti-war speaker and a controversial advocate for social justice has been nearly erased in favor of a bland, easily-appropriated anti-racism. Malcolm, meanwhile, is often reduced to a double-sided parody: either the straight-laced, separationist Muslim in a suit and bow-tie, or the militant Black Power revolutionary held aloft by a new generation. The truth as Marable shows it is more shaded, more imperfect, and more difficult to reduce to a single ideological point of view. It's always better to see our heroes as people, not as cartoons, but for Malcolm X it's in line with the sum of his life: a constant demand for complexity and engagement. In this, Marable's book is sometimes unflattering, but it also represents a deep respect for its subject, one that leaves readers more admiring of the man than the myth.

February 22, 2010

Filed under: culture»america»race_and_class


I don't remember where I was, the first time I heard the name Malcolm X. I remember that I was maybe 8 years old, growing up in Lexington, Kentucky. It was a mostly African-American neighborhood, so it could have been anywhere, really. I think I remember being confused by the 'X'--how could that be a last name? How did he sign forms or documents? And as someone who fumed at the end of every class roll call and official ceremony, I wondered: why didn't he pick a letter closer to the start of the alphabet?

At that age, of course, history is a pretty boring topic, but I don't remember learning about Malcolm X in class. I don't think I ever really discussed him with my parents, either. He was a cipher, a vaguely sinister one for some reason (maybe the name, maybe not). It wasn't until college, when I took a class on social movements and persuasion, that I learned more about the man: his militance within the Nation of Islam, his pilgrimage to Mecca, and the change in his thinking as a result. It was a revelation, a whole part of the civil rights story that I'd never learned about--and I was simultaneously shamed that I'd never bothered to find out about it on my own.

A couple of years ago, I finally got around to reading his autobiography, and was struck all over again. It's a fascinating story: told to Alex Haley during a time when Malcolm X was himself undergoing a serious self-examination, it's a chronicle of transformation on both explicit and implicit levels. He was an extraordinarily complicated person, undoubtably flawed but capable of tremendous insight and intelligence. It makes clear that his assassination was truly one of the great tragedies of the civil rights movement.

Yesterday was the anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X, and of course February is Black History Month, so I've found myself thinking about this a lot lately. The thing about Black History Month is that it's a misnomer: as US citizens, Black history is our history. The fallout from slavery, segregation, and the struggle for civil rights still echo through our society in ways that we still stumble to articulate. Nobody, to my mind, represents that complex truth more than Malcolm X.

May 18, 2009

Filed under: culture»america»usa

To a T

The view from the hot tub on the roof of the Boston bed and breakfast where we're currently holed up. Not that we were actually in the hot tub. More beside it, really.

I haven't been in Boston in a very long time, and everything I know about it I learned from Good Will Hunting--it basically amounts to a bunch of shouting about "southies" or something. Suggestions, therefore, are welcomed.

October 25, 2008

Filed under: culture»america»tourism

Our Vacations Are Better than Your Vacations, Pacific Northwest Edition

A few of my favorite pictures from our trip:

Welcome to the Portland area, where you can get your hair done, buy yourself a high-powered assault weapon, and then have yourself some fresh, raw fish for lunch--all without leaving the strip mall.

This raccoon, and a couple of others, were just hanging out in Vancouver's Stanley Park while tourists took pictures of them. Belle is terrified of raccoons. It was awesome.

It was kind of funny running into the EA Vancouver headquarters by random. But even better was the Mounted Police souvenir store located in the same building, shown here in the lower right. Want a mountie apron and grill set? Or a copy of Need for Speed? Now you know where to go.

True fact: Belle grew up just down the street from the Billy Goat Gruff family. She has nothing to fear from Seattle's bridge troll.

Near the troll, there's the country's largest statue of Lenin, which prominently features this disclaimer. What does it mean that the photo opportunity is (c) Getty? What about the disclaimer itself, is that also under copyright? Suddenly I feel like a character from a Cory Doctorow novel.

How, exactly, do you put a wax statue of Gene Simmons in a museum and not have his tongue sticking out? Luckily, Belle has it covered.

This boutique in Seattle had elephant and donkey masks on the mannequins for the political season. It did not really heighten my patriotic spirit so much as give me the creeps.

In Portland, we visited the Japanese garden, where the two forms of life thriving most were the moss and amateur photographers. We interrupted one on the way up these beautiful stairs, and I got a shot myself.

Belle says: "I didn't know what this was at first. I was all like, look, lots of rocks."

In a real earthquake, as opposed to this simulator at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, one assumes that she would not look so thrilled about it.

Completely by chance, Belle pulled me into a music shop near Voodoo Donuts, and they turned out to have a huge collection of pedals, including a whole bunch from Z. Vex. This is me trying out a Wooly Mammoth, which is one of the baddest bass distortions I've ever heard. It was very, very tempting.

Instead of the Mammoth, I pulled the trigger on the Lo-Fi Loop Junky. I dig the blue monster.

May 20, 2008

Filed under: culture»america


Excuse me! You there! Do you have a minute? I want to speak to you about something truly important to me--something that has changed my life in a deep and meaningful way, and I want to share it with you. I speak, of course, of the bacon pancake.

Why? What did you think I was going to say?

September 27, 2007

Filed under: culture»america»race_and_class

Adventures with Extremists

These Louis Theroux documentaries from the BBC are fascinating.

The Most Hated Family in America

Louis and the Nazis

It's like a video version of Jon Ronson's Them. Theroux visits fringe groups in the US (in these cases, the Phelps family and a community of skinheads) and lives with them for a short time. The contrast between the domesticity of these families and the extremism of their beliefs is something he highlights, and it is a little bit unnerving--obviously, nazis have to make sandwiches for their kids too, but it's not usually what comes to mind.

July 25, 2007

Filed under: culture»america»usa

Feel the Illinoise

Well, here we are in Chicago.

We've here through Friday. Suggestions welcomed.

Future - Present