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October 17, 2016

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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.

May 3, 2012

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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.

May 18, 2009

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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.

July 25, 2007

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Feel the Illinoise

Well, here we are in Chicago.

We've here through Friday. Suggestions welcomed.

March 8, 2007

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The Ambitious Culture

Had an Ugly American Moment the other day.

You know what I'm talking about. One of those experiences where you find yourself fitting the American stereotype, that of the insensitive boor. My favorite example comes from a visit to Mexico when I was in high school. I was on a bus in Cancun with my girlfriend of the time, trying to be unobtrusive, when a southern couple got on the bus and rode for a few blocks. They were loud and obnoxious. Soon enough, they had to get off, and pushed the button by the door to signal the driver, at which point he (like every other bus driver anywhere in the world) took note but did not immediately screech to a halt.

"Push it agin," the woman said to her husband, at a volume that carried through the entire bus. "I don' think tha little guy heard you tha first time." That was my cue to try to look as not-American as possible. Which for me is a range that starts at Kentucky and ends at about Ohio, if we're generous, so I wasn't very successful.

I don't want my international readers to think they are getting off easy here. Other countries certainly have their own Ugly Stereotype moments. I'm just most conscious of the American variety. Surprisingly, considering the breadth of its workers, we have relatively few incidents at the World Bank, I think. Everyone is generally aware that A) at least one person in a given conversation does not natively speak English, B) it is much easier to extend the benefit of a doubt rather than take offense, and C) no-one wants to be that guy.

My transgression wasn't anything offensive, really. We were working on some documents for the conference in Belgium, including the commitment cards. See, one of the really cool things about this conference will be cards passed out to the participants, on which they'll write personal commitments to anti-corruption, ranging from the personal ("I will not buy gas from companies known to use bribery in their operations") to the organizational ("My company will not use bribery in our operations"). This is a brave move, all things considered, since we'll be collecting the cards and publishing selected commitments on the web site (that's part of my job there).

But the language that explains this was somewhat controversial--for example, the word "ambitious" was thought to have heavy overtones, and was cut. So while we're discussing the text, my manager commented on how this is really a way of making the political personal, as the saying goes. I suggested that we actually write that on the front. I think I said something along the lines of "We can get participants to realize how important this could be."

"Oh, that's very American," said another (American) colleague. "To the Europeans, it's going to sound like we're moralizing, and they'll just toss them." There were nods from a couple of people around the table.

I'm not going to say that I was hurt, really, but I guess I was surprised. While I know that Americans are considered "blunt" by many people, I had never really thought of this kind of assertiveness as being American. Or more precisely, it would have never occurred to me that such language was particularly assertive or self-righteous. I think for Americans, that kind of rhetoric is just considered a way to get the topic out for debate. In a way, maybe we automatically go for the hard sell. I had a similar experience with B-SPAN promotional cards that we placed in the cafeteria, one of which read (in reference to our mailing list): "18,000 NEW FRIENDS."

"But I won't actually get 18,000 new friends from B-SPAN," said one person.

"No," I admitted. "I guess you won't."

After we finished the conference card meeting, I mentioned this to a friend--the one with the interesting folk sayings. She compared my choice of language to her university professors in France. "They were very distant," she said. "We would never call them by their first name, or go to have a drink with them, the way that I can here. Americans were much more informal, and I kind of respected that. But it has its down sides, also."

Then the conversation turned to Walter Reed, and I guess we got off topic. The point for me is that, when we discussed this back in my college Communication classes, I had never really bought the idea that (interpersonally speaking) there are communal and individualistic cultures, but this event brought the lesson home for me. When I think about it, most of the writers and role models that I try to emulate share this kind of aggressive, almost hyperbolic use of words--and there's a real implication of individualism implicit in that. This is a new way to think about how I write professionally (or even casually).

Of course, being an American, I tend to agree with my coworker that I find these tendencies to be admirable. After all, isn't the problem with corruption too often that people tiptoe around it? Shouldn't our rhetoric be a little more aggressive?

Probably not, if it dissuades others from joining us. And in this case, that's what really counts.

February 1, 2007

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Ask an Englishman

Warren Ellis tells Newsarama why his novel is set in America (emphasis mine):

Why set it in America? Well, aside from the rich comedy purposes, it can be said that from a certain perspective America is the experimental petri dish of the Western world. America remains an astonishingly good idea -- and those rights held to be self-evident, that had never ever been written down before and which shaped every Western revolutionary society and republic that's those freedoms that turned the country into both an engine of innovation and an inarguable nuthatch. That's always worth studying.

December 18, 2006

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Live from New York

I've been to New York City a few times before, while I was in college. But visiting with Belle is different, because she packs our vacations full. Now, of course, it's all a blur. Good thing there are digital photographs, to preserve all my most embarrassing facial expressions!

Belle is a Sanrio fanatic. Total Hello Kitty overload. And ever since they closed the Potomac Mills store, I think she's been a bit in withdrawal. She claims that she was underwhelmed by the New York Sanrio Outlet, but I think she's just trying to make me feel better about it.

I, on the other hand, was definitely underwhelmed by the Nintendo World store in Times Square. Of course, I don't know what I was expecting: free Gamecubes at the door? Lots of white plastic and blue lights.

I think I'm scarier than the allosaurus, personally. But here's a funny story: neither of us had ever been to the Natural History museum before, and we started with the animals from Asia. We were looking at some kind of Indonesian deer when Belle turned to me and said something about how "lifelike" they were.

Well of course they're lifelike, I said. They used to be alive.

"What? No," said Belle. "You're pulling my leg."

Apparently she'd never really spent any time with taxidermy. We should all be so lucky. I think I like it better her way, though: I imagine teams of highly-trained artists carefully sculpting a life-scale model of incredibly banal wildlife, implanting each hair by hand.

I just liked this phone.

Before heading off to catch Almodovar's Volver (great flick, be sure to see it when it gets a wider release), we stopped off at this dessert restaurant, which we passed on our way to Lombardi's famous pizza. It's called Rice to Riches, and they only sell delicious rice pudding.

A lot of design went into it, obviously. You can't see them from this angle, but there were these elaborate Flash animations running on screens above the pudding bar, and all of the signs are a little sardonic. My favorite slogan hung over the bar was "Eat all you want--you're already fat." But this sign located outside was also a nice touch:

Shallow observation: New York is very different from DC or where I grew up in Lexington, KY. It always strikes me as three or four different cities that just happen to coexist over top of each other. There's the hipster New York where you can buy cupcakes at 11pm and then go eat at Moby's vegan restaurant. There's the grounded neighborhoods around the airport in Queens. And then there's the surreal sections of Manhattan like Times Square, where the city isn't just a hyperactive commercial parody of itself, but has actually become a parody of the parody of New York commercialism. The fact that all of these are only a few miles from each other is pretty amazing, as is the fact that they haven't declared war on each other yet.

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