On the One: RJ Smith on James Brown

I mentioned that I’d been reading RJ Smith’s The One: the Life and Music of James Brown.  You may have seen the rave review in this Sunday’s NYT Book Review by Al Sharpton (!), who I thought was an odd choice as reviewer given that he was, as the biography explains, a protege of and “like a son” to James Brown.  Sharpton did convey some of what’s great about the book, though.

RJ Smith, whose music criticism I used to read in the Village Voice way back in the 1980s, is really good at connecting Brown’s music to larger cultural and political forces and movements — shifting deftly in register from James’ signification as an international black culture hero (the account of Brown’s 1974 trip to Zaire and his meeting with Fela, sometimes called “the African James Brown,” is fascinating) all the way down to tiny details of rhythm, movement, gesture, and song.

This was a brilliant piece of lust and rhythm.  “Mother Popcorn” was not soul music; it spoke to the body, and it moved the body in ways that soul music knew not.  This was funk, possibly the moment when Brown fully moved from soul to funk — a music that didn’t even have a name yet.  It was just James Brown music.  It was the sound of the One….

Brown had a capacity for expressing different rhythms through his form.  “Every part of his body had a beat, had a rhythm going on — his feet, his head, his neck, his chest, his ass,” said Lola Love, a dancer in the show.  “And all those beats were different and were made him funky.”… 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.

Smith is not just appreciative, but near-reverent about Brown’s musical and cultural accomplishments — as Sharpton points out, the book leaves no doubt that Brown should be recognized as the single most important figure in later 20th century American music — but the book is also hilarious on the man’s frequently insane behavior.  Early in his career he nearly always packed heat, and shot up juke joints more than once, having to pay off those he’d accidentally hit.  He beat up his wives and girlfriends (not so funny).  He was grandiose but also wounded and perpetually insecure, partly due (presumably) to his upbringing in a Georgia brothel run by his aunt.  (With Richard Pryor, this makes at least two towering figures in late 20thC American popular culture who were raised in a brothel.)  He was an outrageous and sometimes cruel tyrant to the members of the band, capriciously handing out fines for the tiniest perceived infractions; one former band member calls him no less than “a black Hitler” (which seems maybe a little exaggerated).  In his final years, he regularly smoked PCP-laced marijuana while waxing self-righteous about any suggestion that he was a drug user.  There’s an implication that he thought PCP was some kind of vitamin-like health booster (he of course eventually served several years in jail.)  Most perplexingly, he was a Nixon supporter; Smith makes clear that Brown’s alliance with Nixon in the 1970s fatally tainted his previously godlike status in the African-American community.

“The One,” a mystical concept of Africanist rhythm, weaves through the biography, sometimes amusingly:

If Brown had something to share with the bassist [a teenage Bootsy Collins] after a show, most likely it was his unwavering parental disapproval.  “Son, you just ain’t on it,” he would grunt, his head sadly shaking with the bad news.  “You just ain’t on the One.”  Collins took it for a while, but then he tuned the guy out.  “As far as he was concerned, we were never on the One.”… It drove the formally trained musicians around him slightly crazy.  “It’s really — it’s a joke,” scowled Fred Wesley.  “He didn’t know what the One was to him.  To him it’s the downbeat.  But he didn’t know what it was. The emphasis of the one of the bar… his music kind of emulated that, but, as far as it being some kind of concept — I don’t think so.”

RJ Smith ultimately does suggest, though, that even if James could be a bit fuzzy on what precisely constituted the state of being on the One, he spent his career in successful pursuit of this state of rhythmic/musical/erotic grace.

JB on the good foot:

p.s.  Another great piece of writing on James Brown is this 2006 Rolling Stone article by Jonathan Lethem.

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