Saturday, July 16, 2005

James Brown: I Feel Good

One wonders how great musical artists like James Brown and Aretha Franklin can write such lacklustre autobiographies. If you’re looking for any type of insight into how James Brown makes music, you won’t find it here. Indeed, he even says that lyrically he has absolutely no idea what Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag means!

Then there are the flagrant contradictions. At the end of one chapter he dramatically describes the emergence of a new musical style that represented everything he was opposed to. The last sentence mournfully announces, ‘that music was disco’. Lo and behold, you turn the page and the first paragraph of the following chapter has Mr Brown claiming that he invented disco! He does this again and again. He has ambivalent feelings about rap, then talks about he is the originator of that style, at least musically. Then he goes off the rails and claims that bad rap is government plot to make African-Americans look bad. You feel a tinge of embarrassment, and wish he hadn’t written it.

Artists and politics do not mix the best. James Brown has mixed with and met all or most of the American presidents of the last 30 years or so, and says he likes them all. You can’t help but think he is extraordinarily naïve. He even supported Richard Nixon.

The one thing this book does demonstrate is the devastating effects of racism, of how low coloured people were (and are) treated and regarded in America. The book has tales aplenty of segregation, verbal and physical abuse etc. Indeed, the whole tone of the book has a real sadness about it. He describes himself as a patriot, then goes and describes how bad America is to the Black man, showing up a critical contradiction at the core of the United States. So many Americans seem to believe, in theory at least, in the eminence of their enterprise culture. But then there are patriots like James Brown who – almost unwittingly undermining everything they believe good and right about America – claiming that the system unfairly rips off underdogs, and that it should all be regulated so everyone gets a fair chance.

Most tellingly, when Brown was arrested and taken away by the police in handcuffs, he was asked to describe America. He held up his shackles and said, ‘this is America’.

How can this be? How can the greatest and freest country in the world be nothing more than an unfair jailor of its people? Yet this attitude comes through again and again. Brown constantly finds himself saying, Don’t get me wrong, I love America, I’m the greatest patriot, but…

After reading I Feel Good, I believe James Brown is a man of basic good will. His philanthropic work, trying to get African-American children to stay in school and better themselves, is a very large part of who he is. He wants to help. He wants to see everyone (especially his people) getting a fair go. He wants everyone to be having a good time. Even a record I have of his at home on the back has a blurb about staying in school.

The book is not interesting as an insight into the working life of an artist. Disappointingly, it tells us nothing. All music comes from God, and that explains everything. Fair enough. I won’t argue with that. Aretha Franklin, the greatest vocalist ever, says the same. But as a self portrait of an elderly Black man, looking back on his life, and the changes in America over the past 50 years, it makes for an interesting read.

I felt sad for James Brown. His exuberant records are at such odds with his troubled life.

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