Let’s get something out of the way: I am in no way the right person to evaluate James Brown, his life, or his musical legacy. Such a task should be treated much more carefully and gracefully in the hands of someone who knows more and knows better. I do not know better, I do not know much at all, but I think we can collectively agree that James Brown is one of our most gargantuan cultural icons and his legacy (also definite) is founded upon some of the greatest music in all of recorded history. His music is what music aims for.
The way I originally approached Star Time—a whopping 72-track, 4-disc compilation heavy in the years between 1964-1973—for the purposes of writing on it, was all wrong. I reserved 72 days for myself, promising (nay, dramatically vowing to myself) to listen to a track a day on repeat, to really glean its essence, like some kind of sonic vampire. I tend to over-dramatize tasks to make them more appealing when it comes around to actually completing them (lazy), and it usually pans out that my idea was dumb and impractical so I’ll utterly change course (mercurial). I planned to dig deep into each track and really come up with an idea to flesh out what each song “really means,” or to see how the track could play into with whatever mundane thing happened that day, to prove its universality or whatever. Oof. All wrong, friends.
First, there is no way I can work my way through each track on an individual basis. To do so would be to dismember a man’s career—his life—into individual parts, and this compilation is doing something different; it is experiential, it progresses, but it is never sequential. It is also not at all like an album (a fairly recent invention) in terms of conceptualization; there is no solid theme to constrain it nor any kind of obvious limitations that would result in a stricter curation. Second, to try to feel something specific or to respond with prescribed emotion once a day, like brushing teeth or taking pills, would reduce Star Time, in all its glory, to tedium. This compilation is one big 72-track high note that cannot be diminished nor “reacted” to; it is much more fluid and is felt holistically.
The other tactic I considered when writing this was to be much too succinct by simply saying “He sings real good.” Because MY GOD, HE SINGS SO GOOD. It would be so simple and also correct to leave it at that. And so easy, as this is my first bit of focused writing as I inch my way out of a jaded, post-MFA depression.
What I landed on is an exploration of a feeling. Instead of these extremes (saying too much or too little), what seems most right is to just feel it, the whole damn thing, all of soul music. And, like James Brown, I need to tell you how I feel. A word about soul:
I. A WORD ABOUT SOUL
Some things are holy. My gray cat peacefully gazing out the window, drenched in warm morning light. Fresh biscuits for a hangover. The roughness of my mother’s hands and how mine look and feel more like hers every year. That first gravitation to someone new—someone right, or even better, someone wrong. To be gin-drunk and lusty in the South, sweating, hips searching out hands in a smoky room with “Prisoners of Love” purring in the background. To be gin-drunk anywhere, held close and swaying. To move at all, to be moved, that is holiness. By holiness, I mean the nearly inexplicable quality of those moments and people and objects in our existence that bury themselves deep into the soul upon sensing them—that which moves us. These things are the raw material of soul, and we take them in every single day. James Brown’s soul music, his soul-annihilating and soul-nurturing music, is for the everyday.
For the past several months, I’ve been feeling my way through a dense fog. There is something incomprehensible about the way the world is slowly turning its gears, all its cruelty and simultaneous wonder. To a degree, I can explain what’s happening, the way it is happening on an individual, moment-to-moment basis. We pay attention to those things almost manically. It’s the big picture destruction that seems harder to grasp. The deepest sort of pain that turns us cruel—I cannot explain that kind of influence.
Then comes the despair I have known to associate with that fog. When I despair, I turn to soul—the balm to big-picture pain—because what can tell us what to do with pain better than dancing it away, at least momentarily? What should redeem our souls but soul? In his autobiography, Brown states, “The one thing that can solve most of our problems is dancing.” So, I think I can confirm then that this piece is about dancing to James Brown. Sweet, holy, redemptive dancing. It’s about the truth of movement in a room.
A friend of mine, long ago during my undergraduate years, once used the phrase “Boogie Truth” during a discussion about the impetus and afterburn of dancing, specifically bar dancing on a Friday night once the school-week stress is on held on mute. Ultimately, the truth of dancing is sex—always sex, the reason and the effect. I agree, but I think sex is half the reason. The other half is pain. I dance because I’m hurting.
Star Time is the best example I can think of to demonstrate the Boogie Truth as I see it: sexy escapes rolling between waves of pain. Often the trickster, James Brown blends ballad with upbeat orchestrations, resulting in a sexy backdrop for his main lyrical truth: pain. Then, he gives us some organ-squealing, horn-stabbing interlude to ponder the next movement. How are we to solve such profound sadness? Well, let’s take it to the band. Listen to “There Was A Time”; my God, James Brown's voice is insane of course, but in this one, the tightness and energy of the band is unreal. Brown, ever the ruthless bandleader, ensures that each part of the complex unit remains effortless in its syncopated support of Brown’s squealing vocal performance. Demarcations between the two (instrumentation and vocals) often seem inextricable, as complex, feverish rhythms propel the lyrics into movement and vice versa. James Brown makes us move, and that is why he is the Godfather of Soul.
II. A WORD ABOUT THE GODFATHER
The King of Soul. The Hardest Working Man in Show Business (toured and performed hundreds of shows a year). Soul Brother No. 1. Mr. Dynamite. The Godfather of Soul.
With Star Time, we aren’t dealing with the “Best Of” or the greatest hits. This is a monster of a compilation, sure, and there is something to be said about a lack of modesty here, formally speaking. But James Brown’s lack of modesty, his braggadocio, is what makes him the Godfather: “I’m a greedy man” (“I’m a Greedy Man”); “I’ve got money and now I need love” (“I’ve Got Money”). To bear witness to the pipes of James Brown, even several decades removed from his peak, is a privilege. We do not deserve to have such a voice—a rusty belt slapping metal, sometimes syrupy sweet in its reverence for pain. At the beginning of “Devil’s Den,” Brown belts a lightning fast note that I can only compare to screeching brakes. His range is mythological. How the hell did he get all the way up there in that stratosphere?
A quick personal history of self-inflicted vocal training wounds: when I first started playing in a band, I’d scream into a pillow every night (because I heard a rumor that Tom Waits did this to get his throat all gravelly) with the very unrealistic hopes that I could train my vocal chords into hitting high-and-rough registers. What I got instead was a lot of pain and the inability to speak for two weeks. In many ways, what I’m getting at is pain. Pain is a universal, and I come to soul music bearing it openly without reservation.
I can’t talk about the musical legacy of James Brown, though, without addressing the eponymous “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World.” This is more for me than it is for you. Brown has received much criticism over the years for being a misogynist, and this track is notorious for its quite literal proclamation of those attitudes. I feel a couple of ways about this song. (Surprise, surprise: more inner turmoil.) To try and see a thing within the context of capital-S Soul, long after Brown has departed from us, I want to draw attention to the last few sentences of this song: “He’s lost in the wilderness / He’s lost in bitterness.” The track ends with “He’s lost!”
I do believe in redemptive moments. I believe there are unique pathways into all of our beliefs and attitudes, no matter how problematic, and each one of those pathways is speckled with inalienable truths, like old gum, often grounded in pain and trauma. This trauma is felt individually, but it is shared culturally. What “He’s lost!” expresses to me (as I aim to feel this song on its own terms) is doubt. It feels like shame. In that way, I am learning something here and, because this song makes me a better thinker, I’ll never turn this track off, despite its grave offenses. What I am choosing to do with this song is to see its gum-speckled pathways, to feel what I perceive to be individual/collective pain, and in that way, James Brown becomes visionary for me. This may seem to more hard-lined individuals like a convoluted, roundabout way to permit certain art into my life, but it is not out of ignorance of the patriarchy, or toxic masculinity, or any of the other buzzwords or coined phrases that make it easier to talk about these very complicated things. For me, it’s about the Boogie Truth. The curation of my own life, my craft, and the art that influences it involves the recognition of all pathways and the openness to let it speak to me in ways that I find meaningful.
I could also talk about how many people James Brown wronged in his lifetime, about his penchant for misogyny and domestic violence (check out Cold Sweat: My Father James Brown and Me). I could explore his impoverished upbringing in the south, his six-year sentence after a high speed chase (“Public Enemy #1”), his social activism (“Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved,” “Say It Loud - I’m Black and I’m Proud”), and his struggles with addiction (“King Heroin”). But these truths can already be found in the music. And Star Time is ultimately about movement driven by pain, sin, pride, pleasure, rinse, repeat, repeat, repeat. Repeat it until it sinks in and drives you to move. I think soul music operates in this way: it lays itself bare for the complete, inextricable range of feeling. Pain, ever the universal. Soul, always the cure:
Get up offa that thing,
And dance 'till you feel better,
Get up offa that thing,
And try to release that pressure!