KILL ’EM AND LEAVE
Searching for James Brown and the American Soul
By James McBride
232 pp. Spiegel & Grau. $28.
You know what? It’s an undeniable truth that when African-American writers write about African-American musicians, there are penetrating insights and varieties of context that are otherwise lost to the nonblack music aficionados of the world, no matter how broad the appeal of the musician under scrutiny. For example, I never feel that I am learning as much about the mood and meaning of jazz than when I am reading Stanley Crouch, notwithstanding the excellence of Gary Giddins. Another of my own formative music writers was Nelson George, whose columns in The Village Voice in the late 1980s ruminated on and elevated black music — funk, soul and hip-hop — in ways that were inaccessible to white writers, no matter how much those writers appreciated the tunes. This contemporary tendency in which black writers lay claim to the discourse of black music — this increasing tendency — is a much needed development for anyone who cares about modern music.
James McBride, best known as a memoirist (“The Color of Water”) and a novelist (the National Book Award-winning “The Good Lord Bird”), wades into this space with “Kill ’Em and Leave,” tackling one of the most complex and most fascinating figures in American music over the last 50 years, the self-proclaimed “hardest-working man in show business” himself, James Brown.
How numerous are the difficulties when writing about Mr. Brown (as many of the interviewees call him in this thoughtful and probing work). Unlike Aretha Franklin or Al Green, Brown was not terribly close to the African-American church, not after his early years, so he does not have the spiritual yearning that those singers have. Unlike Stevie Wonder or the late Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire, he was not a remarkable instrumentalist whose grasp of harmonic complexity across genres was part of his legacy. And he certainly had his share of troubles, as reluctantly but faithfully documented in McBride’s account — I.R.S. woes, drug problems, payola scandals, children out of wedlock and the like.
But none of these biographical facts are as manifestly obstructive as the single greatest impediment to writing about James Brown (though it has not stopped many from trying): that Mr. Brown did not, in fact, much want to be known. McBride comes upon this obstruction again and again — for example, when interviewing Charles Bobbit, Brown’s right-hand man and organizational executive on and off for many decades, who quotes Brown thus: “Mr. Bobbit, you’re the only one I let know me.”
Here are some further examples of Brown’s isolation, as McBride describes them: Late in life James Brown directed his children (the ones he acknowledged) to make appointments when they wanted to see him. When he was finished with a gig, he would routinely have his hair done for two or three hours, before seeing anyone backstage, and then he would often leave, rather than undertake the glad-handing typically associated with the entertainment profession. He left Zaire, after performing on the occasion of the Ali-Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” prizefight, rather than receive a bag of diamonds offered by the despot in charge of that nation. And so on. This book’s title itself refers to Brown’s avowed philosophy in regard to interacting with fans.
It is McBride’s heavy burden to know this about Brown — his evasiveness, his secrecy — and to fashion a credible story that leads us from Page 1 to Page 232 according to what they call, in writing workshops, a “narrative arc.” The narrative arc is not a thing wanting in McBride’s best-known works. “The Good Lord Bird,” for example, has not only John Brown the abolitionist to drive it along, but a surprising case of gender imposture at its heart as well. And where “The Color of Water” deals with isolation in many of the ways that “Kill ’Em and Leave” does, it is essentially a bildungsroman, a tale of the derivation of its narrator. This is an especially effective idea of “narrative arc.”
The subtitle here reveals the extreme difficulty of the material: “Searching for James Brown and the American Soul.” Not only is the search for Brown the essence of “Kill ’Em and Leave,” but the question of what constitutes “the ‘real’ James Brown” (as the publisher has it) is likewise very much at stake in McBride’s book. It is one thing to suggest that Brown is “nearly as important . . . in American social history as, say, Harriet Tubman,” and another thing to demonstrate the hypothesis through biographical narrative.
McBride attempts to solve his insoluble problem, the structured absence of his main character, in two ways. First, he makes himself central to the work. He situates his assignment at the center of an introductory section (“Countin’ Off”), with a bold admission of where he was himself at the outset of his journalistic task: recently divorced and accordingly, as they used to say in my family, “financially embarrassed.” This is a tried-and-true biographical gambit. See, for example, Ian Hamilton’s similarly titled “In Search of J.D. Salinger.”
The second way McBride attempts to fashion a book-length illustration of the “real” James Brown is through individual encounters with the pertinent and creditable characters of Brown’s life. His cousins, his managers, his accountant, his musicians, his grandchildren, his women friends, his protégés. In many instances, including a chapter on the Rev. Al Sharpton, who was very close to him, and a chapter on Pee Wee Ellis (the extraordinary saxophonist who was Brown’s musical director in the high period of the late ’60s), these passages are exceptionally revealing and very poignant. It should be noted that not everyone reports a good, or even acceptable, working relationship with the Godfather of Soul. When McBride asks Pee Wee Ellis if he can talk to him about Brown, Ellis says, at first, “Can’t we talk about something else?”
The critical mass of these encounters in the second part of the book (“Hit It!”) is more like a collection of Brown’s own highly compact and funky workouts than, let’s say, an extended jam. More soul than funk, more funk than jazz. McBride, that is, has written a collection of diverse meditations and interpretations in search of James Brown, more than he has written the story of the man. Readers embarking on “Kill ’Em and Leave” would be wise to bear this in mind. That said, when McBride digs in, especially when describing the music — that massive, unstoppable, titanic, world-shaking accomplishment — by virtue of his own training as a saxophonist, he does so with great warmth, insight and frequent wit. The results are partisan and enthusiastic, and they helped this listener think about the work in a new way.
As I am a white writer, writing about a black writer, writing about a black musician, there is ample reason to wonder if the requisite nuance is available to me, the guy writing the review. But what I know after reading “Kill ’Em and Leave” is this: James Brown was among the loneliest of the great soul musicians. Indeed, his accomplishments in loneliness are nearly as towering as his accomplishments in song, and it’s the race problem, in part, that apparently made this the heartbreaking case. And yet none of that should stop you from delighting in “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud,” or “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” You should just hear the musicand the melancholy.
James McBride’s welcome elucidation of these points is clear, deeply felt and unmistakable.