Three years after his National Book Award, I am pleased to report that James McBride has outdone himself. His new book, a delicious stew of styles called Kill ’Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul, is part memoir, part biography, part history, part journalistic investigation, and part musical exegesis. But mostly it’s a scorchingly honest examination of the racial divide that explains why America continues to be a bloody and schizophrenic place.
As its subtitle suggests, this book is a quest both for a man and for how he helped shape our national soul through his music and politics and personal style. McBride goes to some lengths to state the case for Brown’s importance. “For African Americans,” McBride writes, “the song of our life, the song of our entire history, is embodied in the life and times of James Brown.” He adds, “James Brown was our soul” and “one of the greatest American forces in modern musical history.” But importance does not always lead to understanding, and McBride acknowledges this as a further reason for writing this book: “[James Brown] is also arguably the most misunderstood and misrepresented African American figure of the last three hundred years, and I would speculate that he is nearly as important and influential in American social history as, say, Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass.”
One reason Brown was misunderstood, as McBride reveals, is because of the nature of the world that made him. He grew up poor and parentless in an impoverished swath of the Jim Crow South, raised mostly by relatives, largely unloved, frequently despised, and clearly headed nowhere good. He was busted for stealing car parts and served three years in juvenile prison before he was out of his teens. He was no stranger to loneliness. As Brown said of his early years in the first of his two memoirs, The Godfather of Soul:
I was left by myself a lot. Being alone in the woods like that, spending nights in a cabin with nobody else there, not having anybody to talk to, worked a change in me that stayed with me from then on: It gave me my own mind. No matter what came my way after that — prison, personal problems, government harassment — I had the ability to fall back on myself.
Shortly after his release from juvenile prison, Brown formed a group called The Famous Flames, and in 1955 they cut their first record, Please, Please, Please. There were to be major bumps in the road, but the fledgling singer was on his way to becoming The Star of the Show, Mr. Dynamite, America’s Soul Brother Number One, The Hardest Working Man in Show Business — Jaaaaaaaames Brown!
McBride plays saxophone and leads the gospel/jazz/blues Good Lord Bird Band, and his understanding of how music gets made is a key to this book’s power. He offers a deft dissection of the differences between jazz and funk, likening jazz to basketball and funk to baseball. “Jazz requires a blend of split-second timing, skill and training,” he writes, while funk requires “specific learned skills that have to be exercised flawlessly [and] can only be learned through years of practice.” He adds, “That’s why funk is as challenging as jazz. You must know when to enter the groove, and what to play [as well as] when not to play.” I would venture to take McBride’s sports analogy a step further into the realm of visual art and say that jazz, with its soloists’ squabbling improvisations, is akin to abstract expressionism, while funk, with its pared-down precision and stress on what to leave out, is more akin to minimalism. Compare Jackson Pollock’s volcanic eruptions to Donald Judd’s simple plywood boxes. Compare John Coltrane’s lushly rambling “Traneing In” to James Brown’s precisely chiseled “The Payback.”
Though it’s a celebration of a remarkable life and career, Kill ’Em and Leave is also a sad book. Brown’s lonely and largely loveless childhood produced a grown man who was deeply suspicious and withdrawn. He routinely hid money and carried thick wads of cash because he didn’t trust banks. He drove his musicians mercilessly. A long-time friend said of Brown: “I’ve never met anyone in my life that worked harder to hide his true heart.” And Brown himself admitted to his trusted manager, Charles Bobbit: “Mr. Bobbit, you’re the only one I let know me. You’re the only man that knows I don’t know how to love.”
But mainly Brown was driven by fear. McBride describes it with this marvelous mash of metaphors:
That fear – the knowledge that a single false step while wandering inside the maze of the white man’s reality could blast you back home with the speed of a circus artist being shot out of a cannon — is the kryptonite that has lain under the bed of every great black artist from 1920s radio star Bert Williams to Miles Davis to Jay Z. If you can’t find a little lead-lined room where you can flee that panic and avoid its poisonous rays, it will control your life….Keeping the pain out was a full-time job, and Brown worked harder at it than any black star before or after.
Here’s Henrietta Shackleford, the narrator of The Good Lord Bird, speaking in his/her wised-up vernacular about the source of this fear and pain:
Being a Negro means showing your best face to the white man every day. You know his wants, his needs, and watch him proper. But he don’t know your wants. He don’t know your needs or feelings or what’s inside you, for you ain’t equal to him in no measure. You just a nigger to him. A thing: like a dog or a shovel or a horse.
Like many who bring themselves up out of poverty by force of will, talent, and hard work, Brown was disdainful of handouts, any hint of shiftlessness. He became an icon of the civil rights and black pride movements, and “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” became an anthem during the incendiary summer of 1968. I saw James Brown perform in Detroit that summer, and the crowd’s delirious shouting of the title lyric nearly popped the roof off of Cobo Hall. For Brown, the civil rights movement was all about getting equal opportunity, not special treatment. He summed this up nicely in the lyric: “I don’t want nobody to give me nothing. Open up the door, I’ll get it myself.”
Brown was demanding, prickly, impossible, and eventually just about everyone abandoned him — wives, lovers, musicians, family — and he wound up isolated, in physical pain, hounded by the IRS, with a mean streak and an angel dust habit to boot. The lonely boy in the cabin in the piney woods wound up walled away inside his mansion, alone with his genius and his irascibility. As a crowning insult, greed and legal wrangling have seen to it that, a decade after his death, not one dime of his $100 million estate has yet reached its intended beneficiaries, the impoverished schoolchildren of South Carolina and Georgia. This may be the true tragedy of James Brown’s life.
I already knew that McBride was a gifted writer and musician, but this book proves that he’s also a tireless shoe-leather reporter. He does the legwork, finds the right people, gets them to open up to him. These writing and reporting skills dovetail to produce some startling insights, including an epiphany about race that McBride has while eating in a soul food joint called Brooker’s in Barnwell, S.C., not far from where James Brown was born and where he died. This epiphany is worth quoting at length because it captures the essence of McBride’s unorthodox method:
They laugh and smile and make you feel good. But behind the laughter, the pie, the howdies, and the second helpings, behind the huge chicken dinners and the easy chuckles, there’s a silent buzz. If you put your ear to a table, you can almost hear it; it’s a churning kind of grind, a rumble, a growl, and when you close your eyes and listen, the noise is not pleasant. It’s nothing said, or even seen, for black folks in South Carolina are experts at showing a mask to the white man. They’ve had generations of practice. The smile goes out before their faces like a radiator grille. When a white customer enters Brooker’s, they act happy…and howdy ’em and yes ’em to death. And you stand there dumbfounded, because you’re hearing something different, you’re hearing that buzz, and you don’t know if it’s coming from the table or the bottom of your feet, or if it’s the speed of so much history passing between the two of them, the black and the white, in that moment when the white man pays for his collard greens with a smile that ties you up, because you can hear the roar of the war still being fought — the big one, the one the northerners call the Civil War and southerners call the War of Northern Aggression, and the more recent war, the war of propaganda, where the black guy in the White House pissed some people off no matter what he did. It’s all about race. Everybody knows it. And there’s no room to breathe…
If you wait till the white man leaves and ask about that space, the space between white and black folks in South Carolina, the black folks say, “Oh, it ain’t nothing. Such-and-so is my friend. I’ve known him forty years. We all get along here.” Only at night, when they get home, when the lights are down and all the churchin’ is done and the singing is over and the TV is off and the wine is flowing and tongues are working freely, only within the safety of home and family does the talk change, and then the buzz is no longer a buzz. It’s a roaring cyclone of fury laced with distaste and four hundred years of pent-up bitterness.
Kill ’Em and Leave is full of such tough truths. Every person living in America today needs to hear them, fruit of the hard work of one of our most gifted and important writers.