Monday, March 19, 2012

THE JAMES BROWN MIXTAPE: A Conversation with RJ Smith (Pt. 1)

Between 2007 and last week, the music journalist RJ Smith all but disappeared. His columns vanished from Los Angeles magazine, where he is a senior editor, as well as Blender and Spin, where he is a columnist and contributor. He was not seen on panels at the L.A. Times Book Festival or in the audience at readings at Skylight Books or Vroman’s. Only three possibilities were afoot. Smith was either: (a) dead, (b) moved, or (c) working on a book.

Turns out it was “C.” And not just any book – Smith was tackling the meaty topic of James Joseph Brown, the colossus of American Soul, Funk and R&B. What lay ahead for Smith was what lay ahead for Pete Guralnick when he tackled the topic of Elvis Presley: How do you begin to approach such an iconic figure with new eyes? Guralnick wound up with two volumes on Presley, but Smith manages to get the essence of the Godfather of Soul, his times and his music in just 388 pages, an experience that feels like an epic – as Brown’s long career was – but a compact one. Nothing seems to have been left out even though you know something has.

What is here is embossed with a richness of detail and a deep-focus eye on Brown's place in musical and cultural history. The familiar, larger-than-life figure of JAMES BROWN in all his guises emerges anew from the fog of competing perceptions and decades of marbled worship. Well, of course, he doesn’t just emerge from Smith's prose, he shimmies out on one foot, does a split, kicks the mike stand over and pulls it back up with the mike cord, then does a spin, all the while screaming in his gritty, bracing voice while his pompadour gleams in the lights, “Bayyyyyyyy-BAHHHHH!!!” Then he tells David Susskind to pound sand.

All of it had roots, which is one of about 100 different revelations Smith unearths about the Hardest Working Man in Show Business. We sat down on the day The One: The Life and Music of James Brown was released to talk with RJ about the biographical topic of his – or anyone’s – lifetime.

The one on The One: RJ Smith

THE BEAST: What was the hardest part of writing this book?
RJ SMITH: Jesus, I felt the guy’s weight on me all the time. I did this interview this morning where the interviewer said, “I’m sure you’re already working on your next book, probably about Lady Gaga?” I was like, “No, you don’t understand; there is no topic after James Brown." [laughter] I’m sure I’ll another book. I have no idea what that will be, but James Brown you could spend your life writing about…You can’t follow him, on stage or as a subject. Here’s a guy who was so much bigger than life and so incredibly creative. You admire him and fear him and feel he’s a true genius. I figured I’d better get it right. I felt that a lot.

A lot of biographers talk about the sort of anxiety-slash-letdown over finishing such an epic topic, much less starting one…
Yeah, I did feel that a bit. Now that the book is out, people I couldn’t get to talk call me and say, “I can do the interview now.” I mean, I want to do it. I can’t put it in the book but still want to talk to them. I feel like Wile E. Coyote going over the cliff. Eventually I’ll hit the ground, but I’m already over the cliff, so…

How did you begin to approach the truckloads material that’s out there?
I started with a chronology, every piece of data with a date attached to it that I could come up with, all the major events, and work from there. Collect everything. Every scrap and clipping I could find. I had some kind of rough road map of where I thought the story would go, and then a list of all the names to be contacted. Even before you get your homework done you gotta start reaching out to these people because it could take months before someone says 'yes' or 'no' or even if you’ve got the right number. Or you call up someone and they, “Sure, let’s do it right now” and your like, “Uhhh, I was hoping October…” You gotta jump, man, you gotta jump.

What came as the biggest surprise to you about James Brown?
Just learning what it was like to be around the guy. What’s great is that everybody I talked to, whether they were close to Brown or not or whether they wanted to talk or not, had at least five great stories that only they had, because he was so great at being ‘James Brown' and deciding what he needed from people and what he would do to get it. Everyone had a great story, and they also weren’t clearly telling me everything they knew, I could tell. Maybe they weren’t pretty things, maybe they were messy things, but to see what it was like to be that close to him…You figure that someone that amazing and gifted must be fun to be around and he wasn’t always so fun. One of the things Bootsy Collins said he dreaded was after a show a message would come back to him: “James wants you to hang tonight. You’re flying on his plane.”

That’s a BAD thing?
Apparently, nothing good would happen. [laughter] Because you’d be stuck with him, and it wasn’t a two-way conversation; it was a one-way speech about how great he was and you had no opinions. You were just there to be his audience. And you could only screw it up. All you could do was say something to make him mad at you or make him fine you. You weren’t going to get anything good out of it. And you definitely weren’t getting laid that night!

That’s weird to hear someone like Bootsy say that. In your book, you really center in on how Bootsy’s generation of sidemen basically told Brown to “fuck off” with his fines. They were actually young and dumb enough to challenge his authority.
Yeah. Bootsy just figured out what worked for the people who survived the longest with Brown: You had to be willing to walk away at any time, to not depend on him for your life or your livelihood. Bootsy was always like, ‘Hey, I can go back to Cincinnati and play the bars and I’d be fine.’ He’s in his twenties when he joins Brown’s band, so what the hell, right? If you thought Brown was your ticket to stardom, you eventually realized the only way you were going to be a star is if you left Brown. He had his featured players like Maceo [Parker], but he would always end up competing with you.

But he’d make sure to call them out onstage or on record when he liked what they were doing: ‘Maceo, Brutha!’ ‘Bootsy, jam!’ ‘Hit me, Fred!’
Yeah, he could made you a star that way, by just saying your name. Like for the rest of his life, when people meet Fred Wesley, they’re gonna yell out ‘Hit me, Fred!’ [laughter]

There are so many mythic, fabulist-type tales that surround Brown – like the part in the book where Brown and Bobby Byrd meet by literally colliding on the baseball field in the reformatory – that seem too good to be true. How did you approach the problem of separating truth from fiction?
I tried to have a few people that seemed like decent arbiters, who I could run stories by and see if they matched up. Like this guy, Alan Leeds, who was Brown’s road manager [1971-73] and went on to work for Prince, Chris Rock and D’Angleno. Amazing guy! He sees the big picture. He’s also a writer – he wrote the liner notes for [the box set] Star Time. Alan’s got a basement full of old contracts and tour lists and amazing photos, all this documentation of his time with Brown.

Did he let you go through his archives?
No, he shared his stories with me but not the archives. It’s complicated, but he helped immensely and I am insanely grateful. But there are at least three categories of Brown stories. There are the ones that are too good to be true, so you have to find the truth. If it doesn’t pass the smell test for you, chances are someone will write a letter after the book is published or someone in the family will come back and say, “I can tell you why you got it wrong.” Sometimes it sounds good but it doesn’t feel good. Then there are the ones you can check…Bobby Byrd [Brown's co-vocalist in the Famous Flames] is a perfect example. He gave tons of interviews over the years about Brown and was really generous with his time, but his memory was not great. He told stories to five different people in five different versions of a story, and it’s impossible to know in those early days something like, “Did [Brown’s] gospel group come before the Flames?” or “Who was in the Flames at such and such time?” You can get an approximation, but Byrd changed his stories over the years because he was trying to remember them, decades after the fact. Then there are the ones that are really good that you’ll never know the truth of and sometimes you go with a couple of them if they’re entertaining, but not if they’re Holy Writ. For example, some people say he and the Flames recorded a gospel single before “Please Please Please”…It’s been in print, but no one’s ever come up with that record and no one’s ever proved it, so I wasn’t going to put it in. You have to make calls like that.

One of the many fascinating parts about Brown’s early years was the area he grew up in along the Georgia-South Carolina border, which was almost like a Black Appalachia. Did you find any indication that Brown’s absorbed any influences from the pre-electric, rural music that was played there?
I think those traditions haven’t been documented that much, the unique sounds of “Affrilacia,” as they called it. I think part of it was the mix of music and culture of that region that informed him early on. The blues weren’t really big in that area; it came later because of the geographic isolation. In those house parties that were around when Brown was there, in Toccoa [Georgia] and those mountainous areas, they might have a blues tune, a gospel tune, a ragtime tune—a lot of different music at those parties. I think Brown absorbed that mix, that idea of entertainment and what it meant to be an entertainer. You had to give your audience a lot of different things to find your way in. You couldn’t stay with any one thing for too long. You see that a lot in the early Famous Flames records.

You write a lot in the book about Brown’s complicated relationship with his adopted hometown of Augusta, Georgia, which sort of reminded me of Memphis, Tennessee’s relationship with Elvis or Hernando, Mississippi’s relationship with Jerry Lee Lewis. These places were very protective of their musical celebs, which inevitably led to them kicking up dust and causing trouble.
Augusta was Home. Brown wanted to live there the rest of his life. He lived in New York for much of the ‘60s, but in the ‘70s he was back in Augusta. It was complicated. It was definitely a racist place – not the most or least in the South, but definitely a contender. He could definitely feel the love from the town every time he went out of the house. I mean, you could walk down the street and see James Brown pumping gas or run into him at the music store. How awesome would that be? But also in Augusta he could do stuff that would get a lot of attention if he did it in New York or L.A. and people would let it slide. Brown was definitely a Southerner – that was a big revelation for me. I mean, I’m from Detroit, I’ve lived in the north and the west all my life, so my observations can only be somewhat limited, but it’s really clear to me, to the degree that you can separate out being a black man in the south from being a Southerner, he really felt both those things in different ways and I don’t know which one came first. I mean, he was great friend of Strom Thurmond and Lee Atwater! On a personal level he connected with those guys. Thurmond was one of the great Southern racists of my life, certainly of the last half-century, but I expect they understood where each other was coming from. I think Brown felt more comfortable with white Southern guys than with white Northern guys. “I know where I stand with Strom Thurmond whereas the white guy in the north will say all the right things to me and then short me a hundred bucks.” In a way, I think he felt that white Southerners were more honest.

Strange, then, that Brown and Jimmy Carter did not get along. Why couldn’t he find common ground with a white liberal Democrat from his home state?
Carter kept his distance from Brown. He doesn’t sound like that sociable of a guy to begin with. Carter doesn’t seem like a guy who returns calls and sends ‘thank you’ card and writes back when you write him. And that meant a lot to Brown. If your were the President, and you just respond to a letter from James Brown with something your aide wrote, you’re his friend for life. Even Reagan knew that.

And he loved Reagan! He called him “my number one cowboy.” Brown’s relationship with politics and politicians across both parties – especially those mind-boggling sections on him and Richard Nixon – is so complicated and yet so simple: pure pragmatism. Syd Nathan [Brown's boss at King Records] was the same way. Do you think Brown absorbed Nathan’s lessons on the bottom line and applied to his political affiliations?
That’s a good point. Certainly on a level of pure capitalism, Brown and Nathan were on the same page. Brown saw it first hand watching Nathan run King Records: good business led to good cultural practices. Syd Nathan wasn’t a racist, but he wasn’t a Civil Rights firebrand either. He didn’t care. It didn’t make sense to him not to make money every possible way he could. Who even knew if he voted? It’s an old-school principle that we now we think it began with rap music, the idea of staying in the community, developing the community, being the source of all social good, the concept of “giving back.” Rappers are always policed for the degree they do this, by fans and other rappers…but taking care of your community is part of what being politically ‘right on’ is about, that means investing in black businesses, lending money to friends and family, having an entourage on your payroll.

“Individual accomplishment reflected the whole community,” I think, is what you write in the book... Yeah, but to run a good business and make a lot of money – is that Liberal or Conservative? Its both!

It’s American!
Yeah! That’s why Brown ultimately differed from the Black Panthers and so many of those groups, he always emphasized their points of agreement, but he was very critical of Black Nationalists and people who thought they could create a system outside of capitalism or a white majority. His view was, ‘That’s what we’ve got now and we have to work within that, right or wrong.’

You mentioned rap music, which is almost unthinkable without James Brown. But reviewing the man’s life, there is so much about it that was prototypical: the threats against the DJs in Philly; being criticized for being “insufficiently black”; the endless series of singles he cut in just hours; the entourages, the guns, the bling, his early lyric about “no squealin.” The man’s entire life -- not just his music -- was a blueprint for hip-hop!
Would there be hip hop without James Brown? Probably, but it would be a much narrower niche. He was really hard-wired into the whole street-culture thing…like when he was living in New York in the mid-60s and the Flames recorded the song “Try Me,” and a guitar player was telling me that “Try Me” was this street expression when you were trying to hit on a woman -- "Hey baby, try me" -- so that song was meant to piggyback on slang term of the time that hip guys and their girls would know. Certainly by the 1960s, with records like “Cold Sweat” and “Out of Sight,” he’s hanging out, he’s listening to this stuff that guys are saying on the corner, he’s pulling it out and using it.

Like reportage, or, as you call it in the book, "mash notes from the id."
One amazing thing about James Brown to me was that you could write about Cuban roots or Latin music and how it overlaps with what he was doing in the ‘60s and ‘70s – you can hear it in “Cold Sweat,” for example. Certainly when he played in Africa, it made sense because he was bringing something back home. I think Brown listened to African records more than he let on. He pretended it was all “James Brown music,” but he paid attention with his ears wherever he went. And, in a way, it was all James Brown. He didn’t have available to him a lot of African records – no like we do now – he just connected with the ideas at the roots of that tradition of music making, because it was in him.

One of the great experiences of this book is watching Brown construct, bit by bit, the persona he would eventually hit the world with. To me it was like watching Batman Begins and seeing how Bruce Wayne pieces his costume together. Brown takes the hair from Little Richard, the cape act from the wrestler Gorgeous George, the dance steps from the clubs and the streets, the rigorous military precision of his act from his early stint in prison...It’s strange: he’s a true original and yet he borrowed from everyone, even gay carnival culture!
What I had never heard before about Brown was, early on in his career, when he’s got his own band finally in the late ‘50, early ‘60s, he’s got the money to keep them on the road and he’s refining this multi-faceted stage show where the band is becoming self-contained. They did a set playing covers and instrumentals before Brown even got out there. But Brown is in the audience, watching people, listening to what they’re saying, studying what they’re wearing, taking in all the dance steps from Miami or Cleveland and then doing those steps the very next night on stage. I get that. I never thought of that before.

It was total D.I.Y.! In fact, that whole world of the Chitlin Circuit and the early labels like King and Peacock, it reminded me of the indie labels of today but just with more people getting ripped off.
Yeah, on all sides. [laughter]

[Tune in Wednesday for the conclusion of our interview, where we get into Brown’s unlikely influence on post-punk, the strange sub-career of James Brown organ instrumentals, and why the song titles got so long in the ‘70s.]

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