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THE BEAST: In the early 90s, Polydor released Soul Pride, a collection of James Brown “organ instrumentals.” Turns out he recorded eleven of these albums between 1961 and 1971, which blew my mind. As you mention in the book, the organ and the drums were Brown’s first instruments.
RJ SMITH: He loved playing the drums, although he wasn’t a very good drummer. He felt it, certainly better than I ever could. I think the “gut feel” part of his brain really came out in his organ solos. I mean, the organ is such a great instrument for making these sort of mashing, smeary sounds and he loved that. It kind of worked for him. If I’m not breaking it down on a purely musical level, yeah, he did some great organ songs. Most of the time, when he's doing a long jam and he goes to the organ, the sound gets kind of wandering or whatever, but on a song like “Make It Funky!” he begins with the organ and goes off from there. And it’s wild, terrific stuff.
What do you think is the most important deep cut of Brown’s career – the one people might not be as aware of as much as “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” or “I Got You” or “Sex Machine”?
It's not the ultimate or anything, but I really like the track “I’ve Got Money,” which is the B-side of a single released in 1962 that didn’t do anything on the charts. It’s a session this great drummer Clayton Fillyau played on. It’s the first really reductive record Brown made – just a guitar and a few horns, and the drumming is insane. It was basically the road map to get to “Cold Sweat,” with all the parts sort of pulled out and standing alone but not put together yet. In fact, you can get a version of the song where you can turn one of the speakers off and get just the drum and the bass with no vocals. It’s awesome, and so radical.
This might be slightly off topic, but I’ve been reading a lot about the Punk and Post-Punk music of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. What I found amazing was even those worlds absorbed the music and persona of James Brown, whether ironically or not. In L.A. you had Black Randy & The Metro Squad playing a punk-soul version of “Say It Out Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)" -- and offending a lot of people in the process. In New York, there was James Chance and the Contortions doing their art-damaged white boy take on Brown. Even in a place like Austin, Texas, you had Joe “King” Carrasco lifting Brown’s cape act. How do you account for a musical generation that rejected so much, yet James Brown manages to slip though their “legit” radar?
Brown wasn’t exactly “cool” in the late ‘70s. In the Disco era, he was putting out some good records, trying to get them on the charts and failing. There’s something about hard funk and noise that was starting to connect to young white audiences. There was a lot of “noise” and repetition in those ‘70s records, especially the album cuts that go on for eight or nine minutes. There’s basically only two chords to those songs! There was something so raw, so wrong about it that felt really good.
Punks were always about the “wrong” sounds…
What’s more punk rock that “Ain’t It Funky Now”? It’s so fast and frantic. There's this interview with [drummer] “Tiger” Martin where he talked about one of the games he and the Collins brothers would play when they were in that band. I think they were taking amphetamines at the time, and they’d try to play as fast as they could to see if the old man could keep up.
Yeah! He might eventually call out for “Georgia on My Mind,” just to catch his breath, but they were trying to see how much they could make James Brown sweat. [laughter]
You mentioned those long, sweaty tracks he cut in the 1970s. Why did the song titles get so long? Wow! Yeah, that’s a brilliant question. I don’t know.
After a while they started resembling e.e. cummings poems. I think my favorite is “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Shut the Door I’ll Get It Myself).”
Here’s how I think it happened: They’re in the studio, they’re jamming, making it work as they go, and at the end someone says, “Hey James, what’s the name of that one?” and he says the first thing that comes out of his head, and it's be two sentences long, and you’d better write down exactly what he said and put it on the album or he's going to find out about it and pay you a visit. [laughter] You wrote down what he said and ran with it! I read this interview with the writer who wrote Brown’s first really good autobiography, Bruce Tucker…and there was a moment in the conversation when Brown, who didn’t care about a lot of things, wanted to know what the book title was going to be. Tucker told him the title the publishing company was pushing for – “The Godfather of Soul” or something like that -- but Brown had his own ideas, and they were exactly like the song titles! “I think you should call it ‘Super Bull Taurus Genius of Funk and Rhythm and Blues and an American Original’.” That was the title. “Uh, well I don’t know James, I’ll have to phone the publisher on that one…” [laughter]
Let's talk about the late part of Brown’s career, which in many ways is the wildest and the weirdest. I guess you can split it into two overlapping sections: the 1978 arrest to the 1988 arrest and “Living in America” to his death – both linked by his increased drug use. What’s odd about this time was, during the period he’s in prison in the late 1980s, his career becomes rehabilitated.
I think he's been smoking PCP for awhile by the late '80s, but he was always able to hide it and control it. By the time of the high-speed chase [in 1988], he had lost that control. It had a power over him by then, and it was really affecting every corner of his life.
As PCP will sometimes do…
Yeah, it has that tendency. Supposedly, on his deathbed he was still smoking it. There are many things to say about this, but right or wrong, smart or dumb, that’s an amazing thing to be in your 70s smoking angel dust. For me, the question is not "Why?" but "How?!"
And he was still touring! He had two heart attacks! Why do you think he continued smoking after prison? Did his career comeback embolden him in some way?
Well, it’s quite possible that Brown’s wife at the time, Adrienne [Rodriguez] had a lot of influence on him. He was smoking before he met her, but together they definitely brought out the worst in each other in that regard. I think it’s plausible that she used that to kind of control him, like an enabler/co-dependent sort of thing. But yeah: Why? Because he couldn’t stop. I think there was something about needing that escape somehow…It was his way to get out of his own head, in a way that wasn’t violent. But to flip it around a bit, what’s horrible is that we have to look and talk about that part of his life, but it’s wrong that, for some people, he became less than human, a played-out joke, a beast that America could laugh at. The way he spoke was mocked. There’s a way to look at how his behavior was rooted in his life and experience and understand where it came from. But what's worse is to look at that behavior and turn the person who did it into an animal.
He kept it up for a long time. When did Brown begin to feel the physical effects of years of onstage abuse on his body?
His midsection you see it, his knees you see it, especially when he came out of prison. He was kind of changed man physically. You see it a lot in the shows during the last two years where a lot of sexy women walking across the stage holding American flags. Turns out, when James did the splits, a woman was supposed to walk in front of him with a flag so that he could get back up and not have it look embarrassing. It totally worked, but if you watch those shows for awhile, you realize, ‘Okay, that’s what’s going on.’ He was definitely taking those short cuts with the knees and the splits.
But he’s still doing splits at 73 years old! And playing eighty-one shows a year!
Yep. He was still giving it everything he had.
Your sections on Brown’s relationship to the various incarnations of the Civil Rights movement makes for a complex read. He really seemed like Candide or Malcolm McDowell’s character in O Lucky Man! in that he’s in the bubble of his classic road show and sort of keeps accidentally bumping up into this other road show that will eventually, inevitably involve him.
Civil Rights sort of fell on him, and he had to rise to the occasion – much more than Northerners like Sam Cooke or Clyde McPhatter, who had a position staked out that they were out in front of. Brown was behind it at first, but found himself trying to figure out a course for himself that would be honest and righteous and lucrative. He was treading water for awhile there, but the guy was so ambitious, he kept rising to the challenge in his own way, getting big audiences, giving his opinions on things when people asked, he did interesting records like “Say It Out Loud”…Would he have done that record if he didn’t feel he had to “feed the machine”? In some ways that’s what that record is about – he was expected to have an opinion and he was getting pressure from all sides. He really believed it though, which is why that record is so insanely great.
And yet it came right after “America is My Home,” which you note is more like those stilted right- wing songs of the late ‘60s like Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” or Barry Sadler’s “Ballad of the Green Berets.”
It’s not a great track, but it’s not a bad one either. He was trying. He loved what America meant to him, that was his love poem to it, and it allowed him to be sort of critical of the Vietnam War protests, which he never really fully accepted. He was never going to be directly critical of the antiwar movement, but he wasn’t going to join the protests either. He went to Vietnam and entertained the troops. That was his part.
He could be so eloquent on the subject of race, but always addressed it from a personal level, which anyone could understand. There’s that scene in the film When We Were Kings where he’s sitting around with Muhammad Ali, Lloyd Price and Don King. He says very quietly, “Treat someone the way you’d want them to treat you” or something like that. There was no ego or flash there, just a black man sitting on a couch in Africa, laying it all out very simple.
He gave a lot interviews where he gave his stock answers or ignored questions that bored him, but once in a while, when the camera was on him, he would say very simple and very cool things like that. Later his life, he started giving interviews when, I’m sorry to say, he sounds pretty high. But he also said some revealing things that he normally wouldn’t have said. The truth came out on occasion. There’s an incredible interview online that Brown did with Michael Tilson Thomas and there’s some amazing, poetic passages in there, speaking about what “The One” means and other things. It’s still all over the map, but there’s some deep stuff in there. In the end, you can't deny the man was a poet.