Tuesday, January 23, 2007
More Thoughts On Area Code 615
"In the late '60s there was an influx of artists from New York and LA who were digging country sounds... Some of the guys in the companies thought that some of the Nashville studio folks should get together and do an album. Elliot Mazer got us together, and Wayne Moss had a little studio out in Madison. There was nine of us , and we would go in and work on ideas and songs. A good majority of the ideas came from Charlie McCoy and Wayne. We would work all day on one song, changing this and that. It took us 17 sessions to get that first album together." This work process represents a remarkable change from the usual production routine in Nashville-- a level of creative freedom and mutual input that is audible, I think, in the music that the group created. For working musicians who still struggled to get by on studio wages, the sacrifice of time and money that the collective creation process represented is pretty amazing, too.
According to Myrick, the group shopped the demo around, and ultimately sold it to Polydor, who paid retroactively for studio costs and agreed to finance another album. The William Morris Agency signed up the group and apparently had "big plans" for them. Myrick recalled that none of the group's members wanted to give up the seniority they had gained in the Nashville studio system, and so the touring and other commitments that being a full-time concern would have entailed.
I have also been trying to further explore the meaning of Charlie McCoy's harmonica within the symbolic matrix of Bubba Sparxxx's music. Two new ideas have come to mind. First, when musing on why I felt the urge to include the example of DeFord Bailey, the Grand Ole Opry's harmonica player (and sole African American performer)of the 1930s, I did a little more legwork, and recalled that Bailey had been unceremoniously fired by Opry boss George D. Hay in the early 1940s. The details behid Bailey's firing are murky, and they are at least partially related to internecine fights over BMI and ASCAP affiliation during ASCAP's wartime recording ban. Even Stephen Hawking would have a hard time figuring out the intricacies of that conflict. That is, if he studied antiquarian pop music history instead of astrophysics. Given that he does study astrophysics, I guess I shouldn't be surprising that he would have a hard time figuring out the BMI and ASCAP war. But I am still disappointed.
But another element of the story is that the wildly popular DeFord Bailey never spoke on air nor was ever identified by the Opry's announcer as black. The harmonica playing thus embodied a kind of racial slippage or indeterminacy, related to but different from the racial indeterminacy at the heart of the Opry's blackface duo Jamup and Honey.
As Louis Kyriakoudes notes, "DeFord Bailey's presence on the early Opry stood as an unintended acknowledgement of the biracial elements of old-time music. Bailey was central to the Opry—his harmonica performances were among the most popular on the program—and the radio did not directly indicate his race. But Hay refused to accept him as an equal member of the opry, referring to Bailey as 'a little crippled boy... [who] was our mascot.' He typically required Bailey to play alone and restricted him to a limited repertoire until he was fired, ironically, for not learning new tunes."
I also forgot to properly contextualize the harmonica and Charlie McCoy as part of the late 1960s construction of a defiantly southern country music in Nashville. Bluegrass music and honky tonk country had maintained an uneasy coexistence in the late 1950s and early 1960s, faced with the challenges of rock and roll on the one hand and countrypolitan on the other. Nevertheless, while both honky tonk and bluegrass enjoyed a "hard shell" status in contrast to the "soft" sounds coming out of Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley's studios, they were very different forms. Not only was bluegrass acoustic and honky tonk electric, but bluegrass maintained a rigid sense of moral self-discipline, while honky tonk explored the nether regions of modern anxiety. It was in the context of the electricification of bluegrass in the late 1960s, best represented by Jim and Jesse and the Osborne Brothers that the harmonica became firmly ensconced in "Nashville country music" as we now know it. The bleed-over into the construction of Nixon-era whiteness and George Wallace-ite southern conservativism is unmistakable. Between the Osborne's "Rocky Top" and Jim and Jesse's paeans to the organic community of southern textile mill towns, it is not hard to see how the "new" sounds of late 1960s country would map on to new values and politics. Or perhaps, sometimes a harmonica is just a harmonica?
Saturday, January 20, 2007
More Thoughts on Bubba Sparxxx
It isn't hard to find other recent examples of these rituals, many of which are arranged to mark anniversaries of traumatic moments in the long struggle for civil rights for blacks in the United States. I wonder if there is a difference between these rituals, which aim to resolve outstanding historical grievances, and others that emerge from more or less current or contemporary outbreaks of racial violence. We can think of the Ted Koppel "America in Black and White" televised town hall meeting (which PBS aired as part of its "P.O.V." series in January, 2003) staged to reconcile black and white citizens of Jasper, Texas as a prime example of this second category. Jasper was the site of the 1998 death-by-dragging of James Byrd, a black resident of the town, by three white men in a pickup truck. (This incident also provoked Christian Marclay's brilliant video piece "Guitar Drag," one of the finest "political" artworks of recent years).
It seems that the recent media coverage of "ghetto fabulous" parties held by white students at southern universities should be understood in light of this genre. In fall 2006, some University of Texas law students held such an event, at which, according to the AP story, "partygoers carried 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor and wore Afro wigs, necklaces with large medallions and name tags bearing traditionally black and Hispanic names". Austin, which always seemed like a pretty racially fucked-up place to me when we lived there (despite its mostly unearned and inflated reputation as a liberal haven) has had a long tradition of racist frat culture. The same AP story cited above concludes with a reminder that in 2004, UT had to institute sweeping changes to rehabilitate its reputations after a rash of racist incidents on campus were reported, including the egging of a Martin Luther King Jr. statue and "fraternity parties where blacks were portrayed in Jim Crow racial stereotypes."
Just this weekend, Fox News has been hyping a similar story, but more explicitly massaging the "reconciliation" angle. Students at Tarleton State University (in Stephenville, Texas) held a racist Martin Luther King day party, at which they rehearsed the most cliched and degrading stereotypes of black culture: fried chicken, gang sign flashing, Aunt Jemima costumes, malt liquor, ad nauseum. Within hours, the story changed from outrage at the behavior of the undergrads to footage of black students publicly forgiving the offending partiers, and awkwardly hugging repentant revelers. The implicit message, of course, is that it is the responsibility of black students to help heal their racist classmates; any footage of students who might have felt that 4 minutes was not long enough to move from anger to conciliation was left on the cutting-room floor. In regard to these "ghetto fabulous" parties we should recall Michael Rogin's eloquent analysis of racial mimesis as psychic surgery. "Blackface," Rogin wrote, "heals" America's racial division "in allowing whites playfully to expropriate blacks under conditions of hierarchical, interracial harmony" ('Democracy and Burnt Cork': The End of Blackface, The Beginning of Civil Rights," Representations 1999, 6).
The most potent example of collegiate race hatred is, of course, the case of Duke lacrosse players accused of sexually assaulting an African-American stripper hired to entertain at an off-campus party. It is now apparent that the DA royally screwed the case up, and the media spin has thus been of the backlash "poor white boys" variety. There will be no conciliatory group hug in Raleigh-Durham. Whatever else eventually comes out in the wash, we will be left with the bitter image of big (northeastern prep school) men on (a southern) campus enjoying the sexual performances of poor African-American strippers, about whom they said some of the most degrading things I have ever read.
In this light, three features of Bubba Sparxxx-as-purveyor-of-racial-reconciliation stand out. First, Sparxxx articulates a shared sense of southern "enjoyment" that crosses racial lines and heals historical wounds. Implicit in Sparxxx's music and public image is the notion that southerners "enjoy themselves" in a unique way, and that whites and blacks can overcome history through collective participation in this culture of enjoyment. This faith in the emancipatory power of shared cultural participation was at the core of the Coen Brothers's O Brother Where Art Thou and the vogue for Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music
upon its CD reissue. Recall that the blind white Mississippi disc jockey in O Brother was unable to distinguish between white and black musicians, and that one of the pleasures of the Anthology is the beguiling racial indeterminacy of so many of the artists. It is not surprising that Sparxxx used O Brother's opening chain-gang escape scene as a motif in his video for "Deliverance."
Of equal importance, however, is the second feature of Sparxxx's work: his creative use of history, broadly conceived, as a crucial tool of utopian imaginative work. This is not peculiar to Sparxxx: from Atlanta hip-hop duo Outkast's speakasy fantasy Idlewild to Virginia rapper Missy Elliot's evocation of a sepia-toned past in the video for "Pass the Dutch," southern hip-hop writ large is marked by an interest in creative reneogtiations of history.
The final dimension of Sparxxx's conciliatroy project is his articulation of southern white working-class identity. Not simply another version of mimetic "blackface," Sparxxx's persona speaks to desires for a white working-class identity resistant to (or at least unsullied by) the reactionary "whiteness" that has dominated the American imagination for centuries. There is a profound sense in Sparxxx's music that this work is preparatory to a final racial reconciliation between southern blacks and whites. Vh1's brilliant "The White Rapper Show" seems to be erected on similar foundations.
The million dollar question, however, is this: where are the women in all of these rituals of racial reconciliation? The answer requires a whole separate post, which is forthcoming. Even the most cursory analysis would nevertheless reveal that women are not merely absent from the efforts by southern white men to work out their anxieties and guilt. On the contrary, they are central. The exploitation of women, black and white, seems to be at the core of these efforts to repair the historic antagonism between southern whites and blacks. For that reason, tragically, the net benefits of the work of Sparxxx and his fellow travelers, which could be profound, are more likely to be negligible.
Friday, January 12, 2007
Tired of Beating Our Heads Against The Wall and Working for Someone Else, Part I
Seth Sandronsky recently wrote a moving testament to Brown's music as a soundtrack to the civil rights revolution (on the ever-indispensable mrzine.org website), a tocsin of the "race, class, and gender struggle for a new society." A letter writer, Richard S, (who runs the promisingly-titled blog "commie curmudgeon") thoughtfully responded by pointing out that Brown "was a major advocate of 'black capitalism,' he was proud to be a big businessman, he supported Richard Nixon, he ran his bands in a strictly hierarchical manner and fined band members for any slip-ups, and he was an admitted wife beater." Taking issue with Sandronsky's reading of "Say It Loud I'm Black and I'm Proud" (from which the title to this post is taken) as a Tronti-esque workerist anthem, Richard S. admits that he finds it hard "to reconcile these facts with the idea that James Brown was a great opponent of the alienation of labor and played a major part in a 'race, class and gender struggle for a new society.'"
As far as I understand the historical record, both Sandronsky and Richard are right. For many African Americans in the Civil Rights and Black Power eras, Brown's music (along with that of many other R&B artists) did fuel aspirations for revolutionary social change. If he had done nothing else but oversee the recording of "Funky Drummer," Brown would have been an important figure in the intersection of black music and politics, since that song launched a thousand hip-hop tracks (although by that logic, Billy Squier and Kraftwerk would also be honorary Deacons for Defense).
Unlike Jody Rosen, Sandronsky does not overexaggerate the success of the movements that sought to acheive this change, or Brown's role in their limited successes. One reason that I was so annoyed by the James Brown obit in Slate was that it described his acheivement as "having made the world funky," thereby affirming the neocon interpretation of the Civil Rights movement as a successful fait accompli by 1966 or 1967. Blacks could vote; the world was funky; and just as Guess Who's Coming to Dinner's Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy would be moved to transcend their old-fashioned resistance to the interracial marriage of their daughter by encountering a group of free-spirited youths frugging in the street, so America could overcome its legacy of entrenched racism by trading James Crow for James Brown. The net effect of this kind of bad history is the rendering-absurd of more radical manfestations of the civil rights movement and contemporary claims regarding persisting (in many cases deepening) inequalities between blacks and whites in the United States.
Richard S. is correct, however, in cautioning against extending this interpretation to somehow mean that Brown's music articulated black workers' frustrations and aspirations to build a more meaningful and authentic existence. Leaving aside the unsavory details of Brown's personal life (which certainly make him an unattractive figure, but don't necessarily mitigate his political significance... the same accusations could certainly made against someone like Huey Newton, who is nevertheless considered a talented and influential, if deeply flawed and problematic, political leader by most historians), we should focus on the presence or absence of "work critique" in the music of Brown.
Like Richard S, I agree that Brown's treatment of his musical collaborators was loathsome. In fact, like many bandleader entrepreneurs of postwar pop music, from Buck Owens to Buddy Rich, Brown built his persona and performances (as well as his profit base) on control, public humiliation, and exploitation of the musicians who worked for him. However we interpret this (and I think one possibility is to read Brown's performance of control as parodic, and thus in certain ways radical), we should not proceed from one isolated set of lyrics to a wholesale appraisal of Brown's depiction of workers and work. Brian Ward reminds us that massive pressure was required on the part of civil rights leaders to convince Brown to lend his voice and resources to the movement.
In Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness, and Race Relations (another must-read recent American Studies-ish history of African American music), Ward writes that Roy Wilkins had to "virtually shame" Brown into endorsing the NAACP from the stage of the Apollo." Even after he tentatively accepted responsibility to support the civil rights movement, he mostly carried it out by penning toothless songs like "Don't Be A Dropout" and orchestrating publicity stunts like handing out free Christmas meals as a tie-in to his single "Santa Go Straight To The Ghetto.” Richard S. is right to point out as well that Brown's commitment to black capitalism, materialism, and a macho-essentialist vision of "blackness" was unwavering. From Amiri Baraka to Larry Neal, movement intellectuals frequently confessed feelings that ranged from mixed to hostile in regard to Brown.
As it happens, it was miserable to work for Brown. As Brian Ward and Cynthia Rose attest, Brown's employees were treated very badly. Cynthia Rose, author of Living in America: The Soul Saga of James Brown, one of the best mass-market pop music books ever written, recounts the litany of rumors that circulated about Brown as taskmaster:
"James took all the credit for the compositional triumphs of many associates. James enslaved his retinue by claiming that, if they left him, he'd see that they never worked again. During his second, late '80s spell in prison, many of Brown's most well-known ex-employees have underscroed his three decades of creativity with horror stories of financial extortion, woman-beatin, and--latterly-- drug abuse."
Fred Wesley's discussion with Rose of working for James Brown is frankly terrifying: "James was bossy and paranoid... I don't see why someone of his stature would be so defensive. I couldn't understand the way he treated his band, why he was so evil."
In American culture, overridden by several different "labor metaphysics," even suggesting that life might be more than beating one's head against the wall and working for someone else is nevertheless a radical gesture. For African Americans, caught between an internally contradictory racist ideology that depicts them as both shiftless loafers and superhuman workhorses, the critique of work and the work ethic is a powerful substrate of cultural resistance. If we know where to listen, we can hear this resistance in every instance that cultural workers push against the arbitrary power of their bosses... but we are not likely to hear it in the exhortations of those very bosses, no matter how much we might want to.
Compare and Contrast
Tuesday, January 09, 2007
Stone Fox Chase
Although I generally hate playing "find the sample," I have been intrigued by the history of the harmonica loop that undergirds Bubba Sparxxx's "Jimmy Mathis": a rave-up called "Stone Fox Chase" by the obscure 1960s instrumental group Area Code 615.
I discovered the geneaology of the "Jimmy Mathis" sample, strangely enough, while the Bubba Sparxxx project was completely on the back burner. Over the holidays I became obsessed with hearing Area Code 615 while catching up on some american studies-ish music history books that have been on my list for a while. At the top of that list was Peter Shapiro's Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco. (By the way, this book is amazing. I encourage everybody, even folks who are not especially interested in disco, to read it. The other book I read [some of ] was Scott Saul's Freedom Is, Freedom Aint: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties, which is also good, although the title made me hopeful it might be more about free music and less about hard bop.)
Shapiro reports that "Stone Fox Chase" was one of the staples of DJ sets in the pre-Saturday Night Fever years of gay New York disco. According to Shapiro, DJ Ray Yeates was fond of spinning the record at the Tenth Floor, a pioneering gay "clone club" of the pre-AIDS Gotham sexual underground. Shapiro provides a description of "Stone Fox Chase" that immediately made me bolt up and run to my computer to confirm via wikipedia that I had not accidentally overdosed on raw-sheep's-milk stilton or mescaline and dreamt it up: "an utterly bizarre record made by Nashville's most famous session musicians that sounded like the backwoods family in Deliverance jamming with the percussionists from the Last Poets records."
My researches confirmed that Area Code 615 did in fact exist. After I tracked down their collected works, I feel comfortable asserting that they had the best idea for a band ever: Nashville "A-Team" studio pros cut loose on laid-back, vaguely afro-cuban pyschedelic country instrumentals in the patchouli haze of late-1960s Music City. Ever fixated on hot pedal steel music, I was particularly moved to droolage by the fact that Connie Smith's amazing steel player, Weldon Myrick, held down the steel chair in the band.
The centerpiece of the band, however, was harmonica player Charlie McCoy. Normally I hate the harmonica, but Charlie McCoy is an exception-- his playing is gritty and aggressive and rooted in the ornamental language of southern fiddle music. The rest of the group--fiddle great Buddy Spicher; guitarists Wayne Moss and Mac Gayden; and drummer Kenny Buttrey, who played on Blonde on Blonde and Tonight's The Night-- are insanely great. The trade-off between bluesy, fuzz-laden southern rock guitar licks and squeaky clean country picking is consistently arresting... something like Grand Ole Opry cut-to-commercial cues as perfect minimalist/nostalgia furniture music.
Were we to not know the Nashville psychedelic studio experiment and disco heritage of "Stone Fox Chase" (which would be easy, since it is more famous as also the theme song to English rock variety show "The Old Grey Whistle Test"), our understanding of the meaning of Charlie McCoy's harmonica loop might be unduly straightforward. Likely, while creating the tracks for "Jimmy Mathis," producer Tim "Timbaland" Mosely sought an evocation of the reclaimed whiteness at the core of Sparxxx's weltanschauung. There certainly is much to recommend the "Stone Fox Chase" harmonica sample. Its appropriateness for the song derives from the racial semiotics of the harmonica: like so much of the material of popular music, a racial semiotics rooted in timbre, phrasing, and articulation.
Using an overtly twangy sample, such as a pedal steel guitar or fiddle, would signal too much a straightforward "caucasian"-ness that might seem retrograde or silly. Using samples too close to the materials of funk and soul music would defeat the purpose of forging a conciliatory and authentic "white" southern hip hop voice and sound-palette. The humble harmonica, connotative of nostalgic southern Americana (the wikipedia entry notes that Abraham Lincoln, Billy the Kid, and Wyatt Earp were all marine band tootlers...that's so American its almost, I dunno, Soviet) and long-linked with itinerant ramblers in national mythology, works to reinforce the rural proletarian valences of Sparxxx's persona.
At the same time, the style of overblown diatonic harmonica playing on "Stone Fox Chase" is a very African-American-coded sound. As I listen to it more, it occurs to me that McCoy's harmonica loop calls to mind most, at least in relation to my own musical memory, the 1960s white blues revivalists John Mayall and Paul Butterfield, and their models, Little Walter and Rice Miller. The prewar history of the harmonica had its own racial enigma: DeFord Bailey, an African-American harmonica player who played exciting train songs on George Hay's original Grand Ole Opry, often performing on the same bills as blackface minstrel acts.
In conclusion: something about tracing the migration of "Stone Fox Chase" from the mixing boards of a Vietnam-era Nashville music studio to the imaginary New South of Bubba Sparxxx via the Tom of Finland pleasure palaces of 1970s New York seems to powerfully undermine my reflexes to think about the coding of sounds as fixed and obvious. That's good!
Psyched to Promote Environmental Consciousness!
I tried to find out more about environmental consciouness and/or Fall Out Boy by going to the Honda Civic Tour website, but there was surprisingly not much there. So I went to FOB's website, which was also surprisingly free of content. Then I was directed to a site called www.absolutepunk.net. "Finally," I thought, "a punk website that is absolute! I abhor the partiality, nay the very fragmentaricity of all of those other punk websites!"
Well, absolutepunk.net was a big letdown. It didn't even seem to be about punk music at all. It is owned by "Indieclick," and owned by "3jane digital holdings, inc" which has "built many of the addictive community and social networking sites driving the second boom in Internet media including the original SuicideGirls site, Grab.com, Makeoutclub and many more." None of these sites promote environmental consciousness either, unless paeans to the awesomeness of the Nintendo wii system or the opportunity to play Diner Dash or Diner Dash 2 have some secret green agenda I cannot detect.
Okay, I know that this is sort of beating a dead horse, but can we just make a mental note to remember that when those "poptimist" people call us snobs for believing that there is something at stake in distinguishing between musicians who are stooges for capitalism and those who at least try not to be stooges for capitalism, we should point out: some of these douchebags actually play tours that are all about loving the Honda Civic, and that is, not to put too fine a point on it, I don't know... fucking lame?
* It occurs to me that much of my life has been spent sorting out various types of punchable-looking men. The Fall Out Boy guy is in the same category as the swarthy guy in Fast Times in Ridgemont High who gets Jennifer Jason Leigh's character pregnant, or maybe halfway between him and the unctuous noneck date rapist-vibe of a Joe Francis. But then he has that psychopathic thousand-yard blank stare of a latter-day Jared Leto, which is always a tip-off that I am in the company of someone who is going to start talking about their dreams for 55 hours, but also a bit of the shit-eating grin of JC Chasez, which always makes me think that someone is going to be molested before the evening is over, and somehow I am going to have to watch football.
Friday, January 05, 2007
The Cannibal Corpse of MOR Southern Rock?
I have been investigating the very welcome phenomenon of blogs with links to winrar-archived rare and out of print records. Church Number Nine has some outrageously great things for the free jazz fan. And Orang Aural is also well worth a visit... and I will even recommend it as a source for the rare John Zorn radio hour, which has, among other things, some of the best James "Blood" Ulmer excerpts that can be heard with human ears.
Speaking of James "Blood" Ulmer:
Also, my comrades the Reveries are the subjects of a great cover feature in this week's Eye Weekly. This on the heels of a glowing review for Eric Chenaux's wonderful Dull Lights record in the Wire... could the world be coming to its senses?
Tuesday, January 02, 2007
"He Made The World Funky" (Terrible headline. The world did not get "funkier" during James Brown's career. After the 1960s, it got crueller and more sadistic and blissfully neglectful of the suffering of its working-class populations. Brown, a hypercapitalist musical dictator, became a hero to the post-"Blues Brothers" fraternity bond traders of Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, and gleefully assumed the role of Reagan White House court jester with his "Rocky IV" set piece "Living in America" (Ivan Drago was definitely not funky). We get a hint too of the hagiographic fallacy inherent in Rosen's understanding of popular music and its heroes. Why did "he" and not Big Bill Broonzy and the Staples Singers and the Meters and Ike and Tina and Sly Stone and the thousands of other African American participants in the making of R&B and soul and funk "make the world funky"?)
"In the spring of 1965, James Brown went into a Charlotte, N.C., studio to cut a new record. (Like the insanely grating hollywood biopic obssession with primal scenes and Rosebud traumas, mainstream music writing is bedeviled by a tendency to streamline diffuse cultural moments into single pivotal moments.) The song's lyrics were little more than a laundry list of dance crazes, but the music was eerie and unusual—a jittery blues vamp, with oddly accented beats and horns darting and honking in the vast, empty spaces between whip-crack snare hits. "I was hearing everything, even the guitars, like they were drums," Brown would recall in his autobiography. Sure enough, the guitar sound was heavily percussive, clanking like a sledgehammer striking a rail spike. Brown flubbed a couple of lyrics during the recording, but when he heard the playback he decided, correctly, that the piece was too good to warrant a second take. "When I saw the speakers jumping, vibrating a certain way, I knew that was it: deliverance," Brown remembered, adding, in the understatement of all-time, "I had discovered that my strength was … in the rhythm." (How convenient that the memoirs of a notorious megalomaniac are trusted as an authoritative source... and that the creative contributions of the anonymous musicians who created this music are absorbed within Brown's "deliverance.")
"The song was called "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," and for once it's not glib to say that the rest was history. With "Brand New Bag," Brown created funk and laid the groundwork for disco, hip-hop, techno, and virtually every other style of modern popular music that has come since. He taught the world to wring percussive noise from every instrument—to hear drums everywhere—and to treat every song as the occasion for a riotous party. And he embarked on his most fertile period, a decade that produced dozens of the hottest records ever made: "I Feel Good," "Sex Machine," "Brother Rapp," "Give It Up or Turnit a Loose," "Super Bad," and "Mother Popcorn" (my personal vote for funkiest song in the universe), among many others." (Not glib? According to whom, Matt Lauer? Even the most traditional "great man" historian would bristle at the reductionism of Rosen's historiography. In popular music, as in most fields with rapid shifts in style and technology, innovation tends to be collective and social, not the product of individual geniuses. That's why so many "geniuses" feel the need to rewrite history after the fact, claiming the mantle of innovator-heroes in their autobiographies. And dare I risk being pedantic by mentioning that even if we wanted to attribute innovation to individuals, those individuals should be Jimmy Nolen and Earl Palmer and James Jamerson and Bootsy Collins and Zigaboo Modeliste and Bernie Worrell and the Horny Horns as well as James Brown? And why does that "my personal vote for funkiest song in the universe" line bother me so much? Is it because "vote" is awkward, "universe" an adolescent stab at coolness, and the fact that plebsicites on the canon of funkiest songs among yuppie music writers, and funk itself, seem so mutually exclusive?)
But Brown's achievement is larger than his own oeuvre and the genres that it begat. Flip on the radio virtually anywhere on earth today, and you will hear the sound of the Brown Revolution, the blare of propulsive, polyrhythmic dance music. Beats have conquered the world, even the West, where polyphony was born and melody and harmony have traditionally held sway. No other musician—not Louis Armstrong, not Elvis Presley, not Bob Dylan—can claim so central a role in this momentous cultural shift. "Make It Funky," James commanded, and from Boise to Berlin to Bangkok, they have. (Okay, come on, this is nuts... Even Thomas Friedman and Niall Ferguson would be embarassed by this vision of cultural imperialism as artistic achievement. Is this not the clearest articulation of a capitalist aesthetics, a value system that prizes above all the conquest of new markets? Again, it is unclear why James Brown should be given credit for this spread of "beat music," and why the syncopated music of most of the world, which had been around for a long time prior to the advent of notation-based artistocratic folk music, and mostly survived its distortions of musical culture just fine, is not seen as the triumphant cultural force, rather than American pop music. Finally, the alliteration is nauseatingly cutesy.)
"The obituaries that have appeared in the wake of Brown's death yesterday at the age of 73 have sketched the milestones and curiosities of his life: his hardscrabble childhood in Georgia, where he was raised by an aunt who ran a brothel; his rise through the chitlin' circuit; his marriages and arrests; his big hits, black pride anthems, and strange fondness for Richard Nixon. And his nicknames: "the Godfather of Soul," "Soul Brother No. 1," "Minister of Super Heavy Funk," "the Hardest Working Man in Show Business," "Mr. Dynamite." No one who ever saw Brown in concert could doubt that he earned those titles. Even in his dotage, he led a band as tight as any in the world and executed his signature shimmies, slides, and splits in dance shoes buffed to a high gloss.
Brown's showmanship merged the fervent emotionalism of the black church with pure showbiz—flashy clothes, vaudevillian theatrics, sweat-drenched movement, and a pompadour flamboyant enough to inspire Al Sharpton (and countless pimps). He was the model for all pop performers who followed him. After Brown, even the whitest white boy felt compelled to shake it a little onstage. (Perhaps Brown popularized his own version of gospel emotionalism plus showbiz, but he certainly did not originate this conjugation. In fact, black preachers had this combination down many years prior to Brown's breakout as a megastar. Rosen's love of "great man" narratives compromises his discussion of Brown's significance here, too: what were the thousands of anonymous jook joint blues performers, the honkers and shouters of the jump blues bands, T-Bone Walker, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard if not originators of stylized, sexually provocative performance styles? Why is Brown's personal style singled out as a sartorial watershed, when just about every history of African American style and beauty culture recognizes multiple lines of influence and inspiration in the development of hairstyles and pimp chic? And this whole, "After Brown, even the whitest white boy felt compelled to shake it a little onstage" line is racist in at least two ways: 1) rhetorically, placing this line at the end of the paragraph seems to indicate that whatever the significance of Brown for African American culture, his real importance was his impact on "white boys"; and 2) the idea that "white" and "black" are appropriate shorthand for "squareness" and "funkiness." Finally, "shake it onstage" is embarassing writing, and many "white boys" didn't shake it onstage, even after the advent of James Brown.
The world is a quieter and duller place now that Brown will never again stride the boards, although you can relive the excitement by playing the volcanic Live at the Apollo (1963). That record, by far the best live album ever made, (Come on: why is everything in rock critic world about the "best of all time"? Along with "who did it first?" it is such an intellectually degrading framework for thinking about art) is a good place to begin listening, along with the Star Time box set, which includes most of the big hits. But digging into the Brown discography is the task of a lifetime. He made at least 70 albums, and there are brilliant moments on all of them. His earliest recordings, from the late 1950s, prove that his raw-throated ballad singing would have made him a legend even if he'd never found the funk. ("the funk"?) (Hunt down his 1959 debut Please Please Please.) He recorded jazz standards and gospel testimonials and disco, rap, showtunes, instrumentals, and dozens upon dozens of hilarious numbers like "For Goodness Sake, Look at Those Cakes" and "Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto"—which I suppose you could call novelty songs, if the grooves weren't so seriously ferocious. ("Seriously ferocious"? What did this guy do before writing for Slate? Compose ad copy for Don Cherry "Rock Em Sock Em Hockey" tapes?)
A subtler, often overlooked achievement is the words that Brown wrote and sang. He was capable of writing traditional pop lyrics, but by the late '60s, straightforward narratives and confessions were largely replaced by a surreal flow of catchphrases and exhortations that gushed out over the inexorable (Fuck you: inexorable-- you've got to be kidding me) beat: "Give it up or turn it a loose"; "Gimme some air!"; "Take it to the bridge!"; "Mama, come here quick/ Bring me that lickin' stick"; "Hit me!"; "Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud"; "Sometimes I feel so nice/ Good Lord!/ I jump back, I wanna kiss myself"; and, passim, "Unh!," with which Brown proved, again and again, that in pop music, sound is sense, and that a single well-placed, wordless guttural can carry more meaning than a thousand poetaster's stanzas. Of course, in between grunts, Brown slipped in some worldly wisdom. To wit: "Get up offa that thing, and shake 'till you feel better/ Get up offa that thing, and shake it/ Sing it now!" In other words: Dancing is joy's end and its means. As philosophies of life go, it's not too shabby, and it's the best user's guide to James Brown records that I know. (Far be it from me to suggest that a vision of social emancipation and collective struggle against inequality might be a less "shabby" philosophy of life, and that Brown's resistance to linking his music more forcefully with the Civil Rights movement and Black Power might have merited some comment. Rosen's final sentence sucks, too: a philosophy isn't a user's guide, and "that I know" sounds like the formulaic wrap-up that desperate teenagers reach for when trying to conclude bar mitzvah speeches and college admissions essays).
The relentless groove was Brown's specialty, and he proved its pleasures were as profound, its mysteries as rich, as any that art has to offer. He worked hard to refine his craft. Earlier this year, critic and occasional Slate contributor Douglas Wolk gave me an extraordinary collection of MP3s he'd compiled of nearly every single ever produced by James Brown. Listening to these hundreds of songs by dozens of artists, it becomes clear that Brown is a bandleader and musical auteur on par with Duke Ellington. Like Ellington, he presided over a steady cast of players (including, among other greats, bassist Bootsy Collins, saxophonist Maceo Parker, trombonist Fred Wesley, and drummer Clyde Stubblefield), composed to their strengths, and kept pushing the music into new territory. Listen closely, with a good pair of headphones, and the thousand pointillist details of Brown's genius open up to you: the shifting accents and registers, the variations in dynamics and attack, the disconcerting spaces and silences, the beats piled atop beats. But, of course, that genius is never more apparent than when the headphones come off and you lose yourself in the steamy blur of a packed dance floor. (This is by far the most annoying tendency of new school rock critics-- when all else fails, go for a weird reference to dancing that makes everybody uncomfortable. Thanks, Sasha Frere-Jones, for popularizing this pathetic cred-grab strategy... and I thought that interminable UI set I had to sit through before US Maple played at the Rivoli was going to be the worst thing you ever did to me).