walk with me / talk with me

My daugh­ter is bop­ping around the gar­den singing I Feel Good

I’ve just received an email from a good friend telling me that James Brown has died.

It being Xmas, I’ve been out all day doing Christ­mas type things (and sit­ting on the beach), and to be hon­est, this was the very last thing I expect­ed to come home to.

The inter­net, such is the nature of things, will be awash with trib­utes to one of the most influ­en­tial musi­cal fig­ures of the last cen­tu­ry, and beyond say­ing that with­out James con­tem­po­rary music as we know it, and pop­u­lar cul­ture, would be a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent beast, I’ll leave the musi­cal eulo­gies to oth­ers.

I saw James for the first time in Lon­don in 1984, way past his prime sad­ly but still absolute­ly com­pelling. I’d turned down an invi­ta­tion to see him on Auckland’s North Shore at the quaint­ly named Kicks Cabaret in late sev­en­ties, one of those gigs, and there have been a few, I’ve always regret­ted, in my naivety (and pover­ty) miss­ing.

I saw him again twice in the lat­ter years of the eight­ies and he was nev­er less than astound­ing. As I men­tioned in my live overview, stand­ing phys­i­cal­ly next to Maceo, and by exten­sion, JB, who was chant­i­ng “Maceo, Maceo” over the sax solo, in Mel­bourne, in 1988, is quite a mem­o­ry for me.

I turned down the chance to see JB in the ear­ly part of this decade (twice actu­al­ly) and from all accounts, I made the cor­rect deci­sion. I’d seen him late enough in his career and didn’t want to spoil that by see­ing a declin­ing mon­ey mak­ing machine. Those I knew that had also seen him ear­li­er and saw the lat­ter shows indi­cat­ed that was all it was. Not that I begrudge the man that, it’s just that I didn’t want to see it.

Inevitably there has already been a whole bunch of stuff online along the lines of “one less wife beat­ing junkie”, (his trou­bles dom­i­nat­ed the CNN trib­ute I saw — it’s hard to be a black icon in the USA) and quite frankly, he wasn’t per­fect or close to it — how many of our musi­cal heroes are, espe­cial­ly those that come from the time and place that James did.

How­ev­er, none of that can remove the sheer joy and exhil­a­ra­tion gen­er­a­tions felt and will feel “tak­ing it to the bridge” one more time.

In 1988 Stet­sason­ic released their clas­sic Talk­ing All That Jazz with the now famous lines:

Tell the truth, James Brown was old
‘Til Eric and Rakim came out with “I Got Soul”

which, whilst there was an ele­ment of truth in it, rather missed the point: the hip hop sam­plers may have giv­en James’ cat­a­logue a new life but with­out JB, there would have been no hip hop.

End of sto­ry. None. He, or those he sur­round­ed him­self with, defined and invent­ed the music that made pos­si­ble Stet­sason­ic.

One of my favourite JB moments was see­ing the man on Lar­ry King in the ear­ly nineties claim­ing he had been sam­pled “almost 100 times”…uh okay James…are we talk­ing in the aver­age week?

We can talk­ing about lega­cy as much as we like, it’s all made absolute­ly irrel­e­vant by the open­ing swirl of It’s a Mans World, or the break­down in Talk­ing Loud and Say­ing Noth­in’, or for that mat­ter, a thou­sand oth­er James moments.

JB was always most­ly about the joy of just hear­ing him; of nev­er get­ting over hear­ing him; and of want­i­ng to hear him again and again.

I’ll miss you James Brown, thank you for a big part of my life.

His last words, so I’ve read, were I’m going away tonight. Nope James, you’ll always be here…

With that in mind I’m off to immerse myself. I will, for a moment, get slight­ly morose and then grin joy­ous­ly to the untouch­able Bal­lads album

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