James McBride wants to understand James Brown, as man and as a myth. He's unhappy with the biographical material that's out there. And so he goes on a search of his own, to the places where Brown was born, where he was raised, and where those who knew him now live--as far away from the South Carolina-Georgia border and the "chitlin circuit" as England (geographically) and to meetings with rock-ribbed white Republican men (culturally). This slim volume is the report on what he found.
McBride is a musician himself, which gives him one point of contact with with James Brown; he's black, which gives him another; he's a former writer for people magazine who covered Michael Jackson's 1984 "Victory Tour," which gives him a third; and, when this narrative starts out, he was going through marital upheaval and financial difficulties--a fourth.
As the book opens, McBride keeps each of these possible avenues of approach alive and electric. He tells of the sacred place Brown had in his family of the time--his sister actually meant the man who was important as a black icon. He was inventing a whole new genre of music--not from scratch, but from bits and pieces of what other people had done and were doing around him. McBride is given some sketchy lead to new sources about Brown, apparently unplumbed by previous writers.
Mostly, though, these resolve under the heading of least interesting of those contacts: writer for People magazine. The chapters tend to focus on a single person who was close, in some way, to Brown, and that person's ideas about what drove Brown. As told here, Brown was scarred by his poor youth, intent not to fall under the control of white men again, but though he could be disciplined in his work--to disciplined, alienating those who performed with him--he wasn't nearly so disciplined in his business dealings, literally hiding money under mattresses and rugs, which McBride attributes to his Depression-era upbringing and his need for control. His passion for women didn't help him, either. (The voices McBride corrals to tell Brown's story don't see drugs entering the picture until late in the story, in the 1980s.)
It is clear that McBride has his thumb on the scales. In itself, this isn't a problem: all biographer's do. But it's not clear how to factor in that extra weight: he's too coy, and the story too confined. McBride isn't happy with others who have written on Brown, but he only touches on a few, picayune details that are wrong, leaving these as unexplored metonyms for the whole. But as a novice to the field of JB studies, I am not sure how McBride thinks of himself as fitting, or what he is arguing against. He's clearly trying to salvage Brown's reputation.
But, again, this salvage operation feels too forced, too weighted. He gives free reign to those he interviews, but no standard by which the reader can judge them, except his own description of them as stalwart and true and religious. Voices that might be more critical are given no space here. The one chance is that of Brown's saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, who demurs--which leads to McBride authoring the most critical chapter, one that takes on Brown's failures as bandleader.
The reader comes away with some basic information about Brown, but still not a firm feel of him as a man. He did some good things, wanted to help some people, but could be secretive, too, is about the depth of the analysis. McBride takes on Brown's musicianship here and there,but the metaphors he used to explain it--basketball versus baseball?-left me more confused. In general, though, McBride is a smooth stylist and the chapters, confined though they are, spool out well. There is way too much repetition for such a short book. (We here about the Michael Jackson tour no less than three times.)
McBride broaches the subjects of politics, but, by his own admission, cannot do them justice. This is most clear when he is discussing the connection between Al Sharpton and James Brown. The best part of the section is the interpersonal relations between the two men--indeed, the whole book is best on interpersonal relations because it is told in such intimate ways. The problem here is that James Brown is dead and so it is impossible to get the other side of the story: everything is told about Brown, very little by him. Reading this book, I couldn't help but think of Gay Talese's famous piece for Esquire "Frank Sinatra has a Cold": Sinatra refused to give an interview, so Talese followed him and wrote about what he saw, tried to limn the man from the outside, to define him, but never (completely) giving a sense of his character from the inside.
In addition to not doing justice to the politics surrounding Brown, McBride proves a poor guide to the history. His account of the Reconstruction is facile. He does not plumb the obvious and not-so-obvious connections between Brown and minstrelsy, though he makes clear that Brown was performing blackness. (He also obviously lived it; but the connection between the life and the performance goes unremarked.) The wider musical world is mentioned when he refers to Brown's early career, but once Brown breaks through, he is described by McBride as nonpareil. There is no Sly and the Family Stone, no George Clinton, no re-born Temptations plying the same waters.
From the beginning, it is clear that what motivates McBride more than anything else is a sense of injustice: James Brown is being remembered incorrectly, memorialized wrong, and he wants to rectify the situation, or at least call attention to it. And this motivation provides the red thread that connects the whole narrative, and the theme that is the book's strength. Since Brown's death, there has been a huge legal fight over his estate, most of which he left to the poor children of South Carolina. But Brown's heirs--born in wedlock and otherwise--have joined with friends, made alliances with the powerful in The Palmetto State, and have drained it away. What was once rumored to be more than 100 million dollars is likely now less than 5% of that.
It's a good a metaphor for contemporary American Society as anything else: a big pile of money, and everyone's backstabbing each other to get it, poor and rich alike. It's Survivor in the courts. It's the Charter School Movement angling to get its hooks into that big, juicy pie of public school moneys, Wall Street vulturing in on social security. McBride doesn't spare himself. He takes the job not because he thinks he's the best person to write on Brown--he has another author in mind--but because the source wants him, and he needs the dough. There's no civic life in America anymore, except get in on the hustle.
McBride makes that point a couple of other ways, too. He laments the plight of the artist in America, left to poverty or, if they make it, to have their income devoured by the many hangers-on. He worries over the decline of the fourth estate. Once, he thought, public-spirited newspapers might have been attracted to this story. They would have sent reporters to South Carolina, ferreted out the truth, and set matters right. Naive, perhaps, but it's hard to argue with his broader point.
Except that McBride does. There is, in fact, one prop left in American culture against filthy lucre. The word of God. He returns again and again to the religious affiliation of those he interviews; he examines the role of the church in the black community. Those who are strongest, he is trying to say, those who can stand against the temptations of Mammon are the ones who believe in God, in Jesus, in some variety of Christianity. It's ultimately a conservative claim, not especially nuanced, but there is a ring of (partial) truth to it.
And it is in this sense, finally, that McBride comes to American soul. He's not talking about the music anymore than Talese was writing about the plight of the crooner in the age of rock and roll. McBride is talking about a different kind of soul, one he's worried may not be as dead as James Brown but is on its way.
James Brown lived at the intersection of these two traditions. He was mercenary. "Kill 'em and leave," he told Al Sharpton. He entertained, earned his money, and moved on. But he grew up churched and had certain moral constraints within which he tried to live: be kind to family, help those in need, as long as they were trying to help themselves. And that's what makes him an interesting project for McBride--less because of the messiness and idiosyncrasies of an individual life, more because the battle in his soul reflected the broader war in American society.