“The way I like it/Is the way it is.” – J. B.
Reading RJ Smith’s excellent biography, “The One: The Life and Music of James Brown” I was reminded of many things. Brown was a badass almost from birth, learning to fight when most are getting the hang of walking. He was deeply moved by the music (if the not the message) of the Pentecostal church; according to the Reverend Al Sharpton, who attended the House of Prayer in Augusta, Ga., with the young J.B., “He’d hit my knee and say over and over, ‘Listen to that drum!’” He became a titan of a bandleader, famously fining his musicians for missing a note, but in his musical improvisations he often stumbled onto the wisdom of the ages.
Some of this came from knowing himself — or at least what he wanted. When a record producer stopped an early session to tell Brown his piano playing was "musically incorrect," Brown’s response couldn’t have been clearer: “Does it sound good to me? Then it’s not incorrect.”
He couldn’t read music but could explain what he wanted, and never tried to define it too much before the session. “You don’t know why one day you want steak, the next day you want fatback,” Brown said. “People who plan what they are gonna do, they don’t look good.”
In the middle of recording the immortal “Cold Sweat” in Cincinnati one day in May 1967, Brown shouted: “Let’s give the drummer some.”
“Brown was always saying guff like that,” writes Smith, “off-the-top mumbo jumbo, mash notes from the id. [Drummer Clyde] Stubblefield didn’t know Brown was going to say it, and his response was to keep on doing what he had been doing, as the band dropped out and Stubblefield takes his indelible, un-show-offy solo — a progression of hummingbird dips and sips.”
Consider these other pearls of truth from this underrated songwriter/seer:
“Dig me now, baby/Don’t dig me later” (“There Was a Time”)
As a teacher of Jack Kornfield’s put it, “The trouble with you is that you think you have time.” James Brown could keep time, which was far more important.
“Sometimes I feel so nice — good god! — I jump back wanna kiss myself” (“Super Bad Part 1 & Part 2”)
Loving-kindness is what the Buddhists call it, and loving yourself is hard for most people. “But you might just try,” wrote Jon Kabat-Zinn in “Wherever You Go, There You Are,” “just as an experiment, to hold yourself in awareness and acceptance for a time in your practice, as a mother would hold a hurt and frightened child, with a completely available and unconditional love.” Or you might want to get a move that tells you what to do.
“Don’t want that mess/Bring me some popcorn” (“Mother Popcorn”)
In “A Path with a Heart,” another teacher of Kornfield’s tells him, “Your identities make all your problems. Discover what is beyond them, the delight of the timeless, the deathless.”
Maceo! Blow your horn.