My Kind of Christmas Music (Revisited)

snoopy

Tchaikovsky

Corelli

Bach

A couple from John Fahey

The Who

Chuck Berry

a three-fer from Jethro Tull!


Sonny Boy

The Godfather

Donny

Satchmo

Ella! (An embarrassment of riches here, here, and here)

Johnny Mathis (The Master)

Vince (The King)

(Give me more Snoopy and less Linus and even less of CB’s angst; but double-up on the VG trio. RESPECT!)

Finally, some contemporary action from John Zorn and the Dreamers (get this album!)

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A Century of Sound (in under 4 minutes)

Sun Ra 1968

Sun Ra 1968

“Pleasant Twilight” from the wonderfully titled My Brother The Wind, Vol. 2.

Duke Ellington on acid?

Yes, and a lot more.

It slams out of the gate big-band style, then the GREAT John Gilmore breaks it down, funk-no-fusion (more “Cold Sweat” than Coltrane), and then the band grinds to a slow-mo proto trip hop vibe.

An entire century of sound, all in under four minutes, courtesy of SUN RA, a legit (and underappreciated) American iconoclast. A national treasure for sure.

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We’ve Seen This Movie Before: Trying to Make Sense of Philip Seymour Hoffman (Revisited)

Philip-Seymour-Hoffman_l

This isn’t quite in the day John Lennon died territory, but I’ll never forget where I was and what I was doing.

Sitting at home, Super Bowl shopping complete, biding my time for the big game. Someone posted something about Philip Seymour Hoffman dying on Facebook. No chance, I thought. No way, I hoped. Then another update, and another. This being 2014, I did what any sensible person would do: I Googled it. Sure enough, the first item that popped up had the wonderful words “hoax”. Since this was not the first time a celebrity had prematurely been declared dead, I took solace. But then another update, with a link to an actual news organizations appeared. Then another. And within a few minutes, my entire feed was buzzing with the news. It was true. It happened.

The man I consider the best actor of his generation (and I’m certainly not alone), dead aged 46. Of a heroin overdose. Needle found sticking in his arm.

No chance. No way.

Method acting taken to its illogical extreme? Nope, he was a once-recovered addict, and as the stories began pouring out, it was revealed that he’d relapsed and had been struggling these last months with this monster that had moved into his life. That’s how it happens with addiction: it knocks on the door, or maybe it’s a case of breaking and entering. Once it gets inside it’s a hell of a lot harder to extricate it than it ever was to seek it. It is an equal opportunity assailant, going after the vital organs (the brain, the heart) and if or when its appetite for death becomes more powerful than the body’s ability to tolerate, people are found face-down on beds, curled up in alleys, or sitting in a bathroom with a needle in their arms. They become clichés in the sense that famous people dying of ostensibly self-inflicted wounds are clichés: we’ve seen this movie before.

And before I talk about his work, and what we’ve lost, I’d like to personalize this a bit. I don’t know about you, but for me Americans have been perfecting a perverse sort of cognitive dissonance that has reached a boiling point. On one hand, we are utterly obsessed with celebrity and, increasingly, the fantasy that we might become famous, if only for a moment. As such, no shame, family secret or personal foible is off limits as we pursue this ridiculous and empty charade. On the other hand, we are able to shrug off another person’s misfortune like the most priggish priest, the most sadistic shrink: Americans are experts at judging and lambasting the weakness of others. My Facebook feed has been polluted with asinine comments about “selfishness”, “junkies” and “losers”. Perhaps you’ve seen similar, and worse, sentiment.

Here’s the logic these folks appear to be following: anyone who is rich and famous, who is well-regarded, and who has a family (!) is acting at the height (or is that the depth?) of self-absorbed evil to piss it all away. Just to get high. As usual, the best retort for such cocksure and half-assed sanctimony is to turn it on its head: how badly must a person be struggling to know they stand to piss away their fame, security and family (!) in order to inject bad medicine for a sickness that can never cure itself? Similar rationale tends to apply to suicides: no moral person could ever do something that would hurt their loved ones so much. Oh yeah? How about this: no person who was not already drowning in the dark waters of doubt, fear and helplessness could, in their right mind, do something, to themselves, that can never be undone? Hope is not something you can purchase with a paycheck or have breathed into your body like a reverse exorcism: if there is one thing folks who consistently hurt themselves have in common, a lack of perspective, the absence of hope.

(Incidentally, lest you think I’m content to wax unconvincingly on a topic of which I admittedly –and luckily– have no intimate experience, I’m happy to pass the mic to the incomparable Russell Brand (more thoughts on him here) who, last year, wrote eloquently, as usual, about his own struggles.

It is difficult to feel sympathy for these people. It is difficult to regard some bawdy drunk and see them as sick and powerless. It is difficult to suffer the selfishness of a drug addict who will lie to you and steal from you and forgive them and offer them help. Can there be any other disease that renders its victims so unappealing?)

All of which is to say, if there is one thing plaguing our society right now, it’s a decided and very soulless lack of empathy. We watch reality TV shows about slick business types (often born on third base) browbeating their inferiors about what it takes to get to the top. And we make these imbeciles even richer; we envy and admire them. And we shrug our shoulders as families on food stamps get their benefits cut, as people out of work are called lazy (or worse) because, obviously if they wanted to work, they could find a job. We say ill-informed, offensive things like “minimum wage jobs are not designed for people with families”. (Oh really? And: even if that were true, doesn’t that make it all the more appalling so many people with families are obliged to work them? Or that the minimum wage has not even come close to keeping pace with the cost of living during decades where we’ve seen the wealthiest one percent assume an ever-obscene portion of the nation’s wealth?)

All of that said, I believe it’s possible, and acceptable, to wish we devoted more time, energy and media coverage to the anonymous, often impoverished people who succumb to addiction, while also lamenting the untimely loss of a “famous” person. And in this instance, it hurts more than the typical “gone too soon” eulogy because we are collectively being robbed of an artist performing at the height of his considerable powers. We will have no more opportunities to watch him share his gift, effective immediately.

The reason this one hurts so acutely, on a purely artistic level, is because few people could convincingly argue that Hoffman is not among the most gifted, if not the most gifted and accomplished actor of his generation. Typically, simple consensus makes me suspicious; a result of groupthink or a media-driven narrative (with big pockets and PR firms doing what they do best: selling product to make money, manufacturing consent by any means necessary). With Hoffman, the verdict came in over a decade –if not longer– ago: he is perhaps the best at what he does, and the range of work coupled with an admirable productivity make a compelling case that is likely to accrue momentum in subsequent years.

Pretty simple, but still unassailable evidence of mastery: an actor who can consistently make you loathe him, pity him or love him –sometimes in the same movie– is a rare breed. Quick: think of how many excellent, A-list actors are actually capable of making you cheer for them in one role and feel repulsed by them in another? While playing creepy, despicable dudes was, in some ways, Hoffman’s calling card, even in the roles where he was unctuous or obsequious (think his early work in Scent of a Woman for the former and his unimprovable turn in The Big Lebowski for the latter), and being the heavy, in many senses of the word, called for skills he was ideally suited to deploy (think Punch-Drunk Love or the blustery Lester Bangs from Almost Famous), he was perhaps most convincing as the vulnerable outsider (Magnolia) or the disconnected non-content (The Savages).

It’s one thing to play an outsider; it’s easy for a luminous actor to channel alienation or estrangement. But it is considerably more challenging to depict the type of turmoil and inner-anguish that are often best conveyed only in novels. As such, two of his big roles (Capote and Doubt) were near-perfect vehicles for a man who could realistically portray a person trying to convince others –and himself– that he is someone else.

For me, the ultimate test of what sets the very-good or even the great apart from the greatest, is the how many question. If an actor inhabits a role to the extent that not only can’t you imagine anyone else playing the part, but can imagine the ways the movie would suffer without their involvement, this would seem a fair and accurate criteria for genius. And while his work in Boogie Nights and The Master might, and perhaps should, be among the first mentioned (and I’ll resist saying more since virtually every other tribute has, understandably, discussed those two roles in some detail), for me it’s two lesser-known films that epitomize movies that simply would not have worked without Hoffman’s involvement.

Here’s a clip from the significantly overlooked, near masterpiece, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead:

Merits of the actual film aside, is choosing this role (and this scene!) too easy by half? Not really. And not because of the facile (although, perhaps not so much) connection with his death; it’s not merely (!) that his character is seeking a state of listless oblivion via chemicals, it’s the desolation and lack of connection, the slow boiling debasement. His stock in trade was playing men on the run, from themselves. In repeated viewings, I never cease to be struck by the physical intensity and commitment this role required (and/or Hoffman invested in it). It borders on painful at times, and there are moments throughout where it appears Hoffman is about to have a heart attack right on the screen. Yes, that is acting, but it’s also…being. The character is deeply flawed, mostly despicable; he’s a bully, a liar and a coward. And yet, throughout the film (in part because of the excellent script and the direction–Lumet’s final film) you not only find yourself feeling pity for him, you aren’t conned into it (by the writing, by the acting), you see the sum total of history (his story), the decisions and frailties that make him the beast he has become. Simply put, I can’t think of a recent role that was able to show and tell, without words, exactly what is driving a character’s actions. It seems facile, maybe even trite, but it was during the first time I saw this film when I actually worried a bit about Hoffman’s health: how could any actor keep up this type of self-abuse in the service of art?

The other role, which I’d be willing to wager is going to assume added import in the years to come, is his tour-de-force performance in Synecdoche, New York. I think the role was so expansive, and he was so comparatively young when he played it, plus the fact that it’s more than slightly outside the box, (it tends to make Being John Malkovich, another Charlie Kaufman work, appear almost straightforward and commonplace by comparison), damned it to less-than-stellar box office results, as if that ever matters in the long view.

Certainly many fine actors have used skills, make-up and exceptional directing to play characters that age over the course of a film. But I can think of few, if any examples of a role wherein you see the character age physically as well as emotionally, wearing the passage of time like a weight; a weight that is not the addition of flesh so much as the subtraction of vitality, eating itself from the inside-out. By the latter stages of the film Caden Cotard is indeed a bloated, aged wreck, but Hoffman somehow makes it appear that even as he slows down, the agony (physical, metaphysical) within him has accelerated, ravaging him mentally as well as physically. It eventually becomes apparent it has assumed an ever-larger portion of his being, and he carries this burden like Sysyphus with his stone, forever looking up at a hill he can never crest.

This condition is a metaphor for Cotard’s life, sure. It manages to be emblematic of what every human struggles with: how to define ourselves, how to understand each other, how to make sense of existence. It also suggests a struggle that Hoffman was unable to win in his own life. It seems safe to assume it was this discontent, this inordinate sensitivity and subsequent commitment to articulating the story he couldn’t quite tell that led to the roles we will never forget. It is also, perhaps, the secret to what stalked Philip Seymour Hoffman, the guy with all the money, all the accolades, every reason to live. The silver lining, aesthetically speaking, reaffirms the essence of so much art: his pain is our gain.

We’ve seen this movie before. But we won’t see more movies from this actor and that, above all, is why it hurts so much.

http://www.popmatters.com/feature/178919-weve-seen-this-movie-before-trying-to-make-sense-of-philip-seymour-h/

Share

My Kind of Christmas Music (Revisited)

snoopy

Tchaikovsky

Corelli

Bach

A couple from John Fahey

The Who

Chuck Berry

a three-fer from Jethro Tull!


Sonny Boy

The Godfather

Donny

Satchmo

Ella! (An embarrassment of riches here, here, and here)

Johnny Mathis (The Master)

Vince (The King)

(Give me more Snoopy and less Linus and even less of CB’s angst; but double-up on the VG trio. RESPECT!)

Finally, some contemporary action from John Zorn and the Dreamers (get this album!)

Share

A Week of Americana. Part Four: James Brown

usa

On this most American of holidays, it seems appropriate –if not obligatory– to celebrate the most American of geniuses.

It does not get any more American than James Brown, does it?

From the (literal) rags-to-riches story, the innovation and influence, the (inevitable?) disintegration and late-career redemption: James Brown is America. Brilliant, resilient, complicated, undeniable, inevitable.

Do you realize how ludicrously good James Brown was? You don’t. I don’t either. I’ve been worshipping at that altar for over two decades and, perhaps more than any other artist, I’m consistently astonished by that wonderful shock of recognition: how unfuckingbelievable he was; how many heads taller he stood, in terms of creativity, delivery and leadership, than the rest of the pack.

You hear the obvious, righteous songs on the radio, or on movie soundtracks: “I Got You (I Feel Good)”, “Sex Machine”, “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag”, “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World”. Those must be acknowledged, for their historic import and –more importantly– for how great they make you feel. James Brown does not just make you want to dance (he may even make you believe you can dance), but more, he makes your soul dance.

If you have not picked up the cheap and always-available 20 All Time Greatest Hits! you really need to make that a priority. If you really want to treat yourself (and you really should), snatch up Star Time, the four-disc set. If you’ve never gone deep with James Brown, this will be like getting lucky for the first time. Only better. And it never stops.

Please, Please, Please:

Think:

Try Me:

Mother Popcorn:

Super Bad:

I’m A Greedy Man:

Funky Drummer:

King Heroin:

Talkin’ Loud & Sayin’ Nothing:

Doing It To Death:

Blessed Blackness (bonus: it goes even deeper. The J.B.s brought it, and brought it hard. One of the best joints from the ’70s and an all-time personal favorite. God Bless Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley!!!)

Share

We’ve Seen This Movie Before: Trying to Make Sense of Philip Seymour Hoffman

Philip-Seymour-Hoffman_l

This isn’t quite in the day John Lennon died territory, but I’ll never forget where I was and what I was doing.

Sitting at home, Super Bowl shopping complete, biding my time for the big game. Someone posted something about Philip Seymour Hoffman dying on Facebook. No chance, I thought. No way, I hoped. Then another update, and another. This being 2014, I did what any sensible person would do: I Googled it. Sure enough, the first item that popped up had the wonderful words “hoax”. Since this was not the first time a celebrity had prematurely been declared dead, I took solace. But then another update, with a link to an actual news organizations appeared. Then another. And within a few minutes, my entire feed was buzzing with the news. It was true. It happened.

The man I consider the best actor of his generation (and I’m certainly not alone), dead aged 46. Of a heroin overdose. Needle found sticking in his arm.

No chance. No way.

Method acting taken to its illogical extreme? Nope, he was a once-recovered addict, and as the stories began pouring out, it was revealed that he’d relapsed and had been struggling these last months with this monster that had moved into his life. That’s how it happens with addiction: it knocks on the door, or maybe it’s a case of breaking and entering. Once it gets inside it’s a hell of a lot harder to extricate it than it ever was to seek it. It is an equal opportunity assailant, going after the vital organs (the brain, the heart) and if or when its appetite for death becomes more powerful than the body’s ability to tolerate, people are found face-down on beds, curled up in alleys, or sitting in a bathroom with a needle in their arms. They become clichés in the sense that famous people dying of ostensibly self-inflicted wounds are clichés: we’ve seen this movie before.

And before I talk about his work, and what we’ve lost, I’d like to personalize this a bit. I don’t know about you, but for me Americans have been perfecting a perverse sort of cognitive dissonance that has reached a boiling point. On one hand, we are utterly obsessed with celebrity and, increasingly, the fantasy that we might become famous, if only for a moment. As such, no shame, family secret or personal foible is off limits as we pursue this ridiculous and empty charade. On the other hand, we are able to shrug off another person’s misfortune like the most priggish priest, the most sadistic shrink: Americans are experts at judging and lambasting the weakness of others. My Facebook feed has been polluted with asinine comments about “selfishness”, “junkies” and “losers”. Perhaps you’ve seen similar, and worse, sentiment.

Here’s the logic these folks appear to be following: anyone who is rich and famous, who is well-regarded, and who has a family (!) is acting at the height (or is that the depth?) of self-absorbed evil to piss it all away. Just to get high. As usual, the best retort for such cocksure and half-assed sanctimony is to turn it on its head: how badly must a person be struggling to know they stand to piss away their fame, security and family (!) in order to inject bad medicine for a sickness that can never cure itself? Similar rationale tends to apply to suicides: no moral person could ever do something that would hurt their loved ones so much. Oh yeah? How about this: no person who was not already drowning in the dark waters of doubt, fear and helplessness could, in their right mind, do something, to themselves, that can never be undone? Hope is not something you can purchase with a paycheck or have breathed into your body like a reverse exorcism: if there is one thing folks who consistently hurt themselves have in common, a lack of perspective, the absence of hope.

(Incidentally, lest you think I’m content to wax unconvincingly on a topic of which I admittedly –and luckily– have no intimate experience, I’m happy to pass the mic to the incomparable Russell Brand (more thoughts on him here) who, last year, wrote eloquently, as usual, about his own struggles.

It is difficult to feel sympathy for these people. It is difficult to regard some bawdy drunk and see them as sick and powerless. It is difficult to suffer the selfishness of a drug addict who will lie to you and steal from you and forgive them and offer them help. Can there be any other disease that renders its victims so unappealing?)

All of which is to say, if there is one thing plaguing our society right now, it’s a decided and very soulless lack of empathy. We watch reality TV shows about slick business types (often born on third base) browbeating their inferiors about what it takes to get to the top. And we make these imbeciles even richer; we envy and admire them. And we shrug our shoulders as families on food stamps get their benefits cut, as people out of work are called lazy (or worse) because, obviously if they wanted to work, they could find a job. We say ill-informed, offensive things like “minimum wage jobs are not designed for people with families”. (Oh really? And: even if that were true, doesn’t that make it all the more appalling so many people with families are obliged to work them? Or that the minimum wage has not even come close to keeping pace with the cost of living during decades where we’ve seen the wealthiest one percent assume an ever-obscene portion of the nation’s wealth?)

All of that said, I believe it’s possible, and acceptable, to wish we devoted more time, energy and media coverage to the anonymous, often impoverished people who succumb to addiction, while also lamenting the untimely loss of a “famous” person. And in this instance, it hurts more than the typical “gone too soon” eulogy because we are collectively being robbed of an artist performing at the height of his considerable powers. We will have no more opportunities to watch him share his gift, effective immediately.

The reason this one hurts so acutely, on a purely artistic level, is because few people could convincingly argue that Hoffman is not among the most gifted, if not the most gifted and accomplished actor of his generation. Typically, simple consensus makes me suspicious; a result of groupthink or a media-driven narrative (with big pockets and PR firms doing what they do best: selling product to make money, manufacturing consent by any means necessary). With Hoffman, the verdict came in over a decade –if not longer– ago: he is perhaps the best at what he does, and the range of work coupled with an admirable productivity make a compelling case that is likely to accrue momentum in subsequent years.

Pretty simple, but still unassailable evidence of mastery: an actor who can consistently make you loathe him, pity him or love him –sometimes in the same movie– is a rare breed. Quick: think of how many excellent, A-list actors are actually capable of making you cheer for them in one role and feel repulsed by them in another? While playing creepy, despicable dudes was, in some ways, Hoffman’s calling card, even in the roles where he was unctuous or obsequious (think his early work in Scent of a Woman for the former and his unimprovable turn in The Big Lebowski for the latter), and being the heavy, in many senses of the word, called for skills he was ideally suited to deploy (think Punch-Drunk Love or the blustery Lester Bangs from Almost Famous), he was perhaps most convincing as the vulnerable outsider (Magnolia) or the disconnected non-content (The Savages).

It’s one thing to play an outsider; it’s easy for a luminous actor to channel alienation or estrangement. But it is considerably more challenging to depict the type of turmoil and inner-anguish that are often best conveyed only in novels. As such, two of his big roles (Capote and Doubt) were near-perfect vehicles for a man who could realistically portray a person trying to convince others –and himself– that he is someone else.

For me, the ultimate test of what sets the very-good or even the great apart from the greatest, is the how many question. If an actor inhabits a role to the extent that not only can’t you imagine anyone else playing the part, but can imagine the ways the movie would suffer without their involvement, this would seem a fair and accurate criteria for genius. And while his work in Boogie Nights and The Master might, and perhaps should, be among the first mentioned (and I’ll resist saying more since virtually every other tribute has, understandably, discussed those two roles in some detail), for me it’s two lesser-known films that epitomize movies that simply would not have worked without Hoffman’s involvement.

Here’s a clip from the significantly overlooked, near masterpiece, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead:

Merits of the actual film aside, is choosing this role (and this scene!) too easy by half? Not really. And not because of the facile (although, perhaps not so much) connection with his death; it’s not merely (!) that his character is seeking a state of listless oblivion via chemicals, it’s the desolation and lack of connection, the slow boiling debasement. His stock in trade was playing men on the run, from themselves. In repeated viewings, I never cease to be struck by the physical intensity and commitment this role required (and/or Hoffman invested in it). It borders on painful at times, and there are moments throughout where it appears Hoffman is about to have a heart attack right on the screen. Yes, that is acting, but it’s also…being. The character is deeply flawed, mostly despicable; he’s a bully, a liar and a coward. And yet, throughout the film (in part because of the excellent script and the direction–Lumet’s final film) you not only find yourself feeling pity for him, you aren’t conned into it (by the writing, by the acting), you see the sum total of history (his story), the decisions and frailties that make him the beast he has become. Simply put, I can’t think of a recent role that was able to show and tell, without words, exactly what is driving a character’s actions. It seems facile, maybe even trite, but it was during the first time I saw this film when I actually worried a bit about Hoffman’s health: how could any actor keep up this type of self-abuse in the service of art?

The other role, which I’d be willing to wager is going to assume added import in the years to come, is his tour-de-force performance in Synecdoche, New York. I think the role was so expansive, and he was so comparatively young when he played it, plus the fact that it’s more than slightly outside the box, (it tends to make Being John Malkovich, another Charlie Kaufman work, appear almost straightforward and commonplace by comparison), damned it to less-than-stellar box office results, as if that ever matters in the long view.

Certainly many fine actors have used skills, make-up and exceptional directing to play characters that age over the course of a film. But I can think of few, if any examples of a role wherein you see the character age physically as well as emotionally, wearing the passage of time like a weight; a weight that is not the addition of flesh so much as the subtraction of vitality, eating itself from the inside-out. By the latter stages of the film Caden Cotard is indeed a bloated, aged wreck, but Hoffman somehow makes it appear that even as he slows down, the agony (physical, metaphysical) within him has accelerated, ravaging him mentally as well as physically. It eventually becomes apparent it has assumed an ever-larger portion of his being, and he carries this burden like Sysyphus with his stone, forever looking up at a hill he can never crest.

This condition is a metaphor for Cotard’s life, sure. It manages to be emblematic of what every human struggles with: how to define ourselves, how to understand each other, how to make sense of existence. It also suggests a struggle that Hoffman was unable to win in his own life. It seems safe to assume it was this discontent, this inordinate sensitivity and subsequent commitment to articulating the story he couldn’t quite tell that led to the roles we will never forget. It is also, perhaps, the secret to what stalked Philip Seymour Hoffman, the guy with all the money, all the accolades, every reason to live. The silver lining, aesthetically speaking, reaffirms the essence of so much art: his pain is our gain.

We’ve seen this movie before. But we won’t see more movies from this actor and that, above all, is why it hurts so much.

http://www.popmatters.com/feature/178919-weve-seen-this-movie-before-trying-to-make-sense-of-philip-seymour-h/

Share

My Kind of Christmas Music (Revisited)

Tchaikovsky

Corelli

Bach

A few from John Fahey

The Who

Chuck Berry

a three-fer from Jethro Tull!


Sonny Boy

The Godfather

Donny

Satchmo

Ella! (An embarrassment of riches here, here, and here)

Johnny Mathis (The Master)

Vince (The King)

(Give me more Snoopy and less Linus and even less of CB’s angst; but double-up on the VG trio. RESPECT!)

Finally, some contemporary action from John Zorn and the Dreamers (get this album!)

Share

A Week of Americana. Part Four: James Brown

On this most American of holidays, it seems appropriate –if not obligatory– to celebrate the most American of geniuses.

It does not get any more American than James Brown, does it?

From the (literal) rags-to-riches story, the innovation and influence, the (inevitable?) disintegration and late-career redemption: James Brown is America. Brilliant, resilient, complicated, undeniable, inevitable.

Do you realize how ludicrously good James Brown was? You don’t. I don’t either. I’ve been worshipping at that altar for over two decades and, perhaps more than any other artist, I’m consistently astonished by that wonderful shock of recognition: how unfuckingbelievable he was; how many heads taller he stood, in terms of creativity, delivery and leadership, than the rest of the pack.

You hear the obvious, righteous songs on the radio, or on movie soundtracks: “I Got You (I Feel Good)”, “Sex Machine”, “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag”, “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World”. Those must be acknowledged, for their historic import and –more importantly– for how great they make you feel. James Brown does not just make you want to dance (he may even make you believe you can dance), but more, he makes your soul dance.

If you have not picked up the cheap and always-available 20 All Time Greatest Hits! you really need to make that a priority. If you really want to treat yourself (and you really should), snatch up Star Time, the four-disc set. If you’ve never gone deep with James Brown, this will be like getting lucky for the first time. Only better. And it never stops.

Please, Please, Please:

Think:

Try Me:

Mother Popcorn:

Super Bad:

I’m A Greedy Man:

Funky Drummer:

King Heroin:

Talkin’ Loud & Sayin’ Nothing:

Doing It To Death:

Blessed Blackness (bonus: it goes even deeper. The J.B.s brought it, and brought it hard. One of the best joints from the ’70s and an all-time personal favorite. God Bless Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley!!!)

Share

A Week of Americana. Part Four: James Brown

 

On this most American of holidays, it seems appropriate –if not obligatory– to celebrate the most American of geniuses.

It does not get any more American than James Brown, does it?

From the (literal) rags-to-riches story, the innovation and influence, the (inevitable?) disintegration and late-career redemption: James Brown is America. Brilliant, resilient, complicated, undeniable, inevitable.

Do you realize how ludicrously good James Brown was? You don’t. I don’t either. I’ve been worshipping at that altar for over two decades and, perhaps more than any other artist, I’m consistently astonished by that wonderful shock of recognition: how unfuckingbelievable he was; how many heads taller he stood, in terms of creativity, delivery and leadership, than the rest of the pack.

You hear the obvious, righteous songs on the radio, or on movie soundtracks: “I Got You (I Feel Good)”, “Sex Machine”, “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag”, “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World”. Those must be acknowledged, for their historic import and –more importantly– for how great they make you feel. James Brown does not just make you want to dance (he may even make you believe you can dance), but more, he makes your soul dance.

If you have not picked up the cheap and always-available 20 All Time Greatest Hits! you really need to make that a priority. If you really want to treat yourself (and you really should), snatch up Star Time, the four-disc set. If you’ve never gone deep with James Brown, this will be like getting lucky for the first time. Only better. And it never stops.

Please, Please, Please:

Think:

Try Me:

Mother Popcorn:

Super Bad:

I’m A Greedy Man:

Funky Drummer:

King Heroin:

Talkin’ Loud & Sayin’ Nothing:

Doin’ It To Death:

Blessed Blackness (bonus: it goes even deeper. The J.B.s brought it, and brought it hard. One of the best joints from the ’70s and an all-time personal favorite. God Bless Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley!!!)

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R.I.P. Chuck Brown and Donna Summer or, 1979 Forever

When you mourn an artist who helped make your life better, it is inexorably a selfish act.

So first and foremost, R.I.P. Chuck Brown and Donna Summer. I hope your family and close friends find comfort knowing how well you were loved.

For me (and doubtless many if not most of my peers) both of these artists are inextricably associated with 1979, a year I celebrated in detail here (keyword: Slush Puppie).

Obviously as I grew older and learned more about music, and culture and history, I understood that Chuck Brown was not just a local hero, he was an industry unto himself. Now that he has gone to that great big Go-Go in the sky, I have no other option than to to celebrate the song that rocked many of our worlds circa 1979. Of course it still does and always will. (And, inevitably, there is a reason James Brown is called, amongst other things, The Godfather. It all begins and ends with him. You hear it here, and if there is anything wrong with that there was never nothing right.)

It’s possible, though unlikely, that you lived through the late ’70s and did not know who Chuck Brown was (my condolences), but if you were sentient during the late ’70s you knew who Donna Summer was. Period, end of story. Not until Michael Jackson a few years later was there an artist (much less a black artist) as ubiquitous as Donna Summer. Anytime I hear “Bad Girls” I’m back in 1979 and that is a very good place to be, with or without a slush puppie.

Yeah baby. That was the perfect song for a world that was still grappling with disco and what the Bee Gees had wrought (having once owned the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever functioning as a kind of eternal, existential aesthetic walk of shame, despite the redeeming value of “Disco Inferno” and the Tavares doing “More Than A Woman”. And, if pushed, a few of the Bee Gees songs as well. Damn it.)

Let’s break it down: this was pretty racy stuff, circa 1979, at least for mainstream radio. And this was all over the radio. For a nine year old straddling the line between young boy and adolescent (or between Kiss and The Beatles, before realizing the world could –and should– exist quite peacefully with both…and it does), this was not quite sexy but certainly not innocent. And I’m not talking about the lyrics, or even the music, necessarily. I’m talking about the groove, the feeling. It did what it had to do, on cultural and pop-culture levels, and it endures. That still sounds great. Dare I say: Disco is not dead?

Now, I can understand if you think I’m being nostalgic, even sentimental to a fault. Cherishing my memories of Donna Summer is one thing, but…Barbara Streisand? Yes. I can’t remember the last time I listened to this (but I’m glad I just had an excuse), although I certainly can remember the first times I heard it. Let’s name names. Many of my peers, at least the ones who, like me, went to Forest Edge, then Terraset, and eventually Langston Hughes (Panthers!), will remember Mr. Bryant. Spencer. He was so old school he was pre-alphabet. Afro: check. Rocking the ‘stache? Check. Working the gum like it was his job? Always. But aside from his inimitable voice and manner of speaking (straight street mixed with cool and, since this was the late ’70s I am allowed to say it, jive). He was at once intimidating, amusing and, in a way, inspiring. He did not just encourage us to be good, he demanded that we not be bad. I know Mark Seferian will remember Health class in 8th grade and the immortal promise he made on the first day of school: “You only get but one grade, A or F.” (No one said, isn’t that two grades?) If Mr. Bryant is around I hope he is well and I’d like to thank him for being himself.

And mostly, I’d like to thank him for playing music in gym class. Does anyone else remember that he would bring in the ancient school reel-to-reel tape player (big enough that he needed a TV tray to hold it) and play funk and soul music? He blared it. I distinctly remember hearing “She’s a Brick House” for the first time (circa ’77) at Forest Edge. By ’79, at Terraset, it was all Donna Summer, all the time. As far as I recall, none of us complained. And of all the songs I remember hearing as we played kickball or dodgeball, it was “Enough is Enough” and loving it. And him.

So I guess what I’m saying is that I’m sad to see Brown and Summer go, obviously. But I can –and will– appreciate the symmetry of them bustin’ loose from this mortal coil so close together, since they are so directy connected, culturally and for me, personally. Again, it’s inevitably a selfish act, but what else is an honest celebration than a sincere acknowledgment of happiness and gratitude? That is what this is, and all I have to do is listen, again, and it’s 1979. But it’s also today. And tomorrow.

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