James Brown is in My Hot Tub
We have a thing for James Brown in our household, and I want to give the man a nod today because he’s dispensed so much joy to me and my family over the years. Like a screaming, dancing, cackling, “hey”-ing Pez container.
He’s made us sing, he’s made us shake our booties in a way white people don’t often do, and he’s made us laugh. Ok, I admit, we are kind of laughing at him sometimes. But it’s a laugh that comes from a good place – like the way I crack up when I make fun of my mother’s accent.
And that’s really what it comes down to with James and my clan. Because, yes, we love his music. Our children were potty trained to “Hot Pants.” But what it’s really about is that James Brown feels like a member of our family – my side of it, that is.
Like my crazy Czech family, he’s a gaudy dresser – glittering, brassy, ostentatious. Just check out this picture of James with Janet and Michael Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton. He makes them look like country club Republicans.
Which brings me to my next point. James was a great fan of Richard Nixon.
If you’ve read COLD more than a couple of times, you probably know that President Nixon is to my parents what a Terrence Malick film is to most film-aficionados. Deeply misunderstood by the masses.
James’s Republican activism was sort of ignored in the recent biopic about the Godfather of Soul, Get On Up, and it’s a damned shame. James Brown was an American original, not some pretender who showed up at all the right events just to get a pat on the back. He loved Nixon and he loved Al Sharpton. That wasn’t a contradiction in his mind. And it wasn’t for sale. He loved Ronald Reagan and he loved Ray Charles. He truly loved black America.
There was nothing you could say or do that was going to get him to back-peddle on that. Or even try to make sense of it for you.
He had a kind of empirical purity that, to me, is the very definition of soul. Our souls, after all, are what make us unique, human, eternal. James Brown wasn’t going to bargain his soul away for anything.
In a world where everyone’s trying so hard to be loved by everybody, and is always going to great pains to say the right thing, isn’t that refreshing?
Of course his personal life was a technicolor mess. He enjoyed good liquor and bad drugs. He had a weakness for nasty women. The kind of gals who aren’t there when you wake up in the morning (or afternoon) and neither is your wallet. Sometimes he tied them up and wouldn’t let them leave. He rarely checked the birth dates on their IDs.
But he remained close to his first wife, Velma, until the day he died. He loved her.
When I think about other musicians whose work has moved me, been a part of the fabric of my life, I often have to make a conscious effort to chase the images from their personal foibles from my mind. The Mamas and the Papas come to mind, Janis Joplin, Michael Jackson, obviously.
But somehow with James Brown, I don’t mind his mug shots. I can take his life and his music as a whole without cringing or wanting to cry at certain parts. I can even look at the end of his life that way, despite the fact that he essentially died of self-abuse.
Maybe it’s the unbridled exuberance in his voice as it blares from my iPod. He had a runaway thirst for life that’s present in only a handful of public figures. Maybe it’s just because he was always gloriously and authentically James Brown – even at his worst.