James Brown was born in 1933 in Barnwell, South Carolina, and died in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2006. A legendary musician credited as a forefather of funk and a strong advocate for civil rights, Brown owned three radio stations, served two jail sentences, and sold millions of his records in his lifetime. He was an exacting musician and bandleader, a passionate singer, and an energetic, precise dancer who made an indelible impact on American music history.
This information is widely known, of course—lots of books and articles have already been written about Brown, including memoirs by the artist himself and by his children. But there’s room on the field for at least one more, I think, particularly when it’s a book written by someone with the literary chops of James McBride. McBride’s Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching For The Real James Brown operates as one musician’s quest to illuminate the life of another. The opening chapters crackle with defensive indignation that feels utterly righteous, as McBride argues that the documented eccentricities of many black musicians—Brown, Michael Jackson and, the author argues, he himself—stem from an overarching fear that the game is rigged, and that black men working in a white-owned world have good evidence for believing that they stand to inevitably lose it all in the end.
McBride’s desire to understand and illuminate Brown’s life is fraught by the artist’s desire to keep others at a distance. Throughout the book, McBride asserts that this distance, an unwillingness to be known and to be intimate with other people, is Brown’s most salient personal trait, in passages like this moment of dialogue with Charles Bobbit, James Brown’s lifelong friend and advisor:
“But who is Mr. Brown?” I ask, because after several hours, we haven’t gotten any further than we did when we first started.
“He didn’t want you to know him.”
Bobbit pauses a moment, looking at his hands, then says, finally, “Fear.”
At times, scenes like this one begin to feel slightly repetitive rather than poignant, because there are so many moments where McBride is forced to speculate; where he cannot know what he wants to know. But James Brown is such an an enigmatic character, and McBride’s admiration for Brown is so deep that these two factors together drive the book successfully along, imperfect as the answers it arrives at may be.
Admiration aside, McBride doesn’t sugarcoat or deny the gristlier parts of Brown’s reputation—the arrests and accounts of abusive behavior toward his staff and cruelty to his wives, and the tangled, deeply upsetting state of his will even now, a decade after his death. Rather, McBride puts these details into sympathetic perspective, and attempts to sort out fact from sensationalism, and to make sense of the facts in their own context, such as when he compares the on-screen portrayal of Brown’s arrest late in life with the actual events. I should confess that I find it tiresome, to say the least, in this day and age to see yet another account of domestic violence excused as collateral damage we accept as the cost of creating music—one gets the impression that many of Brown’s friends and family suffer from a kind of Stockholm syndrome in which they refuse to speak about what they suffered at his hands—and although the book need not dwell on Brown’s limitations as a person or on his violence, it would have been satisfying to see it discussed more rigorously, instead of so swiftly dismissed. Even if—as McBride writes—Brown’s lifelong friends and wives and the wives of his friends still feel unwavering devotion and loyalty to him.
Nonetheless, McBrides’s musical sensibilities shine through the book, and it’s a joy to read whenever McBride approaches Brown’s music itself, and this is likely to win over even those who remain skeptical of Brown’s behavior. Writes McBrides,
This is the same man whose few words scrawled on a napkin in 1968, ‘Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud’ (with music penned by his musical director Pee Wee Ellis), would in one fell swoop change the self-image of an entire Negro nation. Hell, I was ten years old with a black father and a white mother and I figured out where the African came in: it came in the form of James Brown! “Say it loud! I’m black and I’m proud!” I loved that song. As a kid, I dreamed of being in his band.
Kill ‘Em And Leave offers both a spirited inquiry into Brown’s character and a music journalist’s enthusiastic account of one of his personal heroes, and the book offers the precise prose of a masterful novelist to boot. And this is perhaps the real element that sets the book apart from other writing about Brown. Because this book is more a literary account of McBride’s quest to gather material—he includes the circumstances of many of his interviews and first-person observations of his interviewees in lieu of being able to actually interview Brown himself, as when he recounts meeting Brown’s distant cousin in the middle of the night in a corn field—a quest the writer undertakes personally to try understanding about the musician—than it is an attempt to exhaustively and authoritatively account for Brown’s life and legacy.
McBride does dig deep into Brown’s life as a performer, but he also inquires into the racially charged South he came from, and the account given of Brown’s family’s relocation as a result of the government’s appropriation of Ellenton, the small town where his family lived—places Brown’s life deftly within the larger arc of history, providing context for his behavior and for his drive. But throughout it all, McBride insists upon Brown’s mystery, arguing repeatedly that no one really knew him, and that those who came close were few and far between. Whether or not the book can live up to the hopes of die-hard Brown fans, readers are sure to be charmed by McBride’s sincerity, and by the conviction and thoughtfulness with which he considers his subject.
Kill ‘Em and Leave will be available soon at GPL.
Elizabeth O’Brien lives in Minneapolis, MN, where she earned an MFA in Poetry at the University of Minnesota. Her work—poetry and prose—has appeared in many literary journals, including New England Review, Diagram, Sixth Finch, Whiskey Island, decomP, PANK, CutBank, Ampersand Review, Revolver, Swink, and Versal.