two literary recommendations: The James Brown Reader and Our Band Could Be Your Life

April 10th, 2009 · 4 Comments · By

I recently finished reading two really excellent music-related books which I’d like to take the time to recommend.

The first one is The James Brown Reader: 50 Years of Writing about the Godfather of Soul. I’m a huge James Brown fan, so I was pretty much going to read this one either way, but I ended up being surprised by how great it was.

It’s organized by decade, so it begins with a number of brief notices and favorable mentions in the early 60’s (amazingly, there’s only one article from the 50’s, although Brown’s first hit record came out in ’56 and he spent the second of half of the decade becoming the hottest underground live act in the South). This section is amusing enough for James Brown completists, although it lacks several of my favorite  (possibly apocryphal) James Brown anecdotes, many of which can be found in JB’s own autobiography.

In my mind, James Brown is THE greatest figure in Black American popular music; he summarized and absorbed everything that came before him (the Blues, Gospel, juke-joint rhythm and Jump music, and showmanship of old medicine shows) and was directly or indirectly responsible for everything that came after him (he helped popularize Soul, invented Funk more or less single-handedly, and his unmistakable fingerprints are all over Hip Hop). If I had to pick one figure from all of recorded music, James Brown would be IT. He means more to me than The Beatles (and this is coming from a guy who listened to nothing BUT the Beatles until age 14.)

But James Brown is also remarkably contradictory figure, and the deeper you dig into his life and career, the weirder he gets. He frequently made statements (musical or otherwise) which were bizarre, contradictory, or nonsensical. His unbelievably great showmanship onstage often translated to raging egotism offstage –but then again, this is a guy who spent 85% of his life onstage. He was a proud voice of Black empowerment who was also capable of being staunchly conservative — he campaigned heavily for Nixon on several occasions. His music represented a source of pride and identity in the Black community, although as a public figure some often found him embarrassing. He never once voted, claiming it was “more important” to inspire others to become politically active, and he was often neglectful in paying his taxes, justifying this by claiming that since he had never received an education, he didn’t owe the government one cent — this from the man whose biggest (and worst) hit was his super-patriotic 1985 comeback, “Living in America.” He took every opportunity to advise the youth of America to “stay in school” and “don’t do drugs,” although he was largely uneducated and struggled late in life with an intense cocaine problem and PCP addiction. His music is effortlessly filled with expressions of love, sex, pride in one’s identity, and the joy of dancing and the power of music to unify people; yet he himself was, by all accounts, something of a total asshole.

So where this book really starts to get worthwhile is in the writing from the late 60 and 70’s, in which the Godfather meets New Journalism. James Brown was a consummate showman, his whole life was a show, and this extended to every journalist he ever met, every public appearance (and most private ones); it seems almost insurmountable to even begin to know how to ask “who is the real James Brown?” A 1966 Piece by Diane Arbus’ daughter is the point where my interest in the book really picked up. These writers expound a lot of patience and effort trying to answer this central question. Their answers, variously, are 1) the man onstage IS the real James Brown, 2) that there is NO real James Brown — his whole life is a performance, and his true identity is unknowable — or 3) that the real James Brown was, disappointingly and sickeningly, an abusive, manipulative, shockingly egotistical tyrant (a 1975 article for Crawdaddy magazine, detailing at length JB’s tour of Africa, is particularly troubling and heartbreaking in this regard.) Of course, they’re all correct.

The stuff from the 80’s represents the point where his career bottomed out, but conversely also the point at which his legacy became solidified through Hip Hop. A series with co-interviews with Afrika Bambaataa are so diplomatic that they’re almost maddening, but the one-page Chuck D story about dancing to James Brown as a second-grader is infectiously charming, totally powerful, and maybe the single best piece in the book.  The stuff from the 90’s is even more so; it represents the saddest part of his career and life; drug charges, spousal abuse, and a series of hilariously insane public appearances are contrasted with an intense critical interest in his life and music; most of the best writing about the first 10 years of his career actually comes from these career retrospectives in the mid-to-late 1990’s. James Brown became increasingly canonized because we weren’t sure what else to do with him.

The book ends with its two best essays; a 2002 piece for the New Yorker, which I remembered reading (and loving) when it was first published; I was glad to see it again here, and it’s possibly the best summary of James Brown and his importance and his strangeness that I’ve read so far. And then there’s the 2006 Jonathan Lethem article for Rolling Stone, which is just unbelievably good, and which is basically what made me realize how essential and worthwhile this book is; that article is why I’m writing about the book here, although I can’t really do justice to the quality of the pieces themselves. So, if you have any interest in James Brown, you should check this out post-haste.

Related Recommendations:  The book is co-edited by Nelson George, a Village Voice writer from the 80’s who was also the author of The Death of Rhythm and Blues, and co-assembler of Yes Yes Y’all: the Oral History of Hip-Hop’s First Decade, both of which I’d give my highest possible recommendation; some of the most essential and informative writing about some of the most essential and wonderful music of the 20th century. Although If you’re not already versed in the peculiarities and contradictions that are James Brown, I’d perhaps recommend just listening to a whole heck of a lot of his music before trying to tackle The James Brown Reader; it sorta gets into advanced-JB studies in places.

Incidentally, I’m doing a four-hour long James Brown show on the WTJU marathon this year; it’s on Saturday, April 25th from 8AM-Noon. Four hours should be barely enough to cover his best stuff.

The other amazing book is Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991. It’s by Michael Azerrad, and it comprehensively covers 13 US hardcore and post-hardcore bands from the 80’s, that strange era when 70’s-era Sex Pistols / Ramones-style Punk was dying, “alternative rock” didn’t exist yet, college radio was dominated by REM, U2, and Echo and the Bunnymen, and every alternative gesture had to be fought for. It’s about how those 13 bands (and hundreds of others) formed a loose network of solidarity through starting their own labels, publishing their own zines, hosting shows in their own houses, sleeping on couches, and touring in perpetually decrepit vans for weeks without showering or eating properly. It’s a tremendously inspiring and valuable document.

I remember seeing this book when it first came out in 2001, and never bothering to pick it up because I was only really into about two of the bands covered within (for the record, those two were Sonic Youth and Beat Happening … hey, it was my second year of college and I was still learning about Rock Music.) My friend Kaveh kept mentioning the book during band practices for a short-lived noise-rock trio we were in last summer, and I finally got around to reading his copy last month (a quick check on the back cover revealed that I’m now a fan of 11 of those 13 bands… Mudhoney and the Replacements remain improbably the only two who have thus far eluded my close critical scrutiny.)

But regardless of you feelings about or familiarity with the bands it covers (all of whom are worthwhile), I heartily encourage you to check this book out. If you enjoy seeing shows at places smaller than the John Paul Jones Arena; if you listen to rock bands that don’t get played on MTV or 3WV; if you’ve ever been in a mosh pit or let a band crash on your couch, you are participating in a tradition that dates back to these bands, and you owe it to yourself and the music you care about to educate yourself on where it came from and why it matters. If you’ve ever referred to “indie rock” without knowing what that means or where it came from — don’t feel embarrassed, just read this book. I myself grew up blindly in the age of late Grunge, following it’s signifiers throughout my early adolescence without understanding them or being able to place them in a context or evaluate them with any reasonable marker of comparison; reading this book made me really wish I could travel back in time and give it to my 13-year-old self, along with a corresponding pile of mix tapes. {Instead I found IDM and breakcore, but that’s another story entirely.}

The book begins by Nirvana, who remain the elephant in the room throughout; the first paragraph quotes a 1991 article on the success of Nevermind in which the journalist claims “We Won!” and traces backwards from that statement to extrapolate what led to such a thing taking place.

The book picks Black Flag as its ground zero; the kids who were too punk for the punks. Azerrad argues that the fury and violence of their output serves as a means of clearing paths for others to follow, and his choice of writing the next chapter about the Minutemen is immeasurably smart; as far as this narrative is concerned, those bands serve as two poles that allow most of the other bands to fall inbetween.

Your mileage may vary from band to band; for instace, all the writing about Mission of Burma always makes them sound a lot more interesting than they actually were. The Minor Threat chapter is charming and exhilirating; the Sonic Youth chapter does a great job of making an utterly different (and amazing) band make sense in the context of their peers. The Butthole Surfers chapter is superlative and hilarious; the Dinosaur Jr bit made me appreciate them more than I had (Mascis’ voice just annoys me, I think).

The Big Black section has the unfortunate job of standing in for all of Chicago, but it actually does a pretty good job of that (and confirms that Albini is an ever bigger asshole than you ever suspected… and principled, too!) But part of what’s so great about the book is that Azerrad is always writing about the community that produced each band (either through acceptance or rejection), so there are dozens of other littler bands and tangential things which get given their due along the way. It’s true that some of it seems a little redundant and unbalanced; the only mention of the Pixies, or any kind of Industrial music, comes when Big Black make fun of them. The Dead Kennedys are only really discussed in the Butthole Surfers chapter — yet there are two Ian MacKaye bands (Fugazi gets a chapter near the end), and since Hüsker Dü and the Replacements were both from Minneapolis, a lot of that ground gets covered twice; but Azerrad makes it clear that he’s writing from a subjective perspective (he remains largely neutral, but passionate) and his writing is so sincere, informative, and well-worded that you can’t really fault him in that regard.

My other major complaint is that the book seriously dude-heavy — I’m pretty sure that, of the bands and labels covered here, the only ones which significantly feaure women are Kim Gordon, Heather from Beat Happening, and that crazy chick from the Butthole Surfers. On the one hand, this may be because that scene in the 80’s was very full of dudes; Azerrad seems aware of this, and self-conscious about it, and he mentions it himself at several points. But all the same, I would have really liked a chapter about (or even a few mentions of) Bikini Kill or Bratmobile or even Babes in Toyland or something like that, especially since some of the material that did make the cut feels a little redundant.

The penultimate chapter, which nominally focuses on Mudhoney — actually, it’s about Seattle and Sub Pop more than it is about the band — was both the most and least interesting. It’s the music that I care least about, but I had a series of small revelations as Azerrad described the relative commercial-mindedness of the Sub Pop label and related bands. It seems hardly a mistake that that was the particular scene which blew up on a national level; they were making the music that was the least substantial or unusual, and they were the most eager for traditional success. It’s strange to hear that sub-subculture described from the perspective of their contemporaries; I’d only really heard a lot of those bands discussed in terms of their relation to Nirvana or Pearl Jam. It’s one of the things that is great about this book; it really gives you a sense of looking under the big fat boulder of commercially successful rock music, and seeing all the weird other shit that was going on underneath it.

So, yeah: this book is totally worth your time. I also found it incredibly inspiring; in a post-Pitchfork environment where “indie music” enjoys mainstream support (and a LOT of creative stagnation), there’s such a groundswell of grassroots support of independant stuff, but there’s also such eager competition amongst bands and bloggers alike to be the “next big thing” … so for me it was really inspiring to revisit a time when being independent meant actually Doing It Yourself, usually because you had to. There’s a lot of nice, inoffensive Rock Bands out there, and it’s nice that some of them have achieved a certain level of success. But to me, that doesn’t mean “we won” — it just means the people who “won” are no longer “us.”  I’m not trying to say those bands are necessarily bad (although many of the critically lauded ones, I honestly couldn’t give two shits about), I’m just taking this opportunity to point out that there remains a need for a valid underground culture outside of what’s commercially viable or successful, and perhaps we’ve long been ignoring that sort of thing in favor of whatever new Indie Rock Bands are Hot Right Now.

Anyhow, enough ranting from me. Go check out those books, they’re totally worth it.

Tags: feature

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Patrick A. Reed // Apr 11, 2009 at 9:49 pm

    Hey Ford-
    (1st) is that my copy of the JB book? I know I recommended it, was reading it in Ch’ville over xmas, and around the same time, mislaid it. Or loaned it out to a friend in a moment of sobriety. Coincidence or not, don’t know.
    (2nd) as usual, I disagree vehemently with your conclusions while taking the same course to get there. I actually think that Burma are among the MOST interesting bands covered in “TBCBYL”. Unlike many of their peers they actually managed to incorporate all sorts of outside-of-rock influences while avoiding the self-loathing and/or (worse) the over-the-top-puritan year zero ethics that I find so damn boring. Oh, and they wrote effing ace tunes… Basically, I’d always rather hear a good pop song with arty leanings than a shit tune wearing disdain / naivete / primitivism / angst / outsider tradition on its sleeve. And Burma welded their noise/dada/tapeloop/experimantalism to some great songwriting chops, made one and a half albums, then got offstage ’til they had enough built up to come back twenty-odd years on (and better than ever, I might add). Great, interesting music, great story.

  • 2 James // Apr 12, 2009 at 1:41 am

    1) nope, got my copy from my folks for Xmas. I do remember that you were reading it then, though, b/c I remember talking to you about it last time you were in town. But I have no clue where your copy is. However, i DO still have your copy of the David Foster Wallace book about hip hop from 1989.

    2) see, the way people describe Mission of Burma makes them sound so crazy and “experimental” that I always expected them to sound like This Heat or something. Then when I actually listened to them, I got… the tame parts of Television. Not that there’s anything wrong with that (although Television are another band that never stuck lightning with me), it’s just that… you know, for all that talk of how “experimental” they were, I thought they’d at least sound like Wire or something.

  • 3 davis // Apr 13, 2009 at 11:24 am

    Great book, and great reflections on both of these, James. I’d like to do a little cheerleading and contextual cross-pollinating here. Essentially, an amazing, once Charlottesville-centric phenomenon is coming to a close soon, and it really relates to the whole picture that “Our Band Could Be Your Life” paints: USAisaMonster is calling it quits after 9 years of flying the flag for all things great about DIY music culture and just generally kicking ass in every way conceivable as a band. I could go on for pages and pages here, so I won’t, but this band and their various efforts present a sharp relief to present Indie Culture and the short-attention blog-led trending of current music media and fandom (i.e., they get very little press, seek out none, have been around for a while, and have a small but hardcore fanbase won primarily by blowing people’s minds live and in person through endless touring, compared to: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Fleet Foxes, Wavves, etc. etc. etc.). They were responsible, in their own way, for creating a grass roots network and underground circuit just as vibrant and vital as the one mentioned from the 80s, as anyone who was lucky enough to see the first wave of Pudhaus shows circa 2000-2001 can attest. Someday I’ll go into more detail (though some might say there is too much here already), but I can’t stress enough how inspiring these guys, and their peers coming through town, were to myself and many others. I am sad they are breaking up, but incredibly glad that I got to spend so many great nights (and even a few days) seeing this great band. If you can, get to New York on May 9 (Market Street Hotel in Brooklyn) to see their final show. If not just make sure you see a live band nearly as much as you download a song. Music lives through the people playing it as much as through product, which is increasingly what things are getting reduced to.

    On a lighter, also Charlottesville related note, here is a paraphrased Steve Albini story (a wonderfully necessary jerk and hardliner, go read his take on the Butthole Surfers suing Touch and Go records sometime, great stuff). So, before my day in Virginia, there was a “fraternity” at UVA named Sigma Nu that was apparently where every weirdo in town of a certain generation hung out. Lots of bad attitudes, drugs, and good rock and roll made its way through, to I imagine the general discomfort of everyone else on Rugby Ave. (Sigma Nu would be shut down shortly after this story takes place, apparently). These kids liked Big Black, and really liked Shellac, Albini’s current band then and now, so since Sigma Nu put on shows, the members wrote Albini to see if they could get Shellac to come play. If you were Albini, all you would understand is that you just got asked to play a frat party. So, of course he wrote back a hateful screed saying more or less “HELL NO” and signed it:

    “Go fuck a goat for me, Steve.”

  • 4 John // Apr 15, 2009 at 9:37 am

    Also of note, the awesome Harrisonburg duo Buck Gooter, another band that plays by its own DIY rules, will be opening that Market Hotel show on May 9.