In J.B.’s death, a new reason for the season

A few nights ago, my younger brother and I watched a rare video of a particularly memorable moment in television history.

It was taped off CNN around 1986. In it, Sonya Friedman tried to interview soul singer James Brown via satellite regarding his then-recent arrest for spousal abuse. Throughout the uncomfortably bizarre segment, the superstar (in neckerchief, leather gloves and the largest pair of sunglasses ever manufactured on this planet) cackled, mugged and flirted with the stupefied host.

He refused to answer questions about his legal troubles, and instead sang couplets from his hits. He belted out a rapid stream of non-sequiturs and demanded to know where CNN founder Ted Turner was hiding. He also told Sonya that he was “single and ready to mingle.”

This was the first direct glimpse many of us had of a great man nearing collapse. Brown was clearly under the influence of strong psychotropic drugs, and in fact, it was later revealed that he’d often used PCP during that time. Before long, his decades of artistic accomplishments, charitable work, civil rights advocacy and sincere efforts to keep kids in school and —ironically— off drugs would be overshadowed by the tabloid profile which emerged: that of a narcissistic, paranoid, unstable drug abuser at the nadir of his professional career.

James would eventually emerge from a too-harsh South Carolina prison sentence with a renewed vigor and sense of purpose, but in many real ways he would battle the demons of drugs and family violence off and on for years to come. 

I saw that interview when it aired live, and viewing it now, some two decades later, never fails to generate as much sincere sympathy in me as it does unchecked laughter at the absurdity of the situation.

When I received a text message at 8 am the next morning from a fellow musician and funk aficionado which read simply, “R.I.P. James Brown,” I was —surprisingly— not hit with a wave of sadness. How could it be, I wondered, that the passing of someone who had meant so very much to me throughout my entire life could fail to bring a tear to my eye?

I noticed the same reaction in others as news of his death spread. Most everyone I came in contact with seemed disappointed or resigned, but no one seemed truly shocked, or inconsolable. Truth be told, I actually started to feel a little giddy and uplifted as the day went on!

It soon dawned on me that I was experiencing a reawakening of faith.

As a devout Jewish atheist (trust me, there’s a lot more of us out there than you might think) born and raised in a small Appalachian Mountain town, Jesus never really did much for me.

Besides the fact that most of the images you’ll find of J.C. make him look like a gay, Norwegian hippie, I simply couldn’t relate to his bag. He was too perfect. Too glowing.

I needed a fragile, fallible human to find inspiration in. A person capable of amazing bursts of creativity and kindness, but one who also bargained with salvation.

I found that in Dylan, and I found that in Cash, and I found that in Brown.

Make no mistake. I don’t have blinders on. JB was no saint. He beat his wives. He lied incessantly (perhaps most importantly to himself). And he embraced ludicrous double standards, such as bragging in his autobiography about how savvy and wealthy a businessman he was, only to complain that the IRS had no right to make him pay back taxes, since as a poor black in the South he did not have access to the same math education as whites.

But he was Soul Brother No. 1. His example —no matter how tarnished by later events— led countless men and women of all races (but especially African American) to take pride in themselves and reach for the skies, instead of settling for limitations imposed on them by society at large and those who would stand to profit from their subservience and beat-down complacency.

Who exactly fills that role today?

That’s what I thought.

A close friend said for years that JB’s death would be one of the most significant events in American popular culture (and even more so in the Southeast). Assuming the certainty of a public funeral, he swore he’d charter a private bus so several dozen devoted Savannah fans could travel to the services in a celebration of Brown’s legacy.

True to his word, he acted on this within hours of the news. It’s one of my great shames that a previous engagement prevented me from attending the service in Augusta. I would have moved heaven and earth to be there and pay my respects to someone who was much, much more to me than simply a phenomenal musical innovator and catalyst for positive social change in this country (and the world).

“I find the religiosity and the philosophy in the music,” Dylan remarked a few years back, when asked what faith he currently adhered to. “I believe the songs.”

The only good thing to come out of all this is from now on, some of us will have a more justifiable reason to hang lights, send cards, give gifts and bake cookies.

Like the lady said, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.”

Happy James Brown Day, everyone.