Tuesday, December 26, 2006

STAY ON THE SCENE. On my local TV news, tears rolled down Rev. Al Sharpton's face as he paid tribute to the late James Brown. That figures. Like Reverend Al -- my love for whom you all know -- JB was a shuck-and-jivester who sometimes left a bad smell after himself, but whose glories far surpassed his trespasses.

I used to work with a guy who played first trumpet with JB and kept coming back on tour, partly for the music and partly because JB always paid players for the last tour rather than the present one -- "Holly," he told my friend, "you're a smart man -- you know I can't pay ya!" I'm sure if it were only the latter reason that compelled, Holly would have just gone to the union, but he loved playing for the man, and it showed when he was on a gig.

I'm sure JB could be hard for players to love. He famously fined them for missing cues. He was just as famously tight with a buck, so we may suspect his ear was well-tuned to such malfeasances, and maybe even hypersensitive to them. But here too there was more than one reason: JB started out as a drummer.

All jokes aside, it has been my experience that the drummers who conform to stereotype are the ones who just can't do anything else (just as it's always the monomaniacal cooks who are the crazy ones) -- but if they have anything besides paradiddles rattling around in their noggins, they are usually quite brilliant, and typically exacting when put in charge of group endeavors. The great drummers I've worked with -- Andy Malm, Ray Sage, Sally Barry, Billy Ficca -- all have wide-ranging interests and very short tempers. They love a groove, but they despise a mess.

JB's music is full of hairpin turns and dead-stops -- you better be on top of things if you're playing it. But those tight boundaries just make the grooves groovier. The funk has got to be loose, but the turnarounds have got to be snare-head tight. It's only when those rivets are snug that the pocket can get deep.

No one talks about JB as a songwriter. In a way, that's unfair. Some of his songs are excellent on their own terms. Check out Eartha Kitt's strangely compelling cover of "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" to get a taste of how far that supposedly macho lyric can be stretched. Or just look at it plain, especially at the end: "He's lost, lost in the wilderness ... he's lost, lost in the loneliness..." That ain't triumph. That ain't even soul-man baby-please-don't-go pleading with a promise in its pocket. That's despair. She ain't coming back. Ain't no one coming back. That's the end, the sad, stinking, canned-heat end of a ladies' man who's run out of game. It gives cold-water-flat chills.

But for the most part, JB was less a songwriter than a funkmeister. His joints are designed to wake joy and shake ass. He used modern songwriting techniques -- verbal and musical riffs -- to make that happen, but once he achieved launch velocity, he didn't feel the need to elaborate. Stay on the scene, like a sex machine. I feel nice, like-a sugar and spice. I got soul, I'm super bad. Well, damn, what else do you need?

But let's not just talk about his legacy on recorded media. I saw him once, at the old Lone Star Cafe in New York. My sloppy who-was-I-sleeping-with metric puts the show at 1978, give or take a shake. (Also, I'd just missed Iggy at the Palladium on the grounds that he was washed up, and I had decided, after the glowing reports, that I wasn't going to make that mistake again.) The Lone Star had a very shallow stage, so JB hadn't a lot of room to work with. And he wasn't the wild man I hoped to see. But he was eminently theatrical, and his spins and lunges, though constrained, were sharp -- his will observably extended beyond his marks. He was in fine voice, too. His band was shit-tight, and you could feel his pleasure whenever he vocally or physically smacked into a hard beat they supplied for him. It wasn't the 60's Apollo, but it was a full measure of what he had to give, And yes, he did sweat. JB came to work. On black coffee, and a hard roll. Huhh.

And long after that, long after any of us thought or cared about seeing him again, there were those JB hits on Public Enemy records. HOO! Yeah! HOO! Yeah! Cut tight to the groove, appropriately.

No flowers. Just stop playing Justin Timberlake for a few minutes. Or at least think about what it meant to spin ten or twelve players on a dime, and try and get some of that centifugal force onto a record. Because Pro Tools, from what I've heard, can't give you that heave, that sense of great mass suddenly shifting at the sharp stoke of a bandleader's hand. Or maybe it can and you haven't found it yet. Till you do, you ain't bringing sexy back.

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