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From the Poet's Notebook

New poems by Howard Nelson

James Brown

James Brown's son came to town,

to give a talk and do a book-signing at the local bookstore.

He's written a book about his father,

good timing, it coincides with the new movie

about James Brown's life.

He says he hasn't seen it,

but he knows it's far from true.

And now he's out on tour, a different kind of show

than James Brown's. He must be a good musician--

he played in James Brown's band for several years. But it appears

that now he's somewhat down on his luck,

or why would he be here in Auburn, New York,

in this little bookstore, peddling his book.

He says that if he'd known how hard it is being an author,

he probably wouldn't have written it.


He's casually dressed, jeans, t-shirt, running shoes,

skinny braids hanging down

from under a sort of narrow-brimmed black cowboy hat.

Apparently he hasn't inherited his father's sense of style.

He's probably about fifty. He's got a paunch.

He's an ordinary looking, middle-aged guy.

But he's James Brown's son, and he's come to town,

and fifty or so people have filled the folding chairs,

and as he paces around the area

where the book racks have been pushed aside,

he does a good job talking about his dad.

He acknowledges he wasn't the most attentive father,

and that he didn't always treat his mother very well,

but he speaks of him with, I think,

honesty, respect, and love.

And every now and then he says,

"James Brown--there was something

divine about that man."


He talks a lot about how hard his father's childhood was--

abandoned by his mother, who left

because she was afraid of his father, who was a rough man,

and who James Brown worshipped.

Extreme poverty, living in a shack, prison early on.

"He came to those distorted conceptions

of human relationships honestly," he says.

"Living in survival mode makes for a lifetime of bad decisions,"

he says. "Though I am much larger

than my father, I always knew he could whip my ass

if I ever crossed the line," he says.


He talks about what a hard-driving boss

his father was, maniacally controlling,

a perfectionist, a taskmaster--

all the musicians who ever worked with him say the same.

"You had to be on top of your game at all times."

"Every instrument a drum"

was one of his principles and demands,

and listening to his greatest songs

it's clear he got what he was after.

I don't really have the language for it, but I'd say

that some of those songs aren't even songs

exactly--they're chants, they're dances in the air.

"I Got You," for example.

From the first moment/scream to the last,

its rhythms are so tight,

so beautifully spasmodic,

you'd almost have to be dead

not to move to it. "Yeoow...

I feel good/ I knew that I would...."

That's how good we're supposed to feel,

isnt' it?


I saw James Brown in person, it must have been 1967,

in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. My college friends and I

were the only white people in the audience, or close to it.

And it was a great show. I saw James Brown

do his famous cape routine. "Please Please Please,"

falling again and again to his knees,

getting up, running back, unable to leave the stage.

I wasn't alive in Leipzig in 1725,

so I didn't get to hear Bach play the organ,

and I didn't live in the Austalian outback

in all those millennia before time got sliced in half

with BCE and CE, so I'm sure I missed

some great didgeridoo players,

but living in America in the second half of the 20th century,

I got to see James Brown live on stage,

and fifty years later, I guess it is still

one of the greatest things I've ever seen.


His son talks about what a positive force he was,

all through the shifting tides and turmoil of those times.

"He was more civil rights than civil rights," he says.

He prevented a few riots in his time.

Who else could sing message songs

like "Don't Be a Drop-out"

("without an education you might as well be dead")

and still seem like the wildest man around?

When he put out "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud,"

one of my psychedelically oriented friends said,

"Well, you won't be able to sing along with that one,"

but it was such a good song, call and response,

that I did sing it to myself now and then

as I walked across campus under the tall liberal arts trees.


I didn't follow his music over the next few decades.

I would read about him in the newspaper

when there was a story about him--usually his troubles

with the IRS, his wives, the law.

Somehow I missed it when he sang duets with Pavoratti--

one of many things I heard about when I read his son's book.

But whenever I heard one of his old songs on the radio,

those irresistible rhythms, those crisp horns,

the wonderful rawness of his voice,

and wherever I was, I did a little dance.


At the end of the talk, James Brown's son took out a guitar

and offered to do one of his father's songs.

Someone asked for the obvious choice:

"Papa's Got a Brand-New Bag."

So he thought for a few seconds, and then started to pick it out,

and he seemed to take special pleasure

when he got to the measure

when the band stops and the guitar rapidly strums--

deedle-eedle-eedle-eet!

But at one point, he forgot the lyrics, and paused, and asked,

"What's the next line?" and I'm proud to say,

not black and proud, but proud nonetheless,

that it was me who provided the next line: "It's out of sight."

And James Brown's son thanked me, and he finished

his sweet, accoustic version of his father's great song.

And then he said good night.


"How can we tell the dancer from the dance?"

"Every instrument a drum."

"Try Me." "Cold Sweat." "I Feel Good."

James Brown--there was something

divine about that man.