Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Man Vs. (Sex) Machine

Artist: James Brown
Albums: Sex Machine; 20 All-Time Greatest Hits
Source: Bought new

Taking a look at Soul Brother #1 brings up two issues. The first is roughly the same thing I encountered when pondering my Beatles holdings: is it really possible that I have this paltry amount of James Brown in residence? I mean, this is a major dude, to put it lightly. I've heard Robert Chirstgau say that Mr. Excitement is the top musician he's encountered, in any idiom. I don't particularly agree, but I also don't really know how I'd go about refuting the claim.

In short, I just don't have enough James Brown. I mean, no Live at the Apollo? Or at least a semi-comprehensive box set ? C'mon, people.

But more importantly (and perhaps related to the Great James Brown Shortage) is the issue of personality. James Brown is the inventor of funk, the leader of one of the greatest R&B bands ever, the writer of several all-time classic songs...but he was also a wife-beater, a tyrannical boss, and a gun-toting cop-baiting drug-addled lunatic among other things.

To say that the man had some flaws would be putting it lightly. Eileen doesn't like me to play Brown's music in the car, specifically on the domestic-violence issue (though I notice she doesn't make me turn off those old Ike & Tina hits...). I explain his role in the civil rights movement and his many instances of positive social leadership, but she doesn't want to hear it: he is a Bad Man, and that extends all the way to the deepest of his deepest grooves.

I can kind of see where she's coming from...but I think I have to disagree with my lovely wife on this one. Sure, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business wasn't always the Best Guy Ever Off-Stage, but I have trouble using that as a measure of art. Jo-Jo Richman says, "Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole," but only because it (sort of) rhymes; Picasso was an asshole, and so were/are a lot of great artists. Should I stop watching Woody Allen movies because I don't dig the whole Soon-Yi episode? Should Wagner be banished from the concert halls for his anit-Semitic views? William Burroughs shot his wife playing "William Tell" (though in his defense, they were both massively zonked at the time) and Frank Zappa indulged in the groupies when away from his wife & kids, but I don't want to get rid of my copies of Naked Lunch or Hot Rats in protest.

In short, I don't know that it's fair to evaluate art using a Man (or Woman, Ms. Riefenstahl) vs. Artist equation. The creative output is the creative output, and for the most part needs to be evaluated as such. (In cases where the output is the person, e.g., Mein Kamph, I can see where this might not be the way to go.) James Brown was not always a role model, but I'm not going to him for advice on how to treat women--I want to hear the beat hit on the one, the bass slap out a groove, and Mr. Sex Machine himself ride that otherworldly voice atop some of the fiercest music ever committed.

SISOSIG? Personality issues aside, these are two tasty little discs. With a fella whose output varied so widely in quality for so many years, it can be a killer move to have a killer best-of collection. The 20 tracks on this one are all monsters, from the heard-it-too much tracks like "I Got You" and "Sex Machine" to the funk blasts of "Night Train" and "Say It Loud." Eileen may not allow this in the car, but it can't be beat for sheer quality. The other one, Sex Machine, I bought on the basis of the 12-minute title track, a live version of "Get Up I Feel Like Being a Sex Machine" that features Bootsy Collins on the staggeringly funky bass and James just barely int control of himself. That being track 1, the rest of the album has some trouble measuring up, but lordy does it ever try its best. By the time "Mother Popcorn" winds out its last groove, I'm often exhausted.

So these both stay, and as mentioned I really oughta pick up Live at the Apollo, and maybe look into the Star Time box. There's a lot of Brother James out there, and I should probably have some more in here!

2 Comments:

  • If you don't have Love, Power, Peace, you're missing out on one of the best live albums by anyone, ever. The band is smokin', so hot at times that it sounds like they're going to take off. The band includes Bootsy Collins, Phelps Collins, Jabo Starks, Bobby Byrd, and Fred Wesley, one of his best bands ever.

    By Anonymous Dan, at 10:48 PM  

  • James stays, bad dude or no. Behavior shouldn't trample art. Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb were also terrible people, but their accomplishments put them in the HOF. ("Mein Kampf", which should have been required reading for all heads of state c.1925-1935, did define the person and disqualifies the author from any accolade. The book, btw, is a rambling, repetitive rant that is poorly written and barely edited).

    By Anonymous gil hodges, at 1:45 PM  

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