Sunday, January 07, 2007

Infinite Orgasm Variations

It hit me I should post this article, something I wrote for the Santa Barbara Independent back in May of 1996, before Amy and I were even married (she makes a guest appearance as fiance about 4/5 of the way in). Note somehow I: 1) reveal too much about how and where I grew up, 2) link both Brown and Gerald Ford, as if I knew.

The Man Who Souled the World

To feel the sub of suburbia you need to grow up in a place like East Hanover, NJ, all of twenty-five miles west of New York City, all of fifteen west of Newark, but miles don’t always equal distance. This is a story about when America still had a middle class. Getting yours meant knowing who else was you, and the ‘burbs that blended into each other on maps refused such blurring in heads, so Catholic us could call neighboring Livingston Livingstein in a not-at-all neighborly way. And it’s not just circular to say you don’t know what you don’t know.

This wasn’t ages ago. It was the mid-seventies, when someone as nothing and non-elected as Gerald Ford could be president and our sense of protest arose so mightily that the most we did was laugh at Chevy Chase making fun of Ford’s falling down. In East Hanover, we had one African-American family-—Elliott Maddox’s, and he played baseball for the Yankees.

But before I get too hemmed in by my haw of social history, let it be put blunt: I will never be James Brown. JB’s the place where soul moonwalked into the future of funk, the place where R&B shimmied a slink like lovers, not mere letters. He could let loose an “Oooowww!” that no typography can bring to life, but it brought to life an Apollo Theatre crowd in 1962 in paroxysms unmatched by anything short of watching your lotto numbers coming up while getting laid (and you shouldn’t be watching TV then, anyway). My crappy vinyl Solid Smoke reissue of that disc recorded a year before I was born can make me feel more alive than most of my living. Something mattered. Someone meant something (of course it had something to do with love, or the lack of it). And those horn lines pulled strings that have left butts swaying for decades.

But I will never be James Brown. And I don’t just mean it in that dated Norman Mailer (oops, didn’t mean to be redundant there, given Mailer might be the literary equivalent of Austin Powers) White Negro way. Although, when Mailer writes, “He lived in the enormous present, he subsisted for his Saturday night kicks, relinquishing the pleasures of the mind for the more obligatory pleasures of the body, and in his music he gave rise to the character and quality of his existence, to his rage and the infinite variations of joy, lust, languor, growl, cramp, pinch, scream and despair of his orgasm,” you have to admit racism and stupidity don’t always go hand-in-hand. Mailer is onto something, but too busy generalizing, too busy ending that essay with references to Das Kapital in an effort to be good ‘n’ learned.

For Infinite Orgasm Variations could be a sick yet snooty title for a JB boxed set. If Brown wasn’t having sex on his records, he was at least working himself up into a lather, or perhaps wringing out the sheets of sweaty nights sadly to be had no more. But then again, if I had the pre-P-Funk Bootsy Collins on bass behind me, as lucky Brown did at one--and let me add it was the “Sex Machine”--point, I might be able to grease a bit of a groove myself.

Or maybe not. I keep seeing Mick Jagger looking scared, and I mean Mick back when he was Mick and not reduced to being the frontman of rock and roll’s IBM-—corporate, once-cutting edge, omnipresent, probably not quite benevolent. It’s on film, a time capsule dipsy-doodle called the TAMI Show (that’s short for Teenage Awards Music International). It’s 1964. James Brown does the full-fledged, cape on the floor, I’m maybe down on my knees, I’m down on my knees, singing “Please Please Please” routine. And Mick doesn’t want to go on after that. If Mick Jagger can’t get no satisfaction, then the rest of us white boys have no hope. (And nothing, not even me trying to dance, is more white boy than the TAMI Show’s performance by Gerry and the Pacemakers, who play as if the whole band could use a few.)

Or maybe we do have hope. It seems there’s a rumor out there that for whatever reason, James Brown gave up Georgia and decided a whole new life was needed. The rumor finishes this way, a way probably about to be printed in the next Choking Doberman urban myth book with a whole host of unlikely white world suburbs filling in the blank. But in this case the blank is very close to home--Goleta. Yep, JB might have decided the Good Land really deserved its name. There are even a few James Browns listed in the phone book for Goleta, and I’ve resisted my fiancee’s suggestion to cold call each and ask, “How do you feel?” waiting for the one to say, “I feel good,” in a way that chest-charges that cliché back into heart-skipping life.

For if he’s here, he belongs here. I couldn’t make it to him in East Hanover, NJ, back when I bought the Carpenters singles album as my first LP, a quiet testament that I was as white as the crummy plastic stereo I played the disc on. (I wished it was a Close-N-Play.) That he’s come to me is only fitting, as he comes to all of us, as all our souls wait to know what their names mean.

If he can be in Goleta, he can be anywhere, which he is in music, a one-man invasion of the sample snatchers. If JB hadn’t existed, hip-hop would have had to invent him to invent itself; one reason it’s hard for anyone to carp too, too much about how music today lives by the sample didn’t pay enough attention when Brown sampled himself, stealing riffs and adding that third repetition to titles to make the song once again new.

Can Brown make it all new at the Bowl this Friday? After all, he’s a whole age of consent older than our president. Maybe, maybe not. But given I’ll never be JB anyway, it’s silly thinking he can’t still come on in and do the popcorn, give us the butter, and make us like it.


Anonymous Mike said...

Ford & Brown in a post 10 years early. Nicely done.

You & Philip Roth: writers from the Newark 'burbs.

6:18 AM  
Anonymous James said...

I really like this piece. Thanks for dusting it off and sharing it.

2:35 PM  
Anonymous James said...

And should you be interested, my thoughts on the Ford/Brown/Reagan/Charles timings is here.

2:40 PM  

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