How do you begin to describe the soul and funk legend that was / is James Brown? Well, if you’re Rolling Stone you choose one of America’s best contemporary novelists, Jonathan Lethem, and send him to spend time around Brown (who dubbed him ‘Mr Rolling Stone’ – going so far as to sing, off the cuff, ‘Papa was a rolling stone’ at him) and his band.
The long piece, written in 2005, which is published in Lethem’s excellent collection The Ecstasy of Influence, shows just how good music writing can be, when you get someone as engaged as Lethem, trying to describe someone as magical as Brown.
Brown, of course, famously was born in extreme poverty and ended up being the self-dubbed ‘Godfather of Soul’. He had a career that spanned over six decades, and included 90 number one hit songs (!!). Capturing the essence of what made Brown special is next-to-impossible, but Lethem gives it a good shot, via Kurt Vonnegut
“For my part as a witness, if I could convey only one thing about James Brown it would be this: James Brown is, like Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, a man unstuck in time. He’s a time traveler, but unlike the H.G. Wellsian variety, he lacks any control over his migrations in time […] indeed it may be the case that James Brown in often confused as to what moment in time he occupies at any given moment.
Practically this means […] that sometime around 158 – approximately the year he began voyaging in time, if my theory is correct – James Brown began browsing through the decades ahead, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and perhaps into the ’90s -and saw, or more exactly, heard the future of music. This, if my theory is correct, explains the stubbornly revolutionary cast of his musical efforts from that time on, the way he seemed to be trying to impart an epiphany to which he alone had access, an epiphany to do with rhythm, and with the kinetic sould music around him.”