Sunday, March 20, 2016

Kill 'Em and Leave: Searching For James Brown and the American Soul by James McBride

First things first: James McBride wrote an excellent, excellent memoir called The Color of Water. Go read it.

Second, don't expect a traditional biography when you open Kill 'Em and Leave (AMZ / OMNI). Authors of biographies concern themselves with facts, typically in chronological order. That's not to say McBride isn't interested in the truth about James Brown; this book features input from many people involved in Brown's inner circle and some on the fringes: musicians, money men, friends and family. How McBride presents what truth he finds happens in a narrative that's personal and evokes an almost spiritual journey.

Explaining James Brown equates, one could argue, to trying to explain what Jesus actually looked like. Different versions of the Brown story/legend exist because, as we see in McBride's book, it's how Brown wanted it. For a man who enjoyed the spotlight, he craved the mystery and privacy just as much. The title of this book comes from advice Brown was fond of giving and sticking to: knock their socks off, and go. Kill 'em and leave. As McBride writes, "James Brown's status was there wasn't no A-list. He was the list." Watch any clip of him on YouTube and try to argue.

McBride's narrative reminded me in part of Citizen Kane and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, in the respect that you have a person searching for story, looking for an answer (What was Rosebud? Who was the real James Brown?) and in the process you come across a variety of people whose interpretations not only magnify the legacy of the subject, but make them people you want to know better. McBride talks to the last surviving member of The Flames, Brown's early group, his first wife Velma, the man who helped save Brown from the IRS, surrogate son Al Sharpton, and Miss Emma, a devoted friend for decades. Their stories are raw and engaging and bring pieces of Brown's life together like a puzzle we're amazed to see at the end. It's more than a story about one the great soul singers, it's a history of black music and a social commentary about how we treat people, and how we revere some after death...and how greed makes us blind to the need of others. The story of James Brown after his death - the multiple funerals, the fight over his estate, the midnight visit from Michael Jackson - would make one hell of a movie on it own.

This is a book that will stay with you. It's awesome. Just read it.

Rating: A

ARC received from NetGalley.

Kathryn Lively feels good, like she knew that she should.

No comments:

Post a Comment