She walked gracefully across the room. The co-ed’s long blond hair spread out over the table as she took a big sniff of angel dust. I watched as she went into a rabid rage before throwing herself out of the ceiling-high window, oozing out on the sidewalk below.
I was nine. That scene in some grainy, late ’70s movie is the reason I’ll never do PCP. Coke is out of the question too, but only because of insufficient funds. The only thing I could do was get a bottle of Hennessey, lock myself in my house and turn up the volume. This was not a time for reflection. It was a time of mourning and quiet remembering.
The Godfather of soul, punk, rap and R&B, James Brown, had died–and on Christmas no less. The late night obits on numerous news sites and CNN were insulting. Sure, they talked about his legacy and his charisma, but the biggest focus was the drugs and troubled marriages. It was the meat of every story.
James Brown, my James Brown, is more than his doped-up police chases. His music is still the only thing that makes me–forces me–to dance. Forget George Clinton, there is nothing funkier than Brown. He was funk. He was possibly the last musician in this country to have anything resembling a soul. He was also a great communicator.
Both my father and I remember when we first heard The Man. Pops remembers hearing “Live at the Apollo” in the downstairs apartment in the early ’60s. I remember everything about the day when I bought the double-disc “Live at the Apollo II” and heard the MC announcing to the crowd, “And Now! The HARDEST working man in show business,” before the brass section kicked in. It was an entrance fit for a king.
Now The List is getting short. There’s only three more left before the last drudges of original American Music are gone – B.B. King, Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan.
It’s a long-established fact that Keith Richards’ blood is liquid kryptonite. He will never die. And as long as Jerry Lee Lewis continues to suckle the nectar of 14-year-olds, he will continue to kill. Besides the short list, the few exceptions and an endless list of imitators, American Music has died with Brown.
It was the cruel hand of Kali that decided Brown should die on Christmas morning. The news cycle, being the creature that it is, has already forgotten him. Already, he’s as visible as Georgia cotton seeds. On Our Lord’s birthday, the news providers of every type have about as much substance as a journalism or communications class. No one wants to hear about the outside world on that day. It’s understandable then that the feeds get filled with cute Santa photos and last minute shopping reports.
Still, the day after Christmas should have been a day dedicated to Brown. Instead, a lowlife cracker croaked just in time for every news program to round up the troops and go bonkers over some meaningless idea of “legacy.” The whole thing stunk of a conspiracy or at the very least, a planned death meant to overshadow the real news.
At 93, the country’s most forgettable president since Rutherford B. Hayes died. His greatest achievement was that he did nothing and still managed to get his picture in the paper every week. He was a third-rate nonentity. Big shots called in to comment on the “Breaking News” and the only accomplishment anyone could muster up about Ford was that he was an honest man.
Two things are wrong with that statement. The first one being that honesty qualifies as a great legacy – man, woman or politician. The second is much more troubling.
Ford wasn’t elected president. He wasn’t elected vice-president. During his time nothing changed except that a crook of the highest caliber was left of the hook. Some may throw around wild statements that Ford, “brought back respectability to the Presidency.” He did no such thing. All he did was bring a midnight lull to a position gearing up for a poor, smiling diplomat and then a leader who genuinely thought the world was coming to an end.
During his first speech as president, Ford famously said, “Our long national nightmare is over.” He was half-right. We awoke from that sharp nightmare only to discover that wild episodes of that dream were rooted in an increasingly ugly and gray world. Before him, there were good presidents, bad presidents and debatable presidents. After Ford, a crook in the White House became untouchable. His decision to pardon Nixon is now regarded as a good one by politicians and journalists alike. Better to be stagnant, the message seems to be, than be in turmoil looking for truth and responsibility.
Ford was the precursor to the American presidency becoming a choice between the lesser of two evils. After him we got stuck with a failed humanitarian, an apocalyptic Jesus Freak, a sex-crazed “moderate” and a dynasty. Better to have half of half the citizen’s vote for a meaningless affair than the entire population engaged in real debate.
With James Brown’s PCP antics, Ford’s mid 70s prominence, and death, swirling around in my skull it’s impossible not to keep returning to that movie scene that’s been seared into my memory. It all seems grossly unfair and I want to follow in the footsteps of the late-blooming flower child.
The ex-Prez’s death will be news for weeks. When they finally eliminate loose change, it’ll most likely be Ford’s face they put on all our plastic “change” cards – a meaningless man on a meaningless piece of plastic. Perfect. In a few weeks, I’ll be able to buy the James Brown box set from the late-late-late-night infomercial and in a year I can expect a tribute brimming with poor taste. And I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to find the movie that frightened me so much as a nine-year-old, to no avail.
There is no justice in the world.
[Original piece available here.]