Most, if not all of the postmortem coverage of James Brown this week focused on his value to the black community and his efforts on behalf of civil rights: his iconic role modeling, his empowerment anthems, his "black capitalism." Like that other poor southern boy made good (Elvis Presley), he embraced ostentation: flashy suits, outlandish vehicles, a swollen entourage and a cultish insider lingo, designed to hold his inner circle close to him while showing the outside world who was boss. But even the New York Times struggled to figure out just what to make of James' musical contribution.
As a young white suburban punk rocker, I wasn't exposed to James Brown until 1981. While I loved the grooves and the message, I responded most strongly to his uncontrollable energy and his willingness to surrender completely to "the moment." For this reason, his early live albums always impressed me more than his studio work. In this area, critical acclaimalways focuses on James Brown's first two "Live At The Apollo" volumes from 1962 and 1968. But the two albums I prefer, while lacking the polish of the Apollo discs, evoke the magic even more markedly for me.
"Pure Dynamite" has been reissued in Japan, but its continued availability is doubtful. And yet, everyone should hear this record. It gets a bad rap due to it's brief length (under 30 minutes), its poor sound quality, and the fact that two of its tracks ("Like A Baby" and "Oh Baby Don't You Weep") are studio recordings with audience sounds dubbed in. Leaving all that aside, what's left is still a hell of a document. James and the band are ferocious; the audience is ecstatic. To say that the performance is "loose" is an understatement. In between the shrieks and the dancing and the vamping, someone asks, "Hey man, where'd you get those shoes you have on?" In a voice heavy with social, political and economic gravity, Brown replies,"...I bought 'em." At one point, a voice suddenly violates the fourth wall and begins to describe the on-stage action, like a play-by-play announcer ("James is on one leg! Now he's on the other leg!"). Cutting through the din are astounding and profound renditions of "Shout and Shimmy," "Signed Sealed And Delivered," and my personal favorite, "These Foolish Things."
I seem to recall reading somewhere that James was less than thrilled with his label's habit of releasing so much product, and was particularly unhappy with a number of the muddy live albums. But James Brown's loss is our gain, for however crude, these disks offer a vital and lasting record of the days before his career was consumed by activism. Despite it's back-cover pose with Vice President Hubert Humphrey, "Live At The Garden" is a non-stop party album. Of course, I'm the kind of guy for whom "Let Yourself Go" and "Ain't That A Groove" are the ultimate political statement, but this release is otherwise devoid of the self-conscious heavy-handedness that marked the "Soul Power" period. For now, we can still enjoy the great man making no more significant a social statement than screaming at the top of his lungs like a dying cat or writhing like a furious Pentecostal possessed by the Most High. The cool pose and the funk would come later.
For years, I carried around a cassette of these two albums until I finally procured my own copies. Poorly pressed, crudely designed, and showing the signs of exposure to "proletariat" audio equipment, these two records reveal James Brown at his best. As he attends to the important task at hand -- inciting crowds to frenzied levels of enthusiasm -- he taps into something more permanent and universal than any political struggle. More than any other popular soul artist, James Brown was able to capture a primordial energy that infuses his work with sublime unearthliness. James Brown was more than just an innovator, more than just an inspiration -- he was a true believer.