Stay on the scene. Like a sex machine. "Leave a message!" Beep. That was the message I recorded on my answering machine when I was 23. I was living in the funky pre-gentrified Jamaica Plain neighborhood in Boston after graduating from uber liberal Antioch college. I fact checked articles about crystals and chakras at New Age Journal (now Body + Soul) as an editorial assistant by day and spent my weekends writing obits for the Boston Globe. I also got my first credit card and promptly charged a couple thousand dollars in cheap hipster furnishings from Urban Outfitters for an apartment I shared with two roommates -- one of whom was a depressive who smoked a pack of Marlborough Reds a day and drank black coffee a pot at a time. Twenty three was a year of credit card debt, crazy roommates and a string of even crazier dates.
For me, James Brown was the soundtrack of my early independence. I had just purchased his greatest hits CD and listened to it often. Whenever "Sex machine" was played at a club or a party, I would rush to the dance floor, the infectious horns, funky beat and the feeling of being young and single and sexy washing over me like a drug. I would often play "It's a man's world" while driving, and the women's studies major in me would sigh "how true." The liberal white girl in me loved "Say It Loud," though being a child of the 80s, I felt somewhat disassociated from the Civil Rights struggle that was the backdrop for that song. Listening to James Brown made this middle class Jewish girl feel like I had soul. He was the gateway drug to other artists that would soon dominate my CD collection: Al Green, Marvin Gaye and every Stevie Wonder CD from the 70s. They appealed to my romantic idealism - let's stay together, always.
When James Brown died this past week, these were the memories that came rushing back to me. I wanted to write about them because apart from his huge impact on the music world and in popular culture, I'm sure that everyone has their own personal connection to some of the Godfather of Soul's music. You have to -- it's encoded. The New York Times just profiled Dr. Daniel Levitin, who has done groundbreaking research on why music sticks with us. What's interesting to me about Levitin's work is his assertion that the music we are most emotionally attached to is music we listened to as teens. He told Salon.com,
"Humans prefer music of their own culture when they're toddlers, but it's in our teens that we choose the specific sort of music that we'll love forever. These years, Levitin explains, are emotional times, 'and we tend to remember things that have an emotional component because our amygdala and neurotransmitters act in concert to 'tag' the memories as something important.'"
Even though I discovered James Brown in my early 20s, his music will always be tagged to my memories of being on my own, just starting out in my career and being unabashedly single...on the scene...
James Brown, rest in peace.
Feel free to share your own James Brown memories in the comments.