From what I gather, boys go through a major Best Friends Forever stage just before and during puberty. Back in 1965, my see-every-day bestest friend was Andy.
We were inseparable. We shared a very twisted, and looking back, almost surreal Monty Python/Devo sense of humor, about a decade before those entities even existed. And, we loved music. While, yes, we were, by then, almost totally devoted to any band with English accents, we had been listening to Top 40 Radio, a wide wide open format for years and years. Consequently, we were turned onto, and tuned into, all kinds of music by black artists, too.
In late June, maybe a day or two after school had ended for the year (is there a more glorious feeling than late June?), having hung out over at Andy's apartment all day, it was early evening and I was now back at home getting ready for dinner. Andy unexpectedly called just as my Mom was serving the plates. He told me that his uncle had just gotten in touch with his Mom and...
"My uncle Paul has a pair of tickets to see James Brown at Madison Square Garden tonight! You wanna go with me?" Andy asked.
Holy cow, did I!!
Even at 12 years old, middle-class white Beatles boys like us knew full well that James Brown was a god. Soul Brother Number One. His T.A.M.I. show appearance, broadcast earlier in 1965, cemented his Already-Mammoth-In-New-York stature on an exponential level.
"Great! But, you have to be back at my house in the next 10 minutes, okay."
My mom said yes, of course I could go. I scarfed down some supper and then high-tailed it back to Andy's three blocks away.
By the time I got there, Andy and his uncle (in an extremely snazzy suit and maybe even a diamond pinky ring) were already outside Andy's apartment building standing by a long black Cadillac limo waiting for me (wow, my first ever ride in a Caddy limousine, too!). The deal was his uncle was going to drop us off and pick us up afterwards, but just me and Andy were going to the show. I had/have no idea what his uncle did for a living, but he was clearly some kind of big big shot with music business connections.
When we got to the Garden, he told the limo driver to wait, walked us past the ticket takers (without a ticket for himself) and directly to our seats without anyone questioning who he was.
"See you guys later. Have fun." ... and uncle Paul was gone.
The air in Madison Square Garden was electric, almost scarily so.
As I've said, it was 1965, and Andy and I were two of perhaps a hundred white people in a crowd of probably 15,000+. Yes, of course, the show was sold out. The fact is, I don't recall seeing any other Caucasian types at all. I'm just assuming that we were not completely alone, pigment-ally speaking.
Now, this was the old original Madison Square Garden, not the reasonably sleek arena (well, okay, it's frickin' threadbare now) with surround-seating. No, this was basically a huge rectangular warehouse with maybe a 60-foot ceiling and hundreds of rows of removable chairs facing a stage about 6 feet high, 35 feet deep, 75 feet wide, with bleachers lining the back wall. There were also, on either side of the stage, a few hundred seats that were facing in.
Andy and I had 3rd row seats (!), but we were in one of these rows on the far left side of the stage, literally looking across the stage, perfectly sideways. At one point, I remember having the balls to take a quick walk to see what the whole stage looked like when viewed from the front, as it should be. After what I now realize was just good-natured teasing from some folks I was standing in front of while I surveyed the full-frontal, I got scared, and this little white boy scurried back to his seat, pronto.
The show was a spectacle the likes of which I'd never even imagined.
There were four go-go girls in cages, one on each end of the stage and two fitted above the three drummers! The band also had two bassists, four guitarists, at least ten horn players, an organist, two percussionists... it was wild. Over over-the-top. Everything was pink and orange, a dazzlingly jarring color combo. The Go Go girls' bikinis were made of white fur, complete with white knee-high boots, and they all looked like impossibly glamorous Ikettes a few years before I ever saw the Ikettes. They danced (hypnotically, for a boy whose hormones were in the process of tearing his brain to shreds) throughout the whole show.
I don't recall who the female guest vocalist was, the too-sexy Lynn Collins, perhaps. But, I do remember The Mighty Clouds Of Joy (come up with a better group name than that!) being the vocal group that warmed us up. I only recall they wore Creamsicle orange suits (orange was big that night) and were, at that point, absolutely the best vocal group I'd ever heard.
The all-black audience was fantastically and delightfully demonstrative. Women shouting raunchy pleas, men yelling encouragement, kids screaming, lots of dancing in the aisles. The atmosphere was a total sensory overload. I was close to achieving a dazed nirvana.
The structure of the show was very odd. James, who looked exactly the way he did in the T.A.M.I. film, "conked" hair and all, would come out and do a 5 to 10 minute vamp, work us all into a frenzy, and then just... walk off stage. One of three guest acts would then immediately come on and do three songs, calm us down, and then James would come back and do the same crazy tease, once even sitting on a stool and doing some standard like "Georgia On My Mind" and then just standing up and jogging offstage... again!
About the fourth time he came back on, he stayed on for almost an hour. I can't recall the set list but I know I heard "Bring It Up," "Night Train," "Try Me," "Papa's Got Brand New Bag," "I Feel Good," "Prisoner Of Love"...
During "Prisoner Of Love," he did that same trick he did on the T.A.M.I. show of slowly walking away from the microphone as he continued to shout the song title in his scorchingly badass way. The difference was, the T.A.M.I. stage was 20% the size of the Garden stage. So, when James walked away from the mic, he walked away from the mic. The audience, particularly the women, went just bananas. It was hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck thrilling. Why? Because you could still hear him even with all the bedlam in the crowd, even when he was more than 40 feet from the mic. Just... The Man!
Then something weird happened.
As Andy and I watched the show, I suddenly realized that one of the guitarists was staring at us. I've seen photos, and I'm pretty sure it was James' Guitarist Number One, the beyond-legendary Jimmy Nolen. Whoever he was, he looked deeply pissed off. He'd play for about 60 seconds with his back to the audience, stop, fuck with his amp a moment, and then turn and level a malevolent gaze straight at me (and Andy). And, I mean, he'd just stare with this dark scowl on his face for like a full minute and then turn away, play a bit, stop and turn back to continue his ominous eye contact, once even folding his arms, completely ignoring his guitar and the rest of the band. After about 5 minutes of this, Andy even asked me if I thought we should leave, that's how obvious it was. For some reason, it was the fact that he would stop playing that really spooked me. Like he was gonna put the guitar down and come out into the audience to smack us around.
It's also intriguing, considering that James Brown notoriously had a list of fine-able actions for his band (shoes not shined: $25, drop a beat: $25...) and supposedly enforced them all with an iron fist. This menacing guitar guy was probably breaking three or four rules every few minutes. Whoever he was, he seemed to be heavy enough to get away with all of it. I've never been able to figure out what it was all about... except that we were almost surely the only white people in the audience that he could see.
Anyway, eventually it was time for... "Please Please Please." By now, the crowd was delirious.
James did his classic cape bit, with each cape more gaudy, and each fit he threw more dramatic. After about the 3rd or 4th cape, he suddenly lunged towards the audience, and everyone down front rushed the stage, as he reached down, with a bodyguard on either side of him, and started shaking everyone's outstretched hands.
Then, he started up the last cape gambit and one last time threw it off and screamed, "I gotta shake my best friend's hand one mo' time!"
The instant I heard him shout that, without thinking, I jumped outta my seat and charged to the stage. James slowly made his way towards me. I held my hand up as high as I could, and he reached down, with a look of amused delight, grabbed my out-stretched hand and shook his processed-hair head vigorously, as he held me firm, kind of in a happy parody of The Beatles' famous "Ooooo!" head-shake move (yes, of course, I had full-blown Beatles hair). In a matter of two seconds, I was completely drenched with his sweat, as if I'd run through a sprinkler on full blast.
I returned to my seat, actually wet, soaked but thrilled. Within 30 seconds, James was gone, the lights came up, the band disappeared, and we all slowly regained our equilibrium as we landed back on planet Earth.
Ten years later, I was now 22, working as an office clerk, while I pursued Rock Stardom.
One day, I was sent on an errand for the company's owner that took me past (the new) Madison Square Garden on West 33rd St. As I was walking by the stage door area just east of 8th Avenue, I saw a small knot of young street-wise black kids surrounding somebody. The excited-straining-to-see vibe these kids were giving off made me walk over to check it all out.
In the center of this crowd of maybe a dozen kids was... James Brown.
Oh man, let me tell you, I've seen many, many celebrities up close, but, that man's face in real life was so powerful, as to be almost incomprehensible. Pete Townshend, Jackie O. Kennedy and Ed Sullivan are the only three others I can think of whose face just punched me square in the psyche in person. Overwhelmed, I gathered my wits, got out a pen and the only piece of paper I had on me, the invoice for whatever it was I was picking up, and when the moment was right, asked Mr. Brown if he'd please give me his autograph.
James smiled and shook my hand.
"What's your name, brother?"
"His name is Binky," said James to the others surrounding him. That got a jolly laugh.
He then wrote...
"To brother Bink, On the road of life there are many turns and..." And... he kept on writing and writing and writing... the other kids were visibly starting to get impatient and maybe even kind of annoyed and curious as to who the fuck I was to get this kind of treatment, something I was starting to wonder about myself.
James handed me back the invoice. I skimmed through what he'd written. I was flabbergasted. He'd practically written me a letter (full of positive platitudes) in his seriously slanted and narrow handwriting, complete with a large and very flamboyant signature. I thanks him profusely and went back to my office.
To this day, I am simply baffled by what happened next.
Upon returning to the office just before 5pm, my boss asked for the invoice. I handed it over and went home for the day. Once I was back in my apartment, I wanted to show my girlfriend the note James Brown had written me. That's when I realized I'd handed it to my boss! And, yes, of course, when I got in the next morning she'd thrown it out the night before. Gone.
Coda: Speaking of gone... My wife and I went up to the Apollo Theater when James Brown lay in state there two days after he'd died on Christmas morning, 2006. The crowd outside on 125th St. was truly what James deserved. Black, white, Asian, Latino, young, old, easily over 50,000 people out and on line, or watching the line move slowly into the theater and past his mortal coil. A constant ebb and flow as hundreds kept arriving. The atmosphere was actually almost celebratory, sort of like a New Orleans funeral procession. Totally inclusive and benign. It was as if all of us, by James' death, had been reminded that this man made the most exciting, uplifting, sexy music of the 20th century. James Brown music was blaring out of almost every shop and dozens of boom-boxes. And you couldn't help but dance, at least a little, just like you'd done every single time you'd ever heard a James Brown song. Yes, I even saw white cops and Rachel Weisz (!) bopping their heads and laughing with people.
A few days later, my dear friend, Denny, who dearly loves music, and readily acknowledges his occasional ignorance about its history, called and asked me to explain to him how important James Brown was.
I started by pointing out that about 85% of popular music made in the last 40 years
was directly influenced, often to the point of outright theft, by James Brown. No, not quite.
James Brown invented a totally original type of music of immense rhythmic complexity and trance-like repetition and was an utterly brilliant arranger and performer. No, not enough.
James Brown was more than a musician, he was an all-encompassing symbol, truly the Jackie Robinson of Pop music, my pal Denny being very into baseball. Nope.
I was stumped.
Why is the sky blue?