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Being James Brown: Rolling Stone's 2006 Story

Page 11 of 12

Now we listen as James Brown begins what he calls "rapping," a verbal improv no one seems to want to call a sheer defacement of Wesley's solo. The spontaneous lyrics go more or less like this: "Fred Wesley. Ain't nothing but a blessing. A blessing, doggone it. Get on up. Lean back. Pick it up. Shake it up, yeah. Make your booty jump. Clap your hands. Make your booty jump. Dance. Ra-a-aise your hands. Get funky. Get dirty. Dirty dancin'. Shake your boo-tay. Shake you boo-boo-boo-boo-tay. Plenty tuchis. Plenty tuchis. Mucho. Mucho grande. Shake your big booty. Mucho grande. Big booty. Cool-a. Tuchis!" On delivering this last exclamation, an exhilarated James Brown rushes from behind the glass and, rather horrifyingly, in a whole room full of colleagues and intimates, points directly at me and says "Tuchis! You got that, Rolling Stone?"

I say, "That'll go right into the piece, sir."

James Brown then makes a shape in the air and says, "South American boo-tay." We all laugh, at the helpless insanity of it, at the electricity of his delight. "Jewish boo-tay," he says. "Jewish boys and Latina girls get up to a lot of trouble!"

Unfortunately, James Brown demands that we listen to "Ancestors" five times in a row — which we do, as usual, in a state of silent reverence, heads nodding at each end to the track. James Brown makes a "tuchis" joke every time the song resolves on that word, as if surprised to find it there. Then, heart-crushingly, he asks for a playback of "Message to the World" — the eleven-minute rant. A few band members have gradually crept out, but most sit in a trance through all the replays.

Next we listen to Hollie's ballad, recorded the day before. James Brown tells his wife the ballad's lyric is dedicated to her (the innocuous sentiments are along the lines of "If you're not happy, I'm not happy either"). At this, James Brown's wife gets nervous, and in a quiet moment I overhear her asking Damon exactly what it says.

"For me?" she asks again.

In irritation, James Brown says, "For all wives." This seems to put an end to the subject.

Afterward, in front of us all, James Brown's wife urges him to consider breaking from his work for a snack. His blood-sugar level, I learn, has been a problem. "I put a banana in the fridge for you," she says. This information displeases James Brown intensely, and the two begin a brief, awkward verbal tussle.

Mr. Bobbit leans in to me and whispers, "A rolling stone gathers no moss." Taking the hint, I go and join Wesley and the band, most of whom have tiptoed out of the playback room and are hanging out in the kitchen.

There, an ebullient Wesley is teasing a rapt circle of admiring musicians for having the audacity to kvetch about how hard the James Brown of today rehearses his band. "Y'all don't know nothing about no eight-hour rehearsal," he tells them. "Y'all don't got a clue. Y'all don't know about going to Los Angeles, nice bright sunshine, sitting there in a dark little studio for eight hours, all those beautiful women, all the things we could do, stuck rehearsing a song we've been playing for fifty years, going, 'Dun-dun-dun' instead of 'dun-dun-doo."'

Seizing their chance, the cats confide in Wesley about "Pimp Danny" and how they hope Wesley will contribute a solo. "So is that why I'm here?" Wesley replies warily, as if sensing a conspiracy of some kind. "I'll play trombone on anything," he explains to me. "You know the story about the $200 whore? Guy says he's only got fifty dollars, she says, 'That's all right, I'll fuck you anyway.' 'Cause she just likes to fuck. That's me: I like to play."

Suddenly, Mr. Bobbit has arrived with a vast delivery of takeout food: several gallon buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken, assorted sides and a few boxes of doughnuts, too. These are spread on the table, and James Brown emerges from the playback room and joins us. The blood-sugar issue, it appears, is to be addressed, and not by the banana in the fridge. Mrs. James Brown and James Brown II are now nowhere to be seen.

James Brown, still in his black hat and shades, fills a plate with chicken and plunks himself down between me and Wesley. "You gotta talk to this guy," he says, indicating Wesley. "That's twenty percent of your story, right there."

Wesley demurs: "People always try to tell me that, but I'm always saying, there couldn't be nothing without The Man. It all comes through him. You need someone who thinks unbounded. I used to be contained within the diatonic scale. He'd tell me something and I'd say, 'It can't be written down, so it can't be played.' He'd say, 'Play it, don't write it down.' It took me years to understand. Now I'm a teacher."

James Brown and Keith begin reminiscing, plainly for Wesley's sake, about having to teach the Black Eyed Peas' bass player how to play a James Brown bass line. Usher's people, too, needed a tutorial. James Brown and Keith laugh at how slow others are to get it — the guitarist who said, "That's the wrong chord," and James Brown's reply: "How can it be wrong, when it's never been played before?"

Following this five o'clock lunch break, James Brown leads the Bitter Sweets in some more vocal arrangements, leaving the band and Wesley sitting on their hands. Though James Brown's energy is phenomenal, as the evening drags toward seven the general belief is that nothing further will be accomplished here today. Jeff says, wonderingly, "I never even took my horn out of my case today. Checked my e-mail, smoked a twist, ate some Kentucky Fried Chicken." Yet it is on this cue, seemingly as if he has gleaned the risk of mutiny, that James Brown sends the Bitter Sweets home and calls instead for the band — the whole band.

James Brown's mood has turned again. He's so determined, he's almost enraged. "Got to be ready," he chastises while they assemble. James Brown has decided he wants to play his organ but snaps at Howard and snaps at Jeff as the amplifier cables get tangled and, briefly, unplugged. He also castigates Fred Thomas, who he claims has missed a cue: "You want to play bass? Then play." Next he rages at Mousey, who, trapped in a separate booth, can't watch the hand signals. James Brown actually steps in and briefly plays the drums for Mousey, ostensibly showing him how it's done — shades of Nat Kendrick! The silence in the room, during these attacks, is suffocating. I can't help thinking of the present band's embarrassment in front of Wesley, and of Wesley's embarrassment in front of the present band. Here's living proof of every complaint they've wished to register with me.

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Song Stories

“Bird on a Wire”

Leonard Cohen | 1969

While living on the Greek island of Hydra, Cohen was battling a lingering depression when his girlfriend handed him a guitar and suggested he play something. After spotting a bird on a telephone wire, Cohen wrote this prayer-like song of guilt. First recorded by Judy Collins, it would be performed numerous times by artists incuding Johnny Cash, Joe Cocker and Rita Coolidge. "I'm always knocked out when I hear my songs covered or used in some situation," Cohen told Rolling Stone. "I've never gotten over the fact that people out there like my music."

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