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James Brown: I Feel Good!

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Most of the days were very much the same. "You play baseball. Look forward to the days they got something good to eat . . . " And, being the Hardest-Working Mouth in Show Business, you talk to other inmates. This was the true reeducation of James Brown, and he says it wasn't pretty. He says this new generation of inmates are lost children. They came up in the country, like he did. But now they see urban cool pulled in by the Dish, get bamboozled by the light of cathode dreams.

"The slaves' kids' kids' kids done grew up and they didn't leave," James says. "But they got television, shows coming, rappers coming. Talking that rap way. And the same thing's happening that's happening in New York."

Drugs. Street-corner law to replace the rudimentary ethics his generation got in church. Crazy gangster jive, with jewelry to match.

"The cable and the dishes have made reality come to the field," James says. "But they got NO way out. They see something they can never own."

They can't even afford the high-maintenance hairdos, let alone the Adidas sweats. "The kids out there are being fooled into fatality," James says. "I don't mean death all the time, but dead ends . . . They don't relate to nothing. Just crack and finding out what's the latest drug on the market. It ain't the latest record. I got me the new James Brown, the new Sam Cooke, Temptations. NO! They say, 'I got a drug that's really kickin'.'"

He says this generation of young black males does not have the one thing that got him through his first jail term and through all the other hard times. They do not have hope. One night, when he had talked to them for hours, he called Rev at his wits' end. At me end of JB's sermon they'd said, "Yeah, but you're going back out there and sing. Where are we going?" For one of the few times in his life, the Godfather was speechless. He knew they were right.

The native son was in for an even ruder education once he started doing community work under the auspices of the Aiken County Community Action agency. He went with caseworkers to visit rural clients: "What I saw was unreal. We walked down to a trailer, a woman fifty-nine years old, a daughter and a granddaughter. Nothing works. No curtains. I go to the bathroom and my feet went through the floor. Only thing in her bedroom, a picture of Christ. No sheets, just one blanket."

They managed to get her a new trailer, but it was so well appointed electrically, James fretted for their safety. "Lady didn't know how to operate none of that," he said.

Judge Bradley, who tries civil and criminal cases in that jurisdiction, says they've had problems in new housing projects with rural people trying to build fires in electric ovens. They didn't know any better.

"South Carolina can't get away with that no more!" James is yelling. "It's worse than Mississippi before the King march. South Carolina is fourth in illiteracy in the U.S. Can you think how BAD that is, when you're in a country with high tech, nuclear energy and stuff?"

James is pacing now. His voice is hoarse; he's popping juicy grapes to soothe the pipes. He looks fit and strong, the result, Sharpton says, of eating and sleeping "like a human being" after years of junk food and all-nighters. James says his mind is . . . ah . . . kickin'.

"All these things come up. Your head really gets opened up. I got so much business, so much UNFINISHED business."

"We have to give Mr. Brown longevity" the Judge says. "He can go on forever. 'Cause he hasn't changed anything. If it's not broke, it don't need fixing."

James bows. "Thank you, sir."

From the far end of the room, Lloyd Price has raised his very soulful voice: "What's he gonna do? He's gonna do what he ALWAYS does. THE MACHINE IS NOT BROKEN."

With all the voice he has left, James Brown screams.

"EEEEEEEEEoooWWWWW! I feel good!"

This story is from the June 27th, 1991 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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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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