Saturday, July 30, 2016

Book Reviews: Kill 'em and Leave, Lovecraft Country

Kill em and Leave
by James McBride
This was a short book. It wasn't a biography of the late James Brown as much as it was a series of stories about Brown and the impact he had, good or otherwise on the people he interacted with in his life. Brown likely never saw himself as a victim and would (and did) reject anyone who tried to view him through that perspective. But as McBride points out much of Brown's early life was heavily influenced by poverty, familial strife and of course Jim Crow in all of its forms. Some people who worked with Brown claim that his deepest emotion was fear of white racism. This could be expressed in a number of different ways, not all of which were positive. In some respects this is a sad book. Although Brown died a millionaire he didn't have as much wealth as he should have had. Brown's inability to trust very many people, dislike of banks and chaotic business dealings led him to hide cash all over the place. Some people stole this money. But the book's primary vitriol is resolved for the South Carolina good old boy political and legal network that used Brown's family strife to throw out a clear will and trust after Brown's death. This led to a decade long and ongoing court battle in which the money that Brown intended to be used for the benefit of impoverished children in South Carolina and Georgia instead flowed to the pockets of well connected attorneys, judges and accountants, all of whom were determined to prolong court proceedings until the very last penny was extracted from Brown's estate. Money can make even the best person greedy. Some of Brown's children sued him for royalties for songs he had ghostwritten in their names when they were children. At one point Brown became so reclusive and upset that he insisted his children and grandchildren make appointments if they wanted to see him. That may have been Brown's way of screening out people who just wanted money. This book is no hagiography. This book argues that Brown was at various times a distant father and husband, a tyrannical boss, and a horrible businessman. Brown also had substance abuse issues late in life. This is something which the workaholic and temperamentally conservative Brown always despised in others. But McBride also takes pains to point out and document all the ways in which the recent Mick Jagger produced film on James Brown (reviewed here) got things wrong, sometimes deliberately. McBride is also a musician. He provided some interesting insights into the differences and similarities between funk and jazz. Some very talented jazz musicians spoke of being unable to perform to Brown's expectations even though in some aspects jazz is more advanced music than funk.

McBride also put into context all of the ways that a musician can be ripped off. McBride interviewed many other musicians about Brown. Not all of these people had great love for Brown, either as a man or as a musician. But most conceded that Brown was, pardon the pun, instrumental in directing them to a higher level of musical performance. Brown's unchecked ego was a dangerous thing. There is a thin line between practicing a band until it is damn near perfect and calling grueling all night practices after a three hour concert because the second guitarist made a minor mistake on the intro to "Get on the Good Foot". Brown crossed that line too often. Despite his habit of referring to his employees and band members by their surnames he had no problem making it clear that he was the star, not them. He flew in a plane. His employees had to take the bus. If they didn't like his treatment they could leave. Over the years many of his bands did just that. It was very difficult to work for Brown and maintain your self-respect. Brown was obsessed with keeping his employees financially and professionally dependent upon him. He also wasn't above sabotaging opening acts if he thought they were getting too popular or taking too much time. Of course if you were a bandleader who must deal with musicians of varying talents and temperaments, crooked promoters and radio DJ's, dangerous criminals who want a "loan" from you, lawyers who will rob you blind with just a pen and paper, politicians who want to use your image, and IRS agents who just love making examples out of people like you, you also might put up a harsher front than normal. But for all of Brown's egomania and paranoia he could also be a kind man albeit a quite sensitive one. When Bill Cosby sent a plate of collard greens to Brown's room as a (presumably well meaning) joke about Brown's southern origins and funk exemplar status, Brown wasn't amused and had to be physically prevented from attacking Cosby. Brown took a fatherless Al Sharpton under his wing and taught him a great deal about show business. It was Brown who shamed Sharpton into helping Michael Jackson during the child abuse allegations. Brown was there with financial help for Isaac Hayes when Hayes was going through bankruptcy. McBride also investigates Brown's long term platonic relationship with one of his female employees, who over the years probably gave Brown more emotional support than most of his wives. Some of Brown's short fuse dealings with his bandmembers came from an inability/unwillingness to speak openly. Sometimes a Brown firing or fining was not to be taken seriously.

As mentioned this is a very short book (less than 200 pages). The title comes from a James Brown quote about leaving immediately after a show. The deeper meaning refers to Brown's refusal to share his true thoughts or his personal business. During his heyday and for most of his life Brown refused to be seen in public unless he was at his best. Brown considered the kind of salacious details or familial stories that sell magazines and books today to be private and none of your damn business. So although the book's subtitle is "searching for James Brown", most of the people who really knew Brown are either dead or reluctant to say too much to McBride. McBride details his distaste for the leeches and bottom feeders that surrounded Brown in life and death while struggling with the question of whether he isn't doing the same thing. McBride is adamant that as much praise as Brown received for his musical genius, he probably deserved more. I liked this book. And you will too if you want to know more about Brown and his influences on culture, music and performance. One interesting note about the book is that one of the people with whom I went to grade school is referenced within because of a news story he wrote about James Brown. I will have to reach out to this fellow on Facebook if he's there. Small world.

Lovecraft Country
by Matt Ruff
H.P. Lovecraft was one of the most influential horror writers of all time. He was also a racist of the most vile sort who always believed that black people were subhuman. Lovecraft's racism wasn't just incidental to his work. His work could not have existed without it. But sometimes flowers grow out of s***. Although ironically, Lovecraft wrote most of his best work during the Harlem Renaissance he seems to have been utterly unaware of that movement. The idea that blacks could actually create worthwhile literary or musical works would have been confounding and probably greatly amusing to Lovecraft. In his novels and short stories blacks were dumb savages for the most part. At best they might be submissive and silent servants. At worst, well never mind. There's not much you could reasonably expect on that front from a writer who was initially supportive of Hitler. Anyway this book imagines a Lovecraft setting except with black protagonists. This takes place in the early fifties. The supernatural elements of the story are less important than the everyday racism which impacts all of the characters. It's not discussed as often as it should be but although the South made a fetish of separating and subordinating blacks in exquisite legal detail the North often did so in less formal matter via housing discrimination, police harassment and of course Sundown towns: neighborhoods or cities in which blacks were legally or extra legally required to be out of town by Sunset. Or else. In order to know ahead of time which areas were safe, which hotels, motels or gas stations were black owned or at least black friendly and which areas should be avoided at all costs, black travelers before 1965 or so often relied on a travel guide which collected shared experiences. It was titled the Negro Motorist Green Book. It is fictionalized in this story as the Safe Negro Travelers Guide. The Green Book went out of business once desegregation became the law of the land but based on some ongoing incidents I imagine that the function of the Green Book if not its format will continue on in blogs and websites that cater to black travelers. There will be more on that in another post I think. Anyhow this story opens up with Black Korean war veteran Atticus Turner, who works for his uncle George as a researcher for the Safe Negro Travelers Guide, returning from his journeys across the South and lower Midwest to his uncle's home in Chicago. Turner has had the normal share of run-ins with racist and hostile police and other whites who don't like his looks or his seeming success. Turner's father, Montrose, who is open about his disdain for racist whites (and whites in general for that matter) has disappeared into New England, leaving behind strange clues as to what he's up to. Strangely enough, considering the elder Turner's views, he was last seen in the presence of a white man. Well there's nothing for it but for Atticus, George and Atticus' friend Letitia to take a road trip to New England to find and/or rescue Montrose Turner. It doesn't help matters that Montrose Turner and Atticus Turner aren't overly fond of each other.

This starts a multi-year adventure in which the Turners and their friends are manipulated by and battle against a shadowy cabal that has plans for the world that might not be all that wonderful for humanity. This group is linked to the Turners via America's original sin of slavery. The big bad of this group is not a fire-breathing bigot. He's rational and calm. He likes to position himself as a rational man as compared to some of his more traditionalist and irrational compatriots. All in all he would rather make deals and appeal to people's self-interest than to openly threaten people.Of course if he's pushed to extremes he might behave in a different manner. One of the more interesting ways that this man can seduce some of the black protagonists is to give them gifts which remove the stigma of their race. One woman finds it tempting to temporarily live life as a white woman. Another man finds that a car that deflects police attention is very useful. Thematically this book reads more like a collection of short stories than a novel. Each little adventure is complete in itself though the reader also knows there is more to come because smartly Ruff doesn't explain every little thing. I was reminded less of Lovecraft and more of Twilight Zone. I thought that Ruff did his research on how race was lived and experienced in 1950s America. From a thriller/horror perspective this is solid but not awe-inspiring work. There are a lot of the normal tropes and cliches employed: vicious dog packs, hostile small towns, teleportation to different universes, strange things locked in basements, haunted houses, crusty old wizards. It's not a overly or overtly violent book all things considered. There are some well drawn female characters who are arguably the book's centerpiece.
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