James Brown: Living in the Baltics

  • 2006-06-07
  • By Paul Morton

AMERICAN DREAM: Like Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Willie Nelson and Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown is thoroughly American and thoroughly himself.

RIGA - James Brown is 73 years old. That's old enough to no longer do his trademark splits on stage. It's old enough for him to be a little more careful of how many times he falls to his knees. It's old enough to remember jokes about his age from 20 years ago (Weird Al Yankovic did a parody of "Living in America" (1985) called "Living with a Hernia"), and old enough for people to wonder, "When the hell is he going to stop?"

As Philip Gourevitch wrote in The New Yorker in 2002, "his energy still seems radically at odds with the conventional limitations of human biology." Brown acts like he doesn't believe he will ever or can ever grow old, let alone that he will ever die.
Of course, he isn't going to stop. He's the "hardest working man in show business." This summer he's set to play almost 30 concerts, in Sweden, in Greece, and yes, the Baltics. He'll be in Tallinn on July 27 and Riga on July 28. Despite how he presents himself, he's an old man, so it may be a good time to see him, while you still can.

Brown is a wild performer and a wilder man. He's an ex-con. In 1988, he was arrested for threatening pedestrians with a gun while high on PCP. He was sentenced to six years, he served three, during which he learned how to clean toilets, and came out a no less funkier bad ass than before.
In all his years, he's never gone bald. He has wild, crazy hair, as distinctive as Marge Simpson's. He grew up in the deep south and has maintained damn perfect teeth throughout his life. He's a massively energetic man. When the Greeks imagined their heroes, like Agamemnon or Achilles, they based them on the amazing figures they saw in their own backyard. If they were around today, they'd create a Greek god based on James Brown.

This all may sound a little hyperbolic, considering that we're talking about a man whose best work as a performer and songwriter is 40 years behind him. "I Feel Good" and "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" have been played so long and so often on the radio, they have all the subversive sexuality of, well, an 'N Sync song. But, if you hear or even see Brown live, you see what these songs meant. The man gives every inch of his body, his organs, his soul to his words, and he leaves you wanting more.
If you haven't had sex in a while, seeing James Brown live may be a worthy substitute.

There's an even simpler explanation of why James Brown is so popular.
"James Brown screams in nearly every song he has ever recorded or performed," Gourevitch wrote. "He also grunts, honks, yowls, and hoots, and there are long stretches in his songs where he does little else. When he chooses to, of course, he can also sing melody and enunciate lyrics with a piercing clarity."
In our current era of stereophonic singing, and hyper-produced boy band anthems, it's good to look at and remember James Brown while we still can. He's like a relic from a time when music actually meant something. o

July 27 - Tallinn Song and Festival Grounds
More info: www.piletilevi.ee

July 28 - Arena Riga
More info: www.ticketservice.lv