How most of us in 2018 perceive the legendary singer and soul/funk pioneer James Brown probably depends on what we want to get from the legend, the myth, and the icon. By the time of his death on Christmas Day 2006, the 73-year-old Brown was equal parts show-stopping movie performer (The Blues Brothers in 1980, Rocky IV in 1985 with the smash comeback single “Living in America”), and troubled drug abuser/wife batterer, who kept spouting the title to his classic 1964 song “I Feel Good” during a disturbing 1988 interview in CNN. He eventually surrendered the legacy of his career to those who could parody him. When Eddie Murphy’s James Brown Hot Tub bit on Saturday Night Live proved more relevant to the real James Brown of his final 15 years, the problem was more than just a monolith American music hero coasting on past glories. The problem was wondering how he would deal with those last years consistently, brilliantly, and (whenever possible) pulling a magic twist of unpredictability out from his always shiny pompadour.
Who was James Brown? Why was he so important? Even through those lean years, probably the last two decades of his life, from “Living In America” to the end, Brown managed to persist in a world where he did no wrong and those in his employ understood this was Mr. Brown’s world. They only lived in it. This was a Mr. Brown who scared The Rolling Stones during the 1964 T.A.M.I. Show from even thinking they could follow his act. This was a Mr. Brown who “saved” the city of Boston from possible riots in the immediate wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination by performing as planned, the concert broadcast live on the city’s Public TV station. This was a Mr. Brown who stayed both a funk and soul pioneer while remaining a steadfast loyalist for the Republican Party. How does one contain this man in a biography, a critical study, or even a memoir that chipped away at the legend? Many have tried, and the results are either as brilliant and breathtaking as one of Brown’s legendary cape routines (especially James McBride’s definitive 2016 book Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul), or they would prove as compelling as a carousel ride that doesn’t know when to stop.
The missed opportunities in Damon Wood’s Working for the Man, Playing in the Band: My Years With James Brown (written with journalist Phil Carson) might not be the fault of any parties concerned. The temptations were probably overwhelming. From June 1999 through 2006, shortly before the passing of his mentor and boss James Brown, Damon Wood played guitar as part of the Soul Generals. “Let’s be clear from the get-go on my role. I’m not a star… I was fortunate to land a role in James Brown’s band, and I knew it.” This is the first instance of humility, and Wood seems to understand he’ll need to spread that humility throughout the course of his narrative. However, it seems to serve as both an excuse and apology for the book. Either way, it’s necessary when the memoirist is barely a blip in the radar of his real subject.
Wood does prove his bona fides from the start. We quickly meets such characters as first chair drummer Robert “Mousey” Thompson, Hammond B3 player Jerry “Louie” trumpeter Hollie Farris, and bass player Jimmie Lee Moore. At the book’s “Act One” (“Trial by Funk”) we see that the pattern of the narrative will be told through block quotes, oral history testimony. This is where the book could and probably should have stayed because these other people tell the story better than Wood does. The technical aspects of how Brown created his sound is interesting. We get on stage with Wood and how he had to react – as a neophyte – watching James Brown give hand signals regarding what he wanted to hear:
…I’d never seen that hand signal before. He finally yelled out, “Thirteen! He wanted me to play the 13 chord form, a nice funky sounding chord… His smile radiated a dazzling, almost artificial whiteness under the spotlights.
Wood makes it clear, from the beginning, that “…having worked for James Brown is a passport for respect and goodwill wherever I go.” The James Brown Enterprise was a somewhat ramshackle organization that kept tight control over its minions, and Wood effectively paints the picture. “I flew from Milan to New York to Vegas. When I finally got home, my girlfriend… had ‘met someone’ while I was gone. Everything was in chaos.” We get a clear back story of Wood’s life in Vegas, a white kid playing with Jimmie Van Zant, performing before a backdrop of the American flag. He plays in a “Dead Legends” revue with a fake Jerry Garcia, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, or John Lennon on any given night. Eventually, he makes it to the James Brown inner circle, which was “…akin to an army on the move.” Whether it was with singer and Brown paramour Tomi Rae’s backing band, or the man himself, there were expectations to be met.
Things build slowly in this section. Wood plays for Brown at Woodstock in 1999. Wood learns (above and beyond everything) that “Joking and laughing was what the band did to stay sane and deal with the curveballs of being on the road and working for James Brown…” The problem with these pronouncements, and most of the stories in Working for the Man, Playing in the Band is simple: they don’t work as Wood seems to think they do in this account of his time with Brown. It’s one thing to be privy to secrets from an inner circle, another thing to be hearing variations of the same thing one (or a hundred times) too often.
There are more elements that work in the first part of this book. Of Brown the performer, Wood writes:
He could take take the energy to a peak, but then he’d break it down to the shortest distance between his soul and the soul of every single individual in the room.
It’s this style, testimony from within, that surfaces at times in this book, but it’s not enough. There’s a reason Wood draws from Jonathan Lethem’s mid-2006 profile of James Brown in Rolling Stone. Lethem found the danger, the poetry, the tightrope-walking balance between chaos and order. Wood explains that Brown had said “You can’t really learn my show. You have to be taught it.” He explains that Brown wanted his players to “morph” their strengths to his style.
It’s just too bad that Working for the Man wasn’t more tightly developed to feature the danger and abstract unpredictability of working for Brown. There’s a detailed explanation of terms on the James Brown Enterprises payroll: Salary, Loans, Terms, Fines. Brown had two of everything: guitarists, percussionists, and so on. There are horror stories of riding on the bus with a driver who apparently couldn’t stay awake. There’s an account of working the Experience Music Project with the line-up of the Original J.B.s that could and should have been isolated and detailed visa more oral history. How did the present reconcile with the past?
There are breakdowns of all sorts, including drug issues in Vegas.
Mr. Brown showed up at sound check. He was downright hostile…. walked up to each person in the band, got in their face, and demanded, ‘Do you like your job? Do you want your job?
It’s the difficulty of balancing these brief but numerous accounts of Brown’s mental instability with the thrill of playing in his band that makes for an inconsistent reading experience. What do we want? By Wood’s “Act Two”, which he calls “Getting to Know ‘The Man'”, the reader might already have gotten tired. “The guy just oozed charisma and personality and talent,” Wood writes. This might be the case. It might also be the case that despite his issues “…James Brown was a very lovable character”, but the reader might have difficulty reconciling the two sides. Wood works best when he surrenders to the difficult job that writing this book must have been:
It’s not always easy to put feelings into words, which is what talking about funk entails… I’d play that chank rhythm, which repeats itself without being repetitive… and my chank would start to morph.
After 9/11, Wood offers details about Brown’s concert reactions to the national nightmare:
We’d all left the stage when James Brown popped back out and sand ‘God Bless America’ a capella. A lot of times, I think he saved his feelings for the audience. His message was togetherness: ‘We’ll be all right. We’ve got to stay strong.’
By the time Wood reminds us that “James Brown had clearly honed his skills at exerting control over his bands through psychological means…” for the third time, the reader may find their patience growing thin. If the focus was meant to be a psychological study of a dictatorial megalomaniac with drug issues always dealing with his tough childhood, that’s been covered in better books. Wood’s strengths remain in discussions of a James Brown ballad.
…James Brown could use a soulful ballad to touch the audience’s deeper emotions and use that connection to keep them utterly engaged. The simplicity of a ballad captivated the listener and he know how to exploit that moment by releasing all the energy he’d built up with his high-energy funk.
In Act Three, “On the Road Again”, Wood’s writing style gets tedious for other reasons. A road-weary voice surfaces that seems more appropriate for a documentary, not a memoir:
We ran into a cat whose name I don’t recall who had played guitar on Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
Later, Wood contemplates what could have happened had producer Rick Rubin done for Brown what he did for Johnny Cash:
Johnny Cash went out strong… Who knows what could have happened if… James Brown had put himself in someone else’s hands, just for one album.
The speculation is interesting, but characterizing Johnny Cash’s last albums as “strong” is a little difficult to take. They were filled with integrity, at times beautiful and sublime, but they were still painfully raw recordings from a dying man.
Wood offers a nice postscript in his final pages: “I want to think that his [Brown’s] hardscrabble beginnings, his mother’s abandonment drove him to be forever haunted by issues of trust, even while he strove to be magnanimous and kind.” Working for the Man is a rich account of an intense period in the life of Wood as he worked under and at rare times as an onstage comrade with Brown, but it seems to exist at cross purposes. The burden of Brown’s mental instability in his final years, temporarily silenced only by his brilliance as a performer, has to work in consort with Wood’s understanding of and love for Brown’s music.
There are passages of beauty in Working for the Man, but the accounts of then we went here and then we met this person are enough to give a reader whiplash. Memoirs from those who spent decades with Brown will offer a fuller experience of life with the Hardest Working Man in Show Business. Working for the Man is a collection of anecdotes and some jewels that would have worked better as a series of magazine narratives or purely an oral history.