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Music

Nobody But You: A Tribute to Charles Bradley

Photo: "Changes" video

A tribute to the screaming eagle of love who dies having taken his rightful place as one of the true soul greats

Looking every inch a soul legend, a lone man stands under a single spotlight at the front of an otherwise dimly lit stage. His eyes are visibly moist as he appears overwhelmed by the whoops of appreciation filling the hall. Clearly touched, he brings both hands to his lips and blows a kiss to the audience. The look on his face suggests he would readily hug and kiss every single person in that room if he could. He regains his composure, steadies himself and moves behind the mic-stand, gripping it tightly in his slightly trembling right hand. There are the familiar four taps on the hi-hat… 1, 2, 3, 4 and then a howling cry of such burning intensity. Of such otherworldly power that the audience stand in open-mouthed amazement, in awe of the voice and the presence of the one and only, the screaming eagle of love, Mr. Charles Bradley. That is how many will remember an artist that leaves the world a far richer place for having had him in it.

The story of Charles Bradley has been told many times and is wonderfully documented in the film Charles Bradley: Soul of America. Suffice to say, life had seemingly conspired against Bradley before he captured the imagination of audiences the world over. He had a tough childhood, being effectively brought up by his grandmother and then moving in with his mother at the age of eight, who he had an often difficult relationship with. At 14 he left home, riding the subway at night in an effort to sleep. As an adult, he had various dead-end jobs, finding himself at the age of 62, living in the projects, struggling to support himself and his aging mother financially. Bradley seemed destined to exist in the shadows of society. A man who harboured one dream that would sadly go unrealised.

Musically, he idolised James Brown and spent years performing as a Brown tribute act called “Black Velvet”. However, Bradley always had ambitions to strike out on his own but, as the years passed, the chances of that appeared more and more remote. That was until at the ripe old age of 62 he finally decided to strike out on his own. As he stated in the opening of that 2012 documentary, “I’ve wanted to be James Brown since I was 14 / Now I want to Be Charles Bradley.”

The odds of Charles Bradley making a success from music couldn’t have been more heavily stacked against him. Firstly, music is a young man’s game. To be 62 and releasing your first album is pretty much unheard of. There was simply no precedent for the journey he was about to embark on. Secondly, Bradley had the added pressure of having to make a great record from the very beginning. His great heroes, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Bobby Womack got the chance to build a career. To slowly lay the foundations for greatness before achieving it. Bradley had to do it from the off. It was literally make or break. If he failed, he would be right back to where he started -- his lifelong dream effectively in tatters. As far as he was concerned it was a one-shot deal. What followed has to rate as one of the most remarkable careers in modern musical history.

Joining up with the superb Menahan Street Band, Bradley poured his heart and soul into his debut album, No Time For Dreaming. It was a spellbinding, timeless record, sounding like a lost '60s soul classic, frozen in time and thawed out for modern audiences. Slipping from more upbeat soul numbers to hauntingly fragile gospel ballads, Bradley's voice shone through like a light in the fog. A force of nature that moved from soul-piercing, wailing cries to tender love songs that gently encircled your heart. He sounded, not like an artist making his debut, but a veteran soul legend furthering his legacy. Coupled with the potency of his lyrics, Bradley had succeeded in writing an album for the ages.

Bradley channelled all of those years of frustration, heartache and his unquenchable desire to spread love to the world, into the lyrics of that album. Here was a man carrying wounds from life’s battles but who wasn’t prepared to surrender to them. A man who had clearly reached breaking point more often than he cared to remember but who saw the answers, not in recrimination, but in his ability to give joy and love to others. He wanted the combination of his voice and his lyrics to stir others. To affect them in the way that great lyrics should.

Songs such as “The World Is Going Up in Flames”, “Golden Rule” and “Why Is It So Hard” addressed the issues facing humanity and the struggles faced by the disadvantaged in America. They were sung with all the power and emotion of a man who had faced those same struggles head on. They served as inspiring calls for action, for tolerance and the importance of love. As expected, there were more intensely personal songs on the album. “No Time For Dreaming” directly addressed his need to finally make something of his career. Then there was the most touchingly poignant song on the album, “Heartaches and Pain”. A song about his older brother and his inspiration who was murdered aged 48 in a botched robbery. As expected, it is a heartbreaking ode to his deceased sibling who he attributes his inner resilience to, evident in the painfully honest line, “So my brother said to me / Charles gotta stand tall / Because life is full of sorrow."

No Time For Dreaming defied expectations to become a worldwide success and saw Bradley gain the attention and acclaim he so richly deserved. From then on, there was no time to waste as Bradley played prestigious slots in festivals across the world, made appearances on prime time television and most importantly brought love and happiness to countless people. From then on, he became the recording artist he always knew he could be. He became Charles Bradley.

That could have so easily been the end of the story. A narrative fit for a polished Hollywood Biopic. However, now that he had finally become Charles Bradley he wasn’t about to let him go. Follow up album Victim of Love saw him evolving further as a songwriter and saw some of the darkness lift from Bradley’s lyrics. The lyrics were still as affecting, but he was clearly challenging himself as an artist, having seemingly exercised many of his demons on No Time For Dreaming.

Final album Changes sounded like his most confident yet. An album that elevated him to become easily the equal of the 60s R&B singers that had inspired him. Similarly, it also found Bradley more at peace with the world and highlighted a man with a resounding love for his country. Opening with the spoken word “God Bless America” and “Good To Be Back” his love for the country he called home shone through. Despite everything he had been through, and all the obstacles and prejudices faced by many of his fellow countrymen in America, he never lost faith in the underlying possibilities and potential that goes with being brought up in America. No one would judge him for being bitter and resentful, but he never was. He had only love in his heart.

Bradley leaves behind three timeless albums that will mean as much in 30 years as they do now. As the finest lyricists do, he wrote about the universal truths that affect every single one of us. His belated success represented the realisation of a dream as well as the importance of perseverance, application, and faith with every album release feeling like a triumph. An artist who had finally found recognition so late in life felt like a victory, not just for him but all of us. A lesson to all of us to keep going. To not lose sight of your hopes and dreams. If he could do it, why couldn’t we?

It may seem strange to say it about a man of 68, but the real sadness comes in the realisation that he was probably cut down in his prime. He had a lifetime of regret and missed opportunities to make up for as well as a seemingly bottomless well of love to give, and he was only halfway started. That said, Bradley still surpassed even his own expectations and finally got to be the artist he always dreamed of being.

He should have been one of the defining voices of his generation, but we were lucky enough to have him as one of ours.

Culture

Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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