Takeaway: Can we really know someone who does not want to be known?
It has been about two decades since I read James McBride’s breakout book, The Color of Water, about his mother. Kill ‘Em and Leave is the first book of McBride’s I have read since then. Like Color of Water, McBride is a character in this sort-of-biography of James Brown. Half of the book is really about how hard it is for anyone, including McBride to really understand James Brown.
Throughout Kill ‘Em and Leave, McBride is recounting his interviews with the people that knew, worked for, loved, and were harmed by James Brown. There is little gloss here. James Brown was both a musical genius and a nearly impossible person to be around. Those that stayed with him longest were those that were willing to just do what he said. If you ate with James Brown, you ate what he ate, and only what he ate. If you worked for him, you did what he said. If you played for James Brown, you showed up on time, you played what he wanted and you supported Brown as the star.
But McBride also captures the importance of James Brown as a cultural figure for the African American community. There are a ton of stories about children just wanting to see a famous Black man that owned a plane and radio stations and said, ‘I’m Black and I’m proud.’
This is important to McBride as well. McBride identifies with Brown in some ways. Kill ‘Em and Leave was written in part because McBride needed to write a book. He was basically broke after a divorce. He was living in a small NYC apartment. McBride has had big hits, but at 55 he was basically starting over again similarly to Brown. And McBride has no problem identifying the aspects of Brown’s life that were impacted by racism.
However, the biggest image of Kill ‘Em and Leave was of a man that was unable or unwilling to really be known. His best marriage was his first one as a young man before he became a star. But she didn’t want to travel with him and she didn’t like his philandering while he was traveling. Their divorce was about their different goals in life more than a lack of love and they stayed close throughout his life. His musicians were around him and he owed much to their musical influences to his sound. But even those that were around him longest didn’t claim to really know him. Some of this didn’t want to talk about him. Many of them continue to live (or died) in poverty.
After a career that went downhill with the rise of disco, and financial and tax problems, and then eventually drug and legal troubles, James Brown came back to be a star. A good manager and a good accountant got him back on track and at his death (2006) he was worth an estimated $100,000,000. Much of the end of the book is about the still continuing legal battles over his estate. While leaving his family and friends some money, the bulk of the estate was in put into a trust that was to be used to educate poor children in North Carolina and Georgia. But as McBride says over and over and over again, not a penny has helped a child yet. Lawyers are the only ones that have been helped so far.
It is not that this isn’t an important part, and I am glad that McBride spends time talking about legal battles and Brown’s attempt to address poverty through education, which is something he said throughout his life. But this book is repetitive. There are a couple of themes and phrases that get beat into the ground. No money has gone to children; he was worth $100,000,000 at his death; Kill ‘Em and Leave; and about a dozen other phrases were used to death.
Part of this is the method of the book. The basic facts of his life are here. But Kill ‘Em and Leave circles Brown trying to find a way in. The wives, the musicians, the business partners, the money, the long term employees, the early friends all give their insights. But that circling is part of what makes the repetition worse. The method works well as a presentation of an unknowable man. But a more ruthless editor, and time, probably could have tightened up the presentation.
The good does outweigh the bad. McBride knows how to write and he know how and where to put himself in the book to make it personal without being about himself instead of James Brown. But I can tell he needed to get this book out. His publisher must have needed to get the book out as well. It could have been a much better book with some editorial oversight. The publishing world has lost some of the ability to slow down and make sure the book is done.
McBride knows (and wrote about) the music world being quite corrupt. McBride is a jazz musician that has played professionally as well as being an author and journalist. Some of his early journalism was covering the music world, including following a big Michael Jackson tour for People Magazine. Part of the defense of Brown is that he had to be a bit eccentric and a bit corrupt to have risen to the place he did. Others had more talent, but Brown had more drive.
Brown, for all of his inability to be known, did have a talent for identifying people to be encouraged. Al Sharpton is Al Sharpton because of James Brown. Sharpton was basically adopted by Brown when he was 17 and spent about a decade touring with and being mentored by Brown until the 80s when Sharpton went back to NYC and started his civil rights work.
There were others as well, mostly musicians. But that mentoring could only go so far until it bounced up against Brown’s direction and the mentee would have to leave to be able to find their own way.
Maybe that is the real story of Kill ‘Em and Leave. Brown, for his talent, drive, and insight, was only able to get to the point of being dependent on his own strength. His formative years were full of people that let him down. And he let his own children down in many ways. Hurt is often cyclical. Those that are hurt end up hurting others because they don’t know how to not hurt.