• Publisher’s Message
  • Contributors
  • Poetry
  • Fiction
  • Non-Fiction
  • Galleries
  • Archive
  • JAMES BROWN

     

    James Brown’s son came to town,

    to give a talk and do a book-signing at the local bookstore.

    He’s written a book about his father,

    good timing, it coincides with the new movie

    about James Brown’s life.

    He says he hasn’t seen it,

    but he knows it’s far from true.

    And now he’s out on tour, a different kind of show

    than James Brown’s.  He must be a good musician—

    he played in James Brown’s band for several years.  But it appears

    that now he’s somewhat down on his luck,

    or why would he be here in Auburn, New York,

    in this little bookstore, peddling his book.

    He says that if he’d known how hard it is being an author,

    he probably wouldn’t have written it.

     

    He’s casually dressed, jeans, t-shirt, running shoes,

    skinny braids hanging down

    from under a sort of narrow-brimmed black cowboy hat.

    Apparently he hasn’t inherited his father’s sense of style.

    He’s probably about fifty.  He’s got a paunch.

    He’s an ordinary looking, middle-aged guy.

    But he’s James Brown’s son, and he’s come to town,

    and fifty or so people have filled the folding chairs,

    and as he paces around the area

    where the book racks have been pushed aside,

    he does a good job talking about his dad.

    He acknowledges he wasn’t the most attentive father,

    and that he didn’t always treat his mother very well,

    but he speaks of him with, I think,

    honesty, respect, and love.

    And every now and then he says,

    “James Brown—there was something

    divine about that man.”

     

    He talks a lot about how hard his father’s childhood was—

    abandoned by his mother, who left

    because she was afraid of his father, who was a rough man,

    and who James Brown worshipped.

    Extreme poverty, living in a shack, prison early on.

    “He came to those distorted conceptions

    of human relationships honestly,” he says.

    “Living in survival mode makes for a lifetime of bad decisions,”

    he says.  “Though I am much larger

    than my father, I always knew he could whip my ass

    if I ever crossed the line,” he says.

     

    He talks about what a hard-driving boss

    his father was, maniacally controlling,

    a perfectionist, a taskmaster—

    all the musicians who ever worked with him say the same.

    “You had to be on top of your game at all times.”

    “Every instrument a drum”

    was one of his principles and demands,

    and listening to his greatest songs

    it’s clear he got what he was after.

    I don’t really have the language for it, but I’d say

    that some of those songs aren’t even songs

    exactly—they’re chants, they’re dances in the air. 

    “I Got You,” for example.

    From the first moment/scream to the last,

    its rhythms are so tight,

    so beautifully spasmodic,

    you’d almost have to be dead

    not to move to it.  “Yeoow…

    I feel good/ I knew that I would….”

    That’s how good we’re supposed to feel,

    isnt’ it?

     

    I saw James Brown in person, it must have been 1967,

    in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  My college friends and I

    were the only white people in the audience, or close to it. 

    And it was a great show.  I saw James Brown

    do his famous cape routine.  “Please Please Please,”

    falling again and again to his knees,

    getting up, running back, unable to leave the stage.

    I wasn’t alive in Leipzig in 1725,

    so I didn’t get to hear Bach play the organ,

    and I didn’t live in the Austalian outback

    in all those millennia before time got sliced in half

    with BCE and CE, so I’m sure I missed

    some great didgeridoo players,

    but living in America in the second half of the 20th century,

    I got to see James Brown live on stage,

    and fifty years later, I guess it is still

    one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen.

     

    His son talks about what a positive force he was,

    all through the shifting tides and turmoil of those times.

    “He was more civil rights than civil rights,” he says.

    He prevented a few riots in his time.

    Who else could sing message songs

    like “Don’t Be a Drop-out”

    (“without an education you might as well be dead”)

    and still seem like the wildest man around?

    When he put out “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,”

    one of my psychedelically oriented friends said,

    “Well, you won’t be able to sing along with that one,”

    but it was such a good song, call and response,

    that I did sing it to myself now and then

    as I walked across campus under the tall liberal arts trees.

     

    I didn’t follow his music over the next few decades.

    I would read about him in the newspaper

    when there was a story about him—usually his troubles

    with the IRS, his wives, the law.

    Somehow I missed it when he sang duets with Pavoratti—

    one of many things I heard about when I read his son’s book.

    But whenever I heard one of his old songs on the radio,

    those irresistible rhythms, those crisp horns,

    the wonderful rawness of his voice,

    and wherever I was, I did a little dance.

     

    At the end of the talk, James Brown’s son took out a guitar

    and offered to do one of his father’s songs.

    Someone asked for the obvious choice:

    “Papa’s Got a Brand-New Bag.”

    So he thought for a few seconds, and then started to pick it out,

    and he seemed to take special pleasure

    when he got to the measure

    when the band stops and the guitar rapidly strums—

    deedle-eedle-eedle-eet!

    But at one point, he forgot the lyrics, and paused, and asked,

    “What’s the next line?” and I’m proud to say,

    not black and proud, but proud nonetheless,

    that it was me who provided the next line:  “It’s out of sight.”

    And James Brown’s son thanked me, and he finished

    his sweet, accoustic version of his father’s great song.

    And then he said good night.

     

    “How can we tell the dancer from the dance?”

    “Every instrument a drum.”

    “Try Me.”  “Cold Sweat.”  “I Feel Good.”

    James Brown—there was something

    divine about that man.

     

     

    *****

    ONE OF THE RONETTES HAS DIED

     

    I imagine that tonight male poets about my age all over the country

    are writing poems in memory of Estelle,

    one of The Ronettes,

    who died yesterday.

    Actually, I did not know

    that her name was Estelle until now,

    reading her obituary in The New York Times.

    The only Ronette whose name I knew was Ronnie.

    The other two were the other Ronettes.

    All three were

    dark-eyed way too much eye-shadow

    black-haired hair-piled-high

    hair flowing down over shoulders

    beautiful.

    I saw them on television a few times.

    And in person once.

    That was something

    I will never forget,

    the way they danced and swayed

    in blue satin

    very short dresses

    in the pagan temple

    of the Brooklyn Fox Theater.

     

    I bought their records,

    and listened to them over and over—

    what better songs could there be

    than “Be My Baby,”

    “Baby I Love You,”

    and “Walking in the Rain.”

    The wall of sound sound,

    clattering with tambourines and much echo,

    brainchild of an unstable egomaniac

    who, in various ways,

    did all The Ronettes harm.

     

    “She was the quiet Ronette,

    the one people called the prettiest,

    the one who was content

    to remain in the shadow

    of her younger sister, Ronnie,

    because even in the shadow

    there’s still some spotlight,”

    the eloquent obituary says.

    I hadn’t known until today

    how hard life was for Estelle

    after The Ronettes broke up.

    Mental illness, wandering the streets,

    out of it, telling people she was singing tonight

    but she didn’t know where. 

    Sometimes homeless.

    Too bad Mick Jagger or George Harrison,

    both of whom she dated,

    didn’t set up a trust fund for her.

    She did come into some money

    from a Ronettes lawsuit

    against the egomaniac, Phil Spector,

    but that was much later.

     

    And she was able to attend her Ronette induction

    into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame,

    though she couldn’t perform.

    Friends helped fix her up,

    and she looked quite beautiful again.

    Keith Richards introduced her,

    and she gave an acceptance speech,

    which I will quote in full:

    “I would just like to say

    thank you very much

    for giving me this award.  I’m Estelle,

    of The Ronettes.  Thank you.”

     

    Does she belong in the Hall of Fame?

    The back-up singer. 

    Wa-oo-oo-oo.

    The swaying dancer. 

    Of course.  How could you possibly exclude her?

     

    I imagine that male poets about my age all over the country

    are writing poems for her tonight.

     

     

    ****

    MONTE IRVIN HAS PASSED

     

    I hear on the radio that he has died,

    and I can immediately picture him.

    A black face.  Big smile.  The Giants.

    This comes from baseball cards.

    For a few years, I knew the names

    and the faces of all the major leaguers.

    He was one of the first black players,

    after Jackie Robinson broke the color line.

    He was twenty-nine by then, old for a rookie—

    “You should have seen me when I was nineteen,

    when I could really play,” he said,

    He’d been a star in the Negro Leagues,

    and he was still a formidable player

    for a while in the majors.  Hit with power. 

    Rifle arm in the outfield.  Stole home in the World Series.

     

    I think the only person I’ve known personally

    who was named Monte

    was one of the black kids in my class in school. 

    Monte Johnson.  In my school in New Jersey,

    there were three or four black kids

    in a class of twenty-five.  We got along fine,

    as far as I knew, but we didn’t socialize

    outside of school.  It would have been unusual

    for me to go to their houses, or for them to come to mine.

    The only trouble I can remember

    was when Wesley Jenkins joined the Boy Scout troop

    and one of the kids, his patrol leader, called him Satch.

    Mrs. Jenkins came to the scout meeting one night,

    I remember her coming in, and she and the scoutmaster

    left the room.  That took some courage.

    Wesley dropped out of the troop soon after that. 

    I’ve wondered sometimes what happened to Wesley.

    He was a big kid, the only one who could hit the ball

    over the fence in Little League.  And Monte,

    and Phil Beamer, and Weldon and Walter Leach, twins,

    and Ralph Alexander, and Carol and Gloria Daniels.

    Like me, they’re about to hit seventy.

    I wonder how things went for them.  

     

    On the radio Willie Mays talked beautifully about Monte Irvin.

    He said how much he helped him when he came up, what a good friend

    he was, how he helped him avoid a lot of mistakes.

    Even if you’re Willie Mays, it’s good to have Monte Irvin in the outfield beside you.

     

    About The Author

    howard 1

    Howard Nelson

    Howard Nelson was born in New Jersey in 1947. He was educated at Gettysburg College and Hollins College. He moved to the Finger Lakes region of New York in 1970 and has lived there ever since, teaching at Cayuga Community College until his retirement as a full professor.  He is married and has three grown children. His collections of poems are: Creatures (1983), Singing into the Belly (1990), Gorilla Blessing (1993), Bone Music (1997), and The Nap by the Waterfall (2009). His poems have appeared in numerous periodicals and anthologies, and read on Garrison Keillor’s “Writer’s Almanac.” All the Earthly Lovers: Selected & New Poems was published in 2014. Mr. Nelson’s poem “The Moon” was published in the 20th anniversary issue of Northern Woodlands magazine, and he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for “Best of Small Press Publications for 2014.” He also writes criticism and essays, and is the author of Robert Bly: An Introduction to the Poetry and editor of On the Poetry of Galway Kinnell: The Wages of Dying and Earth, My Likeness: Nature Poetry of Walt Whitman. He contributed to Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia. He is a member of the Thoreau Society, and his recent pieces on Thoreau have appeared in The Thoreau Society Bulletin. Nelson’s new collection, That Was Really Something, will be published by the Groundhog Poetry Press in 2018.  Howard resides in Cayuga County, and has been a favored reader and crowd choice in all of the annual aaduna fundraisers.