Like it is, Like it Was
On a song by James Brown and when my father was James Brown and Home.
Here’s where I realize that I can invent without writing fiction, and without lying, that these inventions are interventions or hear, as Stevie hears, Innervisions, intercisions that allow the vicious-chic blood of divine accuracy to surface. And I don’t have to embellish to witness differently, from inside the heart of a surpassed set of circumstances that hasn’t released us from its rhythmic pattern. A family can idle there trapped and bobbing for generations and call that upbeat abjection a legacy. I used to be embarrassed by the way my parents rehearsed that limbo, sitting on the piano bench side-by-side inventing lyrics for hours, their backs to me while my heart turned on them, all tedium and rapture. And then they’d land on something pithy and too clean like we had a legacy of love, and repeat it in every available tone before discarding it to the graveyard of magnetic tape or erupting into a violent war that pierced the lyric to smithereens and trampling its bones together. A legacy of what? I’d interrogate them internally. I’d almost forgotten how often they would sing together because I’ve trained myself to retell the brutality first, like a backwards birth, beatings then humiliating displays of compensating tenderness. You go to my head. A blow to the head. A father’s threat to blow your mother’s head clean off. Too clean— landing together at the piano bench, lying, begging to be rewritten in the shy light of reconciliation. I like to get the fight scenes out of the way so that any judgment of me rooted in a legacy of violence can be made and upended before I move to bond with a soul whose experience might render them afraid of my double and triple inheritance of music and tongues, lucidity and chaos, luxury and disarray, love and otherwise.
Back to the miscreant veracity of true stories when you discover that memory is a form of self-deceit, almost a self-parodying neurosis used to close the imagination before any villains can be redeemed. Fiction, myth, and the rendering of icons out of real men and women, pathologize realness. These impulses undermine the collectively improvised stream of behavior across a lifetime or series of generations by insinuating that each willful decision is inevitable, a pre-ordained path or oath, some omerta-driven passage pathologically designed by the body and soul of the doer or agent called the self. What about sweet betrayal of that disavowed version of the self?
In my world, no code inscribed upon the subconscious is too sacred to be overwritten by better music— music so good it can even change the past and absolutely alters your relationship to it. Home is where there’s better music. Obsession loosens at home and becomes habits and rituals inscribed on a language so personal it has to sing to exist. The desire to flee does not preoccupy the soul of one who is at home coining verses. James Brown sounds most at home when he’s pleading. He beg-sings often but on “Like it is, Like it Was” pleading gives way to relentless declarations of loyalty to placeless feeling and he just repeats I wanna go home into a sharp oblivion'' for almost four minutes. Home becomes not just a longed for place but an attitude toward being that allows nonperformance, a place to idle and ruminate, an auspicious circumstance, or a terrible one, just as long as it’s private. Home becomes a place where you can sing together at the piano bench and are safe and not on stage. It’s sad when we’re not at home. But even when you think you’re at home that way your daughter-audience might grow up to rewrite the place until it resembles its greatest haunts and love has to reckon with them to survive.
What James Brown is confessing, as we imagine him on stage in a starched and bedazzled outfit, men’s platform heels and a conk so hard it slaps him until he sweats it out in front of us as the body’s weeping, is that he wants to return to a time before the public expected this gaudy image of him. He longs for a time when his voice could be home for him alone. Now everyone uses it for cover and chant— Say it Loud, Payback/revenge, got to get back, the king of soul is our soul’s alibi and has to carry the soulless on his screams. There are even snatches of wanting to get away to get back in his militant and devout song of himself. James Brown, the other Whitman figure, whose ambling into the dark forest was forced to occur under a spotlight and by way of what would become walking on the moon by the time Michael encountered it—the glide of trance turned into a playful backing away from an encroaching feeling or an insistent crowd. James Brown took the American individualism that Whitman was so great at selling as virtue, and flipped it into a shared groove that could explore erotics and spirtual awakening in the same brittle grunt or moan as collective afflictions that can’t enter song’s refuge alone.
James Brown pleads unabashedly from the union of home and him, until his sound becomes the soul’s true earth-habitat. I understand him because I like to be home while also resenting the impulse to long for a place that was never ideal, and that would take me down with it if it had to dissolve. Home becomes memorized solace in a quicksand of upheaval and hostility, those moments when everything was alright, and a getaway stillness that endures patches of chaos for their inevitable passage into relative serenity. I feel great, but I wanna go home. This has all been terrible, beautiful, Fred Moten joins our plea deal to get somewhere else by offering a grand and flattering farewell to hell, which is other people’s idea of home.
When my father left home, which for the first part of his life was the deepest of the deep south in Mississippi, where he and his family picked cotton and were labeled ‘sharecroppers’ and turned into a silent mass of bodies crouching in fields in the minds of those who used the materials made of the cotton my father dropped out of school to pick for almost no money, and the kind of shelter that might as well be slave quarters— when he left that behind or escaped it like a fugitive, his name, the one that came from his birth certificate and the one that wasn’t ‘sharecropper’ or in the crypt of some cruel-kind of minds, field nigger— his name was James Brown. The James Brown we all know now was two years his senior and already recording at the time. My field negro father was wise enough, and determined enough to realize that two soul singing James Browns could not occupy one antebellum America. Here, longing, ESP, and genetic memory co-conspire and I attempt to picture my father who could not read or write but would become a songwriter, filling out the official documents that would declare him Jimmy Holiday. My mind wanders to Sun Ra’s earnestly written application to NASA. We are so serious about leaving, about abandon and return. Manumission is always incomplete.
My father James Brown’s new identity could not have been reached without the love of literate women. He would enlist his romantic partners in the project of transcribing his dreamsongs and filing out his paperwork. Or maybe this was one of the times he just pulled out a gun and demanded some bureaucrat change his paper name the way you break a large bill into smaller ones or an ossified self into one that light and hope can pierce and heal. Or the way you break the curse of accepting the name that came with the plantation. The trauma-bound name you both earned and earned gone. It’s only a paper name either way but my father was Jimmy Holiday was James Brown. They sat on the piano bench in our living room and riffed in unison. I wanna go home. They both knew how to throb publicly without seeming obscene, and possessed the kind of raging tenderness and range that startles audiences into taking it seriously. We are so serious about leaving. Manumission is psychically incomplete. We abandon one another as practice. It’s sad when we’re not at home. Some of us have archetypes before we have traditional family relations. We occupy an endless relay of spirits who are almost parts of speech when they animate, idioms all their own for whom, if basic grammar gets too narrow, the language of dance and gesture take over and phrases become propulsive duets with a ghost of ourselves and James Brown tells James Brown, it’s time to get home.
When Michael Jackson developed a strange obsession with James Brown’s corpse was he thinking maybe I don’t wanna go home or whispering in his carrion ear, take me with you? And it might not be such a bad idea if I never went home again, Gil Scott Heron reminds himself on the road. I wanna go home.
And it’s sad that he’s not at home. In the final scene in that house where they turned the piano bench into anything Legba or Damballah could recognize through my trespassing observations, my father was being arrested and screaming I wanna go home with his eyes. No criminal, just a man trying to get home in ineffective ways who finally settled on leaning into his dangerousness and his tenderness with equal commitment. Would be homeless to blame him, would take the kind of soul that doesn’t know the desperation to get somewhere else, somewhere next, with no language for what that place is called that isn’t laced in propaganda. He was buried in Iowa a few weeks later and since I can’t go home the more traditional way I decide to go visit his gravesite, somewhere I have never traveled. I keep hesitating though, cause it’s sad that we’re not at home. Maybe I’ll sing his songs back to him there. I feel alright but I wanna go home. There, there, he might mutter. Your father is James Brown and you’re always at home. Or in my Hollywood movie wishes you were the home I was trying to get to. This way of being present that doesn’t inflict or imply surveillance— he’ll trespass on his own dissolving bones here, where there is all too much remembrance.
The parodying memories trespass, the useful ones lurk as future events and need no recall but life itself. The seesaw of is and was compliments the arrowing plea well— whether home is like it is or like it was, I wanna go there, James Brown insists. This is the familiar terror some love produces, you’ll keep it even if it kills you, you’ll call that killing a homegoing. These kings and queens of black music tend to be so perfectly doomed their lives rhyme, their names seem interchangeable or are, like their homes are, terrifying and mythic domains of total thrill and aloneness. Once an interviewer in France asked Thelonious Monk why he kept his piano in his kitchen at home. It’s the only room in his Manhattan apartment where it would fit, Monk replied. That wasn’t exciting enough for the tabloids so the interviewer repeated the question. My parents, trapped on the bench of a kitchen grand waiting for Monk to shake this demon only to learn he’s silent from then on. He never mentions home again in public. Does he ever feel alright again? Eventually I accrue so many fathers, so many versions of James Brown, that home can only be a song. It’s trite to be so enamored with something that you ache to destroy it and retrieve yourself but I wanna go home. One by one I investigate these songs like Michael did James Brown’s corpse. I play music’s most attentive undertaker. Otherwise they might be left out to rot and decompose thanklessly otherwise, which would be like my own DNA rotting on the vine of a broken home.
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