I knocked on the door and waited. Keith and I were right on time, and the hotel lobby had been empty so we made our way directly to the room. It was one of those perfectly romantic and timeless hotels. Right out of the forties. The carpeted stairs that seemed to roll downward. Grand and rich, almost carrying you down them. I imagined the paparazzi waiting out side. Papparazzi with big, round flashes and those hats with the feather in the band, a pen in their mouth, yelling questions and flash blinding us as we heard the bulbs make that popping sound.
But this wasn’t my fame we were celebrating. It was James Brown. We heard someone coming to the door, and I imagined his black curls and big smile at the other side of the door. It wasn’t him. It was his manager and partner, Jimmy ____.
“What do you want?” he asked us with a controlling tone.
“We’re here to see James Brown. We had an appointment at 2.”
There, about 20 feet behind him we saw a cluster of people. Some sitting on the couch, and others milling around it. In the center was one of those old hair dryers, the kind they put you under in the salon to get your highlights working faster.
“Turn this damn thing off,” someone said in a loud and firm voice.
The room turned quiet.
Big eyes looked out from under the dome. It was him.
He motioned for us to come in, waving his arm in the air.
“Come here! Come here! Sit down! Sit down!” he said excitedly.
He acted as if he was truly happy to see us although he’d never laid eyes on us before.
Then he motioned again, this time for everyone to leave him alone with us, and told his wife to stay. I still don’t know which wife, or if it was his only wife. It took everything I had to refrain from asking.
Under any other circumstances I would’ve too. But today we needed his cooperation for this project since was significant to the event that accompanied the heavyweight championship in Zaire, and Keith would probably kill me if I screwed this up.
It was called the R to the J, and the concert that brought 20 (?) bands to Africa for the concert of the century had been a real boost for Ali and Foreman’s championship match in the ring. Twelve cameras had shot the concerts, and all the footage had become the sole property of Leon Gast, the film’s director when he sued the legendary promoter, Don K, for unfair practices (?). L and K were working day and night to edit the footage and mix the music, with the hopes of making a feature film about the event.
I was simply lucky to be working with them, even if I wasn’t part of the original team. It turned out that the rights to the many songs performed by BB King, The Pointer Sisters, Sister Sledge, James Brown and the rest of the now African American music legends were owned by a slew of different record companies and individuals. It was my task to sort them out, and secure rights to use the music in the film, even though Gast already owned the footage. A herculean, and impossible task as it turned out.
Nevertheless, the film that was eventually completed almost 20 years later did win the Oscar for Best Documentary in 1999 (date?). I didn’t get any credit, of course, but I was part of it nonetheless.
Brown proceeded to take charge of the meeting, asking us the expected and perfunctory questions about the film and how it would benefit him. Once we clarified that, he turned the conversation to what he seemed much more passionate about. Spirituality. He quizzed us about our heritage, and specifically, what part of the world our ancestors were from. I don’t even remember what Keith said, and I, of course, said Norway. He explained that we are made from the earth’s elements, and depending on what part of the world we originate in, we are predominantly that type of earth element. He determined, through his own mode of testing it seemed, that Keith was clay and I was ____, just like he and his wife. This was the perfect combination for a successful relationship, he assured us. I didn’t bother asking whether or not cocaine addiction could disrupt this perfectly balanced union. It’s just as well. I already knew the answer.
The following weeks were filled with either meetings, concerts, or phone calls between Brown and us. We worked to further negotiations, while Gast continued to edit, spending night after night in the editing room. He had more energy than anyone I’d ever seen. I’d spent many an all-nighter editing. Night was the perfect time to focus with no distractions. It was also the time last minute editing rooms were available, or cheapest. This depended on the client.
When our meeting ended, and Brown’s curls were set under the dryer, we headed out to get something to eat. He said his limo was waiting at the side entrance to the hotel. I wondered how he could afford this entourage of people around him, and limos, when the news reported he was broke. It was clearly none of my business, however. So out of my business it went.
We walked through the hotel lobby like royalty. People parted ways for us and stared at the rock legend who was as grandiose as I’d always imagined him to be. Somehow I thought he’d be more of a regular guy during an afternoon meeting. His grand entrancing and dramatic flair seemed like something that was reserved for his shows, but nope, it was who he was. This was his identity. When we got to the top of the stairs that led to 45th street, he fixed his hair; adjusted the long fur coat that was slung over his shoulder’s as if it were a cape of royalty and he proceeded down the stairs just as I’d earlier imagined one would exit the building awaiting an onslaught of papparazzi.
When he dramatically threw open the doors, we saw one thing.
A kid, about 16 or 17, staring at Brown with his mouth open, and simultaneously throwing a lit joint on the asphalt, trying to stomp on it and kick it down the sewer as fast as he could. That’s all. No fanfare. No papparazzi. Not even the limo.
But Brown wasn’t about to miss the moment for drama.
He caught what the kid was doing, and greeted him in only the way James Brown does. Dramatically.
Then he asked him what he was doing.
The kid said, “Nothing.”
Brown responded, “Pick that thing up now!”
The kid looked scared but scrambled to do what he said. Just as he was about to pick it up, he said, “No, Mr. Brown. I’m going to throw it away.”
“Im not reporting you, kid. I just want to have a little talk. Now pick that thing up and bring it here now.”
Brown walked over towards the kid and stepped into the street, with his fur coat following behind him. I half-wondered if one of those self propelled rockets hid underneath his coat, and whether he could take off at a moment’s notice. That said, I was liking Brown. There was something sincere under the showman he portrayed on the outside. Something told me he wanted to be a good man at the core of who he was. Even if he was clearly spoiled by being waited on hand and foot for God knows how long.
I remember wondering how someone like him became someone like him. Was it the fame that turned him into someone who wanted to be waited on hand and foot and accompanied by an entourage, or was it an illusion he created to bolster his image? It appeared to be a chicken and egg kind of thing, and I wanted to know which came first. His identity was completely tied up in it, but which identity?
The kid stood there in the curb on 45th street waiting as Brown approached him. Brown put his arm around him and said, “Boy, you and I are going to have a little talk.” He proceeded to tell this kid what happens when we smoke too much pot, and why he needs to quit doing it. He said it will keep him from experiencing what he really wants in life, and God made him for more than that. The kid, clearly overwhelmed and even somewhat moved, kept nodding and listened. They both seemed almost humble in this very private and special moment. Although I saw it for the grandstanding it was, there was a sincerity to the moment too. On both their parts. Perhaps it was something Brown wished had happened to him more as a boy, or perhaps it had happened and he was just passing it on. I’ll never know what his real intention was, but I do know it’s a moment that kid probably never forgot. To this day, I wonder if Brown smoked that thing later that night.
A few nights later, we went to a club downtown where he was performing as his private guests. The cocaine was flowing everywhere, and he was on stage doing his original breakdance that he proudly claimed as his, prior to Michael Jackson’s famous rendition. It was true that Brown originated breakdancing, and nobody could take that away from him even if Jackson took it to new heights.
These experiences with James Brown taught me something about God, drugs, and humanity. I was in the midst of my recovery, having been sober a year or two at the time. It meant everything to me, as did the friendships that had grown in the program. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was compromise or threaten my sobriety, but when you spend your days and nights with cocaine addicts, even if you’ve never been one, it doesn’t take long to break down and weaken. That’s just what happened, but happily, it only lasted a few weeks. You see, this is where God takes an active role in our lives - even if we don’t realize our relationship is active. It changes us, and when it’s laid hold, you can’t ignore it when it counts. You know it’s there, and you know where to draw strength from - if you remember how.
When James Brown sat on the couch talking about his understanding of God, and the complementary elements of the earth within us all, it fascinated me. Here was a man who had achieved greatly and been blessed by God, as he put it, and was still struggling to survive. At first glance, it’s hard not to see grandiosity, overspending, abuse, grandstanding, false perceptions, ego, greed, etc. But at the heart of this man was actually generosity, responsibility, weakness, love, expression, creativity, and determination. He was a contradiction, which is what we all are.
Recognizing the existence of light and dark forces, or if you prefer, energy, is critical to the spiritual experience. The important thing is not to deny it - don’t act as if it doesn’t exist. Denial is dangerous to the development of your true self. It’s not the false self that’s harmful, it’s denying it. Our judgments about each other come from our context, belief systems, values, and world views. If we’re sizing something up, that’s all we have to develop our assumptions and conclusions for decision-making unless….we are clear as to who we are in our true selves.
The time I spent with Brown revealed something I never forgot. He knew his true self. He simply didn’t know how to operate out of it. His ego/false self was stronger - as it is for everyone at different times of life - and they competed for center stage at the core of his personality. He knew he’d have to give his false self more power than it deserved in order to achieve his life’s goals. He knew that in order to ensure those he felt responsible for could sustain themselves, he had to keep up the charade of being bigger than life. This may have compromised his soul’s purpose, but it met his needs because of a responsibility he felt to those around him. His outwardly grandstanding and pomposity was, on the flip side, generosity and responsibility and love.
Our ability to see non-dualistically offers us sight grounded in truth, self-honesty and love. It’s not about the denial, it’s about the sight and the truth. It’s my guess Brown knew this too.
When he revealed his thoughts about God and his spiritual practices, I was struck by how vulnerable and transparent he was. When he talked about the earth’s elemental substances and how they played a role in our personalities, he spoke with the enthusiasm of a child. This was especially true when he referred to Keith and I, likening us to he and his wife. There was a camaraderie he felt that was demonstrably meaningful to him, even if we’d never meet again.
The same was true for the kid on the street who kicked the joint to the sewer. James Brown saw either his younger self, or an opportunity to do the right thing - even when he knew he didn’t always do the right thing. He fully understood the contradiction he was, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t still inspire someone, or do right by someone else. What we sometimes call hypocritical is actually our own psyche at odds with itself, playing out our own duality which is ultimately and ironically, our wholeness. For better or for worse.
The street kid struggled between his desire to be seen as his true self - doing the right thing as well, while simultaneously tempted to cling on to an identity that was being developed. This new identity was being shaped by his culture as he approached the gates of adulthood, but still walked in his adolescence. How we shape who we become, like it or not, is influenced by our culture and the values we develop, or identify with, there.
The good news is we are always on our way to becoming. Like it or not.