Although beautifully written, often insightful and, when the subject turns to the subtle mechanics of music and how it is created, written with real skill and talent, Kill ’Em and Leave, James McBride’s new James Brown book, falters and fails for reasons that sadly could have easily been avoided.
McBride’s primary premise, a book about Brown and the cultural influences that informed him as both a man and performer, is interesting and relatively untread territory. His execution, unfortunately, is shoddy at best and often irresponsible. There are factual errors, misrepresentations and a great deal of purple hyperbole about Augusta and the South that paints a savage portrait of Brown’s world as an explanation for who he was as a man.
There is painful truth in much of what McBride writes, with examples of the institutional racism that long plagued the South being the most obvious example. But conjecture that there is an eternal feud and ingrained mistrust between residents of Georgia and South Carolina that, to this day, affects relationships is ridiculous.
Likewise, the portrait McBride paints of Augusta as a near-deserted ghost town that never recovered from the closing of the mills is clearly not the product of any measure of research or, seemingly, a substantial amount of time spent here. But those are just two examples of exaggerated facts or downright falsehoods that McBride writes and repeats throughout the book.
Why? Because Kill ’Em and Leave, despite how it might be categorized at the local library, isn’t a work of nonfiction. It’s a work of propaganda – a book with a very real agenda.
This book is McBride’s bully pulpit from which he declares his support to parties still battling over the now-tattered remains of the Brown estate.
It should be noted that I know and respect people on both sides of this prolonged debate and have made every effort to stay clear, even in the most tangential of ways, of the legal wheelings and dealings. Unlike McBride, I don’t have the luxury to, well, Kill ’Em and Leave. Besides, my experiences with the legal system are primarily focused on paying the occasional speeding ticket and answering summonses for jury duty. I’m not a legal expert. That’s not where my training is, and so I steer clear.
What I do know about is journalism, and I know rule one is try to tell both sides of a story. McBride makes no attempt to follow that rule. While he spends considerable time and develops an emotional attachment to those initially appointed as trustees of the Brown estate – most specifically attorney Buddy Dallas, accountant David Cannon and Brown’s manager Alfred “Judge” Bradley – the Brown children who represent the other side of the fight are mentioned, sometimes derided but never heard from.
McBride’s story has one side. He chose to tell a very particular story. He did not choose to tell the whole story.
McBride, in fact, seems to struggle with the idea of story. The nonlinear structure of Kill ’Em and Leave isn’t that unusual, particularly in the world of music books. Elvis Costello used it to great effect in his autobiography last year.
Where McBride falters is content. Each chapter functions like an essay – a well-packaged part of a larger whole. But instead of building these pieces on foundations of new facts and discoveries, he tends to repeat his favorite ideas and opinions. James Brown was brought down by disco. James Brown’s greatest band were the people who played with him in the ’60s – the legendary Bootsy Collins, in fact, is never even mentioned. James Brown lost his private jet and three radio stations. Write and repeat. Write and repeat.
Between the time this piece is written and published, Augusta will gather at Bell Auditorium to celebrate the Godfather’s birthday. Friends will be there. Family. They will, inevitably, tell stories. Stories about a man who was brilliant and unpredictable. Stories about a man who could be both generous and unkind. A man so complicated that everyone who knew him, who dealt with him professionally or personally will have a different take and a different story. And I guess that’s sort of the point. If none of those stories are wrong, how can McBride’s be? Perhaps it isn’t, but from this writer’s point of view, it certainly doesn’t feel right.