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Snapsongs: “Lickin Stick – Lickin Stick” by James Brown

Sunday 31 March 2013 - Filed under Snapsongs

How do I put this kindly? Well, there’s no way to do it. I am probably, as one of my high school friends told me, one of the whitest people in the world. I am a technical guy, a computer geek, a space nut, fascinated with processes and cerebral complications. I can’t dance, I can’t sing, I am the Toledo-born geeky son of Northern European stock with a long history in North America. My remote ancestors lived in places where you could comfortably go about in the noonday sun. The admixture of Mediterranean French from my father’s side keeps me from being transparent, but really the only evidence of that comes from the fact that I can, in fact, tan, if I expose myself to enough sun. I didn’t realize exactly how anathema the Texas climate was to my physical makeup until I moved to New England. I am about as excited about the sweaty, moist, visceral, id-driven foundations of soul as I am about heat and humidity.

Which is, probably, why all my friends reacted with arched-eyebrow disbelief when I purchased the James Brown boxed set Star Time in 1991. But from my point of view, it was something that was necessary and important. And how do I put this without sounding smug, or pretentious, or annoying? There probably is no way, given the history of race relations and other things. So, I’ll just say: I have never been oblivious to the reality of differences of race or culture, but those distinctions just seemed secondary in my estimations. Especially in music. From a very early age I understood that different groups of people produced different varieties of sounds and rhythms and vocal tropes, but all I cared about was whether I liked them or not. Perhaps soul was not my home style, but it was a perfectly good style nonetheless.

Anyway. Why did a white boy go out and purchase the collected works of The Godfather of Soul? Because he wanted a primer, and he wanted it from the source. In 1991 I was finally coming to the realization that, despite my lack of talent in dance and song, I had a deep-seated desire to make music. I was still a year from taking the final step and purchasing an instrument, but I was fascinated by the bass guitar. The year before I’d had something of a belated epiphany while walking the family dog wearing my Sony Walkman: I was following bass lines. The songs I gravitated toward had definite, clear, dynamic bass parts. When I wasn’t singing along with the words, I was humming the bass, not the lead, not the rhythm, not the drums. My air-guitar stylings were in actuality air-bass.  Obviously, my subconscious was telling me something.

And I was somewhat conscious of an inadvertent bias in my musical collection. While I would listen to quite a few different genres, I was a 20-year-old white boy, I had purchased lots of white-boy albums. What I didn’t have was much of anything else. So I was already starting to seek out different things, to try to get some oddity in the mix, something not quite so stereotypical. When I chanced upon Star Time at the downtown Waterloo Records, the thought struck me that this would be a pretty good way to get a crash course in soul, from the master himself. It took me a few weeks to save up the cash for the purchase, but soon enough the set was mine.

And, yes, it was a revelation. It took me a while to listen to the whole thing, because I had to navigate through the disparate styles through Brown’s career, and some stuff was more easily assimilated than others. To this day I still don’t much care for the first disc, which is mostly Famous Flames material and stuff from the 50s and early 60s, before the James Brown Sound emerged. It was decent stuff, it had passion, but it wasn’t what I was looking for. Likewise, the fourth disc contains a lot of latter day material, when Brown’s heyday was well over and the sound was either dated or retreaded. The second and third disc were the gold mine, the motherload. That’s where the soul lived. That’s where I went.

I like quite a few songs on these discs, but “Lickin Stick – Lickin Stick” is first among equals. It starts with the bassline, natch, any wonder why it gets bumped the top of the list? The bassline is, in itself, a primer. Soul is not about ego-trip virtuosity, it’s about competency, structure and timing. This bassline is not simple, but it’s not flashy. It is, in the final analysis, the anchor. Scale run, up-down-up-down, pause, casual fillip. Done. Start again. And again. And again. The magic comes from the fact that you play the same thing precisely enough to make it dependable but adaptive enough to swing with the song structure. And you have to swing, because of the drums. Lovely, lovely syncopation.  Lovely mid-tempo groove. I’m not sure much needs to be said about Brown’s vocals, because he’s the Most Sampled Man in Show Biz. The lyrics are not scintillating, but you really don’t listen to them for meaning. When you get into the groove, they just become another instrument. Finally, the horns. I’m not much of a guy for brass, but the James Brown horn section just rocks. The horn section totally intermeshes with everything else; the gingerbread grace runs elevate the song to pure genius. Yes, yes, hyperbole, I know. It’s James Brown. He invites hyperbole.

When I finally got my bass, Star Time became another kind of primer. Soul is where you learn to be funky before you’re ready for funk. Soul is where you learn the understated bedrock role, as opposed to the dynamic melodic role of, say, progressive. You learn to be careful, to make sure you see the line through the measure, to make sure you see the song through to the end. And that, my friends, is why this white boy decided it was time for Star Time.

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2013-03-31  »  Edward Semblance