Born in utter poverty, James Brown became the ultimate self-made man, whose work ethic was topped only by his rhythmic innovations and musical genius. As an activist, James Brown never meant to overthrow the republic -- just find room in it. He sang his bootstrap manifesto: "I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door I'll Get It Myself.)" He was a patriot who could chopper to 'Nam to succor the brothers marooned there, then embrace Richard Nixon. His musical calls to social justice were not as eloquent as Martin Luther King Jr.'s speeches. But they were equally heartfelt. James Brown leaves a cultural wake as wide as his dear friend Elvis did. It took three services and as many wardrobe changes to send him to Jesus. The Augusta, Georgia, public funeral, broadcast live on CNN from the recently renamed James Brown Arena, took the form of a soul revue: tremulous thanks from Michael Jackson and dance moves by MC Hammer, along with a cape for the open casket. His singular life, begun in unspeakable Jim Crow-era poverty, careened through phases of great fame, wealth, disgrace and redemption. He saw it this way: "My story is a Horatio Alger story. It's an American story, it's the kind that America can be proud of, but yet if you tell it in detail, if you tell all the things I fought to make it, it's like the Satchel Paige story."
To be in the audience when James Brown commences the James Brown Show is to have felt oneself engulfed in a kind of feast of adoration and astonishment, a ritual invocation, one comparable, I'd imagine, to certain ceremonies known to the Mayan peoples, wherein a human person is radiantly costumed and then beheld in lieu of the appearance of a Sun God upon the Earth. For to see James Brown dance and sing, to see him lead his mighty band with the merest glances and tiny flickers of signal from his hands; to see him offer himself to his audience to be adored and enraptured and ravished; to watch him tremble and suffer as he tears his screams and moans of lust, glory and regret from his sweat-drenched body -- and is, thereupon, in an act of seeming mercy, draped in the cape of his infirmity; to then see him recover and thrive -- shrugging free of the cape -- as he basks in the healing regard of an audience now melded into a single passionate body by the stroking and thrumming of his ceaseless cavalcade of impossibly danceable smash Number One hits, is not to see: It is to behold.