From Chapter 10: The Cape Act
First, she thought she could fly. Then she hoped the fat guy would break her fall.
The woman had come to Rockland Palace in Harlem, to see James Brown in 1961. As the group tore into "Please, Please, Please," something overpowering entered her, a feeling that the world was unreal, and that what she was about to do would connect her with something more infinite. She rose up, planted her feet on the edge of the upper deck, swaying back and forth to the beat, and then ... she leaped off the planet. Or tried to. She landed on the floor below, and was lucky to survive.
"I saw her body sweep away like she was going up in smoke," Brown told a writer from Sepia. "The next thing we knew she had swept and swooned herself to the balcony ... and leaped over. We didn't dig that action at all."
James Brown put audiences into a trance. On another night in the early 1960s, when the band played a Southern dance, a large woman climbed onto the balcony's lip and flickered there. "No one made a remark — no one approached her, and she never had a moment of unbalance," said a witness. "The whole public was swaying. It was a dance, but no one was dancing. It was like a standing ovation to the singer."
What was happening in the shows of the early 1960s to possess fans to float off like that? The answer is there in the performance of "Please, Please, Please," in a bit of stagecraft Brown had only recently introduced into the show. But to understand this turning point, we have to step back to another era, another dance, and do the mashed potato all the way back to the 1890s.
We are in the area along the Ob River in northwest Siberia, east of the Ural Mountains. It is windy, unspeakably cold, though spring is coming. The people who live here dwell in birch bark tents and hunt with bows and arrows the wolves that stalk the frozen evergreen forest. These people were called the Ostyak or the Ostiak. The eleventh edition of Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911: "The Ostiaks are middle-sized, or of low stature, mostly meagre, and not ill made, however clumsy their appearance in winter in their thick fur-clothes. The extremities are fine, and the feet are usually small."
They are one tough crowd, too. Running out of food, they stare at a leader, a hero, who stands before them. They are hungry and wondering if they must again move to a new spot. They are fanatic, obsessed with the hero and demanding answers. They have put him on a platform, and now they surround him, waiting for a sign. They are pleading for a show of prowess, of stamina, of his control over the forces that are ravaging their lives.
They are expecting a performance. Drums play for a long time, then the hero screams in an inhuman tongue, a torrent of words and emotions that touch his followers but which they cannot understand. Eventually he is overcome, inhabited by a spirit that contorts his face, his voice, the movements of his body. He dances.
He sings. The spirit that is in him pours out as he voices a message from the spirit world. He has climbed to heaven and fallen to the underworld, and now he is here, tired on every level. A circle of helpers drop a cloak, like a cape, around him, they attempt to give his body and soul the comfort of mortal hands on his back. A pat, a word, is proffered, but soothing him is beyond them, for only he has the answer to his condition.
After that, the way some folks told it back then, the hero entered his iron hut and fell asleep on a bed of purple clouds. That last part might have been the work of a really good press agent. But the basic, undeniable points are these: Some of the greatest performances originated centuries ago, and sometimes it's the cape that makes the man.
Before we can connect the Ostyak and James Brown, we must make use of a word, an abused word, a cliché, which over the years has become as misrepresented and misunderstood as funk. The word is shaman. The Ostyak were into shamanism before shamanism was cool. The word was first used to describe people like the communal hero the Ostyak huddled around, coined by Russian anthropologists studying the tribal peoples of Siberia and Central Asia.
But one reason the term shaman has come to seem downright corny is that, even before Joseph Campbell went platinum and men's groups, drum circles, and wind-up ravers ripped the stuffing out of the word, shamanism was a global phenomenon. The anthropologists who brought the concept to the masses determined that these people (call them medicine men, call them healers, call them shaman) existed in cultures all over the planet. Their very universality has led us today to spout universal banalities about them.
Crucial to the shaman's shtick wherever he is found is that he must die in front of the community, in a symbolic act that is followed by a back-from-beyond rebirth. The symbolic death and rebirth is repeated over and over, and through this performance he is reborn before all, in a miraculous manner that consolidates his power and prominence.
Shaman, conjurer, bruja ... American idol. In a charming and thoughtful book published in 1983, the British writer Rogan Taylor argues that our most global performers, the ones who matter most to modern audiences, are working in our own shamanic tradition. In The Death and Resurrection Show, Taylor describes a phase in which the hero withdraws from his community and gets his "act" together, and suggests that when a shaman demonstrates his powers to the people, by nature he is putting on a show. A big moment in the shamanic ritual, says Taylor, is when the performer is wracked by the agonies of the underworld as we watch. Taylor calls this a "pantomime of moments in hell." From the banks of the Ob to the buffet at Grossinger's, what ties us to the most powerful entertainers is the same elemental bond humans once had with the shaman.
Taylor calls James Brown "perhaps the most outlandishly shamanistic performer of all." The pinnacle of his show, the event unfolding when the bodies were poised on the edge of the upper balcony, came during "Please, Please, Please," in a bit that quickly was dubbed "the cape act."
The cape act had been a part of his show since 1961. Previously Brown had used a suitcase as a prop during "Please," and into the mid-'60s he sometimes appeared onstage wearing a crown studded with fake baubles. Those were gimmicks, but the cape was in a whole different category. From the first time he used it, the cape altered his show; it made him seem bizarrely and grandly religious. It made him a victim and a champion, running on currents that alternated weakness with raw power. He said he gave us his all: The cape act showed it, and showed that his all was bottomless.
From The One: The Life And Music Of James Brown by RJ Smith. Copyright 2012 by RJ Smith. Excerpted by permission of Gotham Books.