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What Can Brown Do For You?: The “Heresy” of Negative Capability in James Brown’s “I’ll Go Crazy"

30 January 2007

“I’ll Go Crazy” is as good of a place to start talking about the greatness of JAMES BROWN as any. This single, released in February 1960, was a #15 hit on the rhythm & blues charts, although it didn’t crack Billboard’s Top 40 as his next single with THE FAMOUS FLAMES, “Think” would do five months later (it didn’t even crack the Hot 100 as “Try Me” had in early 1959). In some ways it’s a transitional song (Brown himself attributes the change in his style to getting out of the south; “my brain started to intercept new ideas…I became a big city thinker.”), but I don’t mean ‘transitional’ in the pejorative sense of ‘groping for a new style’ (or ‘one step forward, two steps back’) as it is often used, for even if “Think” has a more assertive rocking groove and earlier ballads like his first single “Please Please Please” excel in the more soulful pleading, with “I’ll Go Crazy” Brown gives us both attitudes, and an intense vacillating transition, in one song.

While the verse pleads, “if you leave me, I’ll go crazy / cause I love you a little too much,” the chorus (or perhaps it should be called the bridge, since the title of the song is in the ‘verse’) forcefully, even wickedly, advises, “you gotta live for yourself, yourself and nobody else.” I used to take the ‘you’ as Brown talking to himself; even though he never actually says “I got to live for myself….and nobody else,” it seemed the most plausible interpretation.

While the injunction in the chorus may express the opposite attitude of the over-dependency some might mistake for love, the gap (or aporia) between the verse and the chorus could also mean that the chorus is the manifestation of the ‘going crazy’ predicted in the verse—-as if the song is saying, “if you leave me, I’ll start thinking I should live for myself and nobody else and, that, my dear, is crazy!” It’s not even entirely clear that he doesn’t want to go crazy; all that’s clear is that he’ll go crazy if this person he loves more than himself leaves him. It’s possible he wants the person to leave him precisely so he can go crazy (or that he wants to be able to do both!), after all, as WAYLON JENNINGS knew, being crazy might be precisely what’s needed to keep one from going insane. But, let’s assume for the time being he doesn’t want to go crazy and doesn’t want her to leave him, so how can he best convince, persuade, seduce her not to quit him?

Here’s where the paradox (or magic) enters into it. He’s going to stop thinking about her, or stop thinking about himself, or, more to the point, stop thinking about the relationship between such a ‘you’ and ‘I’. If the verses dramatize a necessary vulnerability or romantic humility, the “Mr. Please Please Please,” stance, the shock of the chorus, and its seemingly more egomaniacal resolve, also gets rid of the ‘I’ and its potentially cloying needs altogether. The ‘heresy’ of self-love is celebrated doesn’t get the last word in this song (as it is framed by the verses), but is still celebrated more intensely than say KURT COBAIN singing, “love myself better than you/ I know that it’s wrong, but what can I do?” There’s hints of Brown’s burgeoning ‘selfish’ craziness in some of the songs on his second album, Try Me, released less than a year earlier, in songs such as “I Won’t Plead No More,” “I’ve Got To Change,” and “Fine Old Foxy Self,” but the jarring juxtaposition of “I’ll Go Crazy” really gets the beautiful mystery across in a way that rivals the best poetry, psalm, Zen Koan, or passage from the Tao Te Ching, and certainly paves the way for the crazy-beautiful selfish generosity of pop superstars from MICK JAGGER to PRINCE.

Brown pleads deeply, convincingly in the verses, but equally and forcefully gives a counter-pull in the choruses or middle section—-the equal opposite centripidal force to the verse’s centrifugal force, and the result is not a static resolution or achievement of a moderate balance, but a more heightened tension (ambivalence) than even THE BUZZCOCKS, in “A Different Kind Of Tension,” were able to achieve—for these opposites not only attract, but may very well meet up at what’s only seen as their extremes if we’re too busy representing it in a line to think (and feel) globally.

What makes the last claim more plausible is the feeling that the ‘you’ that he’s addressing (or advising—though ‘gotta’ can be in the sense of “it’s unavoidable”) in the chorus might actually be the same ‘you’ he’s pleading to in the verses (and this interpretation seems better, or at least stronger, than the idea that the ‘you’ is just him talking to ‘himself’ in the second person). It’s also possible he’s not just singing this to a lover, but to anybody who listens or sees him perform, from his band, The Famous Flames, to the audience. Certainly Brown’s musical vision was somewhat dependent on his band, and it’s fascinating how the vocal arrangements differ from the verse to the chorus; on the verses the backup singers punctuate what Brown is singing with the call and response mode, while on the choruses they sing along with Brown, as the vocal arrangements complicate the lyrical meanings and the words point to deeper meanings of the whole sonic visceral experience.

Nor do I find it’s going too far to consider the possibility that the song is addressed to everybody in his audience. While one may not imagine James Brown composing with a pen in hand hunched over his typewriter or piano, it’s possible the idea for this song came to him while performing another song, and feeling the fear that he could lose his audience, through the trial and error with which he honed his performance skills. So here he is up on stage pleading with everybody in the room not to leave him, and then telling us that we should live for ourselves. That takes a lot of self-knowledge and chutzpah, a lot of faith in himself as well in his lover/audience, that in living for ourselves we won’t want to quit him. This is really not so contradictory after all, but about as close to ideal pact or vow with a lover/audience as any.

As part of James Brown’s audience, on first listen I did feel the “live for yourself,” could be addressed to me, but I didn’t feel the “If you leave me”—but hearing his passionate conviction on stage, or even in speakers, it’s hard not to think he’s looking our way, trying to get us to think about the situation we’re in now as well as dance ourselves out of it through a communal folk-art experience that isn’t just “Escape-ism” (as his June 1971 single would put it). Sure, he’s accepting the lyrical convention in the verses so that the audience is not wrong or deceived in thinking that Brown is asking us to identify with the passionate lyrical ‘I’ more than the ‘you,’ but that’s when he shifts the ground on us, and what may at first seem like a turning away from the other, from us (lover, band, audience) in the choruses may paradoxically and magically be the most profound and loving act of cathartic purging and reaching out.

The advice-mode has its limits, but also its advantages: while too many poets say “show don’t tell,” Brown both shows and tells and explores the gap and overlap between these two stances and the relationships they assume. But can anyone hold both these attitudes in our consciousness simultaneously? Probably not if we think our consciousness as our heads, our ‘satisfied minds,’ or even in the ‘healthy’ body that doesn’t push itself out of fear of going crazy. The jealous ‘mind’ that would call dancing (or feeling someone else dance) a form of “Escape-ism,” is precisely the problem. In this sense “I’ll Go Crazy” is one of the best embodiments of that activity of “Negative Capability” of which JOHN KEATS wrote almost 200 years ago; an activity that requires (by inviting) an athleticism that is as mental as it is physical. But by saying this I don’t mean to necessarily elevate Brown over, say, LEONARD COHEN by simply inverting the old mind-body dualism of yore, but rather to show how James Brown helps eliminate the reductive, conceptual baggage of ‘mind’ and ‘body’ that too often lead people (even those who LOVE James Brown) to place him on a continuum (whether figured horizontally or vertically) as far closer to the ‘body’ pole, while placing Cohen closer to the ‘mind’ pole.

James Brown is MIND music as much as Soul or Body music, and ultimately this is much more holistic than what’s often called that, in the clinical field of health maintenance (ah, if only HMOS could “do the James Brown,” and understand the self as a verb as well as Brown did). There’s no smugness, no imposed sense of salvation or health through conforming to someone else’s health in Brown but various strategies of seduction without compromise, and the juxtaposition of these two seemingly simple sentiments (which allowed Brown more room for acting out a wide range of emotions on the stage which was his life), in one short tightly-constructed pop tune remains one of the best documents of the ‘crazy’ ambivalence at the core of soul music in the last 50 years. R.I.P. JB.