Rock and Roll Book Club: James McBride's 'Kill 'Em and Leave'

James McBride's 'Kill 'Em and Leave'
James McBride's 'Kill 'Em and Leave' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

For a book that seems to throw the entire idea of a music biography out the window, it makes sense that not even two full sentences into his enthralling and meditative Kill 'Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul, author James McBride is already contemplating a genre-busting adage: "This is what they don't teach you in journalism school."

In addition to being a best-selling memoirist and author, McBride is a jazz musician, and I didn't have to flip to the back of the book and read his bio to figure that one out. It's in the way he writes, all vivid flashes of color and aching grooves, with turns of phrase so concisely devastating that they can only be compared to poetry. And it's in the intricate and evocative ways he writes about the music industry and the distinctly arduous journey of African-American artists in the modern age.

Kill 'Em and Leave is filed under the genre of "authorized biography," though it doesn't conform to the structure of any other similar book I've read. Instead, it unfolds as if someone handed McBride the charts for a book about music and he sent the pages cascading toward the floor; for a book about such an enigmatic artist, he opts to feel out the chord changes as he goes and solo across it in a blazing cacophony.

At the outset, it's a book about the search for the true story of James Brown. But it's also a book about the impossibility of such a daunting task, even with the assistance of some never-before-tapped relatives (who contribute to the book's "authorized" status), and about what it means to try to press into the heart of a person that, by all accounts, had no interest in being known. And it's a book about the cold, harsh truths faced by black musicians throughout American history, and how the pervasiveness of racism and appropriation have eroded our ability to preserve their stories.

Take this positively incendiary passage at the beginning of the book's third chapter, "American Jive," for example:

Here's how music history in America works: a trumpet player blows a solo in a Philly nightclub in 1945. Somebody slaps it on a record, and fifty years later that same solo is a final in a college jazz department, and your kid pays $60,000 a year to take the final, while the guy who blew the solo out of his guts in the first place is deader than yesterday's rice and beans, his family is suffering from the same social illness that created his great solo, and nobody gave two hoots about the guy when he died and nobody gives two hoots about his family now. They call that capitalism, the Way of the World, Showbiz, You Gotta Suck It Up, an upcoming Movie About Diversity, and my favorite term, Cultural History. I call it fear, and it has lived in the heart of every black American musician for the last hundred years.

Phew. See what I mean?

Rather than compile a list of biographical facts into a narrative told from an arm's-length distance, McBride keeps the reader close by as he dives deep into this project. First we're in his agent's office, meeting "a guy who knew a guy who knew a guy" who promises to give him an exclusive about James Brown; and next thing we know we're riding shotgun in McBride's car down a dark backroad in rural South Carolina, trailing a Jeep that may or may not contain Brown's distant cousin and a key that would unlock a new door in what he thought was a dead-end story. You can feel the disbelief as McBride peels back the layers, taking in the old shacks and dusty roads, the blaring horns and feverish ministry of the House of Prayer church, the first friends who knew Brown long before he became the Godfather of Soul.

As the book progresses, you start to get a feel for not just who James Brown was, but how deeply he's been stereotyped and misconstrued; while most biographers and filmmakers have focused on the more violent, unsavory portions of Brown's story -- of which, let's be honest, there are quite a few -- McBride does the work of investigating his humanity. Without giving too much away, there's a beautifully drawn scene toward the end of the book that poignantly illustrates the "abject loneliness" of Brown's existence and traces the parallels between his life and Michael Jackson's; "they had lived their fantastic lives alone," McBride writes, "on the third rail of fame and fortune, even as they electrified and changed the world."

No one may ever truly understand the Godfather, but this book gets as close as possible to erasing all the caricatures and glimpsing his soul.

James McBride is in town to deliver a special "mingling of literature and jazz" with his Good Lord Bird Band at the Hopkins Center for the Arts on Thursday, May 11 (7:30 p.m.) and Friday, May 12 (11:00 a.m.); find tickets and more information here.

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