The Godfather Of Soul’s Final Act

Ian Penmen reviews the tumultuous life of "the hardest working man in show business," singer James Brown:

Brown’s story surely illustrates the dark side of the American Dream—paranoid, reclusive, self-cancelling—that can be seen in wildly divergent figures across the ideological spectrum, from Howard Hughes and Hunter S. Thompson to Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson. (Is it mere coincidence that Brown and Thompson were both attracted, in their different ways, to the same paranoiac nemesis and compadre—Richard Milhous Nixon?) Having it all doesn’t make the winner happy; if anything, it turns you into a permanent sentry at the CCTV gateway to your own life, waiting for raiding parties and enemies and ragged ghosts.

Brown died a lonely old man, self-sufficiency become a Midas curse. He never stopped touring, right to the end—though it’s unclear if he did so because he enjoyed it, or because without it there was nothing else, or because on the financial front, he’d finally outwitted even himself and couldn’t afford to stop. Was any of it fun? Did he know what fun or contentment was? Brown had trained himself to keep singing, keep smiling, keep screaming I FEEL GOOD, when he perhaps felt nothing of the sort. Who do you run to, who do you tell, when you realize you’ve built a prison out of the things you thought were liberations?