Thursday, December 28, 2006

James Brown's Last Gig at the Apollo

I went. I went to Harlem and paid my respects to the remains of the Godfather of Soul.

I was brushing my teeth in Pafman's Gramercy apartment, half watching some inane morning chat show, and they flashed a live heli-cam take of James Brown's funeral hack, somewhere way the heck up Lennox Ave, ready to make its way to the Apollo Theatre. I said to the family, "I gotta go." It didn't take much to convince them to come along with me.

Somewhat dazed after a high speed subway map-checking session and painstaking black wardrobe selection, we raced out across E24th, and I nearly met my maker myself, dashing out in front of a garbage truck making a left turn.

I got a small bouquet of gold and purple flowers (seemed appropriate for the man with the most flamboyant stage wardrobe) at a Chinese lady's deli, and we got on the express train to 125th.

There outside the Apollo, hundreds were already gathering behind steel barricades for the 1pm viewing. Some OTHER hearse went on past, inadvertantly getting massive amounts of respect as bystanders gawked in wonder. It would be another hour before I jumped the barricade to see the actual cortege of the Hardest Working Man in Show Business pass right in front of me, a golden coffin pulled by two graceful white horses. There was a politely celebratory mood in the people who marched alongside it, no cops stopping common folk from joining the procession.



What a sight, though.

I suppose 4 or 5% of the crowd were white, like me. A family of Torontoans were there near us, as well as the random white couple or group. But it seemed like a cross section of rich and poor, men and women, young and old African Americans.

I got back in line, found myself interviewed by reporters two or three times, ate a fish sandwich brought to me by my hubby, and damn near froze to death despite the wonders of microfleece. By 4 pm, when we'd finally surged to a position under the Apollo Theatre's marquee, I basked in the amazing warmth of the light bulbs. They let us in 15 at a time, making us file singly through the lobby. People were good about the rules: no photography of any kind, take off your hat, no turning around.

The lobby was a jarring melange of white, bordello gold and red flocking, with breathtaking faded collages of original photos of the legends made there in that hallowed space. The theatre itself is delightfully ornate, just like last night's Shubert Theatre. But smaller than I'd ever dreamed. Maybe could seat 1200 people. Appropriately enough, "Live at the Apollo" played on the PA as we entered the orchestra aisles, lending an air of cheer to what was actually a somber event.

Family members and friends, & even probably some soul celebs sat in the front orchestra rows, and suddenly Reverend Al Sharpton brushed on past my son, led by two dishy young ladies and followed by 4 or 5 beefy bodyguards. BTW, Sharpton is shorter and slimmer and younger looking than I'm used to seeing him on the Larry King show.

By this time, we were pretty close to the stage, where the big man was lying, not faking it this time, and finally taking a day off (as my son said).

It was open casket all the way. How could I not be moved? Brown was in a purple suit all right, and his high living really had ravaged his strikingly handsome face. I knelt and put my flowers as near to his feet as we were allowed. I don't think I'll ever forget that moment.

We filed back out into the cold back alley world of asphalt, festooned with paintings vendors, and bargain clothing stores. I think we weren't fifty feet from the Apollo's back door when I spotted a pimply techno geek in his car/home, tapping out his own blog entry on this moment in rock history.

I really regret never having seen him perform in person. My husband saw him put on a great performance at the Fillmore East in 1970, and in fact his Hong Kong band Blue Wail used to do a bang-up cover of I Got You (I Feel Good) back in 1990.

But James Brown will forever remain the man who introduced me to soul music, the voice I'd hear as I'd dance in a mirror, trying to look cool at age 9.

1 comment:

Mark said...

Now I'm wondering where my "Live at the Apollo" album is.

Of course, I don't have a turntable anymore, so I'd still have to get the CD version...