Thursday, March 24, 2016

The King of Soul and the Palace

Hola mi Gente,
I’m off for another interview today. If you have a free couch… LOL

It’s been several years since James Brown passed away. I wrote this back then...

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The Pitkin Theater

James Brown and the Pitkin Theater

At a crucial point in the award-winning film, Mr. Holland’s Opus, the teacher of the title is fighting to save the high school arts program from budget cuts. The exchange goes something like this:
Vice Principal Wolters: I care about these kids just as much as you do. And if I'm forced to choose between Mozart and reading and writing and long division, I choose long division. 
Glenn Holland: Well, I guess you can cut the arts as much as you want, Gene. Sooner or later, these kids aren’t going to have anything to read or write about.
It is a telling moment in a movie that’s principally about the essence of education. The fact of the matter is that art is indispensable to education. Numerous studies have shown that children who are immersed in arts programs tend to do better in reading, writing, and mathematics, for example. The word educate comes from the Latin root word educare, which means to draw from. The implication being that education is not about filling children’s minds, but drawing out the potential that already exists. It is unfortunate that today we eat our young and then blame them for our own collective narcissism and shortsightedness.

I won’t get into that today, but I mention the arts because it has been such an integral part of my life. Art, or Beauty, or Truth, or whatever you want to call it, literally saved my ass. When I was at the lowest point in my life what saved me was art. What saved me was the knowledge that in this fucked up world, full of petty motherfuckers racing mindlessly to catch/ buy/ sell/ the latest trend/ soundbite/ flavor of the month, there is Beauty.

Even in despair, I could still find sustenance in the intricate beauty of a Faulkner paragraph. I could quench my spiritual thirst with Neruda’s passion; I could listen to John Coltrane’s fearlessness and peer wide-eyed along with him into the void. Knowing and experiencing the beauty of a Monet assured me that there was sanity in this world and that it was worth living. And there were many times I needed reminding of the preciousness of life. Therefore, it is with great sadness that I mark the passing of great artists -- those who sustained me, when I felt I couldn’t do it myself. I feel a profound sense of gratitude for the archetype of The Artist, because they serve to remind us that there’s more to this momentary passage of time on this ball of mud we call Earth. The Artist, sometimes at great personal cost, follows her vision and sometimes points us to what matters most, though we oftentimes don’t pay heed.

And so it was with James Brown. I remember growing up listening and dancing to the sounds of James Brown. As a young teen, I danced the Camel Walk to James Brown. And who can forget his anthem to black pride when he sang, “Say it loud! I’m black and I’m proud!” At the time, it was a radical notion for people of color to be proud of their skin color, the texture of their hair, and their culture. We take it for granted now, but there was a hard war fought in order for us to assume that we should be proud.

I was born of Puerto Rican parents and raised in the slums of New York City, rubbing elbows with African-American neighbors who also lived in those ghettos. I remember it was 1967 when we moved to East New York Ave in Brooklyn, right behind the Pitkin Theater. The Pitkin was multi-tiered theatre with Greek statuary adorning the side walls and proscenium area. It had a Robert Morton 3 Manual, 14 Rank theatre organ as well. In those days, movie houses were built to resemble opulent palaces: velvet seats, gilded trimmings, lush carpeting in huge auditoriums facing a great stage where a huge silver screen hung. There was even a balcony and the older kids would go up there to make out.

At the time, we were one of the only Puerto Rican families living on that block embedded in a predominantly African-American community. In the beginning, I had to fight my way to and from school almost every day. Eventually, I would befriend most of my neighbors and the first girl I ever kissed was this beautiful black girl called Gail. Actually, she would kiss me when we stood on line in school and I hated it because I didn’t like girls -- yet.

On Saturdays, my mother would give each of us something like seventy-five cents and send us to the Pitkin Theater across the street on Pitkin Avenue (our apartment faced the back of the Pitkin Theater). The cost of admission was twenty-five cents and for that sum, you would see two new releases, plus the cartoons sandwiched in-between.

But the Pitkin Theater also held live shows and this is where I first experienced live soul music. I remember seeing Little Anthony and the Imperials there, and there were other acts. Many of the then up-and-coming Motown acts used to pass through in those days, part of the circuit and these were hugely popular. I remember the first time I was sitting down at the Pitkin and they were showing, between films, the hottest acts of the day. It was the first time I remember where all the white acts were booed and the Black performers cheered loudly. LMAO!

Now, James Brown, he was no up-and comer. JB was the King -- the Godfather of Soul. I don’t know if he ever played the Pitkin, but whenever I think of JB, I’m reminded of the Pitkin and those long-ago days. JB took the field holler and put it to a fatback backbeat. When JB squealed, screamed, hollered, it was almost as if the collective pain and anguish of the oppressed was concentrated in those musical moments. JB had the nastiest, funkiest rhythm section and if you listened closely, all the West African rhythms were encapsulated in his vocal stylings. To listen to James Brown was to be reminded that you were alive, that you were sensual, sexy, and a bad-assed muthafucka on the dance floor.

Without James Brown, popular music as it exists today would not exist. JB is the most sampled artist, the most emulated, having influenced people from the great Miles Davis to Prince, almost every Hip Hop luminary, and everybody in-between. Our world is a better world because of James Brown, whatever his inner demons were, and today, we’re a lot less richer because of his passing.

And the Pitkin? Unfortunately It closed in the late-1960’s. After, it served for a long time as a church, but the congregation eventually moved out. The entry lobby was converted into retail space (later used as storage), and after over the 40 years of neglect and dereliction the building gradually became a wreck.

In the Summer of 2010, work on the building began and today it has been converted into a school and retail use. So, in a real way both the Pitkin and the Godfather of soul live on.

Rest in peace, JB

My name is Eddie and I'm in recovery from civilization... 

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