CHUCK BROWN / OUT OF AIR GO-GO
Revisitation Rights 15
The only time I saw Chuck Brown live made a deep, deep, indelible impression on me in an altogether unexpected way.
It wasn’t surprising that I only had the one opportunity to catch the Godfather of Go-Go, who moved on to the next phase on May 16 at 75, since go-go always was such an overwhelmingly local Washington, D.C. phenomenon and I was based in L.A. But I finally got the chance about 20 years ago when for some reason I traveled back to New York, which I guess qualifies as neutral ground in this case. Scanned the gigs that would be happening when I was there, big surprise when I spotted Chuck Brown at Tramps (the latter-day, 21st Street club), and the rest was no-brainer automatic.
But what I ran into that night was anything but automatic – it was one of only two times in my life that I experienced the feeling that the band just didn’t come onstage and play their set. They came out and plugged in and played music that was already there, only you could hear it now because they were playing what was flowing through the air a la the Marley lyric to “Natural Mystic.” It already existed and, once they stopped playing and left the stage, you were absolutely certain that music was still playing up there in the air. Your ears just couldn’t hear it any more.
Brown came onstage without any star-time announcement or fanfare – hell, he just walked out and actually spent the first couple minutes with his back to the audience audibly tuning his guitar. Meanwhile, Ricky Wellman, back from his stint with Miles Davis, settled into setting down that fundamental go-go beat while the other band members strolled on, casually picked up their instruments and locked down into that groove. Then Brown joined in and songs just periodically took shape within the all-encompassing rhythm – I remember “Run Joe” because it surprised me to hear the old Louis Jordan calypso-tinged hit in the go-go context and “Bustin’ Loose” and “I Need Some Money” (the Brown tune I was most familiar with) probably popped up somewhere over that steady rollin’ undercurrent but I couldn’t swear to either one.
It brought a smile to read Brown’s quote in the Washington Post that go-go got its name simply because the rhythm just goes and goes on and on (nothing like truth in advertising) but the Tramps gig also did clue me in to one key ingredient that went into making it go-go. At least one layer of the extra percussion that creates that rolling undertow sensation (I heard something very similar later on with early bhangra and rai, played on Indian and Algerian hand percussion) came from playing congas with drumsticks. Could be that was only part of Brown’s individual sound, hard to tell, but it definitely changed the usual hand-played conga tone into something far more forceful.
The rhythm continuum was expected since I had locked into go-go myself fairly early on, one part because I was living with Nina, a D.C. area woman who was into black music sounds, and one part from reading a rave NME review of the first Trouble Funk LP on Sugarhill. Adding those two parts together equaled recommendation enough to pick it up first time I saw it on a Rhino Records run (the retail store in Westwood, not the label). I can still remember putting it on the turntable the first time and then turning back to return to the piece I was writing.
And turning back right around after the opening drum and percussion barrage and – once Big Tony Fischer got through bellowing, “Hey, fellas/You want to take time out to get close to the ladies/Gonna find a super freak and take time out to taste her/Say what, now,” and the monster unison horn riff kicked in – just looking at my speakers and laughing out loud at how absurdly good it sounded. I’ve only had that immediate reaction to a few other things, so suffice it to say I can completely relate to the well-known tale of young pup D.C. punks Ian MacKaye and Henry Rollins driving in Washington and pulling over to the side of the road because the Trouble Funk music they heard on the radio was so powerful good.
I saw Trouble Funk one time at some way-off-the-beaten-Hollywood-industry-path club in Long Beach with a smattering of other L.A. scenesters and laughed at first over how utterly silly the chants and band costumes and the whole thing was at first (looked like the band was in on it, too). But you know, after about 30 or 40 minutes or so, that non-stop rhythm just sorta took you over, any tendencies towards intellectualizing faded away and you just surrendered to the groove. And you understood how go-go gigs could easily be the marathon affairs of legend that could go-go all night.
I picked up a goodly share of DETT/TTED homegrown label 12” singles by D.C. artists and tracked E.U. as they “Da Butt”-ed their way on to the international (ahem) consciousness and touring circuit.
And I appreciated finding out somewhere along the timeline that Trouble Funk’s James Avery had wound up with a good part of the original Parliament-Funkadelic keyboard arsenal – it seemed like an appropriate passing of the Chocolate City funk groove torch in one of P-Funk’s acknowledged strongholds.
But none of those things remotely prepared me for that out-of-air go-go experience with Chuck Brown.
I’ve spent decades listening to the most adventurous strains of jazz and by now it’s second nature for me to conceive and speak of music as spirit force without that feeling the least bit contrived. Just the mere ability of musicians to improvise, to invent and bring strands of melody and rhythm out of nothing and nowhere, is still enough to boggle my little brain. But this was an entirely different sensation and it happened with a music so patently grounded in the funk and dance and the very basic pleasure of getting people moving and grooving.
And the other out-of-air musical experience? That would be Thomas Mapfumo playing acoustic guitar at some really small club in Santa Monica with just a pair of mbiras (thumb pianos) for accompaniment. Two examples of music that are poles apart, although obviously there’s a potential Africa / African-American connection to work off that could be seriously developed.
Or go all fanciful and riff away on any Motherland meets Mothership Connection and spin off to how the Smithsonian Institute in Washington acquired the mid-‘90s replica of the original Mothership stage prop last year for its National Museum of African-American History and Culture. And extend that to mention the great Washington Post article by Chris Richards in April 2010 about going in search of the original Mothership stage prop in the wilds of the outskirts of D.C.
But that will have to wait for another day, another comment, because what happened that night with Chuck Brown at Tramps and Mapfumo was just too special and thought-provoking to reduce to a mere launching pad for being flip and indulging in ostensibly clever wordplay.
Today it’s RIP Chuck Brown, and thanks for taking me with the go-go into a different dimension.