This book is not a balanced, unbiased, chronological account of James Brown’s life and musical career. It is, however, an impassioned, sometimes meandering defense of a music legend and his complicated legacy, which for my money makes it much more interesting than a straightforward biography.
James McBride clearly has a lot of love for James Brown, and I could appreciate his point of view without being entirely won over. McBride doesn’t go into much detail about some of Brown’s personal struggles, glossing over or excusing them in favor of extolling his showmanship and lamenting his misfortunes. I’m not quick to brush off things like domestic violence and rape accusations, so I remain skeptical as to Brown’s true level of virtue, but I can readily agree that he was a cultural icon, and often a misunderstood one.
I chose the audio version, and really enjoyed the narrator’s impression of Brown’s raspy Southern drawl. Since I’m not familiar with much of Brown’s music (which fact I intend to rectify), the narration made him more real to me.
Kill ‘Em and Leave is as much about McBride as it is about Brown, and that’s not a bad thing. I’m a big McBride fan, and I jump at every opportunity to talk about the time I saw him perform live with his band as part of the Good Lord Bird book tour. He’s a musician as much as he is a writer, and as such he’s the perfect person to tell Brown’s story. Or at least one very interesting side of it.