The Godfather's extra day
A friend from Northern Ireland, a journalist, called me late last week, as she does on different occasions, to chat about some new book, or album, or to dissect some recent political event.
One of these times was 12 September 2001. She said that she had just been outside Belfast City Hall where she stood among thousands of people for three minutes' silence for the dead at the World Trade Center. At the time, she explained, an unearthly breeze stirred only the trees in front of the crowd. The flag did not move, but a few leaves came floating from the branches down onto the heads of the assembled. She would never forget it: an ordinary moment which had become extraordinary.I recall thinking at the time: My God, they are praying for us in Belfast.The world can be small and intimate and the connections made amongst us last for longer than we know.
Even today I cannot help thinking of her when the topic of the World Trade Center comes up. She stands there under the Belfast weather, which for all intents and purposes could have been the breeze on the lower west side of New York.We all bear witness in the most curious ways.Last Thursday night she called again, just as I was heading out the door. It was one of those moments when the phone pulled me back. “I'd like if you could do a favour for me,” she said after a quick chat. “Can you just go up to Harlem and put in a word for me at James Brown's funeral?”A strange request, but one that had meaning. She had once interviewed Brown and had gotten along famously with him. It was supposed to be a 10-minute interview but had gone on much longer. At the end of the interview, the Godfather of Soul said to her, “I hope I live to be a hundred years old. But I hope YOU live to be a hundred and one day at least. ‘Cause I couldn't stand it, being in the world if good folk like you were gone before me.”We make these sort of statements, never quite knowing how they will take root in another person's life.I told her I would try to make it uptown to see what was happening outside the Apollo Theatre where Brown's memorial service had taken place earlier in the day. But life intrudes, as life does. The day got away from me and it was after midnight when I was on the 6 train coming home. I was due to stop at 86th Street station but dozed off and, when I woke up, the train was pulling into 125th Street, one of those curious accidents of fate.Harlem late at night isn't always the best place for a white man. You become acutely aware of your own skin colour. Consciousness weighs in. It's a hyper-awareness, not something I'm necessarily proud of, but it is a fact of life. You watch others watching you, even if they aren't.The cold air stunned me when I walked up the steps and into the streets. A few characters were out, selling incense. A couple of drunks reeled on the corner. A woman in a large feather boa hat was arguing with the driver of a gypsy cab. A menacing young man in a lopsided baseball hat bumped into me.
I strolled along, a little nervous, my head down.At the Apollo Theatre, things had closed up for the night and the James Brown memorial service was long over, but a crowd of about 40 or 50 was still gathered outside, singing. An elderly man held a trombone, another a trumpet. A young woman was shining a harmonica on the leg of her jeans. Together, they were singing old Brown songs. Glory be. Hallelujah. Say it Loud. We're Black and Proud. Papa Got a Brand New Bag. It was a funky sound that rang out clear in the Harlem night and in the short spaces between songs I caught snatches of conversation.“Soul Brother Number One.”“James Butane Brown.”“That brother was wearing silver shoes.”“He's going to see God in Augusta.”Often when someone like Brown dies, the world seems dented a little. He lived a tough life and he certainly wasn't into the pastimes of saints, but his music brought people together: black, white, it didn't matter. That was his glue. The human touch. That we disappear into one another with music. There had been many long days in the giving up of himself.One could feel it in that impromtu moment, with no stars out over 125th Street: someone touched my elbow and guided me into the crowd. I could feel the sound trilling through me. It was a sort of butane.The music got louder. The assembled began to clap in rhythm. For a moment I thought about the Belfast leaves floating down from the branches. The voices were turned up a notch. I moved in closer yet again. I wasn't alone. It was Brown's extra day.Someone hit a high note and held it.