Culture  /  Book Review

The Songs of Canceled Men

A new book asks how music criticism can reckon with the lives of immoral artists.

This year, CNN published a three-part investigation into some claims shrouding the deaths of James Brown in 2006 and his third wife, Adrienne Brown, 10 years earlier. The report details the horrifying conduct—rape, abuse, suspected murder—that shaped the Godfather of Soul’s private life, especially in its second half. Some of the information was already public, including accounts of domestic violence, and the article leaves a number of questions open, such as whether Brown himself was a victim, murdered by one of his hangers-on. Still, now, if not before, listening to the tight funk of tracks like “I Feel Good” inspires more discomfort than awe—a feeling that the song is so tight only because his band feared what their violent boss might do if they ever missed a beat.

The English critic Ian Penman had a similar moment in 2012 while reading R.J. Smith’s Brown biography, The One. Perturbed by Brown’s offenses, Penman suggests that readers may want to “put the book down and go play the music again to remind yourself why you’re bothering. If you haven’t been put off the music for good, that is.” There are countless influential artists, past and present, who have exhibited neither abusive behavior nor objectionable politics. (Brown supported Richard Nixon and lambasted social services, believing that black people should work hard for success, like he did.) If those artists’ music is a click away, why continue listening to Brown at all? Penman, for his part, reminds us that the Godfather’s best music is visionary, cathartic, not to mention ubiquitous. So, can we square art and life? “How,” Penman wonders, “does what is permissible—wild abandon, exaggerated claims, world-encircling desire—find a roost in the grey maze of real life?”

The Brown essay is one of eight collected in It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track, Penman’s second book, after 1998’s Vital Signs. Except for the first chapter, which considers mod culture’s shifting legacy through its ’60s origins and subsequent revivals, each essay focuses on an American male musical icon whose songs are part of our cultural lexicon but whose actions were problematic to varying degrees. Penman respects his subjects—Brown, Charlie Parker, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, John Fahey, Donald Fagen, Prince—but makes sure to attend to “the multi-hued complexity of the artist in question.” Rather than write the linear narratives of so many rock star biopics, he seeks to unravel “a certain taut dialectic between a messy and even desperate private life and the artist’s almost supernaturally elegant, economical song.” (He offers the term “tellyology” to describe other music writing: “shaping history with both eyes on a potential TV series.”)

Whereas some may want a dialectic’s thesis and antithesis to produce a synthesis, Penman finds his chosen figures resisting the equation. They remain split, open: These are men for whom good and bad, among other opposites, weren’t exact polarities. “For Brown, play was always work, but work ...