In preparation for writer James McBride's upcoming appearance at the Chicago Humanities Festival, I've taken a brief break from Chicago politics—thank goodness—to read his latest book, Kill 'Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul.
It's not a conventional biography—more like a series of riffs on various topics related to James Brown's life.
The talented McBride, 58, is well equipped to handle this assignment. He's also written a memoir (The Color of Water), several screenplays (including Red Hook Summer, coscripted with Spike Lee), and three novels. He's also an accomplished jazz saxophonist, songwriter, and composer.
Much of his book on James Brown deals with conflict: between blacks and whites, men and women, artists and managers, fathers and children, musicians and bandleaders, and so forth. Brown's tempestuous life offers insights into all of these things.
But that's not really what I want to talk about.
You see, for all its insight, McBride's book doesn't pose, much less answer, one of the most perplexing and vexing of James Brown-related questions. And that is . . .
Just what the hell is the Godfather of Soul getting at in "Licking Stick"?
That's the song with the chorus that goes: "Mama, come here quick / Bring me that licking stick."
"Licking Stick" is a track on the 1969 album Say It Loud—I'm Black and I'm Proud.
I first heard it on the little transistor that I kept tuned to AM radio during my glorious junior high years. I've been baffled ever since. It's like a mystifying song by Bob Dylan: the more I hear it, the less I understand.
Most of the verses I understand, as James Brown describes the dances that people are doing. But then there's this verse . . .
"People standin' / Standin' in a trance / Sister out in the backyard / Doin' the outside dance."
And this one . . .
"Come and tell me you love me / She didn't wanna be a drag / I don't know what she's doin' / I think she's got a brand new bag."
Now, picture me (little 12-year-old Ben) listening to this song on my tiny transistor when I should have been doing my social studies homework, and going: WTF! Who's the sister in the backyard? And what dance is she doing? And why is everybody in a trance? And why does she think she's a drag? And what does any of this have to do with a lickin' stick?
For that matter, what is a licking stick?
Over the years, I've discussed the song countless times—generally late at night, while sitting at a bar, as the song plays on the jukebox.
And I've heard more explanations than you can shake a licking stick at. People have told me a licking stick is a saxophone, a clarinet, a baseball bat, or a clitoris. Just last week, a Chicago alderman told me it sounds "like he's singing about a blow job." I'm telling you—you can't take these aldermen anywhere.
I subscribe to the theory that a licking stick is the stick with which someone's about to get a good lickin'. Or as Keith Porter, the captain of my bowling team, recently put it: "They just don't give you the whoopin'. They tell you to go get the stick they're whoopin' you with."
So, Keith, does this mean James Brown's about to give the sister in the backyard a whoopin'?
"I don't know. It's James Brown, man. Who knows what he's talking about?"
Probably the best advice about this song comes from Devin Thompson, vocalist for the Chicago Catz, an R&B cover band. Devin's either heard or sung just about every James Brown song in existence—at least a few hundred times.
"I hate to tell you this," he told me. "But you may be looking for something that doesn't exist."
Actually, that could be said about my search for truth and justice in Chicago politics.
"What do you mean?" I asked him.
"I mean, it could be one thing or it could be many things, he said. "Or it could be many things at once. Start with the lickin' stick. He could be talking about something literal—like a stick you hit people with—or it could be something metaphorical—like a musical high, a nice lick. He could just be talking about people being in a groove."
And that sister doing the outside dance?
"It could be a dance you do outside as opposed to inside—so it's wilder or freer," he said. "Or maybe it's nothing. Maybe he's just saying something to complete the rhyme—like jive talking, or scat singing. It feels good, so he's going to say it.
"Look, man, I'm not going to call James Brown a great wordsmith. But he's a lot smarter than people give him credit for in his lyrics. He started funk music as we know it. He was basically locking into a groove and that's that. His lyrics don't have to make sense—they just do. The songs make you feel good, and that's really all that matters."
Well, like I said, his explanation makes as much sense as anything else I've heard on the subject.
Of course, that doesn't mean I'll stop talking about "Licking Stick." As my faithful readers know, there are some things I never tire of talking about. Such as . . .
Why do Chicagoans keep electing such schmucks as their mayors?
If there's a Q&A at the lecture, you might want to ask McBride about this. Not the part about electing schmucks. I mean, ask him about "Licking Stick."
Based on his wonderful book, I'm sure McBride will have an enlightening answer. v