BY Jonathan Lethem in One Takes | 24 APR 15
Featured in
Issue 171

Picture Piece: When the Rolling Stones met James Brown

When the Rolling Stones met James Brown

BY Jonathan Lethem in One Takes | 24 APR 15

Spread from The Lost Rolling Stones Photographs: The Bob Bonis Archive, 1964–66, 2010, edited by Larry Marion. Photographed by Martina Lang, 2015

You could write about this photo using facts, proper nouns. James Brown and the Rolling Stones – Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones. You might be able to pin it to a time and place. It’s enormously tempting to believe this is a backstage shot from the filming of The T.A.M.I. Show in 1964, a simulated-live television concert spectacle at which Brown and the Stones performed, along with the Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye, Lesley Gore and others. The legend goes that Brown was so incensed at his placement as the penultimate act, before the show-closing Stones, that he vowed a performance impossible to follow. The concert footage seems to vindicate this story: Brown is incendiary; the Stones look like chagrined adolescents by comparison. We – you, me – may choose in this case to believe the legend. Let’s do.

So, was this photo taken before? After? Are the Stones petitioning mercy? Leaning in to absorb some of their idol’s magic, but too late to inoculate themselves against humiliation? Concocting the good legend together, to propagate for decades to follow? But what if this isn’t that show, but something a bit later? Why not leave names and dates behind? Consider this as a photo­graph of Prince Hamlet meeting with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The romantic melancholic, the high modernist Tyranno­saurus Rex, faced with the pragmatism and irony of the postmodern rodents come to steal eggs from his nest. Some critic, I’ve forgotten who, said the British Invasion bands stood in relation to the American rhythm and blues as Jean-Luc Godard did to the Hollywood film noir tradition, ready to inject it with self-conscious formal wit, to replace its passionate immediacy with canny reserve.

You could simply view the photograph as an essay in men using chairs. A self-appointed American king among rabble, oblivious to the cheap claptrap quality of the backstage folding chair, recumbent, as in a throne. The world will be his castle, and men will serve him, for as long as he lives. That’s why The T.A.M.I. Show anecdote exists: to prove that no one eats the king’s lunch. The Brits, the slumming high-born, are instead seated backwards, exposing the chairs as flimsy props, emphasizing their provisionality. Emphasizing the use-value in everything, including this encounter. They’ll marry supermodels.

Between them – and, for me, the subject of deepest mystery in this photograph – stands Jones, the golden dandy. He situates himself between his eager, feral bandmates and the sprawling ebony god, as if he wants to split the romantic/mannerist difference in himself. There’s no chair right for him, and so he must die.

is the author of  Dissident Gardens (2013) and eight other novels. His story collection, Lucky Alan and Other Stories, was published in February 2015.