R.I.P. Chuck

The news that Chuck Brown has passed away probably shouldn’t take me by surprise. After all, the man was 75 years old. And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that something deeply wrong has happened. Mr. Brown was an institution—how can an institution die? It is impossible to talk about Chuck Brown without talking about the city of Washington, DC, a city whose character he helped define for half a century. Of course, I am no great expert on either Chuck Brown or DC. I grew up in the suburbs, and the DC I knew was that of the institutions of power. For most of my youth, Washington sojourns were limited to museums and monuments. My Washington and Brown’s Washington were very different places. And yet not so much.

When I became something of a music buff at the tail end of my adolescence, I was of course introduced to the go-go genre and the music of its primary progenitor. You can’t read the Washington Post Style section for a decade without picking up a few things about Chuck Brown. Yet until recently, my exposure to Chuck Brown’s music was limited to a woefully inadequate single-disc compilation and his excellent collaboration with great local chanteuse Eva Cassidy (RIP). That changed in 2010, when I attended Summer Spirit Festival at the Merriweather Post Pavilion. Chuck Brown performed about halfway through the show, and calling it a memorable experience would be a laughable understatement. Here’s what I wrote back then on this very blog: 

Despite having lived in the greater DC metropolitan area for my entire life, I have never been to a go-go concert.  And after the epic show that Chuck Brown put on, this may be my greatest regret.  I know Chuck’s reputation, of course, so I shouldn’t have been at all surprised by the awesomeness of his performance, but the gulf between hearing about him and seeing him live is even more vast than I had imagined.

The communal spirit and raw energy that pulsed through the venue as he performed was something unlike that which I had ever experienced. As soon as Chuck started playing, everyone on the lawn got up and began dancing and shouting along with the music. This was no ordinary concert sing-a-long: go-go is party music, and wherever go-go is played, a party breaks out. As a sheltered Jewish kid unused to such joyful public expressiveness, I was taken aback and unsure of how to respond. But after a couple of minutes, I got up and started dancing too, shaking my arrhythmic ass all over the place. I was completely out of my depth: white and suburban and uneducated in the subtleties of go-go chanting. But the people around me, overwhelmingly black and urban, showed me some of the dance moves and taught me the lyrics. Their sheer pleasure in the music of Chuck Brown was infectious—I couldn’t help but feel unrestrained happiness myself. I recognize that my experience suggests all sorts of cliches about exoticization or cultural appropriation, especially where Jewish-kids-listening-to-black-music is concerned, but that does not make the time I had any less amazing.

I was lucky enough to see Chuck Brown two more times, both last summer: once at a free benefit for DC statehood held on the Capitol Lawn, and then at his 75th birthday party concert held at the 9:30 Club. At each event, when Chuck began to play, the crowd immediately responded by standing up and gettin’ down, with more joy than I have ever seen at a show. Although in a sense I have no choice but to come to the music of Chuck Brown as an outsider, the beauty of that music is in the way it brings people together in spite of their different backgrounds, uniting them in a rapturous celebration of life with all its funky complexity. I will not pretend to be some go-go aficionado—those three Chuck Brown gigs remain the only times I have seen go-go music performed live. But the gift that Chuck Brown gave me is the same gift that he gave everyone who heard him play: the gift of pure, unencumbered happiness. And for that, I will always be grateful.

Goodbye, Chuck. If there is a God, I have no doubt that when he sees you, he’ll just smile and shout, “Wind me up, Chuck!” And you will.

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