Monday, November 28, 2011

Bootsy Collins Deserves Better

The other night I saw something that initially thrilled, and then horrified me: I saw Bootsy Collins (Thrilled: Bootsy Collins is on TV!) in an Old Navy commercial (Horrified: Bootsy Collins is in an Old Navy commercial?!?)
The first reaction was genuine and from the heart, because I love Bootsy Collins. I love him so much I named my dog after him. I love him so much I named the second dog after Bootsy's brother Catfish in case people didn't get it the first time. (Also, she looks like a cat and smells like a fish.) Bootsy (the man, not the dog) is a crucial player in my favorite band ever: the original JB's, James Brown's backing band circa 1969-71. Bootsy played bass, Catfish played guitar.

Bootsy's bass lines were amazing, lethally danceable. "Sex Machine" is Bootsy. So are "Super Bad," "Soul Power," "Give It Up Or Turn It Loose," "Hot Pants," and "Talking Loud and Saying Nothing." Irresistable stuff. In my many years of bartending I have never seen it fail to make people dance.

My second reaction was reflexive: it's always sad to see people you respect as artists being shoehorned into lame product -- commercials, however you feel about commerce, are nearly always unfunny second-rate product, particularly celebrity endorsements -- because they need the money. (It's a lot worse when they don't need the money. Is Jimmy Fallon really doing commercials for a credit card at the exact moment everyone is figuring out that he has the best late-night show around? Really? The moment it becomes clear that you can hold your very lucrative job for as long as you want it, you take the sketchiest kind of endorsement ever? The credit card company in question once sent me a card I didn't ask for, which I promptly cut up and tossed in the trash; soon after, I got a bill for the activation fee on the card, which I didn't ask for, never used, and hadn't activated. But we're getting off topic.)
As product, the Old Navy commercial is not great. The premise is that Old Navy's new "Incrediboots" are in fact made by Bootsy! Great job, ad execs! Take the afternoon off! Obviously, Bootsy Collins is in an Old Navy commercial because he needs Old Navy's money, and I have no problem with him taking it. The ad is not (particularly) embarrassing or unflattering to him. It's very brightly lit and Bootsy does his cartoon voice shtick and Incrediboots can be had for $15 and nobody gets hurt. Still, it seems beneath him -- this guy is one of the all-time greats. After he and Catfish left the JB's they made a single as The Houseguests -- one of the great funk instrumentals ever.
Then they joined George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic, where Bootsy played on most of America Eats Its Young and then began to develop the cartoon voice/star glasses/space bass persona that we all recognize now, eventually leading Bootsy's Rubber Band dressed like a Martian and playing a star-shaped bass drenched in effects. He's stayed in that mode ever since, and somewhere along the way his look has evolved from "visiting alien" to "Ringmaster at circus sponsored by Jeri-Curl." I don't have any beef with that persona, it's clearly working for him, and I do like the space-bass records he made in the 70s and I dig the voice and everything. Everything he's done since leaving James has been great. It just hasn't been as great as what he did in James' band. For proof, I offer a performance of the JBs at the peak of their powers: 0:00-0:27 I also can't say enough about Bobby Byrd, James' stage lieutenant and an amazing solo artist (backed by James' band) in his own right. "Try It Again," "I Know You Got Soul," "Hot Pants" -- great stuff. Here he keeps the "get on up" ball in the air, and fields James' queries about whether or not they all may hit it, or quit it, or perhaps count it off with aplomb. 0:52 You can't miss Bootsy: he's the one in the middle that looks like Big Bird. He must be 6'7" or something. I'm sure the dance steps were mandated by the Godfather but he certainly puts his own swivel in it. He is standing between two drummers because James had a very interesting way of making abrupt tempo changes as a dance number suddenly downshifted into a ballad: He would have one drummer play the dance number and then have the second come in on the ballad, and trade off from song to song like that. 1:05 More bands should have one hot lady dancer on a five-foot platform. What happened to showmanship? 1:23 Bootsy and Catfish are doing the steps together. I love it. Notice here how the line Bootsy is playing is very simple, and never changes. Most anybody who could play at all could play it. But can they play it for eleven minutes? One of the great, underrated skills in music is the ability to play the same thing the same way for a long time without getting bored. This is where the Collins brothers truly excel. 2:25 On to "Soul Power," with a busier bass line but the same tempo. This song, even more than "Sex Machine," is like a class in the power of repetition in dance music. The genius of Bootsy's playing in this era was that he provided an ideal foundation for five or six other instruments to add syncopated parts, while keeping the heads bobbing. He's the focus of the whole band, but you have to concentrate to even notice him. By all accounts, the problem with being in James Brown's band was James Brown. I can understand why the '69 JBs never reunited -- they don't much care for their old boss as a person. But James is dead now, and most of these guys are still alive: Bootsy, Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker, Jabo Starks, Clyde Stubblefield... Catfish is gone, and so is Bobby Byrd, but I can't think of any show I'd rather see ever than a JBs reunion. Take Old Navy's money, Bootsy. You deserve it. I heard the restaurant you opened in your hometown of Cincinnati -- which my sister-in-law described as being like the inside of a pinball machine -- went under, so I'm sure you need it.  I just wish you didn't.


  1. Maybe I can get Bootsy to play my wedding? I should ask.

  2. If Bootsy plays your wedding, I'm either crashing it or working it.