It was an unusually warm and humid day, though summer hadn't even started yet. Despite the heat, a thousand people or so stood there, in an empty parking lot in Cincinnati, waiting for James Brown to walk onto a stage that had been hastily built onto the back of a tractor trailer. Cops lined the stage, some in riot gear, as politicians and local TV cameras stood by. What all this amounted to was an entire city asking lighting to strike a second time, right where they wanted it to (an empty parking lot), and exactly when they had asked for it (1pm on a Saturday). Brown's performance in Cincinnati had been prompted by days of rioting and the city-wide curfew which had been enacted as a result. The reason for the rioting was the killing of a black teenager named Timothy Thomas, along with recent cases of police brutality, including the death of a mentally disabled teen.
As rioting continued, and police were shot at by angry crowds, city council decided to have James Brown perform in the city, in an effort to have him do what he'd done in Boston in 1968. It was there, after Martin Luther King was assassinated, that he managed to single-handedly "keep the peace by the sheer force of his music and his personal charisma" while performing to a sold out crowd after days of rioting (later prompting the aptly named documentary The Night James Brown Saved Boston).
But 33 years had passed since that historic night in April, 1968. We weren't at the Boston Garden, but a pay-lot in downtown Cincinnati in sweltering, mid-day heat. And James Brown was more than an hour late.
Suddenly, a white limousine pulled up in the street next to the parking lot. A small entourage exited, and made it's way to the stage. The crowd grew excited, as the entourage parted, and from within came the short and plump figure of a 68 year old James Brown. He was dressed in a tight jumpsuit made out of a shiny purple fabric seldom found outside the realm of liturgical vestments or 1980s prom dresses. None of us were expecting a young James Brown, the kind who wore capes and whose fiery stage antics had made him a legend. But we weren't expecting what we saw either. In a sing-songy tone, one audience member behind me muttered. "I love you, and you love me!" A reference to Barney, the popular children's TV show, and Brown's striking resemblance to the large purple dinosaur due to his corpulent physique and purple jumpsuit.
Some giggled, but most hoped that Brown, despite his age, size and outfit choice, would put on the type of show he'd become legendary for. That, after all, was the reason why many of us had come.
As Brown made his way to the center of the stage, a loud hiss came out of the PA system. It became apparent that despite the instruments on stage, Brown would not be using a live band. Instead, a cassette backing track was being played for him to sing over. As it turned out, it wasn't even a backing track, it was just a recording of an alternate version of Don't Be A Dropout, with his vocal track still very much in place. Brown stood on stage, singing over his own track, as his live singing barely overpowered the recording. Once or twice during the performance, he shifted his feet around a bit, a reference to the dance movies he was once known for. It seemed like he was phoning it in. But more than likely, it was all he had in him by that point in his life.
The song ended, and the hiss from the tape ended, leaving Brown to say a few words about his history with King Records. And that was it. He walked off stage, and walked back into the white limousine with his entourage. In all, he was on stage for perhaps four minutes.
The audience was in disbelief. It was hard to process what we had just seen. Some began to wonder how much the city had paid him to come to sing along to an old cassette of one his lesser-known songs.
It was clear that we'd seen an amazing performer in the twilight of his career. Not just musically, but in a larger sense, since he was unfairly being compared to the version of himself that had single-handedly stopped Boston from destroying itself that one night in 1968. The crowd grew angry. Some began screaming insults at the city, its police department, and James Brown himself.
Today, as I look back, I can't help but see a certain unexpected beauty and humanity to whatever it was I saw that day, particularly when I think about it within the context of sport. I saw a fading star, a shadow of a former self. But also a clear reminder of why certain performances are so rare and special when these very same individuals are at their peak. Seeing the latter half of the bell curve helps us put into context how great their peaks were, and how fragile the humans who were capable of them truly are. In a way (if you'll forgive me for connecting some dots here), the same is true in cycling. As a new season gets under way, many are looking to the new rising stars. They want to see what they are capable of, and what great performances and wins they'll manage to string together this year.
Me? I'm looking around the edges, at the great riders who are fading. They sometimes go in spectacular style, while sometimes fading away unceremoniously, but no less beautifully. Like Dirk Dewolf pushing Laurent Fignon through traffic so the Gatorade team leader could finish a stage at the 1992 Giro (see below). Or Indurain riding his bike into the two-star Hotel Capitan during the 1996 Vuelta a España, thus more or less ending his career in about as unspectacular of a place as one can imagine (also see below).
But in doing so, they reminded us of what made their triumphs as impressive as they were. It was their humanity, and their frailty (and yes, in many cases some other stuff as well). And as they begin to fade, both are clearly laid out for us to see in a rare, but beautiful display.
I'll be traveling for the next ten days, and will likely not be able to post as a result.
Equipo, the bike touring company who kindly sponsors this blog just produced a video about their services, and the team-like quality of their tours. Check it out, and visit their site if you've ever wondered about riding in Colombia.