Take Me to the River
Rock & Roll Books
The Brothers Neville: An Autobiographyby Art, Aaron, Charles, and Cyril Neville and David Ritz
Little, Brown & Co., 352 pp., $24.95
When the Neville Brothers chose Uptown Rulin' as the title for their last album, few could disagree. The Brothers cast a long and badass shadow in their hometown of New Orleans, where their red-hot blend of soul, funk, and R&B has ruled the musical roost for the better part of two decades. Their history, of course, goes back much further than that -- a heavily Neville "Mardi Gras Mambo" first hit New Orleans in 1956 -- and the roots go deeper still. Over the past 50 years, the Nevilles have progressed from young cats to established vets to living history.
The autobiography itself is not so much straight narrative as scattered reminiscence -- a collection of old memories, told in the first person and assembled by the unofficial biographer of soul, David Ritz. The patchwork format -- which can jump from brother to brother twice in the same story, twice on the same page -- is distracting at first, but in time the book hits its stride, and when it does, it becomes a sensational ride. In addition to the obligatory discussions of musical influences, band rosters, and record deals, The Brothers Neville explores the murkier side of the brothers' lives. Put it this way: If New Orleans is the city of sin, the Neville Brothers double-dipped. Those tales -- a blacker, harder version of the wine, women, and song of yore -- are told with honesty, intelligence, and grit, and they are the heart of The Brothers Neville. Even the index is telling. After proper nouns, the four longest entries are for drugs, crime, racism, and funk -- about as good a four-word summary of the Neville story as you're likely to get. To wit:
Drugs: All four brothers were addicted to hard drugs at one time or another, and those drugs wreaked predictable hell on their collective lives. While acid, cocaine, and morphine make guest appearances, the dependably destructive villain here is heroin, and plenty of it. The highs were high, the lows low, and the years unforgiving. Charles spent 29 years addicted to heroin; Aaron and Cyril slightly less; Art chose coke. All saw depression and despair, although only Charles stood on his back porch with a loaded shotgun in his mouth, ready to end the addiction once and for all.
Crime: The brothers were either victims, perps, or witnesses to a startling array of crimes from murder to mayhem to general thuggery. They dabbled in burglary, assault, fraud, dope dealing, bail jumping, and O.G. pimpin' -- a potential rap sheet long enough to make it both startling and ironic that the brothers' longest stretch of prison time -- three-and-a-half years in Angola -- was dealt to Charles for the possession of two marijuana joints. Charles summarizes Louisiana's infamous Angola State Penitentiary as a place of "mistrust and murder, where fear runs rampant and hatred among men ... is so commonplace that you forget the world runs on anything but smoldering resentment and vicious anger."
Racism: Growing up in the projects of a racially divided New Orleans, the Nevilles and their loved ones felt the long arm of violent racism as a constant presence, and The Brothers Neville details the intimidation, beatings, and torture that were a part of everyday life in black New Orleans, as often as not from the hands of the New Orleans police. "The famous quote that I'd hear from my parents and aunts and uncle," Cyril recalls, "was, 'Never run from the police, even if they tell you to, or you'll wind up with two warning shots in the back of your head.'" The daily taste of racism gave all of the brothers something of a fuck-the-system nonchalance, but it turned Cyril radical; his racial anger seethes throughout the book.
Funk: Through it all, the brothers maintained an undeniable funk, a heart-rattlin', bone-shakin', deep-down-in-the-pocket groove that took the classic sounds of New Orleans and put them on the grill to spit, smolder, and smoke. Although the Neville Brothers per se weren't formed until 1977, the brothers Neville spent years building steam with the Hawketts, the Neville Sounds, Soul Machine, and the Meters. That music, and the brothers' unstoppable drive to make it happen, is the thread that ties the book together and, more importantly, kept the Nevilles themselves from heading straight to hell or Angola or both.
The Brothers Neville is, then, one helluva ride. It is not seamless -- the four-narrator format leads to some confusion over chronology and can leave the reader flipping pages to recall just who said what. Still, Ritz does an admirable job with the stitching, and The Brothers Neville holds together, four stories told as one, a skilled weaving in which each character contributes to the whole yet still emerges as vital and distinct.