A Letter to Charles Bradley

By Mike Nelson

22 December 2016
Mr. Charles Bradley
PO Box 296
Brooklyn, NY 11216

Mr. Bradley,

I have a story to tell you. It’s not the greatest story, and if you want to take a cynical look at it, it’s of little consequence in the grand scheme of life. That’s how stories tend to be most times anyway, seemingly inconsequential but for the entertainment they provide. This paragraph and the one that follows aren’t really part of the story, they’re just me framing the story in a way that I can both send it to you and have you understand what it is, and also publish it online and have the other “you” (the online reader) understand it just as well.

Maybe you’ll read this yourself, or maybe someone else will open this and share it with you wherever, and however, you may be. And maybe it’ll bring a smile to his or her face just as I hope it will yours. And that’s, in short, the whole reason I’m sharing it. I want it to make your day better. When I saw someone post your address and ask for hope to be sent your way, I took that as a call to arms, but I didn’t quite know what to say. And then it came to me.

I have to tell him about Ricky.

Ricky got to the festival late. It was the last weekend of May, so there was plenty of sunlight and warmth left in the day regardless of what time he arrived, but he was late nonetheless. Why was he late? Ask Ricky. My memory’s not good enough for that, and I didn’t bring my steno to City Hall Plaza that day. Ricky and his wife had a pair of tickets to Boston Calling, and she unfortunately fell ill and couldn’t make it. But Ricky came anyway, even though it was too late to see the best acts of the day. He had tickets. Why not?

Ricky and I were just acquaintances. I’d say after that day we were closer to friends, but leading up to it the only way we were connected was through Instagram. We didn’t even have each other’s phone numbers. When Ricky saw I was at the festival—the moment when I published of a picture of you, Mr. Bradley, on my account—it sparked a conversation on Instagram, and a phone number exchange, and that’s the glamor-less story of how Ricky and I met up at Boston Calling earlier this year.

Because of the low quality of my iPhone, my data, along with all my text messages, has been wiped out multiple times since the festival, otherwise I would go back and see the exact details of what time Ricky arrived, what I said about you, and a slew of other things that have little or nothing to do with this story. If I had to estimate, I’d say Ricky got to the festival either right before or right after Janelle Monae’s performance, which was obviously a spectacle, as it always is (this was my third time seeing her). All I really know about when Ricky arrived was that he was definitely there for the start of the closing act, Disclosure, who came on stage around 9:30 p.m.

Disclosure is a duo of DJs that apparently likes to get on stage and pretend like they’re playing instruments that contribute to the quality of the sounds the audience is hearing (they don’t). They’re DJs. They could just stand on stage and eat pistachios for 90 minutes, and it would sound exactly the same. But instead they sporadically thumped bass guitar strings and a miniature drum kit to give the audience the impression that they did not waste their money to see them (we did). I already had my money’s worth though because I saw Janelle, I saw Vince Staples, I saw you, Mr. Bradley, and I saw Unknown Mortal Orchestra. That was well worth the price of admission for me.

But Ricky couldn’t say that. Ricky missed the best stuff. I told him what it was like to see The Screaming Eagle of Soul—a man in his late 60s who was just now breaking through as a solo act and put every act around him to shame. A man who carries the essence of what it means to put on a performance in the core of his being, so you can never walk away disappointed. The voice, the energy, the moves, the passion—he lays it all out there, I told Ricky. And then, once Ricky was done kicking himself for missing your set, Mr. Bradley, I let him in on a little secret.

A bit later in the night—later than a normal concert time, but not so late that you could get there after the festival—Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires would be putting on another show. It was at The Sinclair, just across the Charles River in Cambridge, no more miles than you could count on your hand. I told Ricky this, and a twinkle in his eye suggested his mind was doing a bit more than just processing that information. He was trying to figure out what to do with it.

And so about two songs into the Disclosure performance, Ricky tapped me and told me he was leaving. He was coming to see you, Mr. Bradley. I not only understood why he was leaving, but I was jealous of Ricky in that moment. Now I was the one figuring out what experience I’d be missing. But I stood pat. Twice in one day was a bit much, I thought at the time. But of course today, knowing the show I stayed to see and imagining the show I missed, I regret that. Because a few hours later Ricky texted me, now that we had each other’s numbers, to say that you put on the greatest concert he had ever seen.

A few weeks back, maybe even a month ago now, I saw someone post through your Facebook account that you were accepting letters from fans while you fight stomach cancer. I don’t need to tell you or anyone else about the loss the music business has suffered this year, and I don’t need to tell you or anyone else how that has affected me, but I can tell you this, Mr. Bradley. In the brief moments when our paths have crossed, you have given me not just entertainment but an experience.

Everyone who has seen you perform knows what I mean, and I’m sure you know as well. You’re different. You’re the best kind of different. You are who you want to be on that stage, and you love it, and everyone can feel that you love it. And that makes you contagious. For a moment, for an hour, for however long the crowd is in your presence we are not just enjoying the show but jealous of the man we watch. And I can’t wait to see that again, on a stage somewhere, anywhere, in 2017. Neither can Ricky.

All my best,

Mike Nelson

Check out more from Mike Nelson on his blog Mostly America. Follow him on Twitter @MostlyAmerica

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