A Belated Remembrance: THERON “THEE RAM JAM” BRISON (1963 - 2011)
While reading The New York Times Magazine's always excellent The Lives They Lived issue last week, it occurred to me that I should finally publish the piece on Theron Brison that I wrote for the 2011 edition. The story was commissioned by NPR’s This American Life, which was guest-editing the issue and looking for lesser-known subjects. TAL's role in the final product was scaled back, and as a result, my piece on Brison was cut. Here is the story, with slight updates to the intro to reflect events that have occurred since I first reported it:
B. 1963 | By Mark Yarm
During off-hours from his job as a drug counselor at the MFI Recovery Center in San Jacinto, California, Theron Brison favored a simple uniform of blue jeans and a black T-shirt. (He believed the black shirt helped camouflage his belly.) That is, unless he was playing as Thee Ram Jam, a funk bassist from the planet Rama-Jam, in which case he took the stage in platform boots and an ornate three-quarter-length jacket, his face hidden behind a horned, gilded mask. Thee Ram’s earthly identity remained a secret to the wider world for years, until his friend and collaborator, former Parliament-Funkadelic bassist Bootsy Collins, broke the news of the 48-year-old Brison’s passing on Facebook. In the early hours of Oct. 14, 2011, Brison was found dead at the recovery center, where he had touched hundreds of patients’ lives over the course of 15 years. A pair of men, one a former coworker of Brison’s, stand accused of robbing and murdering him. The following are the recollections of two people who got to know Brison, in very different capacities:
Bootsy Collins, bassist and former Parliament-Funkadelic member: It was 2004 or 2005 at the NAMM show, where all the musical-equipment people come to show off their new gear. That year I had a new bass coming out, a new star [shaped] bass, made by Traben. I had seen a picture of it, but I hadn’t actually played it, so I went over to the Traben booth and I asked them, “Where’s the bass?” They said, “There’s a guy back in the room, he’s trying it out for you.” So they took me around, and Theron was in there playing the star bass. When I walked in, he began to stop. And I was like, “Oh no, don’t stop!” He was smooth with it, he was funky, and I was excited. He had my brand-new bass and I had never touched it, but I was getting off on him playing it. He didn’t sound like just another bass player. It was one of those moments that you can never grab back. It was magical. And I knew he was a friend.
I knew about him working with the drug addicts, but I never knew how deep it was. He never really shared that part of his life. I think it was a relief for him to get away from that, and just talk music and be all about music with me.
I felt like he would be more marketable if we had something that wasn’t your normal, average “Here’s another bass player.” He looked normal, but I could tell by his playing and his rhythm that he wasn’t a normal guy. That’s probably why I directed him to take it to outer space, because he was out there anyway. I told him to pick a few masks. This was around 2009, end of ‘08. He went to this one place in Riverside, and he called me and said, “I got it! I got it!” He found the perfect mask. I mean, it was wicked! It was scary, but not the scary that scares you. It’s a gentle scary. When you saw it, it was like, I wanna hear whatever he got to say. But [the character] didn’t talk, so whatever he had to say was with the bass.
It’s like when Superman went in the telephone booth and put that cape on, he become that which he really is. He got the confidence, and he goes and does his thing. And that’s what Thee Ram did. When he put that mask on, he changed, and it was for the betterment of him. He got a chance to really express what was inside, and he didn’t have to hide anything. He just brought it all the way out, and it was great.