NOVEMBER 5, 2014
THERE’S NO LOGICAL REASON Rick James should have lived as long as he did. That he didn’t die in prison, overdose on crack, commit suicide, or get shot by a jealous husband or lover is a secular kind of miracle. Instead, he kept on living. And the life he lived, 56 years of it, makes for a preposterously peripatetic picaresque of squalor, madness, success, obscenity, heartbreak, fortune, and fame. The tale is now told in Glow: The Autobiography of Rick James, which has been shepherded posthumously into print by the biographer David Ritz, who conducted the interviews on which the book is based and who has performed a similar role on behalf of Ray Charles and Smokey Robinson.
By the end of his life in 2004, James was a long-running joke. Chappelle’s Show had kept the joke alive with its “True Hollywood Stories” segments, Charlie Murphy telling tales of James’s spaced-out antics — often violent, always obnoxious and arrogant — from back when Charlie and his brother, Eddie, were running around with James in the rarefied world of 1980s backstage excess. Dave Chappelle would play James in the reenactments while Murphy did the narration. But the whole conceit could never have cohered without the cooperation of James himself, whose talking-head interview segments about the events in question always produced some of the deepest laughs, while showing that James himself was in on the joke.
If it’s true that no one has done more to earn his ridicule than Rick James, it’s also true that no one has done more to earn his renown. The music he made in that murky musical period where the ’70s became the ’80s is one of that era’s outstanding bold strokes of excellence. He kept the funk alive with those songs — “Super Freak,” “Mary Jane,” “Ghetto Life,” “Give it to Me Baby” — at a time when nobody else could be bothered. George Clinton had checked out along with all the other 1970s powerhouses, and Prince’s own developing brand of funk lacked the spirit of those thick, rich sounds that had come before. This is what James gave to music.
He did it with exuberant abandon — that was the lifestyle as well as the musical style. This period of heedless hedonism culminated in 1993, when James and Tanya Hijazi, mother of his son Tazman, went to trial for kidnapping, raping, beating, and burning with a crack pipe one Frances Alley. James claims he was set up, and his explanation seems at least plausible. But that doesn’t explain why he assaulted a different woman while out on bail (the music executive Mary Sauger). After James and Hijazi got out of prison, the two of them decided to get married, in part because “felons aren’t allowed to live together if either is on parole,” as James explains it here.
Knowing what we know about the very end of James’s life, it’s heartbreaking to read of his desire, earnestly expressed near the book’s conclusion, to not relapse into his old ways: “If I forget what the blow did to my brain, all I have to do is read the words that I have written here — my own horror story — to remember the pain and suffering. I don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past. I don’t want to lose the glow.” He repeated the mistakes of the past. He lost the glow. When doctors autopsied his body — dead from cardiac-, stroke-, and diabetes-related ailments — they found nine different drugs in his system, cocaine and methamphetamine among them.
This isn’t a simple story of rise-and-fall. There were so many rises and so many falls that if you charted them on a graph, it would look like an EKG gone haywire. Self-destructive as he was, James had an incredible instinct for survival, the falls and the rises both explained in that one contradiction. Those who impugn his legacy — those who belittle what he became once he reached the ultimate pinnacle — are ignorant of how much he had to endure to get there.
There was never a time when Rick James didn’t associate music with drugs and alcohol. When he was a kid in Buffalo, New York, his mom took him once to see Etta James — his father had already walked out on the family — and he remembers that “I saw that music — the power of Etta’s voice — made everyone happy. I saw that the music made everyone want to drink and smoke. And the drinking and smoking — the beer and wine, the cigarettes and the reefer — were all part of the music, part of that other world that Mom was showing me.”
By high school, street crime and doo-wop were his primary pursuits, along with sex and drugs, and James dropped out at 15, enlisting in the Navy Reserve to elude the draft. James started missing drill sessions with his reserve unit and ultimately went AWOL altogether, fleeing to Toronto. It was there that he formed a band called the Mynah Birds, which came to feature Neil Young on guitar. This was 1966, when Young was every bit as obscure as James still was. The Mynah Birds got signed to Motown, but a disgruntled ex-agent told the label about James’s fugitive status, after which Motown refused to sign them. “The FBI,” James writes, “had blanketed the music industry, waiting for me to make my next move. They had alerted every record company to contact them the minute I approached.”
His mother, for whom James had an obvious love and respect, advised him to come on home and face the music, and that’s what he did, doing a year’s time in a Navy brig (during which he actually escaped, briefly, before turning himself in yet again, extending his sentence). Once he was out, he returned to Motown and was hired as a staff writer. But his songs were getting no love, even though “I had both my feet in the future.” There was so little happening on the songwriting tip that James took up pimping — just like, he claims, “so many of the big-name men at Motown” — and even though “[a]t one point I had three or four bitches selling pussy,” he was too “lax” with his women, and ultimately “[p]imping was too inhuman for me.” On a trip to Canada, he was arrested once again, for a long-ago robbery that had James’s literal fingerprints all over it. He did some more time in prison, wishing they’d at least give him an instrument so he could practice and indulge his creativity; all the while, he longed for his lover, a woman he called Perfect, whose musical career was what had brought him back to Canada in the first place.
By the time James got out of prison, Motown’s future was in Los Angeles — they were about to make the move out of Detroit — and so maybe James’s was too. One of Motown’s most respected writers and producers, Norman Whitfield, advised that if he did go to California, he shouldn’t do so with Motown. James’s songs were still being ignored by Motown, so what made him think they’d get produced by the label out there in California, where they had all that talent to choose from? Whitfield was someone who respected James, and whom James had always respected in turn.
“Then what do I have to do?” James asked, but he knew the answer even before Whitfield gave it to him:
“Go west, young nigga.”
Rick James was so fabulously shameless in every facet of his life, it only makes sense that he would be shameless as a name-dropper, too. It should be noted that Glow isn’t simply a comedy or a tragedy, any more than it’s a story of success or failure. It’s all of those things, conveyed with a rueful, self-aware bluntness, by turns self-lacerating, -mocking, and -aggrandizing. Don’t forget that last one, because for all the many things the author of these pages is, disingenuously modest is not one of them. He knows perfectly well how great he was — he doesn’t need us to tell him — and, as with all great people, there were greats in his orbit.
In high school, he was classmates with Bob Lanier (a basketball Hall of Famer whose size 22s are the largest shoe ever worn in the NBA). ’Round about 17, he sat in one night with Thelonious Monk at the Royal Arms: “all my skills as a drummer […] validated by a simple nod from Monk.” “It was one thing to be able to sing like Ben E. King [another recent triumph]; it was another […] to play ‘Round Midnight’ and ‘Ruby, My Dear’ with Thelonious Monk.” When he first arrived in Toronto, a deserter of the US Navy, a trio of punks threatened him: “You ain’t one of them AWOL niggers, are you?” Just then, three other guys came rushing in to save him, knocking the punks out, and in true biopic fashion one of them apparently said: “I’m Pat McGraw. These are my friends Garth Hudson and Levon Helm. They’re musicians.”
“Later,” James writes, “I’d remember this encounter when Garth, Levon, and their colleagues Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel backed up Bob Dylan and later got famous as the Band.”
There are some other things from these early days. There’s hanging with Sal Mineo in New York in the back of a limousine, talking jazz and smoking grass. He really knew his bop, Sal did — he “was one hip cat.” We also get to see James on one of his early California sojourns take a trip to Disneyland with Jim Morrison, or try to, “but [we] were turned away ’cause our hippie threads were too far-out for white-bread Disney. Fuck Disney. We went to some dumpy bumper-car place and had a ball. The more I hung, the more I was digging L.A.”
One person he met down there early on was Jay Sebring. (It was his and Sebring’s shared girlfriend, in fact, whom James had been accompanying to Canada when he was arrested for that old robbery.) Sebring, of course, would be present at Sharon Tate’s the night the Manson family crashed the party. That’s one momentous happening James is happy he wasn’t present for. But the thing is: he almost was. He’d been invited, and his girlfriend, Seville, really wanted to make the scene, but “I’d gotten wasted the night before and couldn’t think about partying.”
And then there was that time Salvador Dalí drew James’s picture at a dinner party, but James had left the damn thing in his swim trunks when he hit the ocean the next morning.
No matter how many far-out stories James tells, I believe every one of them. The only Rick James story I’d have any trouble believing would be the kind that is sane or commonplace. And he’s funny, too, a world-class raconteur who gets the humor in there even when he’s not trying to. When Prince apologizes to both James and his mother — for rudely refusing an autograph, oblivious to who he was talking to — James “was a little disappointed [at the apology] ’cause I really did wanna kick his ass.” When he writes of mourning for his mother, he tells of a sexual predilection that, even after all we’ve read already by that point, somehow manages to shock: “[T]here was nothing to keep me from descending into the lowest level of hell. That meant orgies. That meant sadomasochism. That even meant bestiality.” He writes, too, of the contempt he had of sampling, but of how M.C. Hammer’s “use of ‘Super Freak’ in ‘U Can’t Touch This’ made me a shitload of money,” which “did wonders for my appreciation of sampling.”
David Ritz first met Rick James in the late ’70s when he was interviewing Marvin Gaye for an autobiography they were collaborating on. Gaye died before they could finish their work, but Ritz used that as an opportunity to write what still, almost 30 years later, has to be the most intimate biography of a musician ever published. He could have done something similar with his interviews and observations of James, and it might have been a better book than Glow, but, honestly, the book he’s given us is so lucid and candid and comprehensive, you don’t feel a better book is necessary. You feel you’ve been handed the complete story, completely told.
What Rick James risked, he risked in full knowledge of the hazards, all of the hazards. He was that rare being with the courage to be exactly who he was. And so he doesn’t deserve our pity, any more than he deserves our condescension. Charlie Murphy knew it; that’s why he was able to tell all those stories on Chappelle’s Show. Just because we might not be big enough to handle that kind of heat doesn’t mean Rick James isn’t. This is a guy who laid it all down a long time ago, reaching for the top and making it, getting so high up there, at his very highest, you couldn’t tell where Rick James ended and the sun began.