on 9 November 2011
The music of Nile Rogers was the soundtrack to my early adult years. I knew little of the man until I discovered the blog through which he has chronicled his fight with aggressive cancer over the past year.
Beginning with the recollections of a childhood from which few would have emerged unscathed, the narrative moves to Rodgers discovery of a passion and hard earned ability to make music. Influenced by the jazz that had always surrounded his life, he served a musical apprenticeship on Sesame Street before meeting his collaborative partner Bernard Edwards Together their band Chic filled dance floors around the world drawing on influences as diverse as Roxy Music and Kiss.
Chic were soon victims of the abrupt demise of disco but his talent was soon in demand once again on the other side of the mixing desk. An uncanny self belief and ability to distill the essence of popular music led to his first production taking Diana Ross back to the top of the charts and at this point his story and the story of 1980s popular music become one and the same. Working with the fledgling Madonna, a struggling Bowie and his wild nights of excess at Studio 54 are all described with an honesty and openness and which make this an essential read for anyone who wants to get close to one of the most influential musicians of the modern era.
I found Le Freak a compelling read: humorous, sometime shocking, but always engaging and uplifting.
As a postscript, I have been considering why I couldn't quite give five stars when I posted the review (I would have given four and a half if I could). I then heard a radio interview with Niles where he said the original draft was twice as long but his publisher had made him edit it down - The stories in the book are so well told that I am left wondering what gems could have been included in another 150 pages. I'll save the fifth star for the extended 'Nile Rodgers Remix' edition....
on 10 November 2011
Nile Rodgers (or `Pud' to his family) is a lucky man. Not in terms of his successful musical career as a songwriter and producer, or the long list of people he's worked with, but lucky in fact that he's lived to tell the tale, and what a story it is.
From the age of seven this New York native witnessed his parents injecting themselves on a daily basis, his constant asthma attacks, plus the fact that his mother was always leaving him with another relative, as he said himself "I felt I wasn't good enough to keep".
Add to this the fact that his grandmother was raped and became pregnant as a result; the school caretaker was abusing the children around him. To be a survivor he would have to look after himself, this included skipping school and befriending a wino who'd write sick notes for him. His father had being left at the altar by his mother, turning his dad into a bum on the streets and ironically Nile would run into him, as he says "not once, but twice, 10 years apart in a city of 8 million people".
Moving back to California (so his mother could shake her drug habit), Nile would start glue sniffing, lose his virginity, while his mother would be raped.
Despite all this, it was music he wanted to pursue, and getting that first guitar for Christmas changed everything. Once his mothers' boyfriend tuned it and he could play A Day In The Life, and he never looked back. As he says himself "I strummed and a perfect G-major chord rang out......then strummed an E minor and dropped to the seventh. There are no words to accurately describe what this felt like". This is why he ran away from home at 14, with his guitar, eventually joining the Sesame Street theatrical road show (a 70s version of Glee perhaps).
Not long after his dad died, Nile turned professional. His first band was the New World Rising. He jammed with Hendrix and found the last chord (their musical nirvana), played coffee commercials and played with Screaming Jay Hawkins at the Apollo (funny story).
While working as a session musician he would meet his soul-mate Bernard Edwards, and the rest as they say is CHIC-tory. Replicating Kiss's anonymity and Roxy Music's musical diversity, and ensuring every one of their songs had that D.H.M. (deep hidden meaning) they cleverly got studio team by paying an elevator operator 10 bucks to let them in when everyone was gone home.
But it's fascinating to hear their story from New Year's Eve 1977 when they failed to gain entry to a Grace Jones party. They went home pissed off, wrote their biggest hit `Le Freak' and 12 million copies, and 30 years later the doorman would facebook Nile to apologise for not letting him in. Who's laughing now?
On the success of that, Edwards would walked into a car showroom and asked "which one of these cars goes with a brown tie" and would eventually buy two, as Nile says "unbalancing their carefully styled showroom".
There are tonnes of these stories sprinkled between the cocaine habits that almost cost him his life on many occasions. There's the time he ended up in the same Emergency room as Andy Warhol, how he saw a famous female movie star being shagged in the balcony of Studio 54, Sister Sledge asking him to change the lyrics of `He's The Greatest Dancer', how Diana Ross blamed them for trying to ruin her career, (only months before that song would top the charts), what tattoo Bowie has on his lower leg, how Duran's record company didn't like `The Reflex' or why he walked out on Madonna, and wouldn't shag her.
Bowie wanted "hits" and Nile provided them, provoking Bowie to later credit him in a speech "Nile Rodgers, the only man who could make me start a song with a chorus" (Let's Dance). While success was everywhere for him, over 100 of his friends and associated were dying and in February 1991 he would have died himself, only he accidently pushed the wrong floor number in the lift. He's certainly used up most of those nine lives, and would go on to work with Michael Jackson (who revealed to him a year in advance that his marriage to Lisa-Marie was heading for the divorce courts) long before the media had a clue of it.
Thankfully he would be there when his great friend Bernard Edwards died in a Tokyo Hotel, but Nile insists that his family sit down every year for Thanksgiving and thrash out all these stories. This year it's Nile turn to discuss his recent cancer scare, and hopefully he'll be around for many years to come. This book is a fascinating and absorbing read from start to finish. Good times.
on 29 December 2011
I've just finished this. As one might expect from Nile Rodgers, it's a cut above the average autobiography. He doesn't come across as very likeable during his full-on hedonist phase, to be honest. There also remains the occasional narcissism, hero-worship and self-obsession that one often gets with celebrities. However, in contrast to that, he does come across as very loveable. You can see why so many people were drawn to him. I guess that there was much left out of this account of his life, but everyone is entitled to their secrets. One still gets a sense of honesty in his persistent attempt to provide balanced reflections on what was happening. I also admired his refusal to indulge in self-pity or point-scoring.
The cultural importance of the work of Nile Rodgers and his collaborators in Chic (chiefly Bernard Edwards, of course) has been given insufficient recognition. Rodgers is aware of this but he isn't bitter or resentful to any great degree. His generosity of spirit towards others, regardless of colour or any other aspect of culture or background, is a telling indicator of why he managed to achieve so much. It is also in stark contrast to the casual racism that he and Bernard Edwards had to deal with repeatedly over several decades. That they did so with grace and humour is a testament to their decency and maturity and contrasts with the small-mindedness of many of those they dealt with. Accusations of racism are sometimes bandied about too freely these days, but Rodgers' comments about the impact of racism on Chic's achievements in the field of dance music and music more generally strike me as restrained if anything. The 'Disco Sucks' movement was just the tip of a singularly ugly iceberg.
Talk of the maturity of Nile Rodgers might seem to jar with the excesses of his lifestyle. However, given the picaresque horrors of his childhood it's a miracle he managed to handle his stellar rise as well as he did for so long. His tales of adult drink, drugs and sex strike one as neither salacious nor boastful. This isn't writing as therapy, it is writing as witness. In some respects, his obvious flaws and weaknesses make his achievements as a musician and as a person seem even more admirable.
Rodgers is not a writer, so one shouldn't expect a literary masterpiece. However, his briskly factual approach, with its lack of melodrama, make for a good read. He also has an occasionally beautiful turn of phrase that doubtless draws on decades of lyric-writing. He is a highly-intelligent, thoughtful individual. He doesn't brag or boast about this. He doesn't need to.
on 18 September 2012
The best book I've read in ages. Just when you thought you'd heard about every blowout & excess that the Music Industry has to offer, Nile comes along with this tome & tops everything I've ever read just on the grounds of how early the debauchery started. In all seriousness I am amazed that Nile ever made it to his teens! Never mind the fact that he remained cognisant, skilled & prolific enough to arguably write, produce & perform some of the best & most memorable music of the whole disco era, but he also made many more waves beyond this period in his career as a music producer (David Bowie - Let's Dance album, Madonna - Like a Virgin album are probably the two most notable examples of his production work). Not merely a book about an amazing Musician, but more a book about an amazing life. Well worth a read simply on the strength of the mad antics of his dysfunctional family. BRILLIANT!!
on 16 October 2015
“You will hear a Nile Rodgers song today. It will make you happy…”
I was aware of Nile Rodgers from his Chic days (although slightly too young to catch the disco explosion, I caught up on it), then through his connections with Debbie Harry (he co-produced her “Koo Koo” album), David Bowie (I loved “Let’s Dance”) and finally INXS, with “Original Sin”. These career highlights, which might be enough for most producers, barely scratch the surface of Nile Gregory Rodgers’ creative life.
From his often harrowing beginnings - his 13-year-old Mum and stepfather were both bohemian junkies, he was asthmatic and shunted between relatives and institutions, often feeling unwanted and unloved - in the poorer neighbourhoods of New York (and later Los Angeles), with all that entailed, this doesn’t try to make sugar-coat anything and in leaving no stone unturned, it’s sometimes tough to read. His life was hard (the sequence with Bang Bang is particularly frightening) but a slowly developing love of music (fostered, ironically, by parents whose addictions took their abilities away from them) steered him from squalor (though he developed addictions early on), into hippie-dom, a stint in the Black Panthers and a gruelling circuit of gigging. About a third of the book details his childhood and teens (he has a very complicated family history) and then he meets Bernard Edwards, the two quickly becoming inseparable and incredibly supportive of each other. The Chic years (they take a while to make it) are dealt with much more briskly than I thought they would be, though with the bands story tied inextricably to the timeline of disco, Rodgers covers this time well (enjoying the excesses that were there, whilst being astonished that he was responsible for a significant part of it - the Rappers Delight business, for instance, is both amusing and surprising).
Unfortunately, as his career took off, so did his substance abuse and he deals with it frankly - he was at the centre of a musical movement, part of the inner circle of Studio 54 in the 70s (being turned away from the 1979 New Years Eve party with Edwards inspired them to write “Le Freak”) and more into the 80s. In fact, he perfectly captures a sense of the exuberance and excess of the early 80s because he was living it - even as a full-blown addict, he was a high performing one, with Chic, Bowie and Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” all being produced during his period.
Through all of this, his delight with show business - and the people he deals with - is almost palpable and he comes across as a genuinely nice bloke, secure enough in himself and his abilities to only take on work with people he likes and respects (whilst sharing partying and shopping adventures with them).
Following his recovery (inspired, no less, by Keith Richards), the timeline fragments and the story effectively ends in 1996 (the book was published in 2011) with the death of Bernard Edwards, which is very touchingly dealt with. The epilogue jumps ahead fourteen years with a curt “it’s been a busy decade”, encompassing his work with his “We Are Family” foundation and the fundraising around 9/11 that I would have liked to have read in more detail. The same with the admission that he has cancer (he’s recently, as I write this, been given the all-clear), it seems like an odd place to leave a work that is, essentially, about hope and the triumph of his spirit.
I really enjoyed this, an inspiring story of a natural performer who overcame the odds to make it big, re-invented his career after the ‘Disco Sucks’ debacle and lived life to the absolute full. Very much recommended.
This is one of the most uplifting books I have ever read.
Funny thing is, I don't believe it was written with a message in mind. It's the gripping biography of the unprivileged, skinny, asthmatic son of a 13 year old girl who left her husband-to-be at the altar because she wanted to live her own life. In the absence of his biological dad Nile Sr. (who drifts in and out of his son's life --and the book-- before succumbing to alcoholism), Nile Rodgers' father figure was a white junkie who worked in the garment district in New York. His mom dragged him to LA and back a couple times, had him sent off age 5 to a sanatorium for asthmatic children, left him a number of times with his two loving but not very vigilant grandmothers, did very little to prevent him from becoming a junkie himself and later in life became his largest supplier of drugs! She regardless emerges from this book as the true love of his life. Throughout this opus she remains the one constant.
That, and music. Because the boy had music. And brains. And a mission (shared with his musical partner Bernard) to discover the Deep Hidden Meaning.
And love for everybody he met.
Nile Rodgers has kind words for EVERYBODY in his autobiography. For his Chic partner Bernard Edwards with whom they traveled so far together, for Andy Warhol, with whom he shared an emergency room, for his grandmothers Goodie and Lenora, their boyfriends (one of whose was a convicted killer, while another gave him his biggest "high" ever when he tuned his first guitar), for his often not very well behaved siblings, for his mom Beverly, for her boyfriends and lovers, he even has good things to say for (yet another) convicted killer who raped his mother.
Aside from his mom, who gets it in spades, and his partner Bernard, adualtion is chiefly meted out to his idols like Diana Ross and David Bowie that he had the privilege to work for, but also to Michael Jackson, who sought his help at a difficult time, and Madonna, with whom he partied.
Ah, the partying. Must confess I don't exactly feel like my sense of partying and Nile Rodgers' have tons in common. He allegedly spent a few years of his life in a stall in the women's bathroom of Studio 54, meting out cocaine to all comers. But there's no denying that the guy did party hard.
The partying almost killed him, and you get the lowdown of how he battled his addiction and how he won, though that's not a big part of the book. This is chiefly a book about family and about music.
Lest we forget, Niles Rodgers gave us "Everybody Dance," "Le Freak," "Good Times," "We are Family," "He's the Greatest Dancer," "Upside Down," "I'm Coming Out," "Let's Dance," "China Girl," "Modern Love," "Wild Boys," "Notorious," "Like a Virgin," "Material Girl," "Love Shack," (I'll forgive him that one) and, of course, "Get Lucky."
There's nobody he hasn't worked with, basically.
Still, the thing I took away from this book, more than the music, more than the partying and more than the amazing story of what determination and talent can do for a young boy that grew up between two ghettos, was the endless optimism that has run through Nile Rodgers' life.
The last paragraph of the book tells us he's now fighting cancer. If anybody on earth can beat it, that will be Nile Rodgers!
on 31 December 2012
Nile Rodgers has never been (by his own admission) as famous as many of the big musical icons whose reputations he bolstered and in some cases saved but musical history will judge him a figure of the first rank all the same.
Chic, Sister Sledge, Diana Ross's comeback album, Bowie's comeback album, Madonna's launch album, Duran Duran's last good album; Rodgers was the guru behind all these and more. He changed disco, funk and perhaps even rap and helped them to infuse the music that came afterwards. As a black artist he marked himself out as cross-cultural and way ahead of most curves.
This is an intelligent, thoughtful book free of the egomania that you'd expect from a man with his extraordinary CV. He tires towards the end of his story, skipping years in a few sentences (hence four stars), but we'll forgive him that given how many drugs he claims to have downed. A well-composed and sometimes amusing read that was, bravely, penned by the man himself. It turns out he can write well too - is there anything this guy can't do?
on 18 September 2013
A brilliant and absorbing look at Chic, Nile Rodgers and the music industry in it's heyday. I would love to see an update/addendum to include the Daft a punk, post cancer period and (of course) the return of the mighty CHIC!!!
on 13 April 2016
Nile and his river of rhythm
Chaos and calamity surrounded the youthful years of Nile Rodgers. Nile was exposed to alternative and dangerous worlds that could have resulted in a short stint on planet earth. Nile Rodgers and his band Chic may be identified with the party anthem Good Times; but his path to a pop paradise was awash with mayhem and madness.
The paths of addiction and ambition meet head on in Nile Rodgers: Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco and Destiny (Little Brown Books); and an astonishing autobiography is unleashed.
Rodgers childhood was surrounded by beatniks with insatiable appetites for fast living. Teenage Nile fled a family nest that was more like a mobile home with an interchangeable cast and he took to busking. He later jammed with Jimi Hendrix, toured with the Sesame Street road show, and played with a variety of acts. However, a 70’s bond with Bernard Edwards (Nard) was the inspiration to mix up diverse influences (including Roxy Music and Kiss) and as a result Chic and the sharp end of disco rocketed. This success has led Nile to experience performance and production collaborations with the likes of: David Bowie, Madonna, Diana Ross, Sister Sledge, Michael Jackson, Prince, INXS, Bob Dylan, Bryan Ferry, Mick Jagger, Slash, Depeche Mode, The B52’s, Eric Clapton, Robert Plant, Elton John and Jeff Beck.
The Rodgers songbook is awash with his core requisite of DHM (Deep Hidden Meaning). Meanwhile, the absence of a DHM in his daily existence evidently troubled Nile as he sought escape via an abundance of alcohol and narcotics. Since 1994 Rodgers is proud that despite a long battle against his excessive demons he has come out on the other side of these trials and tribulations.
A contemporary Rodgers is just ‘grateful for the gift of life’ as he battles against cancer. The creation of music is still important to Nile, and there are fresh challenges via his We Are Family Foundation charity that has helped countless kids around the globe. There are also priceless fragments of the dysfunctional clan he has always adored to keep him busy, although probably not out of bother!?!
The Nile Rodgers tale encapsulates Adventures in the Land of Good Groove and also the flip side of fame and fortune! This absorbing text has Hollywood hit written all over it, and may the movie making begin soon!
on 5 July 2013
Well, what can I say. What hasn't Nile Rogdgers seen and been through in his life? It's a miracle that he survived all of this and I have no doubt considering some of the escapades he went through that his life was surely predestined. Had he not gone through everything we wouldn't have the man/the genius/the miracle worker we have today. I was stunned at his catalogue of music though I knew of him vaguely through listening to Chic, the Coming to America Soundtrack, Madonna and others. I had no idea that he and his long time friend and fellow music producer Bernard WERE Chic. As it turns out, he owns half my ipod! But his real genius is his groundedness, humour and self deprecating nature. Someone of greater pride and lesser character would surely have self-destructed much earlier. I don't even think he himself realizes what a gift he is and has. I'm glad that in this book he quietly celebrates his largely uncelebrated contribution to pop culture although doing so in an understated way. He talks about the significance of the jazz/funk AKA DISCO movement to those involved which I'd always known ituitively from loving disco and even loving the lyrics of some of the songs he wrote, which he explains were not coincidental.
Throughout all the trials and tribulations including real death experiences and near death experiences of family members, and every dysfunction under the sun from drug addiction, adoption, incestuous rapes, colourism, abandonment, and emotional neglect at the hand of care takers, Nile never gives the impression of feeling sorry for himself and the book is wildly entertaining and funny in places. There are a few very insightful mentions of some big name celebrities like Madonna, Michael Jackson, Eddie Murphy and Diana Ross which gave me a few "ah ha" moments. The only thing I would say is that the detached tone of a fictional writer he employs makes it hard to connect with the "man" and the "emotion" behind the narrative, especially when he describes very poignant moments like potentially having been sexually molested. However you can still piece together his experience through what he says.
In addition to being inspiring on a personal level, this book was an education. He outlines in concrete terms to me the racism of institutions which make money off a movement but squash it the moment the people who represent that movement threaten to become too powerful and influential in the industry. And then after quashing it continue to celebrate it ("dance" was a bad word he says until white America started doing it) and make money off of it by changing its name and face. Much of what is described as "New Wave" in the 80s with artists like Blondie, Duran Duran, and David Bowie has its roots and takes its inspiration from jazz/funk aka disco. Some songs even being directly inspired by Chic's song Good Times. So basically continuing the usual tradition of music beginning with Blues, continuing with Disco and now Hip Hop and Rnb. He described how they raked in the highest figures for his Atlantic record label with his multi-platinum sales from Chic yet the band were not accorded the basic honour of performing at Madison Square Garden along with other acts nor were they supported by their record company during the backlash to disco in 1980 which ended their career and which the record company itself inadvertently participated in. In short: music is political.Overall great, eye-opening read from a fellow bohemian introvert misfit.