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.
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 23 May 2016
Nile Rodgers is a legend. It's amazing he's still with us, given the substance abuse and childhood surrounded by junkies and violent criminals. The book covers his childhood and formative influences up to his twenties really well. I think there's a fair bit missing of his later career after producing Madonna's Like A Virgin album. Although Nile denies the drink, drug excess affected his recall, I think it must have. Either that, or he was leaving stuff out for brevity or protecting some people. Other than that, it's brilliant and amazing he's still here and seemingly so well adjusted. Nile, you rock, man!
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.
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 19 November 2011
Le Freak is the story of a survivor, one that details a difficult and sometimes dangerous childhood, an adulthood dominated by fabulous success, sex and drugs. But we only get half the story as Rodgers chooses to concentrate on anecdote and not relationships: we get lots of little stories about how he did this and did that, who he did, what drugs he did, etc. While the book encompasses the arc of his life he's not a master storyteller by any means, and much of it feels patched together and heavily edited. We get shadowy depictions of his major successes and conquests with little reflection, and as the reader moves from incident to incident you begin to ask "what's the point?" At many moments Le Freak reads like an obligatory public confessional, something dished out to fans who'd like a bit of titillation and shades of schadenfreude.
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!!!
Put on your red shoes and dance the blues...
To the songs they're playin' on the radio"
***** ****** ********
It seems like a lifetime ago when, barely a teenager, I heard the melodic "a[...] out!" in my bedroom while doing my homework. It would be an excuse to take a break and dance to a music that was now blaring out at many levels higher.
Chic--a quintet (at its pinnacle)--consisted of production team Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards. LE FREAK is Rodgers' life story from his formative years in the ghettos of NYC and Los Angeles to his life as a vagabond in Manhattan's "Hell's Kitchen" to his venture into music culminating with his life as one of the music industry's most successful producers.
Rodgers' story is a 300-page tell-all that is, at times, equal parts journey into the underbelly of illicit drugs, unstable home life and extreme poverty and, on the other hand, to the material fortunes and the clandestine soirees of hedonism that come with producing and selling millions of albums for himself and others. But, this is not your typical memoir by any stretch. Nor, is it a typical tell-all, confessional drawn from a contrite soul who lived a life without any concern for consequences.
**** ******* *******
Rodgers life starts out tragic: a family member, the most secured male figure in his life has just passed away and the family is rushing to celebrate Thanksgiving dinner with him one last time before they finally say goodbye.
Thanksgiving dinner is of particular importance to the Rodgers family because it is the time when individuals feel free to expose their deepest secrets. And, over the course of the first 100 pages, we're treated to an explicit account of growing up in a drug-infested home of his mother "Beverly" and her primary paramour, Bobby. His grandmothers, his sibling and a host of guests who frequent their home to partake of various hard-core drugs and binges. Along the way, we'll meet his father and the incident that Rodgers contributes to the emotional breakdown of the man who gave him his musical gift.
To make matters worse, there were frequent cross-country relocation trips that only did nothing more than to show that the ghetto life of NYC mirrored the ghetto life in Los Angeles. The bright spot for me was the relative stability of Rodgers' grandmothers who, for the most part, gave him some semblance of what a normal family life could be. But, those moments were always temporary.
Rodgers would eventually and permanently stay in NYC where he'd run away at 16 and live like a vagabond. Those lonely train rides led him to a commune and to a sub-sub culture where various elements and "revolutionaries" informed his inquiring mind. At this time, Rodgers found himself playing the guitar for change and through a friend would get hired playing music for the television show, Sesame Street.
Sesame Street led to The Apollo Theater and before long he and fellow journeyman musician Bernard Edwards became session players often contracting and working alongside studio singers like Luther Vandross. (I was surprised to learn that most of Chic's hit singles had Vandross singing on them.)
Rodgers and Edwards created Chic and the stories about how the hit songs came to be are quite amusing to say the least.
The stretch of hit singles came to an end when a disgruntled d.j, whom lost his job at a station that had just changed formats to accommodate the disco craze provoke a riot at a baseball stadium. Rodgers felt that Chic was fairly singled out as the problem why rock bands weren't being heard by their audience. All of sudden, Top 40 radio as well as industry parties began to distance themselves from anything remotely sounding like disco and the Chic-sound.
In the end, a disbanded Chic left Rodgers and Edwards producing other acts, most notably Diana Ross.
Diana Ross owed Motown one last record and Motown executive Suzanne de Passe was charged with the task of making this product as successful as possible. It was at Chic's last concert in Santa Monica and just after finishing their last (and #1) song, "Good Times" when the band raced back to the dressing room. de Passe walked to their dressing room and casually introduces Miss Ross who was in attendance that night. She felt that the two men could give Ross the album that would change Ross' fortunes.
The album that Rodgers and Edwards would eventually produce for Ross (and would become, coincidentally, her biggest success) had everything to do with the inspiration Rodgers would have because of his penchant for gay clubs and the gay culture.
This is not a spurious point. Throughout his telling of Chic, and subsequently his own personal success as a producer, Rodgers' would casually bring up that he was here and he was there for reasons unspoken and he tells of quite a few lurid stories of himself in peculiar situations and yet spends an excessive amount of time afterwards reminding us of his voracious appetites for women. The most striking being how Mr. Rodgers finds himself perusing gay clubs in the early 80's and in one place he's surrounded by Diana Ross-looking transvestites in a men's bathroom yet to feel compelled to tell the reader a few pages later of a moment where he was insulted when he was propositioned by a famous personality (whom he doesn't name) and her husband. After these moments, Rodgers would again tell us how he did this drug and how he did this woman at this place.
This bringing up, seemingly, inconsequential moments followed by blunt recounts of female conquest begs the question, What's your point? The point of sex, drugs and rock n roll was made and repeated literally dozens of times before then.
All of this notwithstanding, the biggest success for Rodgers and Edwards came after the success of Ross' record. For Edwards, the highpoint was Robert Palmer. For Rodgers, it was David Bowie and Madonna. Two people, we'd read, that Rodgers wouldn't have the most cordial of recollections of afterwards, despite the monumental success together.
But, a life-altering moment comes one morning after a long night of binging. He stumbled into his building and pressed the 14th floor button although he lived on the 28th. On the way up, his heart stopped. His limp body fell against the elevator doors which opened on to a floor that just happened to have a janitor waiting right there to go down.
There's a little bit more to Rodgers story including the death of his partner Edwards in Japan after Rodgers received a coveted "Producer of The Year" award. And, sadly, Rodgers admission that he's suffering from cancer.
****** ******** ********
I've always loved Chic's music. Still do. And, discovering that a founding member was writing a memoir about this time thrilled me. But, I'm less than impressed with him. Not because of upbringing. Not because of his success. Not because of his promiscuous lifestyle (we all have our less than flattering moments that we're ashamed of) but one of intent.
Is Rodgers confused about the music scene or is he deliberately obscuring details. Remember, this was the early 80's not the 2nd decade of the new millennium.
There are two different ways to tell of the success of disco and the demise of disco/ ascension of rap-hip hop music. One, as Rodgers insinuates was a conflation of music that was popular with a broad cross section of "urban" listeners that splintered after the backlash. And, the other was which was how I remembered it growing up in NY at the time.
In that time during the late 70's early 80's, you had the urban audience which was primarily (East Coast) black and Puerto Rican youth. This was WBLS and eventually WKRS (KISS FM) and you're talking straight R&B: Chic, Sister Sledge, Teddy Pendegrass, LTD, Donna Summer, Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind and Fire, Stephanie Mills, The Commodores. Every once and awhile you may hear a song by the Bee Gees but not often. Groups like The Four Tops, The Temptation and The Spinners were just fading from their heydays. When there were parties or events, you went to places like The Roxy, The Funhouse and later, The Disco Fever up in The Bronx.
Now, to be sure, many of these artists had cross-over success. So, they'd have different audiences buying their music with no interest to artists who played similar music. This was why, for example, you'd hear Stevie Wonder's music on rock radio, for a time. Or, you'd hear Van Halen's "Jump" on black radio.
Then you what they called "Club Music." (In The 90's, it would be called, "House Music.") This was not rock, but it wasn't pop either. It was fast, dance music mixed with lyrics from that you could dance to and much of it was European imported. The only station in New York that catered to Club music was WKTU and a d.j. by the name of "Paco." But, you rarely heard of those groups that did "Club" music outside of being played on KTU unless you went to one of those clubs. One of the few that came from that environment were people like Madonna, The System, Colonel Abrams but they "crossed" over to urban radio. It was the music and not necessarily the lyrics that were most important. It was here that you'd find a less "urban" crowd, more racially diverse, but definitely less "urban" as they'd say. You also had a sub- culture which was the place where gays hung out: Studio 54, Paradise Garage, etc. In those days, you chose where you hung out. So, there was no mistaking where you were and what your intentions were. And, Rodgers says that things were going on around him but doesn't say exactly why he's there despite the fact that he would bring up these moments with no point to make. And, he happens to be there at the earliest parts of the morning. Go figure.
Now, I would take titillating and maybe even salacious if it warrant it over pretention any day. But, my predilection for honesty doesn't mean that I should be asked to accept everything that's said. That is to say, you've gone to the trouble to spend the 1st hundred pages talking about most of the important people around you who've been in some way connected to the most dangerous of illegal drugs only to insinuate that because of this you were somehow destined to immerse yourself in this habit.
I marveled at his ability to be an independent thinker throughout the course of his life but have been scratching my head at the suggestion that he is somehow weak-minded when it come to illicit activities.
Many years later, after the Chic disbands and after the successful production of Madonna and Bowie, Rodgers writes, "Part of my problem may have been the company I was keeping. The after-hours scene, once the height of glamour was no longer exciting to me. And, though the drugs flowed like river, I could never get enough. Consequently, I started hanging out with more people in the drug trade." I'm not quite following the logic. This doesn't sound like a grown man. You choose the company you keep. You don't have to keep anyone's company, you're independently wealthy and successful.
There were also things he brought up and then left hanging such as his relationship with Oprah. He said that Oprah referred to him as her "younger brother, " although he was older. But then, abruptly said Oprah wasn't interested in his friendship anymore. Why? What would make her feel this way?
What happened between him and Madonna (and we're not talking about his showing up and doing a coke line with Mickey Rouke in her bathroom) but just after he completed work on her second album, "Like A Virgin"? Why wasn't he offered a gig to do a follow-up?
David Bowie refused to acknowledge his contribution to Bowie's "Let Dance" album in subsequent press interviews. Why? Even after so many years and many more album produced by others, why was Rodgers snubbed on the accolades due to him?
There's more to this than he stating.
But, all in all, LE FREAK is a fascinating and sometimes heart-wrenching read about a man (and a group of people) who believed their music could change the world.
And, in some small way, it did.