[29 February 2012]
Nile Rodgers and Gil Scott-Heron aren’t typically listed in the top tier of ‘70s black pop auteurs, and that’s a shame. Together with partner-in-crime Bernard Edwards as the core of Chic, Rodgers brought elements of substance – distinctive musicianship, sharp arrangements and production, memorable hooks, and lyrics that often departed from simple party chants – to disco’s frothy hedonism. And Scott-Heron’s jazz-funk kept the fire of righteous activism alive even as that frothy hedonism seemed to signal its wane, holding America’s feet to the fire on everything from Watergate to nuclear power.
As it happens, they’re both now also linked as memoirists. Fittingly, the personalities of their books reflect that of their musical outputs; Rodgers’ Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco and Destiny moves quickly with flair and wit, but carries an unexpected depth. Scott-Heron’s The Last Holiday reveals the author’s awareness of the connection between the personal and the political, all in his unmistakably soulful, thoughtful voice.
But that’s where the similarities end. Memoirs are, by the genre’s nature, personal statements more than anything else. Given what we might know about the author, memoirs are often more telling from what gets left out than from what’s included. In that respect, Le Freak tells us more than we ever suspected there was to know about Rodgers, while The Last Holiday doesn’t even begin to explain what we already, sadly know about Scott-Heron.
We open The Last Holiday expecting some glimpse into what triggered Scott-Heron’s descent from artistic vitality into more than 20 years of drug addiction and jail time, with only an occasional concert or comeback attempt, before his death last summer at 62. We do that knowing that many other celebrity memoirs, including Le Freak, pull no punches in frankly discussing the author’s frailties. We read The Last Holiday hoping for answers to the questions Scott-Heron’s death left behind: What happened, brotha? How did you get sucked down that hole? Why?
But that’s not the story Scott-Heron chose to tell. The book itself is a pastiche, combining detailed accounts of his upbringing in Jackson, Tennessee and New York City, his collegiate years at Lincoln University, and his adventures as a semi-star in the ‘70s with poetic interludes explaining some of the pivotal events. If this were a musical, those poems would be when the cast breaks out into song to amplify the dramatic dialogue.
It took its shape over time, as Scott-Heron originally wrote of his life in the third person. Eventually, he shifted to a more conventional structure, and opened up about some aspects of his personal life. The final product is indeed illuminating: who knew that his dad was a hero in Scotland for his soccer exploits, or that he washed dishes at a NYC restaurant as a teen to help his single mom make do?
His gift and determination were on display as a young adult, as he published two novels before turning 21. So was his penchant for speaking truth to power, as he led a campus-wide protest against substandard health care after the death of a close friend. He also tells how the partnership with keyboardist and Lincoln classmate Brian Jackson came to be, and of his evolution from the page to the recording studio, and then to becoming the first artist Clive Davis signed to his new venture, Arista Records, in 1975.
Scott-Heron devotes a major chunk of time to his spot as the opening act for Stevie Wonder’s 1980-81 “Hotter than July” tour, in support of both the album of that title and the push to make Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday a national holiday. He gives us some juicy backstage stories, along with glimpses into Wonder’s intuitive genius as an artist, performer and activist. But then, the book jumps chronology to highlight some key personal events (the death of his mother, his 1990 stroke, finally meeting his son). And then the action ends, in 1999.
That’s it. Nothing from the last 12 years of his life. Not a peep about how his last album, I’m New Here (XL, 2010) came to be. No recounting of where he’d been, or how he managed to make it back from wherever that was. Not even much in any parting words of wisdom about what he’d seen and done. The book just ends. Even those final sections feel more perfunctory than fleshed-out, compared to the detail with which his describes his youth.
If Scott-Heron were still alive, one might be tempted to subtitle this “A Memoir, Volume 1” if for no other reason than to hope that the fuller telling his life story begs might be forthcoming. Unless some diary or journal is unearthed someday, that won’t happen. For now, and maybe forever, while The Last Holiday is a fascinating read for Scott-Heron’s faithful, it will always fall a little short because its author either couldn’t or wouldn’t tell the story we most wanted to hear.
Readers of Le Freak will have no such concerns. Rodgers spares no detail in describing his upbringing in New York and California, at the hands a charming, drug-using mother and a similar cast of characters, plus a somewhat stricter extended family. He bounced back and forth from house to house and coast to coast, a precocious kid who somehow managed to escape serious trouble despite his surroundings.
By his teens, he was already a resourceful street kid, a fledgling Black Panther, and a more-than-occasional drug user. The guitar became his best friend, and music became his personal and professional lifeline. It’s not at all surprising that Rodgers would have his own chemical issues as an adult, but it’s still rather amazing to see that he came out of a rootless childhood on the edge not just famous and successful, but simply alive.
Beyond its story of Rodgers’ own life, Le Freak opens a window into the wild times of stardom in the disco era. Rodgers went from a scruffling musician amazed to see a packed dance floor going wild over a test pressing of Chic’s first single, to a super-producer who revived David Bowie as a hit-maker and helped make Madonna a star. But no matter how many cars and suits he had at his disposal, the resourceful street kid was never all that far away: the monster song “Le Freak” was born New Years’ Eve 1977, after he and Edwards were denied entry into Studio 54 (and no, “freak out” wasn’t the original exhortation).
Le Freak takes on a Zelig-like quality given Rodgers’ adventures; it’s one of the few memoirs imaginable featuring both Timothy Leary and Duran Duran. But he doesn’t drop names for its own sake. Rodgers’ life has literally taken him from the bottom to the top, back down again, and finally back to survivor, even as he now battles cancer.
Where The Last Holiday is the story of a man who ends up chiding himself for his isolationist tendencies, Le Freak is a testament to family – the one Rodgers was born into (and with whom, years later, he found balance and harmony at last), the one he found in the disco world, and the brotherhood he shared with Edwards from the formation of Chic until Edwards’ death in 1996. Without those bonds (and rehab, to which he said yes, yes, yes), Rodgers’ hard-partying lifestyle might well have claimed him at an early age as well. It turns out that “We Are Family”. the signature hit Rodgers and Edwards produced for Sister Sledge in 1979, was more than just a song.
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Both these memoirs take on added depth in the wake of Whitney Houston’s death. Their good points and shortcomings are both magnified by the loss of a star bigger than Rodgers and Scott-Heron combined, one who left behind little in the way of an explanation for her downward spiral, as far as we know right now, besides the various interviews she gave over the years.
Houston’s demons were well known, thanks to police blotters and the reality show Being Bobby Brown, but with a successful comeback album under her belt and a new movie (a remake of the black cult fave Sparkle) on the way, her fans can’t be blamed for hoping the worst was over. But as with Scott-Heron, we are left with only questions. We can scour entertainment news reports recounting her final days, the Bobby Brown dust-up at her funeral, or the current emotional state of her daughter, and we can read of the speculation from family and friends all we want. None of that will ever answer the same questions we asked when Scott-Heron passed: What happened, sista? How did you get sucked down that hole? Why?
The entertainment-industrial complex, as mighty and voracious as it is when digging up every last celebrity tidbit, is simply unequipped to dig that deeply. All the gossip magazines and websites built their business models on exploiting celebrity train wrecks, not seeking to understand them. Grappling with the “why?” of the wreck is not within their purview. That takes time, patience, reflection, and hard, sensitive work. Those lie within the domain of a long-form journalist, perhaps, or a biographer. Maybe even a poet, or a philosopher, or a person of the cloth.
One might be tempted to add “memoirist” to that list, but that’s not automatic. Scott-Heron did not include anything in the way of “why?” in The Last Holiday. Perhaps the wounds were too fresh for him to revisit. Perhaps those hellhounds were still on his trail. Perhaps he felt none of it was anyone’s business but his own. In any event it was his choice, and all of us on the outside of his life (and death) can make sense of it all only with what he left us.
Le Freak is a different work, because Rodgers conquered his demons, got some distance from them, emerged with humour and hope intact, and felt open and secure enough to share his experiences with the world. At the end of the book, after exhaling “Wow!” at his fascinating journey, a reader might well feel like dancing. That would probably suit Rodgers just fine.
We may think we can glean some autobiographical insight from the music of Rodgers, Scott-Heron and Houston (or Houston’s films, or Scott-Heron’s novels and poetry). We may take our love of their stardom and seek some broader meaning, some deeper connection to it by dissecting every last piece of it we can consume (of course, thanks in part to that entertainment-industrial complex, there’s a helluva lot more stuff from Houston to consume than from the others).
But as for life lessons to learn from a celebrity’s personal example, it’s better to hear directly from the celebrity than from his/her back catalog. There’s untold value in a celebrity – or anyone—examining his/her life, sharing both the good and the bad, and extracting some overarching truths from it all. Rodgers did much more of that than Scott-Heron did, which is why Le Freak, while it may have less literary panache than The Last Holiday, is the more instructive piece of writing.
Maybe that’s ultimately because, just as the winners of the war tend to write the history books, only survivors write memoirs. Someone will eventually piece together the account of Houston’s fall from grace and glory, but we might never know how it felt to be her as it all came tumbling down. If The Last Holiday is unsatisfying at the end, it’s only because our hopes and expectations – especially for any work which calls itself a memoir – weren’t something its author decided to meet.
Le Freak, on the other hand, ought to be required reading for every aspiring celebrity. Not only is it the story of an musician with a groundbreaking track record, it gives valuable insight into how to overcome adversity, how to process that adversity into art, and how to not die way too soon.