How do we talk about Richard Pryor now that he’s gone? Now that his ghost has forever scratched its impression across the landscapes of modern comedy and popular culture? And the longer Pryor remains dead, the more saintly his reputation becomes.
In death, he’s our Black Messiah, our cultural bulldozer, our troubled, esoteric genius. He’s the man who demystified and revoked the inherent power of words like “motherfucker”, “cocksucker”, and “nigger”, and held them up like tarnished mirror to reflect our own filthy, bloody American past. Did Peoria, Illinois breed Richard Pryor, or was Richard Pryor bred from the horrors of our past, come to rise at a time when the only way to address our deep-seated hatreds and prejudices was through such a lowly form as comedy?
The Brothers Henry, David and Joe, respectively, justly point out that Pryor’s greatest burden may be that he was merely considered a “stand-up comedian” and not a revolutionary figure on par with Malcolm X, Jack Johnson, or Hank Aaron. Pryor was the equal of these men in the arena of words, using them like knives to cut through a thick shroud of bullshit that he was forever cornered by.
Pryor did not do it alone, however, he was not sprung from the head of Zeus. He was given many boosts to elevate him to his status; first by Bill Cosby, whom he spent his early years imitating stylistically. Second, by his friend and co-writer, Paul Mooney, the drug and drink free (“I get Mooney’s share!” Pryor would exclaim when cocaine came out) writer who helped translate some of Pryor’s ideas to television and film. And third, by the trail of women and drugs he used and abused as he walked the razor’s edge, grinding his life down to nothing, until the only escape was attempted suicide.
Pryor was an addict, through and through; a fact that he never tried to hide from anyone, let alone his audiences. The depth of his addiction, however, was staggering, and David and Joe do him no favors by sugar-coating his reliance on powder, alcohol, and women. Pryor is not a likable figure—not by any stretch of the imagination. The levels of depravity and corruptions he stoops to are enough to make any reader’s insides churn, even those who have managed to steel themselves against the horrors of the human spirit by reading such self-indulgent (fictional) tomes as Requiem for a Dream, Blood Meridian, and American Psycho, as I have.
But even stating that his predilection for numbing chemicals and lurid experiences seems superfluous in the context of Pryor’s life. He not only admitted his indiscretions to anyone within earshot of his performances and most everyone else who wasn’t, but he reveled in them. He celebrated them. The unfortunate figures that crossed his into his dark life all seem aware of his willingness to use and abuse them; yet, they are incapable of divorcing themselves from his magnetic personality. Like a tornado, Pryor was magnificent wonder that always left a trail of destruction.
Can was ask ourselves now, eight years after his death, is the sum of Pryor’s achievements, his eradication of sexual, social, racial, and economic barriers, greater than the sum of his misdeeds? I don’t know. And that may be the hardest conclusion to come to about Pryor—and one he eventually came to about himself. We just don’t know and, if we do, we are likely lying to ourselves.
Joe and David do their best to detail his brutal world—most of it self-inflicted, though some of it a product of his poor upbringing—to color in the regions of context with specific details. And they do well to create an argument for Pryor as the greatest of all enigmatic public figures, which, I believe, is exactly where David and Joe want us to be with him. They want us to see the tortured and the torturer, the critic and his work:
…He embraced ‘nigger’ as an empowering term of endearment and spoke with startling candor about things many people at that time were uncomfortable admitting even to themselves: his homosexual experiences, masturbation, racial anger, his physical abuse of women, drug addiction, feelings of self-loathing, and the guilt he felt as a conflicted champion of black pride who also had an irresistible lust for white women.
Sadly, the Brothers Henry slam across the biggest of narrative speed bumps when they attempt to do the unimaginable: transcribe sections of Pryor’s routines. How unenviable a task for them to accomplish. There’s no way to ever replicate the machine-gun approach of Pryor’s onstage banter, and plastering it on the printed page is the worst exercise in futility. His words, those little piercing knives of truth, fall embarrassingly flat, as dull as milk.
No doubt it was a conundrum that the two men wrestled with; how to keep Pryor’s spirit alive in an inaudible format. (David and Joe tell of recording one of his routines off television with home-taping devices in the Introduction to Furious Cool.) The heaviness of his words land so much harder when they are captured on aged vinyl or beaten-up videotape. Each one rife with the weight of his fury, his heavy-heartedness, and, of course, those vile curse words.
To transcribe them, while worthwhile and necessary to the text, is a sin. There can be no other way to consume them, and because Joe and David’s narrative already plows briskly along, slowing down to read Pryor’s words is almost damning. Thankfully, it’s not all-consuming; this is still, after all, a book helmed by the guiding hands of one of our most talented songwriters and his filmmaker brother. All is not lost, but much is sacrificed.
And for all his mystery, so much of Pryor is defined by David and Joe’s title: furious cool. This infinite descriptor where everything about Pryor is captured in two words, four syllables, and pit of intrigue. No one was as cool as Richard Pryor, and no one displayed unmitigated fury in such a collected way as Pryor.
Joe Henry’s 2001 masterpiece, Scar, was dedicated to Richard Pryor, among others, and features the opening track “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation”, which, in turn, features a mammoth saxophone solo from none other than Ornette Coleman. If these were the only credentials Joe Henry had to craft Furious Cool with help from his brother, David, I wouldn’t blink an eye. So much is wrapped up in that one track (the whole album, really) that Joe Henry, as a popular culture visionary, earned enough goodwill to tackle a subject as complex as Richard Pryor’s life.
Together the Brothers’ Henry have earned their cred, and Furious Cool is a beast of a book. One that cracks the door on Pryor’s mystery and also argues for his enduring legacy, despite his misgivings. Maybe that is the only answer we’re entitled to about Pryor; the one that begs for more questions and an enduring retelling.