The last time most anyone thought about Rick James, he was a catchphrase.
That was in 2004, after the Chappelle’s Show episode which lampooned the celebrity-documentaries-on-cable genre, starring Dave Chappelle as James. Little did we know it at the time, but James would die a few months later, just shy of his 58th birthday.
By then his funk hits of the late ‘70s and ‘80s had become things of the past, save for constantly being sampled in hip-hop records, most notoriously M.C. Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This” from James’ “Super Freak”. Also mostly forgotten was that super-freaky 1993 incident in some hotel room (actually several rooms, as it turns out) involving lots of drugs, two women – one of whom had the shit kicked out of her – and a weekend getting plastered before surrendering to the cops. By 2004, he wasn’t even a distant blip on the black pop radar.
That “oh yeah, whatever happened to him?” quality of his life is part of what made the Chappelle’s Show bit so memorable: James had become prime fodder for the type of pop culture treatment of dysfunctional and basically forgotten pop culture personality bio Chappelle was sending up.
Author: Rick James, David Ritz
Pulication date: 2014-07
Length: 352 pages
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/n/negritude2.0-glow-rickjames-cvr-200.jpgBut even at that (the catchphrase helped cement Chappelle’s popularity as much as it traded on James’ notoriety, if not more so), and even though James himself was once hotter than the sun, and periodically surfaced in one context or another ever since, the appearance this summer of a book, Glow, billed,as his autobiography, was actually out of the blue.
At the height of his stardom, James had approached David Ritz, who’d become the go-to ghostwriter for black pop stars seeking to tell their life stories (Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles, Grandmaster Flash, Buddy Guy, and the list goes on and on), about putting together a book. Over time there were interview sessions, and James wrote copiously during that aforementioned jail stint, but by the late ‘90s, their formal collaboration had ground to a halt. Finally, ten years after James died, comes Glow: The Autobiography of Rick James. Who says dead men don’t tell tales?
And quite a tale it is. James speaks candidly throughout, even if he and Ritz resort to one of the oldest tricks in the book: a wizened jailhouse figure, Brotha Guru, serving as James’ questioning conscience (even if such a person actually existed for James, the predictably periodic interludes in Glow when he and James converse, seems rather contrived, at best). Our protagonist spares virtually no detail, as he apparently spared no extreme in pursuit of fame, parties and action.
Born in 1948 in Buffalo, James had racked up quite a record before he struck it big. He showed musical moxie as a teenager, but when a draft notice showed up, he took his talents to Toronto, where he fell in with some cats who would eventually become the Mynah Birds and record a demo for Motown. The band wasn’t signed, but it remains a curious part of rock lore because one of the guitarists was Neil Young (who had much less to say about the experience in his tome, Waging Heavy Peace).
James was eventually busted for going AWOL, did his time, and lit out to Los Angeles, where he reconnected with Young and fell into the late ’60s Laurel Canyon scene. Apparently, he was this close to being part of the Crosby, Stills and Nash supergroup, but that didn’t pan out. Neither did a 1972 album he recorded, which only hinted at the wild amalgam of funk, rock and jazz he’d eventually nail. But the drugs, sex and partying was already in full effect.
It only got wilder when he finally broke through in 1977 with the hit “You and I” and the album Come Get It!. When he’s talking about his approach to music, James reveals the musical intellect underpinning his jubilant good-time jams. But the majority of Glow is a blow-by-blow account of the drugs he took and the women he bedded. Reading along, the temptation was great to open up an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of them; James either had a great memory, or he took remarkable notes.
Yet the most curious thing about Glow is that it’s essentially silent about the end of its subject’s life. James’ own contributions end shortly after the 1997 release of what would be his final CD, Urban Rapsody, and Ritz fills in the seven-year gap between that and James’ death with factoids, not reporting. The Chappelle’s Show bit gets the briefest of mentions, as does his bout with diabetes and the divorce from his wife. There’s nothing about what music he attempted to make, if any, in his final years. The floor was wide open for Ritz to add a meaningful coda to James’ story, but no such piece is here.
It would have been hard enough to muster up much sympathy for James in normal circumstances. He unflinchingly recounts his voluminous misdeeds, confesses to not making the most of the advice from his better angels (namely, his mother), and ends his telling pretty much where we’ve come to expect most tellings of sordid celebrity doings to end: with the protagonist older but wiser, and presumably closer to sober. And it’s not as if James was a heroic figure in the first place. A popular star with a string of great hits, yes, but not one whose impact transcended the life of the party.
But I didn’t read Glow under normal circumstances. Its release was timed to the tenth anniversary of James’ death, but it coincided with a much larger, and grimmer, event: the shooting of an unarmed black man by white police in Ferguson, Missouri. The incident unleashed tensions both local (the long imbalance of power and authority in a mostly-black suburb governed and policed almost wholly by whites) and national (the latest in a growing string of police murders of black men), and the unheralded St. Louis suburb became the unlikeliest Ground Zero ever for America’s racial quagmire.
As the Ferguson story unfolded – nightly protests, an arrogant police force finally getting a chance to show off its paramilitary gear, the astounding tone-deafness of the local authorities, journalists flocking to the scene and being locked up for doing their jobs (word to the wise: if you want a story to die down in the news media, don’t piss the media off by arresting its members) – James’ story started feeling even less significant. He doesn’t come across as a particularly likeable figure to begin with, and with Ferguson threatening to come completely unraveled at any moment, following that case was far more compelling than tracking James’ sexual and chemical escapades.
Moments like Ferguson reveal the limits of pop culture. I’ve spent years consuming black pop, writing about it, placing it in broader contexts, making its case. But there’s little that line of thinking can do against the images of police and protesters in the streets. All the articles about celebrities tweeting on Ferguson, or rappers posting Ferguson-related tracks, are by now all but de rigueur when stuff like this goes down, especially given the long history of activism by black celebrities (and for some, expectation of it). But they don’t rise to the fierce urgency of this particular type of now. Pop is serious business, but Ferguson was, most literally, life and death.
And when compared to that outrage, the foibles of a musician hell-bent on self-destruction come nowhere near the mark. There’s very little about his story that’s particularly instructive; it’s not as though he was the first black star to fall victim to drugs, sex and crime, nor will he be the last one. But reading his story while Ferguson raged was especially jarring. No one involved in the timing of the book’s publication, of course, had any sense what was about to go down in a St. Louis suburb (or, for that matter, a Wal-Mart in Beavercreek, Ohio) right as it came out. But nothing about the book cut through the mourning, loss and anger black America was feeling those weeks. We had, and still have, more necessary things to do than care about a long-dead rock star.
If anything, the moment calls for a new catchphrase, one imbued with pride and righteous defiance. That phrase doesn’t have to allude to anything pop, yet one such nomination comes to mind after reading Glow: I’m Michael Brown, bitch.