Nile Rodgers: Hanging wih Madonna and Bowie
BY KRISTI YORK WOOTEN
FOR THE ECONOMIST
CANCER isn’t cool.
Nile Rodgers’s diagnosis in late 2010 proved especially baffling for him. A 59-year-old music producer, he was putting the finishing touches on his tell-all memoir, “Le Freak”, when his doctor gave him the verdict. Given his partying history (“Since the tender age of eleven, I’d been dabbling in mind-altering substances,” he writes in the book), Mr Rodgers had expected a malady more in keeping with his past.
“The whole thing took me completely by surprise,” Mr Rodgers says in a recent phone interview. “Cancer? Are you kidding me? It’s such a non-rock’n’roll disease.”
His new book is candid with his rock’n’roll preferences, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s. Mr Rodgers was a regular at New York’s infamous club Studio 54, dividing white lines with the VIP crowd in the balcony as people danced to the crossover hits of his band Chic, including “I Want Your Love” and “Good Times”. He is the co-writer of the Sister Sledge smash “We Are Family” and the Diana Ross anthem “I’m Coming Out”. He is also the man behind such hit albums as David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”, Duran Duran’s “Notorious” and Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”. Now 17 years sober, he declares he is simply high on life, which also happens to be not so rock’n’roll. “I’m always swimming forward like a shark,” he says of his drive to beat his disease and continue making music. “You just keep going and you don’t rest. I love waking up knowing that I have a problem to solve.”
This may sound like lip service, but the stories of “Le Freak” are a testament to his wherewithal. The memoir takes readers from his birth to an unwed teenaged mother in 1952 to his success with Chic and then his reign as a producer and one of the most-sampled musicians of all time. It is exhilarating and forthright, but also affecting and sometimes tragic. It is impossible to put down.
Many of the book’s tales are doubled-edged. For instance, as a young boy in Los Angeles Mr Rodgers forged official notes to excuse his absence from school and travelled across town to watch movies in a theatre near Skid Row. In these moments it is hard to know whether to laud his resourcefulness or lament his neglect. In New York not much later, he talks his naked father down from a suicide attempt on a fire escape at the Hotel Greenwich. The cops leave, his father gets dressed and the two go out for a slice of pizza.
The stories of “Le Freak” reveal that the colourful characters in Mr Rodgers’ life—including his immediate family and various musicians, junkies and artists— are as fascinating as his account of the more famous people he worked with as his career skyrocketed. Yet there are plenty of juicy celebrity anecdotes, including hanging out with David Bowie, rows with Motown Records, and clubbing with Madonna (“We were like [Clark] Gable and [Carole] Lombard thrust into the eighties”). Mr Rodgers makes it plain that there was hardly a musician who didn’t seek his companionship, rhythm-guitar wizardry or soundboard genius.
Debbie Harry, the lead singer of the band Blondie, worked with Chic on her first solo album (1981’s “KooKoo”). She is a friend and fan of Mr Rodgers’s, whom she believes played a significant role in the shift in music from punk to disco to rock to new wave. “Chris [Stein, Blondie’s guitarist] and I adored his breakthrough sound with Chic, and we thought that bringing a bit of our rock sound in this kind of combination would be very cool,” she wrote in an e-mail to The Economist. “Working with Nile was a dream come true. Nile and Bernard [Edwards] wrote great songs for me, and every day was a blast in the studio. Fans come up to me even today asking [me] to [perform] some of those songs.”
Mr Rodgers’s partnership with Mr Edwards has been perhaps the most important of his life thus far. Together they developed a hit-making formula comprised of stripped-back beats and sophisticated lyrics. Mr Rodgers recalls the way they worked together to discover “a song’s core truth or DNA—we called that DHM, Deep Hidden Meaning.” This earned countless production deals and legendary recording sales. Mr Edwards’s death from pneumonia in 1996 was especially hard for Mr Rodgers, who has not married and has no children. It helped inspire him to form the We Are Family Foundation, which funds teen-mentoring programmes in various countries.
“It turned out to be a trigger not to drink, but to get it and keep it together,” Mr Rodgers writes of his friend’s death in “Le Freak”‘s epilogue. “I’ve found great solace in finally taking care of myself and others.” In a fitting postscript, he now updates readers about his progress with cancer and his continuing adventures in the music world on his blog, Planet C. The prose is disarmingly honest, but as upbeat as his songs.
Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco, and Destiny by Nile Rodgers is published by Spiegel & Grau in America and Sphere in Britain, and is out now.