Friday, July 20, 2012

Nile Rodgers - Le Freak - An Upside Down Story Of Family, Disco And Destiny

Nile Rodgers
Le Freak - An Upside Down Story Of Family, Disco And Destiny
Sphere/Little, Brown Book Group/Hachette Australia

The New York City (U.S.) born vocalist/guitarist/songwriter/producer Nile Rodgers has enjoyed a career that has spanned more than forty plus years - with his work alongside his own group and with some of the biggest names within the music industry reportedly selling in excess of more than two hundred million records within that time. But despite the impressive sales figures, and a career that has kept the musician in the business longer than most other artists, Rodgers has to be one of the most well known unknowns within the music industry.
All that is set to finally change with the release of Rodgers’ autobiography ‘Le Freak - An Upside Down Story Of Family, Disco And Destiny’. Rodgers’ biography is essentially a book of three parts, with the first third of his self-penned tome spent documenting his early upbringing, which pretty much reads like a coming of age tale. Rodgers talks openly about the drug environment of his early home life, his constant moves cross country to live with other family members, and the role drugs played in his early life through the addictions of his mother Beverly Goodman, his biological father (Nile Rodgers Sr., who was also a musician) and Jewish white stepfather Bobby Glanzrock. Rodgers’ early childhood is best described as dysfunctional, with Rodgers stating that ‘I was the oldest eight-year-old on earth’. But despite his rough background and difficult start in life (He suffered with asthma, moved into a convalescent home for some time, skipped school frequently and moved out of home to sleep on the New York subways by the age of fifteen), Rodgers doesn’t look back in any sort of negative way, but more as a precursor to what would eventually be his calling in life – making music.
Although the first third of the book is a little slow for the most part, it’s the middle third that Rodgers steps up the pace of his book – the chapter that details Rodgers discovery that making music was his call in life.
Starting out as a session guitarist with the Sesame Street band (Alongside Luther Vandross no less), Rodgers soon made the leap up to semi-professional level as a member of Harlem’s Apollo Theater house band, where he met his musical partner in crime in bassist Bernard Edwards. Together, the pair formed The Big Apple Band, before hooking up with drummer Tony Thompson – all of whom would soon find success with their own group – Chic.
Given how big Chic was in Rodgers’ life, it’s not surprising to find that a large chunk of the book is dedicated to the band, their phenomenal success (Producing hits such as ‘Good Times’, ‘Everybody Dance’ and ‘Le Freak’) and how their sound came to bring about the rise of disco in the late ‘70’s.
Any good autobiography has its up’s and down’s in the storyline to keep the reader enthralled, and Rodgers’ effort is no exception. Without pulling any punches, Rodgers also details the demise of disco, and the eventual downturn in popularity of the group in the face of the growing ‘Disco Sucks’ movement. Adding to Rodgers’ woes was the lack of success with his own solo album.
In a lot of ways, you would expect Rodgers’ story to end here. After all, Rodgers has already enjoyed success (Both as a member of Chic and his production efforts with Edwards – especially with Sister Sledge), and was wealthy enough to fade away without having to do a thing for the rest of his life. But deep inside, Rodgers writes about still having plenty to offer on a musical level - and so started the reinvention of Rodgers as a songwriter and producer.
Despite a false start with Diana Ross (The record company were less than enthused with Rodgers and Edwards’ work on Ross’ 1980 album ‘Diana’. So much so that the pairs version of the album wouldn’t see the light of day until the album’s re-release in 2003), Rodgers managed to find success once again with his work alongside David Bowie on his ‘Let’s Dance’ album from 1983.
For most of the ‘80’s, Rodgers’ skims through much of the details on his production work, with only his work alongside INXS (1984’s ‘Original Sin’), Madonna (1984’s ‘Like A Virgin’), Duran Duran (1984’s ‘The Reflex’ and ‘The Wild Boys’), Michael Jackson (1995’s ‘HIStory: Past, Present And Future Book I’) and Stevie Ray Vaughan (Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’ and Vaughan Brothers’ ‘Family Style’ album from 1990) given any real coverage. Instead, much of the story within the middle third of the book is split between his work, and his growing appetite for everything the ‘80’s had to offer for the rich and famous – sex, drugs and more drugs.
The last third deals with Rodgers’ growing dependency on drugs (Rodgers’ makes no bones about loving drugs), his slow decline and his eventual downfall (Rodgers came close to death on numerous occasions, and even goes as far as to detail a couple of near death experiences towards the tail end of the book). Of course, the book does have a happy ending, with Rodgers spending a couple of years in the mid-90’s to clean himself up (The irony that the Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards was Rodgers’ inspiration to clean himself up isn’t lost when six months on and clean and sober, Richards calls him up to score!), return to the stage with a revamped line-up of Chic and resume his role as an in-demand production/session artist.
Given the lack of profile Rodgers has, ‘Le Freak - An Upside Down Story Of Family, Disco And Destiny’ goes a long way to give those only familiar with his music an idea of who he is as a person. Rodgers tells a great story, as there’s times when it’s funny, sad, almost incredible (But true) and definitely delivered with a whole lot of passion. But unlike most autobiographies, there an undeniable thread of humanity that ties the whole journey Rodgers takes you on.
If there were any flaws evident, it would be that the book takes a while to take off, only to feel a bit rushed towards the end. The other real problem I have is that some of artists that Rodgers has worked with in the past aren’t even mentioned (Such as Johnny Mathis, David Lee Roth, Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes, Debbie Harry, Jeff Beck, Mick Jagger, Thompson Twins, Laurie Anderson, Grace Jones, Philip Bailey, Al Jarreau, The B-52’s, Dan Reed Network, Ric Ocasek and Tina Arena). And don’t even get me started on his solo albums. Yes, I know they weren’t successful, but why is 1983’s ‘Adventures In The Land Of The Good Groove’ only given coverage? And as for his soundtrack work – well that doesn’t even warrant a mention whatsoever.
Perhaps the book would have ended up twice of thick had everything Rodgers has been involved in was given the same amount of space his work alongside Bowie had been given, but then at least the whole story would have been told.
Despite my few criticisms, ‘Le Freak - An Upside Down Story Of Family, Disco And Destiny’ is a great read. You may not know the name, but you can be sure that at any given moment, something that Rodgers has had a hand in shaping is playing somewhere out there on the radio.

For more information on Nile Rodgers, check out - http://www.nilerodgers.com/

© Justin Donnelly