Nile Rodgers goes beyond the disco in ‘Le Freak’
Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco, and Destiny” (Spiegel & Grau), by Nile Rodgers
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Even people who have never heard of Nile Rodgers have probably heard his music.
The chunka-chunka, funk guitar style he made popular with his band, Chic, was one of the trademarks of the disco era. And while Rodgers may not be a household name, songs he wrote with partner and bass player Bernard Edwards, including Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” and Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out,” certainly are.
What “Le Freak” — also the name of one of Chic’s biggest songs — makes abundantly clear is that even without the impressive stream of hits, Rodgers’ life story would still make for a wild, weird and wonderful read.
Rodgers grew up in New York’s Greenwich Village with his hipster mother and her Jewish junky husband, Bobby, “whose natural sense of cool gave him a leg up on everybody else,” at least until he quit his clothing store job to devote himself more fully to heroin.
Rodgers’ mother eventually succumbed to addiction and as the situation at home deteriorated, he bounced around the city and then the country, flung off on relatives and whoever else might have him, getting a crash course in the countercultural currents stirring 1960s America along the way.
At an early age, he talks his biological father off the upper-story ledge of a Greenwich Village flophouse, learns to play guitar, trips with Timothy Leary, jams with Jimi Hendrix and bonds with a young Michael Jackson over Freak Brothers comics, just to name a few adventures.
Rodgers eventually meets Edwards and the two form the nucleus of Chic, which brings them international success if not necessarily rock star recognition — something that irks him throughout the book.
It’s surprising to learn how taken aback Rodgers is by the backlash against disco, but he makes a good point about how white rock artists not only enjoy more artistic freedom but also greater financial success.
So just as the embers of the disco inferno begin to die down in the 1980s, Rodgers becomes the go-to guy for white musicians looking for a “blacker,” more danceable sound, producing hit records for David Bowie, Duran Duran and a host of others.
His biggest coup came when he produced Madonna’s second album, “Like a Virgin,” and the book offers a thrilling glimpse of the young superstar on the verge of mega-success.
Rodgers’ writing — like some of his songs — can rely a little too heavily on cliches and border on corny, but he’s also capable of dashing off some real gems, like when he nails the junk scene in his boyhood living room as “a twisted beatnik version of Ingmar Bergman’s chess game with death: adults of every hue in suspended animation, waiting to move to the next square.”