AWOL Soul: A New Autobiography Frees Rick James From Catchphrase Hell
Onstage at San Francisco’s Fillmore 10 years ago last month, Dave Chappelle talked about being accosted by Chappelle’s Show–quoting fans while visiting Disney World with his kids. “Rick James, bitch. Rick James, bitch,” Chappelle said, affecting an unmistakable white-bro voice and the dead eyes of somebody tapping on terrarium glass to hassle a lizard. “It’s like, ‘Hey — you mind not calling me a bitch in front of my kids? Time out, motherfucker.’” Less than a week later, in Sacramento, he walked offstage for nearly two minutes when an audience member wouldn’t stop shouting that same catchphrase. Within the year, Chappelle would abruptly cut short production of the third season of Chappelle’s Show by disappearing, first to South Africa and then to Yellow Springs, Ohio, his hometown, where he’d hide in plain sight for the better part of a decade.
Chappelle was fleeing a larger predicament — a sense of his own existential doom, a premonition of devourment by pop culture, for which I’m Rick James, bitch was convenient shorthand. But at least he had a Yellow Springs to walk away to. The real Rick James wasn’t so lucky; until his death in 2004, he lived with a raging, heedless, inescapable alter ego he came to call the Me Monster. Unflinching as it is, the funk legend’s newly published autobiography Glow — assembled posthumously by David Ritz — manages to temporarily separate the story of the monster from the story of Rick James, the way Marvel Comics occasionally pulls apart Bruce Banner and the Hulk. But only for a while. By the time James bottoms out — in 1993, at 45, assaulting a woman named Mary Sauger in a Hollywood hotel then known as the St. James — the distinction between man and monster has dissolved: “The beating I gave her was brutal. I have no excuses. I was bigger and stronger and I unmercifully unloaded on her. When I came to my sense, I helped her off the floor. Blood was everywhere. Her eyes were blackened. Her skin was bruised. She looked like she’d been run over by a truck.” James apologizes, then offers her some crack. He and Sauger and James’s pregnant girlfriend, Tanya Hijazi, spend the next two days getting high.
There’s no explanation, and no explanation necessary. But by the time we’re told this story we’ve seen what James was before he was only an appetite. In that sense Glow feels like the story of an artist we’ve never met. Ritz has written or ghostwritten countless books about the lives of black entertainers, including Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye and Brother Ray, the autobiography of Ray Charles, who shows up in Glow to lecture James about dope while sipping from a giant mug of coffee that turns out to be half gin. Duality is Ritz’s comfort zone. Young James Johnson first hears the book’s title phrase as a teenager, from a black minister named Malcolm Erni. They meet because Erni likes to play the numbers and James’s mother, Mabel, runs them. Under his influence, James studies black history and African percussion and grows “one of the first Afros in Buffalo” before sliding back into street life. A few months later Erni pulls him off the corner, buys him lunch, and tells him, “Everyone has a light but yours is bright, James. Yours is special … When people see your glow, they want to follow it. Your glow can illuminate others.” He’ll think about those words for the rest of his life, although less than a paragraph goes by before he’s hooked on heroin.
He goes to New York to kick the habit, returns to Buffalo, takes Erni’s advice and joins the Naval Reserve to avoid the draft and a stint in Vietnam, then throws himself into a burgeoning career as a jazz drummer, missing too many monthly training sessions in the process. “I’d sing, I’d play drums, I’d make my music all night long,” he writes, “but I’d be damned if I was going to show up for the reserve.” One night after sitting in with Thelonious Monk, he wakes up to a letter from the government, calling him up for active duty. He reports to Rochester to await the USS Enterprise, dreams that night of “sinking ships and falling bombs” and “men slitting my throat and piercing my heart with bayonets,” and buys a one-way bus ticket to Canada the next morning.
Slipping through a crack in the world with nothing but his seabag, James winds up in Yorkville, the Greenwich Village of Toronto, and the narrative turns picaresque, like the Benny Profane chapters from Thomas Pynchon’s V. filtered through Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (and Zelig, if Zelig only met famous Canadians). When some drunk American soldiers threaten him with a beatdown, the men who come to his aid turn out to be Garth Hudson, Levon Helm, and a hustler named Pat McGraw, who shows him around a local hippie scene in which James’s legal status is anything but a hindrance: “James is AWOL,” the white McGrath tells his black girlfriend, “and he’s a singing motherfucker.”
So the fugitive settles into a community that feels to him like “the hippest college in the world,” listens to Sketches of Spain with Joni Mitchell, wears his old Navy gear onstage as frontman of an all-white R&B group called the Sailor Boys, who become the British Invasion–influenced Mynah Birds, with North Ontario’s own Neil Young on guitar. They sign to Motown and cut an album, but after a speed-addled James roughs up the Mynah Birds’ manager in a dispute over money, that manager dimes James out to the FBI. He does time in the Navy brig, breaks out, and bounces from Buffalo back to Toronto, although all his old friends have already moved to California. Already a criminal in the eyes of the U.S. government, he becomes one by trade, helping a dealer rob a clothing store in exchange for drugs. He cuts out to Florida and then L.A., where Jim Morrison doses him with acid and future Manson Family murder victim Jay Sebring agrees to bankroll his new band; he’s back in Yorkville scouting talent in the clubs when the Toronto authorities pop him for the store robbery. He celebrates his 20th birthday in a Canadian jail.
Sixty pages elapse between that birthday and the moment, in 1977, when James stands at his kitchen table after an extended sex and drug binge, holds a loaded pistol to his head, then changes his mind. Within a few weeks he’s hooked up with South African–born guitarist Aidan Mason and writing what will become Come Get It!, the debut album by Rick James and the Stone City Band, which changes everything. In those 60 pages, James shuttles back and forth between medium-time drug-running and endless false starts as a recording artist. He returns to the Motown fold as a staff songwriter, studies under Norman Whitfield, and pens songs like “Out in the Country,” recorded by both Billy Talbot and David Ruffin, in which the jilted narrator lays out a picnic for one. He and “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” singer Jimmy Ruffin also do some pimping on the side, although James ultimately finds the work “too inhuman.” He tries again as a solo artist and fronts a few bands that go nowhere; meanwhile he’s running hash out of India (where Barry White’s “I’ve Got So Much to Give” is playing everywhere) and coke from Cartagena. He plays George Clinton’s piano while delivering him some blow; Clinton, impressed, says, “You shouldn’t be running no toot,” then stops taking his calls. There’s also the interlude in Stockholm, where he shares a home and a bed with a 19-year-old Swede and her mother, a situation James describes as “my real introduction to fully realized freakery.”
You come away from this section awed by the drive James demonstrated in the face of abundant evidence that the universe wanted him to be a drug mule instead of a star. There’s a fury to the music he made before he hit — the heat of someone burning himself for fuel. How much of that energy was determination — a fugitive’s resolve to be accepted again in his own country — and how much was the coke? Glow fights with blow until James signs yet another deal with Motown, releases Come Get It!, and starts down a road that leads to “Super Freak,” gold albums, packed stadiums, sex, and more sex — with Linda Blair, Elisabeth Shue, Ola Ray from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, and Catherine Oxenberg’s mother, Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia. Said road also leads to overdoses, jail, “Party All the Time,” and the consumption of slalomable qualities of cocaine between bursts of sobriety. Gradually the Me Monster eats him alive, but not without help. After getting clean in the late ’80s, James signs to Warner Bros., finds Jesus, and records an album “all about the glorification of God,” which Benny Medina rejects on behalf of Mo Ostin, reminding James that “God isn’t paying you. We are.” He returns to secular and sexual subject matter, and soon enough to the pipe.
He arguably peaks as a rock star in 1981, touring in support of Street Songs, a pre-gangsta lament-as-boast for the hood. Onstage in Memphis, James insults Elvis and tears up a Confederate flag. In Dallas, he defied the local police by smoking weed onstage during “Mary Jane,” as was his wont. And after a show in Chicago, he tried freebasing for the first time. Everything after that was suicide on the installment plan. But the Long Beach show, released in full on the bonus disc of the Street Songs reissue in 2002, is the most explosive Rick James music on record. By this point James had started calling his sound “punk funk”; this frenetic hour-and-a-quarter of coke-sweat guitar and fully realized freakery backs up every claim implicit in those words. The samples of James’s voice that Kanye West wove into his 2010 douchebag-toast “Runaway” — “Look at ya!” and “I wanna show you how you all look like beautiful stars tonight” — are from this show’s sprawling 10-plus-minute “Mary Jane.” One of James’s last lead vocals was the hook he sang on that Kanye-produced Bump J track in 2011; he probably would have loved Yeezus. Hip-hop’s debt to James’s legacy of good beats and ludicrous outfits goes far deeper than “Super Freak,” a studio goof whose four-note bass line MC Hammer rode all the way to the bank as “U Can’t Touch This” — although James admits late in the book that after he successfully sued Hammer, that particular song “made me a shitload of money.”
As usual with a book like this, the rising action is the thrilling part — new discoveries, legends-in-the-making crossing paths, creative and sensual abandon, unlikely new friends (Sal Mineo! Timothy Hutton!) to party with. And the falling action is, as always, a drag. Our hero blows a second chance, a third chance, a 10th one. Our hero vows to put the pipe down after losing a friend — in this case it’s Gaye, whose death crushes James even though James has been sleeping with his estranged wife Jan — and his resolve lasts 24 hours. Our hero puts foil on the windows again. Our hero moves from one small room to the next, and finally to a motel in Inglewood where he and Hijazi hide from the cops after James beats Sauger, smoking crack until everything turns sci-fi: “We kept watching the broken-down TV for news flashes. Soon as the picture came on, it’d fade out … We heard bits of our story and saw flashes of our faces. But we didn’t catch it all. Paranoia attacked us like the flu.”
These pages are such a death march that after a while even James feels the need to apologize: “I wish my story didn’t have to dwell so long on dope and the impact it had on me. I wish I could cut this section short and tell you that I had quit for good.” He never did. At the end of the book he speaks of his post-prison comeback album, Urban Rapsody, of his grandchildren, of his distaste for George W. Bush, and of enjoying “an occasional joint, a sip of wine — nothing more.” But in Ritz’s epilogue we learn that James had nine different drugs in his body when he died, including cocaine. There’s never a point in the story when another way out seems possible. The closest we come are moments that feel like oblique cautionary tales, unheeded fables. At a dinner party one night in Maui, James finds himself seated across from Salvador Dali, who sketches James’s portrait on a napkin and gives it to him to keep. Who knows how much it might have been worth? The next morning, James wakes, bakes, and takes a dip in the ocean. By the time he realizes the napkin is still in his pocket, he’s up to his neck in the sea.