The funk icon's autobiography could insightful or seedy fun. Unfortunately, it's neither.
There’s a reason that Dave Chappelle’s “I’m Rick James, bitch” became quotable. Beyond the immediacy of the line, it also captured the attitude we associated with the funk icon. The libidinous ego encapsulated in the line is the reason I was optimistic about Rick James’ autobiography Glow. Best case scenario: an insider’s look at ’70s funk, from Motown to Prince, told with a health—or unhealthy—dose of attitude. Next best case scenario: The funk version of Motley Crue’s The Dirt, with tales of debauchery so epic that they transcend judgment. Unfortunately, the book is simply icky and sad. James’ story is rated X, but meanness and misery are too present to be funny, and there’s little sense that he ever got real insight into his issues. As a self-portrait of a guy who never got it, though, it's riveting.
The book is the result of numerous interview sessions writer David Ritz had with James with an autobiography in mind in the ‘90s, and writing that James had done while in prison to try to tell his story. One of James’ inventions—I assume—is Brotha Guru, a spiritual figure that he supposedly met in prison. Conversations with James and Brother Guru are dotted through the book, and in them Guru tries to get James to see the role that “The Me Monster” played in his slow rise and brutal decline. The dialogue is too stiff to be real though, and either Guru’s not that smart or James couldn’t create a genuine foil because ego, self-absorption and “The Me Monster” are clearly symptoms not the problem. Why he felt so entitled and righteous in his impulsiveness is the real question, and it’s one James never gets close to in Glow.
The book’s title comes from his mother’s observation that James had something special, a glow. When things went right for him, he attributed that to people seeing his glow. When one person gives him a few grand in Los Angeles because he was in a rough spot, James didn’t see that as generosity or kindness. He chalked that up as well to the guy recognizing his glow. Basically, James got what was coming to him.
The world he lived in was interesting, starting in Toronto in a band with Neil Young and Bruce Palmer pre-Buffalo Springfield. The band signed to Motown, but it ended when James decided that the manager had been paid by Motown but hadn’t shared money with the band so he beat him up. That manager knew James was AWOL from the Navy and dropped a dime and had him picked up, unceremoniously ending the group. James spent a short, unsuccessful stint at Motown as a producer, and hung out in Los Angeles in the early 1970s around the music scene, watching friends pass him by. But rather than check his game and figure out why it was everybody’s turn but his, he figured the world wasn’t ready for his music and opted for drug smuggling instead. When George Clinton said he’d see what he could do to help James one time, James took that to be ironclad like a contract, and triple-charged Clinton for cocaine the next time he saw him as payback for the help that never came.
Throughout the book, he does a ton of blow and has a lot of sex, but both accomplishments are treated like ways to keep score of wins on the way up, and ways to prove he’s the most degraded when things went to shit. Women were there to be screwed, and when his mom asked him if he’d ever find someone to love, he seized on Marvin Gaye’s wife Jan. He helps her make a mess of her faltering relationship with Marvin, and helps her get back on the blow after she’d cleaned up. But he also walked away from each time, making that relationship seem more like part of a rivalry he didn’t own up to—or perhaps recognize—with Gaye. (In Ritz’s introduction, he quotes James talking about Divided Soul, Ritz’s biography of Gaye: “Marvin’s story’s incredible, but wait till you hear mine. My story will blow you away.”)
James is an untrustworthy narrator in Glow. He described Come Get It!, his debut album with the Stone City Band as influenced by Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in the way his music referred to others.
I did the same thing in putting together what I saw as my funk/dance masterpiece. I had snippets of the masters I admired most—Holland-Dozier-Holland, Barry White, Marvin Gaye, the Isley Brothers, Isaac Hayes, James Brown, Norman Whitfield, even the Italian producer Giorgio Moroder, who wrote for Donna Summer.
Perhaps that’s true, but Come Get It! sounds closer to the funk du jour—a lot of fun and very funky, but hardly cutting edge or genre-crossing. Later in his career, after freebasing had killed his creativity and drained his bank account, he cut two albums for Warner Brothers, both of which have been re-released to coincide with the publication of Glow. James sounds adrift on them, adjusting awkwardly to the synth-driven funk that was in vogue in the late 1980s. Wonderful benefits being sex-obsessed, but he sings like he’s more interested in post-coital TV than the fucking. Kickin’, was never released. According to James, “The label didn’t think it measured up. That kind of criticism threw me into a deep funk.” Unfortunately, the label was right. Today, it’s interesting as a document of an artist not only out of gas but uninterested in starting the car. Representative song titles: “Get Wit It,” “Rock and Roll Eyes,” “Runaway Love,” “Teach Me” and “You Got it Real Good.” The arrangements and performances are equally imaginative.
When I heard “You and I” by Rick James between sets at Essence Music Festival this year, I wanted to go back to some of the early Rick James albums. After reading Glow, I’d rather not, and not because he’s too seedy. When Ike Turner distinguished beating beating Tina and hitting her with a shoe in Takin' Back My Name, he offered the sort of specific insight into how he views the world that James avoids at every turn. When Turner wrote about band members dumping cigarettes in a trash can so that they could use their empty cartons to scoop coke out of a communal pre-show punch bowl, he provides the sort of comic detail that lifts drug stories beyond simple tales of waste and getting wasted.
James doesn’t have those stories. Instead, he discovers his ego in Glow, which was obvious to anyone who heard his hits or saw his videos. That he has nothing more than that to offer in his autobiography is simply sad.