If even half the stories in Rick James's new autobiography, Glow, are true, then James led one of the most epic rock lives ever. The book, written with David Ritz, was finished posthumously (James died of a heart attack in 2004, at age 56) and is out this week, alongside a digital box set of his Complete Motown Albums.
James became one of the leading lights of funk in the late Seventies and early Eighties, but across the years, the singer was equally obsessed with sex and drugs. At one point in the book, he approvingly remembers the SUNY Buffalo English major he hooked up with for a while ("She had a PhD in blow jobs," according to James) who adapted a line of T.S. Eliot's poetry for him: "In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo" became "In the room the women come and go, looking to snort Rick James's blow." Ten other stories from the master of punk-funk:
1. O Canada
James dodged the Vietnam War draft by heading across the Canadian border from his hometown of Buffalo, New York. But as soon as he got into Toronto, three drunk white guys tried to beat him up for going AWOL. "A trio of three other white guys saw what was happening and came running to my aid." Two of those three: Garth Hudson and Levon Helm, then playing backup for Ronnie Hawkins, later Bob Dylan collaborators in the Band. He also became friendly with Joni Mitchell (they would stay up all night listening to jazz), and she recommended Neil Young, who joined James in a band called the Mynah Birds. They got signed to Motown and were ready to release a single — but it got shelved when the U.S. armed forces caught up with James for going AWOL and threw him in the brig.
2. The Kind of Girls You Don't Take Home to Mother
Some of the women James reported liaisons with: Linda Blair (The Exorcist), Elisabeth Shue (Leaving Las Vegas), Catherine Bach (The Dukes of Hazzard TV show), Olay Ray (the video for Michael Jackson's "Thriller"), Iman (the supermodel), Teena Marie (his protégée), Jan Gaye (the wife of his friend and mentor, Marvin Gaye).
3. Street Songs
James scuffled on the periphery of the music business for many years before breaking through, watching friends become famous, making money however he could (including drug smuggling from India and Colombia) and periodically ending up in jail. How he remembered getting busted in Toronto on an old charge of breaking and entering a clothing boutique: "A few seconds ago, my life was perfect — the perfect bitch, the perfect financier, the perfect backup band, the perfect connections to the perfect music scene in L.A. Now perfection had turned to pure shit."
4. The First-Aid Kit of the Lizard King
While staying at Stephen Stills' place circa 1966, James woke up to find a young guy sitting cross-legged on the floor, "stoned as a motherfucker," watching blood drip from his wrist, "saying things like 'Isn't the blood beautiful? Isn't that the deepest red you've ever seen?'" Alarmed, James woke up Stills, who said, "Oh, fuck, he's doing it again," and bandaged the young man up. Which is how Rick James met Jim Morrison.
5. Cocaine Is a Hell of a Drug
James made his national TV debut on American Bandstand. He performed his singles "You and I" and "Mary Jane" and did a long interview with Dick Clark, who he remembers as "one of the nicest cats I'd ever met." The only problem: James had done so much blow backstage, his nose started running profusely. "I started sniffing and wiping myself until it had to be obvious to Dick and a million viewers what was really going on."
6. I'm Rick James, Bitch
James nursed a grudge against George Clinton, who consumed his cocaine but didn't help him get a record deal, and Prince, who stole his thunder (and, James claims, his stage moves). Bringing Prince out on tour didn't go well: "My band was a bunch of friendly down-home brothas loved by everyone. His band was a bunch of snobs who never bothered to acknowledge my guys." Years later, what gave James the push to collaborate with Eddie Murphy was that the comedian had gone in the studio with Prince but felt uncomfortable around him. "There wasn't anything I'd rather have done than write a hit for Eddie — and stick it in Prince's ear," James said.
7. The creation of "Super Freak"
It was about three in the morning. We had just put the horn parts on "Give It to Me Baby" when I was sitting in front of the console with my bass. I wasn't trying to write. I was just noodling. This bass line came out of nowhere. Four descending notes. Nothing particularly striking. It was cheesy, but it was also catchy. I couldn't stop playing it. At the same time, I started singing, "She's a very kinky girl…" I was about to stop — the whole thing sounded a little dumb — when one of my cats said, "Cut it, Rick."
"You crazy?" I asked.
"No man, it's cool. It's hypnotic."
I kept playing the riff and realized that it was hypnotic. Right then and there I had the engineer hook up a mic and started singing the story as it came to me — this story of a super freak. I never wrote down a word. Made it up on the spot.
8. The Persistence of Memory
James went to a dinner party in Hawaii where one of the other guests was Salvador Dali, who kept staring at him — and finally said, "Senor, I am mad about the way you look. Please allow me to sketch you." Dali spent 15 or 20 minutes drawing a portrait of James on his napkin — and then gave James the napkin. It could have been a priceless memento, except the next morning James smoked a joint and went for a swim in the shorts he had been wearing the night before, forgetting that it still held the napkin. The portrait became an inky blob.
9. Back in the Saddle
Steven Tyler of Aerosmith became James's recovery buddy during various stays in rehab — he would even jump on James's back for piggy-back rides. "He's the one cat who can outtalk me and actually makes those meetings fun," James said. "Half of what he says is bullshit, but his bullshit is so brilliant I don't care if it's true or not."
10. Rick James's Inferno
In his later years, James was constantly battling his addiction to freebase cocaine, and usually losing. After his mother died, he reported, "there was nothing to keep me from descending into the lowest level of hell. That meant orgies. That meant sado-masochism. That even meant bestiality." No details provided (or honestly, wanted).