Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco, and Destiny

Awhile back, I heard Jesse Thorn interview musician/producer/wizard Nile Rodgers on his podcast, Bullseye. And I think it’s safe to assume that, like many people my age, I was totally fascinated and dumbfounded by the stories that this man told. Rodgers is one of those guys that you wrongfully think you have a grasp on — you’ve heard his songs enough times, you know the choruses, you respect the beats — but you never really think about the rest of his story. I know I didn’t. I finally got around to reading his memoir, which was a truly fascinating, slightly overwhelming whirlwind of drugs, sex, fame, fortune, and talent.

Rodgers did the best he could to describe his utterly confusing childhood, but I still got lost in parts. And that’s not saying that he’s a bad writer; he just moved around a lot, and was taken in by different family members and mother figures, and never truly had stability until, I can only imagine, the last twenty years or so. He went back and forth between downtown New York and downtown Los Angeles in his youth, thus giving him a sense of awareness that most people never acquire at all, but also giving the book a zig-zaggy narrative, filled with stories about druggies hanging around his house and discipline going by the wayside. His curious, astute, poignant observations of the Greenwich Village hippies and dancers, therefore, struck me as particularly poetic: “Many people in the building often smelled of linseed oil and turpentine; the girls wore their hair up in buns and walked with their toes turned out, radiating grace even when they were dumping the garbage” (p. 10).

As the pages turn, we learn more and more about just how fucked up his family is. It exhausts me to think about recounting it here, but suffice it to say that the number of parental figures in his life, aside from his mother, rivals the number of characters in I, Claudius. With each passing chapter, we add another boyfriend or great-aunt to the mix. It’s no wonder that he grew up to be an artist — he had a lot of things to work out, and an unconventional talent with which to express his feelings.

Rodgers doesn’t come across as a particularly outgoing guy, but once he got in with the showbiz in crowd, he seemed to get even more introverted. I couldn’t quite figure it out, and it’s still something that semi-baffles me about performers. There are those who are made for the spotlight, and there are those like Kristen Wiig who sort of power down when they’re not On. It’s fascinating. He seems like someone in the latter category. Perhaps, as he describes on p. 215, this is why:

As exciting as superstardom was, there is something comforting about being an opening act, because you’re very aware that the world doesn’t revolve around you, which at least means that you can take a day off without the planet coming to an end. Perhaps that’s why I embraced Chic’s status as an eternal opening act. As an opening act, you share the same gravity as the rest of the world. Whereas superstars are monitored as closely as the stock market—their value is quantifiable and constantly fluctuating.

He also provides some rather clear windows into drug culture, such as this one on p. 141:

It may seem highly unlikely today, but inside Studio [54] there was a Dionysian sense of belonging and trust. Nothing was taboo. Usually I’d give my visitors a hit of coke if they wanted it. Sometimes we’d have full-on sex, or maybe one or more girls would give me oral sex. If I sound casual about it, it’s beacuse that’s just the way it was. There was never any pressure to do or not do anything other than what one wanted to do.

and explains the appeal of said culture on p. 252 in a way that I hadn’t considered before:

If you take what you now know about the often highly knotty process of making a record and multiply it by the […] list of artists [I’ve worked with], it’s not hard to imagine the mental, spiritual, and physical damage I was doing to myself. My only defense is that my over-the-top lifestyle brought a certain order to my life. Think about the way turbulent weather patterns look from outer space.

The man made some incredible music under the influence of drugs. But it wasn’t really the drugs that made the music. It was him. And now that he’s turned the page on that part of his life, he’s in a new, reflective chapter, one that allows his fans to appreciate his struggles, his triumphs, and his truly mesmerizing grooves. Do yourself a favor and read his book, or listen to that interview, or whatever. Get to know this guy more than you think you already do.