Category Archives: The Reading Life

The Humpday Times Book Review

Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco, and Destiny is a more interesting music-biz memoir than most because Nile Rodgers is a more interesting music-biz figure than most. Partly it’s his singular background: born to a barely teenaged mother, raised in a multiracial bohemian clan dominated by music lovers and drug addicts, befriended by musicians and, for a time, a professional killer enamored of his mother. Partly it’s his wide focus: coming of age in the LEFREAKSixties, Rodgers went from hippie to clubber and co-founded the influential disco group Chic before going on to produce albums for Diana Ross, David Bowie, Madonna, Duran Duran, and the B-52’s. But mostly it’s because Le Freak, even when it falls into the “I did this, and then I did that, and then I did this other” quality that’s inevitable in autobiography, is primarily about the entanglement of art and life, and the great things made possible by that entanglement.

Let me state for the record that I hated every metronomic, high-hat swishing, migraine inducing, lyrically vapid, assembly-line moment of the disco era, but even at its nadir — when the umpteenth repetition of the Bee Gees on the radio had me contemplating mass murder, for instance — I had to acknowledge Chic had something more on the ball. On the Chic classic “Good Times,” the interplay between Tony Thompson’s drums, Rodgers’ guitar, and Bernard Edwards’ bass carried a lightness and bounce at odds with the steam-press bomp bomp bomp of standard-issue disco. I got my first indication of Nile Rodgers’ surprising mind when he described the way Chic’s deliberately low-key stage identity — though he and bassist Bernard Edwards led the group, they could hardly be called frontmen — was influenced by his fondness for “faceless” groups like Kiss and Roxy Music. He’s also on the money when he points out that disco posed a dance-music challenge that had to be answered in the post-punk era by Talking Heads, Gang of Four, and The B-52’s  

According to Rodgers, Chic never got proper credit for its musicianship, and he’s probably right. 

Only a handful of bassists on earth could play the bass line I wrote for the song, but a few years had passed since the night Nard and I had met in the Bronx, and by now I knew what he was capable of. The jazz-influenced song was really complicated: It had a mixture of harmonically extended chords, and the latter half of the progression incorporated two strict chromatic movements in the bass. I compensated by writing an insanely simple hook: “Everybody dance, do-do-do, clap your hands, clap your hands.” I sang it to Bernard, and he liked it, but asked me, with great earnestness, “Uh, my man, what the fuck does ‘do-do-do’ mean?” I responded with equal seriousness, “It means the same thing as ‘la-la-la’ motherfucker!” I’ve never laughed as much in my life as I did with Bernard.

Rodgers isn’t kidding about that bass line. Bernard Edwards sounds like he’s playing with four hands instead of the customary two. As for the song’s other technical qualities, have a listen:

Chic cemented its place in pop history with the 1979 single “Good Times” and The Bass Line That Could Not Be Denied.

Rodgers has said elsewhere that the lyrics included lines inspired by Depression-era ballads as a subtle commentary on the late-Seventies economic malaise. He doesn’t include that story here, but he does recount what happened when the “Good Times” bass line was swiped by the Sugarhill Gang for “Rapper’s Delight,”and the Chic organization demanded acknowledgement and compensation. Rodgers and Edwards found themselves up against mobbed-up music mogul Morris Levy, who had been ripping off musicians black and white for decades.

The book preserves the oft-told story of how Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, refused admittance to Studio 54, slogged back to a friend’s apartment and worked off their anger by playing a riff that developed into “Le Freak,” one of Chic’s biggest singles: 

We downed a few bottles of vintage Dom Perignon, and a little coke, which I’d started snorting while touring on the road. I picked up my guitar, started jamming on a guitar riff and singing the words that the stage doorman had said to us earlier, “Fuck off,” and Nard added “Fuck Studio 54 — aw, fuck off.” He grabbed his bass and we played this over and over, grooving and laughing. We developed the groove and even wrote a bridge, then came the chorus again: “Awww, fuck off — fuck Studio 54 — fuck off.”

“You know, this shit is happening!” Bernard said, while pulling his sunglasses down his nose in order to achieve genuine eye contact with me. He did this whenever he was serious, because almost everything was a joke to us.

“We can’t get this song on the radio. ‘Fuck off’ is pretty hard-core for the Top Forty,” I said, laughing. But Bernard was serious. He had a great ear for hooks, and realizing that this little riff and chant sounded good, we changed “fuck” to “freak.” “Awww, freak off,” we sang energetically. It was horrible, but we tried to make it work.

“Hey man, this is not lifting my skirt,” I said to Bernard.

“Yeah, I know what you’re saying,” he responded.

Suddenly the proverbial lightbulb went off. “Hey man, we should say, ‘Awww, freak out.'”

“‘Freak out’?”

“Yeah, like when you have a bad trip, you freak out.”

That wasn’t the best reference for Bernard, since he was the last person who’d take LSD. So I quickly added, “Like . . . when you’re out on the dance floor losing it, you know you’re freaking out.”

“Yeah, plus they have that new dance called ‘the freak.’ That could be the DHM,” he said, referring to our flare for Deep Hidden Meaning, now a must for the Chic song formula.

“Yeah!” he added, his voice rising with excitement. “It would be our version of ‘Come on baby, let’s do the Twist.'”

Bernard was really into it, and we were in sync. After playing and singing for a while, Bernard made it completely ours by adding, “Le freak, c’est chic” in place of “fuck Studio 54.” Maybe the reason why this song came to us so quickly was because we were composing the songs for our next album, which was basically finished until we cam up with this off-the-cuff ditty. Chic released “Le Freak” in the summer of ’78. It featured Luther Vandross along with our signature double-female-lead-vocal sound, this time performed by Alfa Anderson and Robin Clark. It was a worldwide hit, and we got our first seven-figure check for the label’s only triple-platinum single (six million in those days). The Zen of it was, by not getting what we wanted, we got more than we ever imagined.

For those not familiar with the song:

 

I could easily quote miles of text from this very quotable book, but I’ll leave you to discover for yourself how the Rodgers team, hired to produce Diana Ross, was left staring into the abyss when Berry Gordy hated the result — an album that when it was finally released after much tsuris with Motown became a smash hit and revitalized her career. Or how Rodgers watched David Bowie’s creative process. Or how a true professional handles himself when Madonna turns to him in the recording studio and says, “Hey, Nile, why haven’t you tried to fuck me?” Nile Rodgers’ life left him well equipped to face such challenges, which is why Le Freak is such an absorbing memoir.

       

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Today’s quote

I really have to read The Beautiful Struggle very soon. Meanwhile, here’s Ta-Nehisi Coates on another kind of struggle:

“I’ve said this before but conservatives often perceive liberal attachment to diversity as a kind of ‘everyone’s a winner’ cuddle party, where we sit around exchanging rice-cakes and hating on the military. But the great strength of diversity is it forces you into a room with people who have experiences very different from your own. It’s all fine and good to laugh at Sherrod Brown dancing to Jay-Z. But dude is outside his lane and he’s learning something. M.C. Rove should be so lucky.
“If you are not around people who will look at you like you are crazy when you make stupid claims about other people’s experiences, then you tend to keep saying stupid things about other people’s experiences. It is not enough to pay a political price, or even to be shamed into silence. You have to come to believe — in your heart — that sincerity itself is not the same as accurate information. It is not enough for you to not be ‘the party of stupid’ or to ‘stop saying stupid things’ you must show some active commitment toward being less stupid.”
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The Humpday Times Book Review

This summer, a lot of people are going to walk around pretending they know carny lingo, and Stephen King is the one to blame for it. His new novel Joyland (Hard Case Crime, $12.95) is drenched in carny atmosphere, some of it authentic and some of it . . . not so much. It doesn’t matter at all.

 In terms of style and tone, this one is close to “The Body,” the Different Seasons novella that became the film Stand By Me, and which I still count as one of joylandKing’s best works. Joyland, however, doesn’t have the same impact as “The Body.” King is out to play with our expectations, and he’s not above a little bait-and-switch action. But what else would you expect from a carny operator?

The setting is an oceanside amusement park in North Carolina during the mid-Seventies, the hero is a young man working through his Sorrows of Young Werther phase, and the tone is bittersweet nostalgia. The retro cover, true to the spirit of the paperback originals Hard Case Crime wants to evoke, does not entirely play straight with the reader. Yes, there is a haunted house thrill ride. There is also a murder mystery involving at least one ghost. There is even a buxom redhead in a green dress who works an old-fashioned still camera. But King, knowing we are all familiar with Chekhov’s rule concerning the display of firearms at the beginning of a story, doesn’t follow through in the expected ways.

If you’ve been reading Stephen King for any amount of time, you have learned to take the (consistently underrated by critics) good with the (consistently overlooked by fans) bad. Along with the moments of genuine creepiness and insight — for this is, above all, a coming of age story — there is a lot of heartstring-tugging, some of it very effective, and some of it done with all the grace of a teenager trying to unhook a bra. There is at least one storytelling device here that will make you roll your eyes and wonder how King can live with himself.

But in the end, the klutziness and the canniness merge to produce a light but satisfying story. The final image will be the perfect lead-in for the closing credits of the movie that will have to be made. I finished the novel with the smell of suntan lotion on my mind, and a strong urge to take a date to the Shore and hold her hand on the nearest available boardwalk. That’s not the worst thing to take away from a novel.  For that, if nothing else, Joyland is an excellent summer read.


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Department of Shout-Outs

BROKEN SHIELD

J.D. Rhoades, the master thriller writer who provided some valuable blurbage for the cover of my first novel, We All Fall Down, has a new suspense novel out. It’s called Broken Shield, and I’ll be scoring myself a copy today, because I’d be a fan even if he hadn’t done me a favor.

Rhoades has lately been trying his hand at different genres, but Broken Shield is a return to the redneck noir style of his earlier novels. In fact, Broken Shield is a sequel to Breaking Cover, which read like the Sam Peckinpah movie you wished the old guy had been around long enough to make. Here the focus is on Tim Buckthorn, the lawman who was a supporting player in the previous story.

Judging from the praise of big leaguers like Alexandra Sokoloff, Zoe Sharp, and Keith Raffel, Breaking Cover will not disappoint. 

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From Steinbeck to Hane to Bach, by way of Ixtlan and Li Po

BACH

Culture is a slippery slope. One thing leads to another. A book leads to a poem, or a piece of music, or a painting, and suddenly you’re haring off after something else entirely.

We’re coming up on the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach. Even if you don’t know him, you know his music. Even if you don’t like classical music and avoid it like the plague, you’ve heard something by Bach. One of the pleasures of getting to known the man’s immense body of work is the little epiphany you get every now and then, realizing something he wrote — Toccata and Fugue, anybody? — has been imitated and recycled so many times that it has permeated the cultural aquifer.

We’re coming up on Bach’s birthday, and at the top of the post is the cover of the first Bach album I ever bought — Book Two of The Well-Tempered Clavier, performed by Glenn Gould. If memory serves, I scored my copy at a long-vanished record store in the Moorestown Mall. The thing is, I wasn’t looking for The RickettsWell-Tempered Clavier, I was looking for The Art of Fugue. That’s because my favorite book at the time, the book I re-read at least three times that year, was John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, which I still think is the best thing he ever wrote — second only to The Pastures of Heaven. And if you’ve read Cannery Row, you know the novel is, among other things, a song of devotion and admiration for Ed Ricketts, the Monterey-based marine biologist Steinbeck used as the basis for Doc, the novel’s scientist hero. Along with being a scientist, heavy drinker, and epic lover of women, Doc was also passionately fond of The Art of Fugue, and while the teenaged me could at the time only dream of indulging in the first three, I could damn well score myself a copy of Bach’s valedictory work.

Only I couldn’t find The Art of Fugue in any record store, and in the pre-Amazon landscape of the mid-Seventies it was a rare and lovely thing to find a record store willing to do special orders. Even so, I’d been wanting to take a crack at Bach — I approached album purchases as a form of self-improvement back then — so I thumbed through the bins in search of something that looked promising. That’s when I saw the angel-coiffed Bach staring back at me.

Another of my high school, fixations, along with Steinbeck, was the works of Carlos Castaneda and his (probably imaginary) encounters with the Yaqui Indian seer Don Juan Matus. The covers of A Separate Reality and Journey to Ixtlan sported the magnificent cover art of Roger Hane, whose style was so instantly recognizable that I had to get that particular Bach album. There was even a full-sized wall poster of the cover illustration. Hane also painted the coversJourney_to_Ixtlan for the 1970 Collier paperback edition of The Chronicles of Narnia. (Hane was killed by muggers in 1974, and when the fourth Don Juan book, Tales of Power, came out I was pleased to see the cover artist had written “For Roger” over his own signature.) So I proceeded to work my way through the entire Well-Tempered Clavier, and when The Art of Fugue finally turned up, I found it to be every bit as good as Steinbeck (and Doc) had promised.    

Cannery Row, as well as the essay “About Ed Ricketts” from The Log from the Sea of Cortez, included paens to the work of Li Po, and in due course I found the collected works of that drunken Chinese poet. Another bell ringer. 

See what I mean? It’s a slippery slope, this culture business. One thing leads to another. And all this because we’re coming up on Bach’s birthday.


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Surf’s up

Now that the Jersey Shore has taken yet another pounding from a winter storm, it may be time to spend some idle moments with this N.J. Flood Mapper, prepared by Rutgers University to show the effect of rising sea levels on selected areas of the Shore. Let’s just I’m revising my fantasy of owning a house by the ocean.

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I’m Pynchon myself

In all of the newspapers where I’ve worked, editors always seemed to be hyper-vigilant against the possibility that somebody might sneak a literary reference past them. Something that might actually appeal to actual readers, God forbid. So I’m astonished to see this Boston Globe headline about the meteor explosion in Russia:

screaming

Jim Romenesko bird-dogged it (and J.D. Rhoades spread the word). Of course it’s the opening sentence of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow, a certified classic of American literature. It’s a very clever idea for a headline. It’s also a very intellectual idea for a headline, which makes it all the more astonishing that it got through. It took me a while to grasp that in a newsroom, being called an “intellectual” is not quite an insult, but certainly far from a compliment. Old school newsies liked to imagine themselves sitting on a barstool next to Slats Grobnik, too busy talking sports and insider politics to bother with pishy-poshy ivory tower stuff. I pissed away entirely too much time arguing with editors who never saw a baseball reference they didn’t like, but would have had multiple aneurysms at the mere thought of a Thomas Pynchon reference tip-toeing into their news columns.

But enough of my joy. Let’s just note the classy touch on the Boston Globe story, and hope the headline writer doesn’t get in hot water.             

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The Parker files

Blunt dialogue, lean action, minimal exposition . . . you’d think the Parker novels would be naturals for Hollywood. But the antihero created by Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake) is a tough pill for story editors in search of — how do they put it? — characters we can care about. This makes for some highly variable movies.

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My new favorite quotation

Martin Amis, interviewed in Guernica:

“Look at Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. It proves beyond any shadow of doubt that violence has declined dramatically throughout the centuries. There are various reasons for it: the rise of the state, Leviathan, the monopoly of violence, children’s rights, animal rights. They’re all positive signs. But, he says, the one he puts his money on is the invention of printing, and, funny enough, the widespread appearance of fiction. He says this taught empathy (he doesn’t like the word, but he says there is no better one). If you read a novel, you’re in someone else’s head, in three, five different people’s heads. Suddenly, the principle of ‘Don’t do anything to anyone that you wouldn’t want done to you’ becomes real in people’s minds. That’s a fantastic achievement if fiction is indeed partly responsible for it. That’s a great thing to be a part of. In the end, then, I don’t know if writers have legislated, but they have civilized.”

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