When thinking about Rick James nowadays, it seems easy to slip into one of two moods: One is the enjoyment of the way Dave Chappelle satirized his life so humorously, making the phrases “I’m Rick James, bitch!” and “Cocaine’s a hell of a drug” part of the pop culture vernacular for umpteen months. The other is a sense of pity and sadness at a man who was cut down before his time, first by a stroke in 1998, then by death itself in 2004 at age 56.
What these two portraits painted of the original Slick Rick end up doing, though, is making people forget the things he did that went beyond simply having a “bad boy” reputation for loving to party, loving the ladies, and loving to imbibe in the various medicinal cocktails easily obtainable in the 70s and 80s. Things such as:
-After joining the US Naval Reserve at the ripe age of 15, James decided within a year that he preferred music to the military. So, he did what anyone would do in that situation: he just didn’t show up for involuntary weekend training, and went to gigs instead. Then, when word got to James that the military found out about his actions, he went completely AWOL and fled to Canada. Mind you, this was during a time when other members of the military were starting to head to Canada as well. But most of them were at least 18 years of age, and were doing it to avoid war, voice conscientious objection to the war, or both. In Rick’s case, he simply was trying to avoid paying the piper for choosing to spend his weekends holding a bass instead of an anchor.
-James first spent time in prison in the late ’60s — in a military brig, to be exact, after he snuck back into the U.S. to sign with Motown and record songs with his band the Mynah Birds (featuring a young Canadian by the name of Neil Young). As as result of a likely increase in success and income with a record deal, Rick and his bandmates informed their manager that they needed someone who could better manage their new day to day needs. Their old manager handled his dismissal surprisingly well, and with a lot of grace and…oh wait, no, he didn’t. He ratted Rick out to the Feds.
-The second stint in prison is more infamous: James spent two years in Folsom Prison in the 1990s, convicted of multiple charges. James and his future wife were first arrested in 1991 for kidnapping a young woman, holding her hostage for a the better part of a week, keeping her tied up, and forcing her to have sex with them (an additional charge that they burned her with a crack pipe was later dropped). Then while out on bail, James and his partner called up a female music executive for a “business meeting,” but instead kidnapped and assaulted her for approximately twenty hours.
-James said he turned over a new leaf in prison and got clean. He was open about his indiscretions in interviews, and even joked about his past like it was another individual who had done all of the stuff that ended up with him behind bars. Turns out, though, that James was either a real good liar, real desperate to get back in the music industry’s good graces, or suffered from a severe case of cognitive dissonance. After James died of heart failure in 2004, the autopsy performed on him found nine different drugs in his system: xanax, valium, wellbutrin, celexa, vicodin, marijuana, cocaine, extacy, and heroin. While the levels of each one were separately not enough to cause an overdose, according to filed statements….dude, that’s the fucking history of pharmacology in his corpse!
The sad end to an overall sad life? Yeah, I’d probably say so, regardless of the image that has been left behind: either by Chappelle, or James himself in the autobiography he finished just before he passed, or his bombastic tombstone. As such, it’s made it sort of hard to listen to his music and not think about what was going on in his life, or how things would turn out for him. Maybe that association of the artist’s music and his life will change over time. Maybe not. I still have trouble listening to Double Fantasy, especially since I moved to New York two years ago, and usually end up having to walk by the Dakota once every week or two to catch a subway train.
Even with that, I can still appreciate the quality of Street Songs, James’ biggest hit and best album. If anyone knows two songs by Rick James, they’re probably the biggest hits from this disc, “Superfreak,” and “Give it To Me Baby.” But almost every one of the eight songs here are solid. For instance, the epic seven-minute ballad “Fire and Desire” (download), featuring James’ protÃ©gÃ© Teena Marie, is not a traditional love duet either in construction or tone, and that’s a good thing: The song starts slowly, with Rick and Teena as two former lovers running into one another. Rick talks about how he’s with someone new, then as he flashes back to how it used to be between the reunited couple, and starts singing, the song makes a sudden switch from 4/4 to 3/4 time. Rick goes through a whole verse before we actually hear Teena sing, reciprocating his emotions. The song ends with another spoken coda, as Rick points out that they’re both living with someone else now, but he still wants to feel his old love in his arms. As the song fades out, it’s left to the listener to decide whether or not this is a final hug for old times sake, or the rebirth of something more. On the opposite side of the spectrum is the tight, raging reggae funk of “Mr. Policeman” (download), with incendiary lyrics about how every time a cop shows his face “somebody dies,” and incendiary harmonica courtesy of Stevie Wonder, with another appearance by Teena Marie for additional vocal texturing.
And so, the book closes on the badness — and the “badness” — of Mr. James. Next time, this series will take a look at probably the best solo album from a bloke whose ego and martyr complex is about as big as the pig which floats overhead at his concerts.