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October 25, 2004

Rick James R.I.P.

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I was saddened to learn that funkmeister Rick James has died at age 56. (I was also startled to learn that he died back on August 6th. How did I miss that? Lesson: don't look to 2Blowhards for your breaking news.) I never paid much attention to his music beyond the immortal "Super Freak," but "Super Freak" was more than alright with me. For a couple of decades, "Super Freak" has been Super Effective at getting people out of their seats and onto the dance floor, and at encouraging them to feel happy and goofy too. What a sexy party song it is.

"Rick James was a brilliant, innovative singer/songwriter/producer," wrote the groupie-turned-author Pamela DesBarres, "a swaggering, strutting, pompous picture of decadence and dastardly obsessions." Bless his departed soul, eh? In any case, it's hard to think of many songs that do as good a job at conveying the silly, hyperbolic, cartoonish, absurd sensation of feeing young and all-sexed-up as well as "Super Freak" does.

Some Rick James facts I learned while scanning the web today:

  • He was the third of eight children.
  • His mother was a former dancer who made a living running numbers. "She raised us strict Catholics," James recalled.
  • But he always lived a wild life. By his mid-teens, he'd already tried marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. He joined the Army at 15, deserted, signed with Motown, got ratted out by someone, and spent a year in the brig.
  • By the way ... Kids: DO NOT take Rick James as a role model. This way of conducting a life WILL NOT TURN OUT WELL.
  • His album "Street Songs," which included "Super Freak," sold 3 million copies, and stayed on the American charts for over a year.
  • "She's a very kinky girl/ the kind you don't take home to mother/ She'll never let your spirits down/ once you get her off the street ... She's alright/ She's alright/ She's alright/ That girl's alright with me -- Yeah!!!!" Sigh: lyrics to make me feel all warm and nostalgic inside ...
  • During the "Street Songs" tour, James would light a reefer while on stage, and dare the cops to arrest him.
  • Although he continued writing, recording, performing and producing, James's career never reached anything like that kind of peak again.
  • He's generally considered to have fused the riff-based funk of James Brown with pop and punk. Onstage, he was the spangly, prancing embodiment of arousal itself, a combo of George Clinton and Little Richard, and as irresistable an image as Mick Jagger in his prime. Me and my punk friends were snotty about funk at that time, but even we thought "Super Freak" was so coked-out sexy/crazy you just had to love it. Many an evening otherwise devoted to Richard Hell, The Ramones, and Lene Lovich reached its climax when "Super Freak" was put on the turntable.
  • But by the late '80s, Rick James's life had crashed. Hiphop had overwhelmed James's brand of funk on the charts, James had quarreled and broken with Motown, and he was addicted to cocaine.
  • James sued MC Hammer in 1990 for unfairly lifting the great main riff from "Super Freak" for a hiphop track. James won the suit, shared that year's Grammy as co-composer of the year's best song, and found himself awash in money once again, most of which appears to have vanished up his nose.
  • In 1993, James was convicted on two counts of assault. In one of the cases, he and his girlfriend held a woman against her will for six days, burned her with a crack pipe, and forced her to engage in sex acts. In the other case, he and his girlfriend held and beat a woman music executive for 20 hours.
  • At the time, James had a $10,000-a-week cocaine habit, and was taking as many as nine Halcion pills to get a night's sleep. Looking back on those days, he told a reporter for the Detroit News:

    Cocaine is a powerful drug. We would eat dinner and do cocaine. We didn't know anything about the Betty Ford Clinic then. The biggest mistake I made is that I tried to become my alter ego. I wanted to be Rick James, wild man, party machine, lady slayer, and the cocaine told me I could. I forgot that I was James Johnson, a nerdy kid, who grew up reading 'Dante's Inferno' on Saturday nights.

    He told Pamela DesBarres:

    You can't have rock and roll without drugs, you can't have rock and roll without sex. It's a vicious circle and I became angry. I was angry when I was young. I was mad about living in a white tenement slum, run off from school by Polish people. I was mad about my mother being in the numbers rackets, working for the Mafia. I was angry about the fact that my father would beat my mother on a daily basis, that my mother would take it in turn and beat on me. I was an abused child. I was mad about all those things, very bitter and very angry.

  • One trademark element of James's look was his Masai-on-acid braids; one of his signature moves was to throw his head and braids around -- and around and around -- with immense abandon. Freedom! Exultation! Daring! But not good for the health, alas: while on a 1997 comeback tour, James suffered a stroke brought on by the move, an injury the doctors termed "rock and roll neck." James had to learn to walk again; was later diagnosed with diabetes; and the next year had to have a hip replaced.
  • Having survived these medical emergencies, James claimed to have slowed down, and spoke to the press about his relief at, according to one account,

    no longer waking up with 10 strange women in his bed, uncertain whether it was day or night on account of the aluminium foil he had taped over the windows.

  • But did he slow down? Perhaps not. According to a female friend who talked to The Star, James had been on a weeklong drug bender prior to his death. In his blood, the toxicologist found Xanax, Valium, Wellbutrin, Celexa, Vicodin, Digoxin, Clorlorophenenemex (I think I typed that accurately), Methamphetamine, and cocaine.
  • Even so, doctors said that Rick James didn't die of a drug overdose.

Here's a good obit; here's another. Here's a summary of the toxicology report. Here's Wikipedia's entry on Rick James. Here's the official Rick James website. In 2002, Rick James told that he thought holograms would prove to be a good investment.



posted by Michael at October 25, 2004


Yes...I was in college for "Super Freak"...big smile.

I did not know some of the specific details of his addiction---that holding-a-woman-against-her-will-for-twenty-hours is horrifying...the kind of guy that you, er, don't take home to mother. (or "muthah" as he says). I did not know the stroke came from whipping his braids around!! I thought it was a delayed consequence of drug use.

What a strange life. What a good song.

Posted by: annette on October 26, 2004 3:56 AM

Running for the exit from the start and guess what? he made it!

Posted by: ricpic on October 26, 2004 12:32 PM

One of my favorite tidbits about RJ. He joined the Navy @ 15, quit..well skipped out and fled to Canada. He formed his first group there, the Mynah Birds. Neil Young and Bruce Palmer were in the band. Both went on to form Buffalo Springfield and then Neil Young left and..well you know the rest.
Neil Young & Rick James, what a combo!

Posted by: DarkoV on October 26, 2004 12:54 PM

Why rick WHy? BEleive it or not so many kids looked up to you. You let me down. I thought you were the greatest. im only 19 but i fell in love with your music as long as i could remember.
DRugs kills........................

Posted by: Ondra burke on November 5, 2004 10:21 PM

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