Book Review: Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco, and Destiny, Nile Rodgers (Random House, 2011)

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Nile Rodgers is a mandarin of pop music. His discography is littered with colossal hits like Bowie’s Let’s Dance, Madonna’s Like a Virgin, and Duran Duran’s “The Reflex.” These Eighties icons were follow-ups to 70’s icons like CHIC, Sister Sledge, and Diana Ross. Despite his superstar buddies with big personalities, Rodgers’ autobiography reveals him as a behind-the-scenes-music-theory-wonk.

Rodgers’ prose is crisp, easy to read, and his story is captivating. I didn’t expect to be all that interested in his childhood. But Rodgers manages to tell a fascinating tale about his early years, being raised by “junkies” as he referred to his biological mother and adoptive step-father.

The insight into his early years reveals something about the uniqueness of Nile Rodgers. He was an outsider in most circles and ultimately found himself at home with other outsiders. His anecdote about being out in LA at a young age and spotting a group of “freaks” across the street, engaging them in conversation, and later the same night dropping acid with Timothy Leary, seems torn from the pages of a neo-noir pulp novel. Later in life but still before his breakthrough, a personal intrigue with Roxy Music spawned the idea for CHIC as a concept band. That an American-born-and-raised a black touring and session guitarist with R&B and funk roots became fascinated with a British white glam group doing art rock was…weird. And thus is Nile Rodgers’ musical pedigree. Thank goodness.

The rise and fall of CHIC is a fantastic read. Rodgers delves into the creative process he and long-time collaborator Bernard Edwards used to pen their barn-full of smash hits. The precipitous fall of CHIC as the “disco sucks” movement rose was felt acutely by the duo but they are vindicated today to be sure. My post, In Defence of Disco, discusses that public rejection, which was so palpable as the seventies closed out.

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Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers

Rodgers had a massive second wind through his production of David Bowie, Madonna, and Duran Duran in the 80’s. There is scrumptious detail about Bowie’s Let’s Dance album and the evolution of Madonna from a streetwise and business savvy recording artist to an international pop icon.

As I read the book, I found myself uttering, “oh, he wrote that song” and “that was him?” and “him again?” on every other page. Rodgers’ fingerprints and guitar licks are on so many hit records, you wonder why most people have never heard of him.

Which brings us back to Rodgers as a ‘geek.’ Being behind the scenes was a deliberate strategy for Rodgers and Edwards. They were more focussed on the quality and meaning of the music than the celebrity it would garner. Watch some Nile Rodgers interviews and lectures on YouTube (like this one) and you’ll see what I mean. He describes with glee the secret of CHIC, which was to utilize complex jazz chords in a funky way to trick the listener into thinking it was basic. “It’s what you don’t play that matters,” is a mantra he borrows from Miles Davis and applies artfully to his music.

Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco, and Destiny is a great read not only for music lovers and fans of CHIC but for anyone interested in the evolution of a career and an impressive legacy from the humblest of beginnings.

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