If you’re really a music fan, you probably don’t need me to tell you that the disco era spawned more than it’s share of talented artists, including a few legends. One such legend is Nile Rodgers. Initially gaining fame as one of the two main men behind the band Chic, he is a gifted guitarist and after Chic’s initial burst of fame, gained even more renown as a producer, working with everyone from Mick Jagger and Madonna to Diana Ross, Stevie Ray Vaughan and the B-52’s. His experiences working with those artists alone, combined with firsthand accounts of coming up in the heyday of disco would probably be enough for an entertaining book.
However, Nile’s autobiography, Le Freak, is more than just an account of rock star hedonism. Although there’s plenty of that to be found in the book, Nile also takes the reader on a journey through his incredibly unique pre-Chic years. A childhood spent shuttling between New York and California with a teenage mother, a drug-addicted father, a drug-addicted stepfather, and a colorful cast of family members and acquaintances is just the tip of the iceberg in what’s certainly been an entertaining life. Nile tells all of the stories in his book with a personable tone that actually sounds like him talking to you, and not through a ghostwriter, either.
When reading a celebrity memoir, the natural impulse is to immediately look for the dirt, but Nile gets through the entire book without badmouthing or throwing shade on any of the hundreds of musicians he’s encountered and worked with over the years. While there are plenty of funny/interesting stories, at no point in the book do things turn malicious. This is a good thing, trust me.
Among the interesting encounters with names/songs you might be familiar with, Nile tells the oft-repeated story about Chic’s biggest hit single, “Le Freak”, being written as a result of not being able to get into legendary NYC nightspot Studio 54. Other notable stories include being the victims of some threatening behavior after suing Sugarhill Records to get their rightful songwriting credit for “Rapper’s Delight” (which sampled their smash “Good Times”), as well as encounters with David Bowie (for whom he produced the immensely popular “Let’s Dance” album) and a very young and incredibly headstrong Madonna (whose career he took into the stratosphere via his production of the “Like a Virgin” album).
Nile recalls his glory days with a great deal of affection, although the bitterness he reserves for the disco detractors who pulled the plug on the glory days of Chic is certainly justified. His friendship with partner Bernard Edwards is explored in great detail, from their early days breaking into the music industry to a heartbreaking passage about Bernard’s death (from a sudden strain of pneumonia) the night after a Chic reunion show in Japan. Also detailed heavily-Nile’s own struggle with drugs and alcohol. While given his family history, it would certainly be expected (and perhaps even rationalized), Nile deserves a ton of credit for taking control of his problem and eventually checking into rehab and turning his life around.
If I have one problem with the book, it’s this: the book is too damn short. Nile speeds through the late Eighties and early Nineties, and even the time after that (drug addiction spiraling out of control, Bernard’s death) doesn’t get afforded the same attention that his earlier days do. Plenty of famous folks have spent far more pages talking about far less (hello, Janet), and I wouldn’t have been mad if Nile had decided to toss in another 50-100 pages.
The book ends on a cliffhanger of sorts-as anyone who has followed Nile’s blog or Twitter feed will know, he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer some time ago (and thankfully appears to be on the road to recovery) but Le Freak is certainly no pity party. It’s an engaging, easy read, and a great look into one of pop music’s most unsung heroes.
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