There is a saying that a fine line exist between genius and insanity. Some would argue that they are one in the same. The greatest minds in history were possessed by those who could have been described as unorthodox to say the least. But creativity needs a foundation, one that encourages and allows the creator to tap into all of their gifts. Musicians tend to stick out the most when it we think about this for their industry is not only fiercely competitive but without creativity, you have no career. Those who understand this concept and master it, go on to become great and in some cases, legendary. When Rick James (1948-2004) died from a heart attack on August 6, 2004, a light was extinguished and a musical great was lost forever. During his lifetime, he created a persona for himself and composed music that is still played to this day. His hits Super Freak and Give It To Me Baby are dance classics that sound as good today as they did when they were released. Prior to his death, he found himself in the spotlight when actor and comedian Dave Chappelle created a skit based on James’ life. In the skit, Chappelle takes on the role of James as Charlie Murphy recalls his Hollywood stories. In one of the skits, James remarks “cocaine is a hell of a drug”. It was a part of his life as was much more as can be learned in this brutally frank autobiography of one of the music industry’s most extreme characters.
But just who was James Ambrose Johnson who we came to know as Rick James? And just how crazy was his life? I can tell that you his life was a wild ride and once I started this book I could not put it down. It was a miracle that he lived as long as he did. His life was anything but boring and there is no point in the book where there is a calm moment. His story is told with the help of David Ritz, whom some readers may recall, is the author of Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye. The difference here is that this is James telling us his story whereas in Gaye’s case, Ritz is telling us about Marvin’s short life. Regardless, both books are enjoyable and shocking to read but necessary in understanding the character behind the musical geniuses we came to love. And no matter what we think about their lives, we can agree that they saw and accomplished things that many of us never will. Tragically, both died before reaching sixty years of age. As Rick tells it, he did not want to meet the same fate as Marvin, but ironically drugs would play a part in his demise. And although he outlived Gay by a few decades, his lifestyle caught up to him. The only difference is that Gaye was murdered by his father whereas Rick’s heart could not keep up.
His story is simply incredible and filled with names that we all know such as Steven Tyler, Carrie Fisher, and gridiron great Jim Brown, among others. And his feud with Prince is both hilarious and confusing. Prison, the military and even assault make appearances in his recollections. I warn readers that James holds nothing back and tells us what he went through in some gritty terms. But as you read the book and come to know him, you will understand that it could only have been written that way. He was not one to sugar coat things and be politically correct. With Rick James, you either take him or leave him and fortunately for us, most of the world took him and his songs that have moved many dance floors. This book is rough and at times he can be quite vulgar. The incidents are shocking but the key is to remember that James and many artists. lived in a completely different world than the average person. To be successful, it was sometimes necessary to view the world through very different lenses. The fast life becomes the norm with drugs, money, sex and power readily at your fingertips. The seduction of that life is often too strong for many to resist and as James tells us himself, he could not escape his inner demons or what it is called in the book, the Me Monster. In fact, at one point, Ray Charles flat-out states that he wrote some of his best material when he was high. But the pull of the devil is stronger than gravity forcing the abuser to use all of their might to escape rock bottom.
I believe that it took an extraordinary amount of courage to write this book. What I found striking is that for all of his antics, he never ceased to love his mother who figures prominently throughout his autobiography as the grounding force to Rick’s increasing erratic life. She and others would do their best to set him on the right path but in the end, he lived his life on his terms whether for better or worse. He is long gone but left behind many great songs , interviews and television appearances. This autobiography is a gift, allowing us to read his story as he wanted it told. And when you have finished this book, you will understand what he meant by the glow.