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NILE RODGERS INTERVIEW – PART ONE [2012]

WE'RE HERE TO TALK ABOUT YOUR BOOK, 'LE FREAK', SO I THINK WE SHOULD PROBABLY START AT THE BEGINNING… WHEN DID YOU DECIDE TO WRITE YOUR STORY DOWN?

About four years ago, probably, prior to it coming out. I had gone to see the musical Mamma Mia, because my friend was the musical director, and I'm sitting there with my girlfriend, and literally five minutes into the show, maybe ten, I jumped up and I said to my girlfriend 'This is bullshit, this is not an original story'. I grew up in movie theatres, and Mamma Mia is basically a b-movie by Phil Silvers called 'Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell' which I saw when I was child. It's exactly the same story, Maybe somewhere they did say that the show was inspired by that movie but it's not being presented like that, it's being presented like this great original story by ABBA with this music. At least, that's how it felt to me.

But it did give me an idea. I said 'Wow, what if I did what Benny and Bjorn just did, but with a real story instead of some fake story, what if I did that? I have more hits, I have more hits and a real story, what would that be like?' So I wrote down a quick idea, an outline of my real life story, and this huge list of records I've made. When you put it in the context of my life, you don't just need to think about hits, because when you see Mamma Mia it's not a bunch of hits, it's a few hits, but the songs are used to help carry the narrative. So I said 'Imagine if you have THESE songs helping carry THIS narrative'. It was like wow! I was all jittery and excited and I took it to this woman who was a famous producer - unfortunately I don't know her name because I just met her that once - and she looked at it and she says 'These songs are fantastic, but the story is not that great a story'. And then I realised it just didn't mean anything to her, and that was ok…

So fast forward a few months and I'm now obsessed. There's people I know from the old party disco days and one of them is very famous, one of the early supermodels, and she introduces me to this theatrical producer and I take him the same thing that I took to the woman. I show it to this guy, and it's not meaning a lot to him either, I'm like 'Wow, this is weird', and he says 'But, I do have a great show that I'd like you to work on', and he hires me as a composer, so now I'm re-writing his show, and meanwhile my little thing is sitting over here. A little later I ran into an old friend of mine, who was the editor of the New Yorker magazine - a very prestigious journal - and he says 'I haven't seen you in thirteen years or so, what's going on?'. I told I had a drug problem and I decided to move out of New York City to get out of the whole thing. He says 'I remember you used to be the life of the party, your rock and roll stories were fantastic, you'd always have everyone riveted, you should write a book...

Well I've never written anything longer than a few pages in my life and the proposal thing was only a few pages, but he says 'No but your stories are brilliant, you should string them together, talk about your life, I know a lot about your childhood, it's fascinating'. And I said 'Well, I'm not famous, and I know something about the literary world because I love to read books and when I go to a bookstore I see a certain type of person there and that person is not the sort of person who knows me, so I'm going to be writing to a void, to these people who don't care about me and they have no interest'. I've watched the world of book promotion and it's not like the world of promotion I know, it's not like rock n roll.

I tried to explain to him that it's just not an intelligent thing to do. I mean I'm not famous, if I were going out with Kim Kardashian or was in some scandal maybe but I'm not because everything in my life everyone knows, it's not hidden so there's no scandal. There's nothing you can say that is scandalous, 'I was in the bathroom snorting coke with Mickey Rourke'. Yeah? So what? Everybody did that! Everybody snorts coke in the bathroom with Mickey Rourke, he invites them in!

Anyway, long story short, he tells me to write a book proposal. I don't know how to write a book proposal, but I still have the proposal for my Broadway show… if you look at the proposal from my Broadway show and my book proposal the main difference is the date! It's like one of them is April and one is October or something, but it's the same document. Basically what he does then is he asks me if I want a ghost writer and I was like 'Hell yeah!' Nobody in the rock and roll business writes their own book, I'm smart enough to know that'. But he says 'You tell the stories so well I really think you're the guy who should write your book, but if you want to have a ghost writer let's try and experiment with that. I'll ask you these ten questions, you answer them, we'll hire a ghost writer who will take these same ten questions and write his version of those answers'. I was OK with that, I have nothing but time, and I don't even wanna do the thing so there's no pressure, so I answer the ten questions.

A while later he sends over the ten questions that I've answered and the ten questions that the pro answered, and he says 'Now read both of these, and tell me, which one of these is singing off the pages?'. That was a term I had never heard before. And I read it and he says 'Now, do you think this guy can write?'. And I realised that this story didn't need to be told by a professional writer, it just needs to be told, and it needs to be told in an honest, sincere way. Wordsmithery wasn't the aim, you know? it wasn't like 'One day, once upon a midnight dreary'. It wasn't that shit. It was like 'Look, the other day I couldn't believe that the door opened and Dave Lee Roth…'.

WHAT WAS THE PROCESS OF ACTUALLY DOING THE WRITING? HOW DID YOU APPROACH THAT?

Well I just got into it and I wound up spending the next four years of my life on the most marvellous journey I've ever undertaken. It was the single most difficult thing, ever. I was obsessed with the research, I was obsessed with the facts, because I wanted to know everything. There were certain things I was very certain about, but I wanted to have another corroborative voice, because you know, when you're a kid, you see things but you don't know if others around you see them the same. When you're an adult you see things differently, you know? We have our own filtering mechanisms. So I wanted other people to tell me their point of view.

There's one great story in the book about jamming with Hendrix and the thing that's really sad is that so many of the people who were there are dead now, but, not all, so I went and found the ones who weren't dead and I said 'Alright, you tell me your version of the story'. They were all 'Wow, but we were all so high'! I said 'OK, don't worry about the high part!' One thing that pop culture has not explained about Jimi Hendrix was when he was building Electric Lady Studios he was around all the time. It wasn't like 'Oh my god, there's Jimi Hendrix!', it was like 'Oh hey, there's Jimi'. We'd have a sandwich together at this joint called Blimpy's, and this was the kind of stuff that in a book, it's just not interesting, you spend paragraphs describing a sandwich shop, the block it was on, what else was around it, just so you can say that Jimi hung there with us all the time. That's all you really wanna say. So I was doing all of that stuff in incredible detail. I tried to be as cinematic as possible because I wanted to people to see how romantic it all was and how much I loved it.

HOW DID YOU DECIDE WHAT STAYED IN THE FINAL BOOK AND WHAT HAD TO BE EDITED OUT?

It was like 660 pages and we cut it down to 333 or something like that. I realised I had to edit it down as a songwriter, and as a songwriter I only believe in hooks. I mean, a song has a beginning, middle and an end, and it has to have this hooky thing that pulls the listener in. So I had to have my concept of a hook, even though when I started writing, my writing coach told me 'Well no, the one thing you have to remember about writing a book, is that a book is like writing a song that has no chorus. I went 'Huh? I'm a songwriter and I believe in choruses!' and he was 'Well, a book is just a song with a bunch of great verses, there's no choruses, no recurring theme'. I said 'Can't happen, I won't accept that'.

So what I chose as my chorus was Thanksgiving Day, which is a recurring theme, and every time a chapter ends it doesn't end, it's the beginning of the next chapter. So it's a linear thing, even though they told me 'You can't write a linear thing, because it sucks, because you've done records with Madonna, you've done records with blah blah blah and people want to get to that right away'. That felt anachronistic to me, like, I can't give you the future before it happened. I wanted people to grow up with me to see that, for me to produce Bowie, for me to produce Jeff Beck, for me to work with Mick Jagger or hang out with James Brown or Miles Davis, or whatever, was a natural progression for this kid who started out in Greenwich Village with beatnik parents who would have Thelonius Monk come over to buy his mom's fur coat cos that's what Thelonius Monk did that day. That all just makes sense to me.

WERE THERE ANY STORIES THAT DIDN'T MAKE THE BOOK, BUT YOU WISH HAD BEEN INCLUDED?

One thing that I'm really sad didn't make the book was to show how rich my California life was, because by working at that airport where I worked with all the private planes and superstars, I spent time with some of the most amazing people in show business. It's our equivalent of royalty, we don't have a monarchy, so the only thing that feels like royalty were like Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Junior, Bill Cosby and Marilyn Monroe and that really was an important part of my life. I understand that because I write pop songs and I do these productions and that's what people know, and they wanna attach themselves to what they know. I understand. I really do understand why I couldn't tell that story. But I did have a hook, I did come up with a chorus!

A VERY WISE MAN ONCE WROTE THAT YOU ONLY GO TO THE CHORUS TO GET TO THE BREAKDOWN (THIS IS A QUOTE FROM THE BOOK!). YOU'VE GOT A CHORUS IN THE BOOK, IS THERE A BREAKDOWN TOO? A LITERARY EQUIVALENT?

Well no, unfortunately no, because I don't consider myself a writer. See, I'm a musician, and when I get a chance to play - and just play not to back somebody - I get to step out, and in those breakdowns we get to step out, like 'Check out this cool shit I'm doing, this shit is cool, here it is, check it out!' Then we get to rebuild it, people get to see how it all starts to layer and then comes this bed of stuff that you don't even think about. But if I were a writer, I'd probably be that person with just endless verses because the whole thing would be a breakdown. But because I'm not that guy, what I'm actually trying to do is - in a cinematic way - explain to a person who is not in that room with Mickey Rourke, what that room would look like, 'Madonna's bathroom is four by six blah blah blah' like little, that's what I would want to do. I even wound up having to cut that…

DO YOU FIND THAT PEOPLE THINK THAT THEY KNOW YOU BECAUSE OF YOUR BOOK? BECAUSE I AM SITTING HERE WITH YOU, I'VE READ YOUR BOOK AND I KNOW YOUR STORIES, I KIND OF FEEL LIKE WE'VE KNOWN EACH OTHER A LONG TIME, BECAUSE I FEEL LIKE I'VE GONE THROUGH IT ALL WITH YOU, BECAUSE OF THE WAY THE BOOK'S WRITTEN.

Oh that's so cool, but no, most of the people I know, know about me because during my drug years I told those stories at parties and honestly, most of them go 'Oh Nile I haven't gotten your book yet but did you tell the part about this? Did you tell the part about that?' And I'm like 'No!' In fact there hasn't been one person - which is sort of sad for me - there hasn't been one person that's come up to me and said 'Did you tell the story about this?' and I've actually said yes but I'd say 'I did tell the story about when I first met Bowie, when I was with Billy Idol and he went 'fucking hell that's David Bowie' and threw up. What does that say? I guess there's three of four more books in there that I didn't write yet.

TALKING OF BILLY IDOL, ONE OF MY FAVOURITE MOMENTS IN THE BOOK IS A PICTURE OF YOU AND BILLY, AND HE'S DOING HIS FAMOUS SNEER TO THE CAMERA, SHAKING HIS FIST, AND YOU'RE NEXT TO HIM KIND OF DOING THE SAME FACE BUT INSTEAD OF THE FIST YOU'RE DOING A BIG THUMBS UP!

It's funny, Billy and I were such good friends, we hung out so much at the beginning, it was just great, the eighties man. The eighties for me were just absolutely magical. And it was funny, when I was booked into this hotel (where this interview took place), and I couldn't help but think about the part in the book where I talk about walking into the St James Club and seeing Paul McCartney, and Paul McCartney was at a table, by himself. I was with John Taylor from Duran Duran and outside is complete pandemonium, complete hysteria around John Taylor. I was like 'It's Paul McCartney, it's Paul McCartney, look, it's Paul McCartney'. I figured he was sitting by himself and he didn't want to be bothered so I didn't go 'Mr McCartney you're so incredible, you know the first song I ever learned was 'A Day In The Life', the first song I ever learned to play on the guitar!'. But that's true, that was the first song I ever learned how to play.

Anyway Paul McCartney walked out through this pandemonium, this sea of screaming girls and not one of them recognises him or even says anything, then John Taylor and I walk out and it just explodes. All of a sudden I said to myself 'Nile, there's a serious lesson here bro', that's how fleeting fame is in rock and roll and pop culture'. The greatest pop song writer ever, and nobody gives a fuck, nobody cares, I said to myself 'that's you bro, nobody cares, nobody cares who you are'…

IT'S THE WHOLE ANONYMOUS THING ISN'T IT? I MEAN WITH CHIC YOU PRETTY MUCH SET OUT TO BE ANONYMOUS DIDN'T YOU? THERE IS A PART IN THE BOOK WHERE YOU TALK ABOUT HOW INFLUENCED YOU WERE BY ROXT MUSIC AND KISS, WHERE IT'S ALL ABOUT THE AUDIENCE AND THE CLOTHES AND THE STYLE AND THE AESTHETIC. ROXY MUSIC WEREN'T EVEN ON THE RECORD COVERS, WHICH IS SOMETHING YOU COMPLETELY TOOK ON BOARD WITH CHIC…

Like I said, the Paul McCartney thing and the anonymity of KISS especially, that really brought it home for me. I mean, I grew up feeling ugly, feeling less than, always feeling the outcast. I thought 'Let's turn that into a career!' When I talk about song writing, I talk about how you can be a great songwriter as long as you approach it as if you're an expert, because there is always something you absolutely know about, and if you talk about that, you're an expert. Every song I've ever written is non-fiction, I don't write fictional songs. I don't know how to do that. I only write songs about real stuff. I've never in my life written a song and said 'Boy, I wonder who would be great to sing this great song' because I don't think of myself like that. I'm not just some guy who just does songs and thinks everyone should be dying to use my music. What I do when I work with someone is I meet them and get to know them and I say 'Hmmm, now that I know you I can tell my version of your truth'. It may not be their version of their truth, but it's my version of their truth.' And that's true, that's real, and I'm an expert at that, because I know what I think. So when I write my song about you, it's written by an expert, and that's not egotistical, that's a fact. I'm an expert at my opinion of who you are, and when I write like that the song is honest and sincere. It's not bullshit, it's honest. And I know how to be honest, I know how to tell the truth!

YOU CAN READ PART TWO OF THIS INTERVIEW HERE

NILE RODGERS - Le Freak

AMAZON UK | AMAZON USA

JUNE 2012

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