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The Rock Days of Disco

An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco, and Destiny
By Nile Rodgers
Illustrated. 318pp. Spiegel & Grau. $27

Although Nile Rodgers makes the grade as a B-list celebrity, he isn't as famous as the musical record warrants. A longtime co-leader of the so-called disco band Chic, he's best known for the bass line his partner Bernard Edwards devised for the monster single "Good Times," which later drove the seminal "Rapper's Delight" and several lesser records. But many A-listers have capitalized on his talents and quite a few valued his friendship. And as this eventful and engaging autobiography emphasizes, that was how he and Edwards planned it. Chic cultivated anonymity. They saw their way to success as an "opening act."

In fact, one of the surprise gifts of Le Freak is that a third of it covers Rodgers's own opening act--a coming-of-age tale every bit as impressive as the musical insights and star-time chronicles that follow. Born to a hip 14-year-old beauty in 1952, Rodgers was raised among bohemians, criminals and drug addicts in Lower Manhattan, the Bronx and Los Angeles by his African-American mother, his white Jewish stepfather and both biological grandmothers. His sporadic relationship with his biological father, an addict first and a musician second who died before reaching 40, also made its mark.

Most of these people were highly intelligent, rather unstable, and good at getting by. Rodgers, an up-and-down student schooled more usefully by television and movies, could get by on several instruments before he taught himself guitar from clarinet études he had lying around. At 15 he brushed with such A-listers as Frank Sinatra while helping a grandmother's boyfriend clean private jets at Van Nuys Airport. By 1968 he was a street hippie whose professional base was Greenwich Village--a practiced panhandler who slept in crash pads and on the subway. For a while he was a Black Panther. For a while he took up residence in the "Park Avenue pied-ŕ-terre" of the filmmaker-heiress Cinda Firestone.

Dark-skinned via his dad's genes in a mostly beige family, an insomniac who says he hasn't slept through the night since being sent to a state convalescent home for his asthma around the time he was 5 1/2, Rodgers was an outsider among outsiders. Yet beyond the hit man who fell for his mom and a few incestuous child abusers scattered among his relatives, he radiates love and respect for his family, and gratitude to random benefactors now long gone. Even if you suspect he's fronting, which I don't, you have to admire the prose of someone who has said he never wrote anything longer than a Dear Jane letter before tackling this book. Like his music, Le Freak convinces--and moves.

By 1970 Rodgers was gigging regularly in an early "jazz-blues-rock-fusion" band called New World Rising. Between his technical command and a personal charm he's too charming to brag about, his career progressed steadily, from "Sesame Street" road band to Apollo house band to increasingly lucrative backup slots. In the early 1970s he hooked up with Edwards, whose slick sartorial style and deep soul roots contrasted so drastically with Rodgers's hippie motley and avant-jazz upbringing that it took the happenstance of a shared job to convince them their partnership was meant to be. Musically, Edwards effected a "soul-man makeover" by getting Rodgers to put down his hollow-bodied Gibson and teaching him to "chuck" on a Stratocaster. But Chic was Rodgers's concept--a minimalist funk band inspired image-wise by Roxy Music's ersatz elegance and Kiss's refusal to show their faces.

Rodgers and Edwards regarded Chic as a rock band for a multicultural disco movement that made good on hippie peace, love and freedom. Their musical strategy highlighted the "breakdown," in which instruments drop out of a simple, memorable, funky song and then return to rebuild it at a more intense pitch of excitement. In addition they strove to give every song a Deep Hidden Meaning, or D.H.M.--in the case of the triple-­platinum single Rodgers's book is named after, for instance, the fact that there was actually a dance called the Freak. How deep these meanings were one well may wonder, but that the two could even think that way was over the heads of the yahoos who made "Disco Sucks" a racist and homophobic slogan in 1979--a debacle that seems to anger Rodgers more than that hit man, who at least was driven mad by love.

The precipitous decline of the disco phenomenon hurt and disoriented Rodgers and Edwards, but the evidence suggests they would have gotten disoriented anyway, and it hardly destroyed their careers. In fact, I believe that by disorienting them it freed them to vent bitter and intelligent hidden meanings on four albums they released in the teeth of declining sales. Regrettably, Rodgers all but ignores the magnificent Real People and the subsequent Tongue in Chic, Take It Off and Believer, as well as his excellent first two solo LPs. Lean, jumpy, thoughtful, sometimes acerbic, this body of work stands nevertheless as the second-phase legacy of a superb rock band some may prefer to classify as funk.

Rodgers plays down these records because chart success was intrinsic to the Chic concept. As a producer, he had plenty more, most prominently with Diana Ross, David Bowie, Madonna and the B-52s, whom he portrays with the sharp eye and tolerance for foible that make his love for his family so believable--the regal Ross nervous about her D.H.M.'s, Bowie greedy for hits and stingy with credit, Madonna transformed from cheeky young opening act to the incomparably famous old friend whose 36th-birthday party was the beginning of the end of Rodgers's multiple addictions.

Which brings us to the decadent stuff. Rodgers the cokehead, the alcoholic, the horndog. Rodgers holding court in a stall of a Studio 54 ladies' room where he'd share his blow and his sexual apparatus with visiting lovelies. Rodgers the "junkie workaholic" driving himself even harder than he drove his speedboats and sports cars. Rodgers the insane wastrel whose accountant advised him to buy gold to give away because it was cheaper than cocaine. Finally, Rodgers the recoverer, sober 16 years now. Good for him, of course. I am sure he intends this familiar saga as cautionary, and hope not too many find it titillating instead.

But since even B-list celebrities titillate, it says a lot for Rodgers's tolerant bohemian upbringing and charming way with a story that the narrative pull of Le Freak remains unvoyeuristic. In part because he made so much of a background that a less resilient person might call deprived, and in part because his concepts are always as strong as his technique, we want the dirt not on David Bowie, say, but on how Rodgers himself admired, learned from and, when necessary, had his way with that august personage. Too bad that by ending with Edwards's death during a 1996 Chic reunion in Japan, Rodgers fails to provide a final act--a full picture of a life that slowed down but continued with sobriety, and included his so-far successful battle with aggressive prostate cancer. And although he credits many individual paramours for their many individual benisons, a few reflections on serial polygamy would also be nice. Every book should contain all the deep hidden meanings it can.

New York Times Book Review, December 2, 2011