Lucky man: Legendary hit-maker Nile Rodgers on disco, drugs and Daft Punk
The king of disco survived drug addiction, cancer, homelessness and even Madonna's parties. Now thanks to Daft Punk, he is the unlikely star of this summer's festival circuit. So where does Nile Rodgers go from here? He reveals all to Fiona Sturges
In his 61 years, Nile Rodgers has endured more than his fair share of trauma. There were his mother and stepfather, both heroin-addicted and given to nodding off mid-sentence; the teenage homelessness that led him to sleep on subway trains; his own addictions to alcohol and cocaine, which prompted his heart to stop eight times; and, most recently, a diagnosis of prostate cancer. Yet only once has he ever wondered whether life was worth living.
It was in the early days of Chic. He and his partner and co-songwriter Bernard Edwards were scouting around for record deals. Demos has been distributed, A&R reps had flocked to their gigs, the New York underground was going wild for their tunes. But still no one was biting.
"It was frustrating because we had worked so damned hard and we knew our music was really good," Rodgers recalls. "We made a death pact. We said that if we didn't get signed, we were going to hold hands and jump off the George Washington Bridge. Had we got as far as standing up there, I'm pretty sure Bernard would have said to me, 'You know that guitar part you were playing? We should go back to the studio and fix that.' So I'm not sure, in retrospect, that we were serious. And anyway, we got signed."
We are sitting in a trailer-turned-dressing-room backstage at the Magic Summer Live music festival in Surrey. Outside it's 31C; inside, it's only marginally cooler. Wearing his customary show-time ensemble of a white suit and matching beret, Rodgers has just stepped off stage, having completed an hour-long Chic set with an air-punchingly triumphant version of "Good Times" mashed up with the Sugarhill Gang's Chic-sampling "Rapper's Delight".
As the band filed off stage, the audience struck up a spontaneous recital of Daft Punk's "Get Lucky", the disco- and funk-flavoured global hit that earlier this year thrust Rodgers, its co-writer, back into the spotlight.
Rodgers is, of course, the legendary hit-maker behind some of the greatest pop songs ever written, a fact underlined by today's set list, which includes "Everybody Dance", "We are Family", "Upside Down", "Le Freak", "I'm Coming Out" and "Dance, Dance, Dance".
With this glittering back-catalogue, which continued into the 1980s as he played on and produced some of the biggest records of the era, including David Bowie's Let's Dance, Madonna's Like a Virgin and Duran Duran's Notorious, Rodgers can afford to be casual about this latest success. "I'm cool with it," he shrugs, mopping the sweat off his face with a towel. "A hit record is great, and it puts you in the spotlight for a while. But then it goes away. I mean, this is my 20th number-one record. So I know that it's only a matter of time before it's not a big deal again. In this business, it's all fleeting."
Musically, Rodgers has certainly had his ups and downs. In the mid-1970s, he and Edwards were the kings of the New York disco scene. They had masterminded a simple, joyous and deliberately repetitive new R&B and funk-filled sound that, as the Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr said in a recent BBC4 documentary, "you'd have to be made out of stone not to be moved by". They were at the top of their game.
But then came the "Disco Sucks!" backlash that gathered momentum among rock'n'roll fans and culminated in 1979's fabled "Disco Demolition Night", when crate-loads of disco records were blown up in the middle of a Chicago baseball pitch. After limping on for another few years, Edwards retreated, shocked by how fast and ferociously Chic had gone out of fashion; Rodgers absorbed the blow, and moved on. His next collaborator would be David Bowie.
"You see, that was a perfect example," Rodgers says. "These things don't last. They can't last. Music has to keep moving. But I was lucky. For me there was always something around the corner." Rodgers is a terrific talker, bouncing happily from one anecdote to the next, each featuring a succession of mind- bogglingly famous names – Bowie, Diana Ross, Bryan Ferry, Debbie Harry, Grace Jones…
He tells me about the strange magnetism of Madonna. "Even before she was huge, she was so damned interesting. If she told me what she'd had for breakfast, I'd think it was phenomenal. She had that magical thing going. When I walked into a room with her, all I'd hear is, 'Who is that? Who's that girl with Nile?'"
Rodgers is one of life's optimists. In person, his default setting appears to be beaming. His indefatigable spirit is evident in his enormously engaging autobiography Le Freak, in which each new blow, whether to his personal life or career, is received with a c'est la vie shrug.
"There's been this strange irony to my whole life," Rodgers says cheerfully. "All my original bandmates have died when I was the most wild and most reckless of us all [Edwards died in his sleep after a Chic show in Japan in 1996]. But I'm still here. I mean, can you imagine? I'm not a religious person but I'm always thankful to the elements of the universe for allowing me another day of my life, because it's incredible."
I ask about his cancer diagnosis of two years ago. That, surely, must have given him pause.
"Not really," he replies, still smiling. "That day I had a job to do. I got the call on a Thursday and I had to go to Rome to do a show on the Saturday. I told my doctor I was going to pretend I'd missed his call and I'd call him when I got back. He was yelling, 'No, no, no, Nile. This is really serious.' I was, like, 'Come on, doc. If I had missed your call, would you really be trying that hard to get me over the weekend? Of course you wouldn't. So we'll speak on Monday.'"
That sounds a little like denial to me, I say. "Not at all," Rodgers replies. "Because I knew what the reality was. His exact words were 'extremely aggressive prostate cancer'. But I didn't know all the specifics and neither he nor I had all the information, so I wasn't going to worry about something that wasn't clear." A few days ago, Rodgers saw his oncologist for a post-op check, an appointment that was long-delayed because of his touring schedule. "Right before I got here today I received an email from my doctor." He pauses, and grins. "And today I'm cancer-free."
Nile, I say, do you ever think about slowing things down? Easing up on the touring? Taking the odd break? "No way," he hoots. "If I did that I'd probably get sick and die."
Rodgers' mother, Beverly, became pregnant when she was 13. Her family persuaded her to marry the father, Nile Rodgers Sr, but when the day came, she changed her mind, and her family disowned her. Bobby, Rodgers' stepfather, was white, Jewish and "central-casting handsome". He and Beverly were unusually progressive: they were one of the few mixed-race couples in New York's Greenwich Village. They smoked pipes, were impeccably dressed and they instructed Nile to call them by their first names. They were also heavily into drugs.
"My childhood was bittersweet in many ways," he says. "We moved around a lot. By the time I was 10, I had travelled thousands of miles, often on my own. My parents were like my friends, so it felt like I didn't really have parents at all. But in a crazy way that was very liberating. It forced me to be independent, maybe a leader, and certainly a survivor."
He rarely saw his biological father, though he credits him, a beatnik percussionist, as the provider of the musical genes that would lead his son to sell an estimated 100 million records. Nile Sr didn't enjoy the same success. Devastated by his break-up with Beverly, he became a slave to heroin and incapable of holding down a job.
One day he was spotted by his eight-year-old son naked and apparently suicidal on the roof of a flophouse in Greenwich Village, with a large crowd looking on. Nile introduced himself to the policeman in charge and was dispatched to talk his dad down.
By this time, Rodgers says, "I was essentially on my own. I still slept in my mother's house and I had a key to the door but I did my own thing." His attendance at school was fitful; he preferred to do his learning from watching films on TV.
"I was a fan of the Marx Brothers," he recalls. "One of them had this character where he pretended not to be able to talk, but then he wrote this autobiography called Harpo Speaks!. He wrote about how he quit school at nine years old to become a professional. I read that when I was eight and I was going, 'Wow, I can't wait to turn nine so I can leave school and get a job.'"
Rodgers began playing guitar when he was 16, and was soon playing stints in jazz and Latino bands. At the same time, he was homeless, bedding down at friends' houses or on the New York subway. "I actually liked living on the subway. I was optimistic even then. I'd rather be homeless and learning music and meeting all the interesting people I met than staying at my home, which at that point felt more dangerous to me."
Rodgers' first paid work in music came in touring with the Sesame Street band, after which he got a job in the house band at the Harlem Apollo. Then, in 1973, he met Edwards.
On the surface, they were chalk and cheese: Rodgers was by then an LSD-loving, bell- bottom-wearing, politically conscious hippie while Edwards was a clean-living, conservative R&B fan. But after a couple of false starts, they turned into one of popular music's most intuitive, successful and, for a time, prolific pairings.
Rodgers says his assimilation into the disco scene felt like coming home. "The openness allowed me to find myself," he explains. "Until then, I was a square peg in a round hole. When I went to my first disco, which wasn't Studio 54 or anywhere fancy but a small place in the 'hood, I saw something that looked like my early life with my parents. It was a mixed crowd: there were blacks, whites, gays, Puerto Ricans, everything. And everybody was getting along cool."
As Chic's sales rocketed, so did their income. Rodgers' book details, with some delight, his newfound indulgence in designer clothes, cars and boats. Then there was the cocaine use. In retrospect, given the environment of his childhood, Rodgers reckons his drug use was inevitable. "There was no phobia in my household. If you came to my mother's house and didn't do drugs, you would be the odd person out. They wouldn't make fun of you, but you would just look like the oddball sitting there while everyone else smoked pot and shot heroin."
A party at Madonna's house in the mid-1990s finally brought the realisation that he was a full-blown addict. Rodgers had been on a three-day bender and began to hear voices in his head. It was his first, and only, bout of cocaine psychosis. When the voices finally receded, he booked himself into rehab. He hasn't touched drink or drugs since.
Now, on the rare occasions he's home in New York's Upper West Side, he lives a comparatively quiet life with his girlfriend. I ask, impertinently, if Rodgers has ever wanted children. "Absolutely not," he replies. "I knew at a very young age that I didn't want kids and I didn't want to get married. There was nothing in my entire life that positively reinforced those concepts. But it's not a big deal. That's why I have the girlfriend that I have. She didn't want children either, so I'm, like, 'Great, you're my girl.'"
Rodgers' long-term plan is to carry on doing exactly what he's been doing for the past couple of decades: touring, collaborating, and touring some more. There are whispers of another Daft Punk collaboration, this time with the French duo working on an unreleased Chic track, though the details are sketchy. There is also a Broadway musical in the works based on Rodgers' extensive back-catalogue.
"I don't seek out work," reflects Rodgers. "I like to wait until it comes to me. I only write songs to order. I can't write the music until I know the story. I always call my songs non- fiction, with fictional elements. People think that they're lightweight, but there's truth and depth to all of them."
Now he has only a small wish list of people he'd like to work with, although, he says, "in my real fantasies, I'd like to bring Hendrix and Miles Davis back and jam with them. I've done a lot of cool stuff in my time but working with those guys? That would have been the coolest."
'The Chic Organization: Up All Night (Greatest Hits)' is out now. Chic play Bingley Music Live on 1 September; Bestival, Isle of Wight, on 8 September and Festival No 6, Portmeirion, on 15 September
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