By Nile Rodgers - Photos: Nile Rodgers Productions
It took me a long time to realize that the things my parents did were not exactly normal. I was about 7 years old, and it was the tail end of the 1950s, when it started to dawn on me that they were . . . well, let's just say they were different. For instance: my friends and I got shots when we went to the doctor and we hated them. But my parents stabbed themselves with needles almost every day, and seemed to enjoy it. Weird.
Most of my friends' parents sounded like the adults in school or on TV when they talked. People understood them. My parents, on the other hand, had their own language, laced with a flowery slang that I picked up the same way the Puerto Rican kids could speak English at school and Spanish at home with their abuelas.
And then there was the matter of how they talked. My parents and their friends spoke this exotic language very slowly. There were other odd things. For instance, they often slept standing up, and this group narcolepsy could strike right in the middle of the most dynamic conversation. Someone would start a sentence: "Those ofay cats bopping out on the stoop are blowin' like Birrr . . . " and suddenly the words would begin to come out slower. And. Slower. Soon they wouldn't be speaking at all. Eventually our living room would be filled with black and white hipsters suspended in time and space, while I ran through the petrified forest of their legs. My favorite game was waiting to see if the ashes from their cigarettes would ever drop. Somehow they almost never did.
I can still remember the day when I finally realized that there was a name for this unusual lifestyle. My parents were junkies! And their slow-motion thing was called nodding out.
Oh well — it was nice to be able to name the thing. This was my life, and as far as I was concerned, there was nothing uncommon or uncomfortable about it at all. In fact, for a while, at least, it was a carefree Shangri-La.
My mother, Beverly, was a beautiful, brilliant black girl whose family descended from southern sharecroppers. She got pregnant with me when she was 13, the very first time she had sex. Bobby, my stepfather, was white, Jewish and central-casting handsome. They were an unusual progressive pair: they smoked pipes, dressed impeccably and read Playboy for the articles. Even in beat-generation Greenwich Village, New York City, circa 1959, interracial couples weren't exactly commonplace.
Mom's maiden name was Goodman. Technically, it was Gooden, but her father, Fredrick, appropriated the name from a huge Goodman's Egg Noodles billboard that hung outside of the Lincoln Tunnel on the New Jersey side. The family story is that Fredrick had been forced to flee the cotton fields of Georgia after he used a tree branch to beat a white man he'd caught raping his sister. Grandpa Fredrick (never one to let a good story go to waste) told me that he saw the sign just after his car exited the tunnel. He thought the name would help people up north think of him as a "good" man. In the end, I guess it sort of worked. Twenty long years later, after the Woolworth C.E.O. he chauffeured passed away, Grandpa got the Cadillac as thanks for his service.
By the time Beverly Goodman was 12, she was already what they used to call a fast girl. She was also hip. She knew things that most civilians didn't. She listened to Nina (Simone) and Monk (Thelonious) and TB (Tony Bennett) and Ahmad Jamal on a regular basis, and was so down she called them by a single name (except Jamal, maybe out of respect for the fact that he'd gone through the trouble of changing his name from Freddy Jones). She spoke with confidence, just a peg down from arrogance, which only big-city intellectuals could get away with, even if they were only 12. She had art, literature and music all around her.
I always called her Beverly instead of Mommy. She never asked me to do otherwise. Even as a very young kid I was utterly convinced that my mother was the most beautiful woman in the world. Her looks were a combination of African-American, Native American and Irish. This was no accident, starting with my great-great-grandmother Mary Ellen, who was the child of a partially African mother and an Irish doctor and slave owner who was, um, intimate with his property. As the daughter of a white man, Mary Ellen was more privileged than the average ex-slave's child, a fact not lost on her. Later, when her own daughters came of age, she passed along some interesting advice: "Protect your children and the benefits you have from my being half white," she told them. "Marry the fairest man you can, so your children will have good hair." Today, those genes are very apparent in my family. Most of us resemble, to varying degrees, Lena Horne, Halle Berry, Cab Calloway or Lenny Kravitz.
Except for me.
I inherited my biological father's genes: I'm dark-skinned, "the only spot in the lot" is what my family called me. As screwed up as it is, my great-great-grandmother knew what she was talking about when advising her daughter to "marry light." It's hard to describe how horribly ugly I felt as a dark-skinned kid in the '50s. Thank God for the '60s, when black was suddenly beautiful, no matter the shade.
Which brings me to my stepdad: Bobby Glanzrock. It's not fair to call Bobby a black man in a white man's body because his style was genuinely his alone. Bobby was a beatnik Ph.D. His observations had angles and perspectives that would make Miles Davis contemplate his own sense of cool. Bobby spoke with a slow, deliberate syncopation that was constantly modulating through the musical scale. This was the preferred style of speaking amongst the hipster class. Think Mitch Hedberg or Jimi Hendrix.
Some of his black friends called him "White Bobby," but my stepdad acted more like the black jazz musicians he idolized than the haberdashers in his lineage. He only dated soul sisters, most of whom could have doubled for Cleopatra Jones, all Afro and attitude. That included my mom, who sported the latest Carnaby Street duds and a towering nimbus of kinky hair. Bobby's uncle Lew, who had no sons, groomed his nephew to take over his clothing business. But Lew disowned him for marrying a black woman, even one with a nice Jewish-sounding name. Bobby threw away the glory of the schmatte business for Beverly. And in return, he became the love of her life. Me, I was their little groupie. I loved them both like crazy.
And crazy may be the operative word. Beverly and Bobby may not have been model parents, but they were a really good fit for each other; art, literature and especially their love of music bonded them together. But as they spiraled deeper and deeper into addiction, they were also increasingly self-centered, not infrequently criminal and less and less interested in the responsibilities of raising a kid. On some level, it was great to be treated like a peer, to be on a first-name basis with my parents, but it wasn't exactly a substitute for the usual parental cocktail of nurturing and discipline. Respect? Yes, there was plenty of that. If I had a problem, we'd "rap on it." Then they'd ask me something like: "Are we copacetic?" If I said, "Yeah, I guess so," the matter would be settled with a five slap or some other affirming gesture.
Bobby always affectionately called me by my nickname, "Pud," short for pudding pie. Once, after I'd accidentally set fire to the apartment while playing with matches, he sat me down. More disappointed than angry, he stared woefully into my eyes for about five minutes or so, then finally broke the uncomfortable silence.
"Pud, dig yourself," he said.
This was the harshest discipline Bobby ever doled out. My mother then asked me if I wouldn't mind walking over to her and lying down on her lap. She gave me a few whacks on the behind and asked me if I understood why.
She looked me in the eyes, and said, "Pud, you really have to start digging yourself."
"O.K., Beverly." I cried more from shock than pain, because she'd never hit me before. Then again, I'd never set the house on fire before, either.
Most of the people in my life back then may have been constantly high, but they were pretty stylish. Coming home from school, it wasn't unusual for me to see berets or tams, jackets with elbow patches, ascots, dickeys, turtlenecks, groovy "slacks," high design cigarette holders and cases, rolling paper from all over the world, shoebox lids to clean pot seeds, magazines of all types, books, albums, various sets of works to wrap around your arms to make the veins pop up. This was the paraphernalia of a junkie pad at the twilight of the '50s. Some visitors were famous, all were friends. Once, Thelonious Monk himself came over to buy my mom's fur coat for his girlfriend. Heroin often turns addicts into gifted salesmen. Some families go to Disneyland for fun; we went to the pawnshop. Most junkies' wallets, where you'd expect to find family photos or business cards, are crammed instead with pawn tickets.
We moved around a lot — Chinatown, the Bronx, Alphabet City — but our lives first started to change when we lived in a two-bedroom apartment on the corner of Greenwich and Bethune Streets, sometime in the summer of 1959. This was the last moment in my parents' lives before junk began dictating everything about how and where they lived. Ironically, this part of New York is now the high-rent West Village, but I still associate it with the sewage-brine of the Hudson River. This was before America learned how to monetize geography by simply renaming it, as my grandfather Goodman would surely applaud.
I can still picture life on Greenwich Street. Our brand-new French Petrol Blue Simca was parked curbside. It looked like a frowning flat-faced barracuda, its body chopped off at its upper dorsal fin. It was the most unusual car in town. Standing in the lobby of my building looking across narrow, Victorian-size Greenwich Street, I'd see slaughtered livestock being moved onto loading docks, the meat swinging from large hooks. Anyone who's seen "Rocky" knows what these huge dangling headless bodies look like, but on celluloid they have no scent. In the winter it wasn't so bad, but during the summer months, the stench was unbelievable — tons of flesh in a race against rot. Today it's still called the meatpacking district, but back then it wasn't an ironic name for an upscale neighborhood, it was a literal description of the foul and bloody business going on. I was 7 years old and almost always alone. I would sing as I explored the streets, adding an appropriate underscore to my solitary wandering.
I was exceptionally weird looking back then. Super-skinny. Thick glasses. And my mother dressed me like my dapper stepfather, which meant I dressed like a blue-blooded, old money, prep-school WASP.
I desperately tried to find friends, but there were no other kids my age in our building. Other than the doorman, who was actually a cool guy, my only friend was a schoolmate named David. David's mom was white and his father was black, an interracial combination that was a little more common than my parents but still stopped traffic in 1959. David lived on the border of Little Italy, which was less than a mile from my place but seemed as far away as Big Italy. Maybe because I looked so silly, with my Jerry Lewis glasses and Tom Wolfe getups, the Italian kids near David's place always wanted to beat the crap out of me. Asthma or not, I was a fast runner.
It was a spring day in 1960, almost summer. I was 7-and-a-half. As I walked west down Bleecker Street, I noticed a large crowd gathered around the Hotel Greenwich, right by the Village Gate. The hotel had recently been converted into a single-room occupancy filled with mental patients who had nowhere else to go once the state hospitals started closing. The S.R.O.'s gave the Village an edge. I remember feeling comfortable around their eccentric tenants. I was used to irrational behavior. As I drew close, I realized everyone was looking up: "Is he going to jump?" cried one man. "Think so," answered another. I craned my head and immediately recognized the naked man raving incoherently on the fire escape: Nile Rodgers Sr.
If destiny is biology, then I was born to be a musician. Nile Rodgers Sr. was a brilliant percussionist who came of age during the Latin music boom of the late '40s. Dances like the mambo and the rumba had a huge influence on the big bands. My father specialized in Afro-Cuban beats and was considered a virtuoso by the time he was a young man.
Paul Whiteman, "The King of Jazz" and a popular big-band leader, was the host of an ABC show called "TV Teen Club" that later became "American Bandstand."
A gig with him was a huge break for my dad because Paul's orchestra was, true to his name, all white. Unfortunately, Paul couldn't hire him full time, and Dad had to supplement his income with a day job in the garment district, where most of my mother's family also worked (as well as Bobby, my stepfather-to-be).
Nile charmed everyone who crossed his path. If he didn't have an instrument with him, he could turn any object into one. He loved music: He lived it, walked it, talked it and played it all the time. He loved music more than anything — except maybe getting high. By the time he was 16, my father was more or less a daily drinker and pot smoker. Because of his relatively well-paying job running racks in the garment district — "flying Jewish airplanes," they called it — he had extra spending money, just enough cash to develop a taste for heroin.
Nile worked with a guy named Freddy Boy, who had a brainy and very beautiful kid sister named Beverly who Nile took a liking to. He was 16, and she was 13 — and very soon she was pregnant.
For a while, Nile loved Beverly even more than music and drugs, so much so that he was nearly killed defending her honor. A gang member called her a whore, and when Nile spoke up he was knifed in the chest. Beverly, on the other hand, liked Nile, a lot, but was absolutely not in love with him. But once she was pregnant with me, Beverly's father, whom she was deathly afraid of, convinced her she had to get married. And so the wedding was set for June, just three months before I was born. Nile was ecstatic.
But when they reached City Hall, my mother decided she just couldn't do it and caused a big scene. Crushed, Nile slapped my mother across the face. According to her, that was the only time in his life that he'd ever struck another person. But once was all it took to cancel a wedding. And so it was that Nile Sr.'s 14-year-old fiancée humiliated him on what was supposed to be the happiest day of his life. That night he did so much dope he almost died. I would hear about the wedding-day binge that he blamed on Beverly every time I saw him for the rest of his life.
Now on this hot spring day, eight years since he'd last played with Paul Whiteman, my father had a flophouse ledge as his stage. He'd already jumped out of the fourth-story window and fallen onto the landing. A small brigade of cops and firemen were trying to bring him in. I frantically ran into the hotel and told the desk clerk, "The man on the fire escape is my father. I don't think he'll jump if he sees me." I added, "He is a very nice man." The clerk brought me over to the police, who escorted me up to the fourth floor and the window closest to my father.
"Hey, Nile, hey, Nile, it's Little Splash," I said to him.
Splash was my dad's nickname on the street, because he drank a lot of cheap bathtub gin. He needed to. He was always high and it was a simple matter of economics. Over the past few years, he'd become a full-fledged alcoholic and drug addict, lost his job in the garment district and ended up on welfare in an S.R.O. He was on the city's methadone program and made extra money by selling "spit back" to addicts. "Spit back" is resold methadone that junkies literally spit into a hidden receptacle after they swallow just enough to get straight. He liked it when his friends called me Little Splash, and I thought this would get through to him. It did. He recognized me instantly.
I hadn't realized that he lived so close to us. I hadn't seen him for about six months. Beverly didn't allow it because she felt embarrassed for him. But she didn't understand how much I loved him, and that he and I got along great. On our last get-together, we'd gone shopping and seen the sci-fi film "The Blob" in the Bronx. He'd always give me a present, a record or a cool ethnic percussion instrument. But now he looked at me with a sorrowful, nearly empty stare: "Pud, why did she do that to me? I loved her so much."
"I know, Pops, come inside now."
"Hey, son, are you alright? You alright, Pud?"
"Yeah, Pops, I'm fine, but I think you should come inside."
After a little coaxing, my dad climbed back inside. Other than the fact that he was totally naked, we acted like nothing happened. Since his tiny room reeked of piss, I waited in the hall, which also stunk, but not as bad. While he washed and dressed, a female resident tried to make a quick buck for a fix by propositioning me. When I didn't react, she lifted her skirt and repeated the offer.
I'm sure if I were just a few years older, her voice would've reverberated in that stairwell as sexily as Donna Summer's "Love to Love You Baby." But to Little Splash it just sounded funny. All I could do was laugh. Suddenly my father appeared in slightly tattered beatnik clothes, bathed in Zizanie cologne, and we left the building — through the front door. He took his spit-back money and bought me a slice of pizza and a large Orange Julius on Eighth Street. I was happy. We spent the rest of the day browsing through every record store in the Village.
He may have been crazy as hell but my father's gift to me was his kindness, open-mindedness and music. Every chance he got, he'd patiently teach me to read rhythm patterns. Because of robust music programs in the public schools, by the time I was 14 I could play at least a "tune" on almost any instrument. When I was 19, I got my first professional job, but he never saw me turn pro. He died a few days before. After I die, his bloodline will end with me. He is buried anonymously in potter's field.
My father left no manuscripts, compositions or unfinished works. I used to think that was tragic, but not anymore. When I got older, I traced his DNA back to the Benin tribe of what is now the Edo State in Nigeria. The Benins have a rich artistic heritage. I like to believe that the success I've had is a result of my dad — or maybe it's just those Benin genes?
Adapted from "Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco and Destiny," to be published in October by Spiegel & Grau.
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