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4 June 2015

The man with two brains: inside the strange mind of Nile Rodgers

Nile Rodgers is responsible for $2bn worth of hits – with Chic, Madonna, David Bowie – but he can’t switch off the noise in his head.

By Kate Mossman

On the top floor of a hotel in London, Nile Rodgers looks exactly as you would want him to: two silver earrings, gap-toothed smile and dreads so tidy that they might be attached to his hat. We have been speaking for a few minutes when I realise he is contending with another sound in the room.

“Do you hear that?” (He emits a low, whooshing sound that connects in pitch with the mechanical hum of the air conditioner.) “That’s in my head now and there’s music going along with it,” he says. I am reminded of Warren Zevon, whose song “Desperados Under the Eaves” features an orchestral climax inspired by a particularly musical AC unit in an LA hotel room. What tune is Nile’s playing?

“Well, I’m not going to sing it in case it sounds stupid,” he says. “But it’s almost as if my brain is doing two jobs: talking to you and hearing this. I can choose to pay ­attention to it or not but it’s still going on, this stupid din.”

Can he hear drums with it as well?


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He hasn’t filled it out with a band?

“No. It’s probably why I don’t sleep,” he continues. “The blessing is that I always seem to have musical ideas. The curse is that I always seem to have musical ideas. And they’re not necessarily good ones.”

Rodgers gets about as much sleep as Margaret Thatcher did. He has been that way since he was six and a half, he says, when he was diagnosed as having “all three types of insomnia”: type one, when you can’t fall asleep; type two, when you sleep in fits and starts; and type three, when you wake up too early. Why did the problem start when he was so young?

“I can hypothesise,” he says, “but I don’t know.”

This unusual answer comes up more than once today. I expect him to tell me that he couldn’t sleep as a boy because his heroin addict stepdad was causing disruption in the household, or because their Lower West Side apartment in New York was full of beatniks, or the parties were too loud. (Rodgers must be one of very few people who’ve served drinks at their own mother’s 21st birthday – he was seven at the time.) But he thinks it’s because he wasn’t allowed to sleep with his glasses on. And he was convinced that there were monsters in his room. And, without his specs, he couldn’t tell exactly where they were. So he would keep his eyes open till it got light.

Now, Rodgers shares his sleepless moments by tweeting pictures of the dawn skies. I think of his fellow insomniac and hit factory Burt Bacharach, who was cadging sleeping pills off his mother by the age of 15. Perhaps it takes a certain kind of neurosis to write the sorts of songs that make everyone else feel instantly good inside.

But back to the air con. I ask him if musicians’ brains pick up on everyday sounds that the rest of us can’t hear.

“Hypothesis,” he says again. “Some people have told me it’s a variation on synaesthesia; something that’s completely audible to you and you alone. Like, I remember once – and thank God it was only once – I started hearing voices and they were clear as a bell. It was the one and only time that I suffered from cocaine psychosis. There was a voice whispering in my ear: ‘Nile, Nile.’ It was telling me that somebody was after me. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the film Goodfellas but there’s a great depiction of that, when you do too much cocaine, and he’s looking up at the helicopter. Anyway, the voice was telling me there were people coming to get me. That scared me to death!”

Was that before or after his cocaine overdose in 1994, when he is said to have died eight times in one night?

“Oh, it was after that. Well after that.”

So it was another reason to stop the drugs?

“It was the only reason. The overdose didn’t make me stop.”

In the past few years, it’s become common knowledge that Rodgers has had his fingers in more pies than you can imagine as a producer and songwriter: he is now
understood to be a legendary Quincy Jones-style figure. At Womad in 2008 I watched Chic (minus Rodgers’s musical partner Bernard Edwards, who died in 1996), in a kind of warm-up slot, playing “Good Times” and “Le Freak” in broad daylight while the crowd got a buzz on by eating vodka jellies. In June, before their first album of new material in 23 years is released, footballers and models will pay £360 a head to see them at an exclusive gig in west London.

Rodgers’s 2013 song “Get Lucky”, co-written with Daft Punk and Pharrell Williams, sold 9.3 million copies, more than Elvis’s “It’s Now or Never”. He tells me that if he were producing Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” in 2015, he’d get a co-writing credit on that, too, because the “sweetening” required of his role as producer – writing fills, strings, and so on – is now considered part of the songwriting process (that’s why tracks by Katy Perry and Britney Spears are often credited to half a dozen people). In the 1970s, he’d only get let into New York’s more exclusive clubs when he explained to the bouncers that he’d written some of the hits that were playing on the dance floor.

It’s been a strange life in many ways, balancing an anonymous role with the grand, puppet-master ego that goes with this kind of work. I have always been impressed by musicians who admit that they don’t listen to much music by other people but I had never come across one who explains that he doesn’t need to because he hears his own music playing in his head, all the time.

When Rodgers was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2010, his doctor recommended long walks every day to strengthen his body for treatment. He would set off from his apartment on the Upper West Side in the early hours of the morning. Although he took no iPod with him, these were musical excursions. On his cancer blog, Walking on Planet C, he recalls that the first song that entered his head on leaving his house that first morning was “Let’s Dance”, the David Bowie hit that he co-wrote and produced. After 1.3 miles, he entered a diner and heard the entire staff singing along to Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family”, another of his mega-hits. When he paid his bill, he told the waiters that it was his song. He was so hurt to find out they didn’t know that he could feel tears coming. He cheered himself up by singing the track in his head, three times in its entirety, between the diner and home. Cancer may have knocked Rodgers off his axis temporarily but he was given the all-clear and, on 20 March this year, he released a new single, “I’ll Be There”, to coincide with the exact moment of the solar eclipse. As the moon passed in front of the sun, it seemed that the world really did, for a few seconds, revolve around his tunes.

Walking by his childhood home at Greenwich and Bethune, Rodgers noticed that the New York fire escapes were being phased out and the façades of the houses were cleaner than they used to be. Aged 16, he joined the Black Panthers. This was in 1968 –
the year of Martin Luther King’s assassination, the Oakland ambushes and the killing of Bobby Hutton; the year that J Edgar Hoover declared the organisation “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country”. Rodgers is keen to point out that before he joined the Black Panthers, he was in the Cub Scouts and the Boy Scouts.

“The Boy Scouts did exactly the same stuff that we did in the Black Panthers, except that in the Boy Scouts, you were doing it to earn merit badges and stuff,” he says. “The Panthers were just part of my childhood. I was socialised to care about people. It was basically a community organisation. My main job was sweeping up the sidewalk, cleaning apartments, fixing people’s plumbing. I was a really good cook, so when we started the breakfast programme for kids, a lot of times I would cook breakfast and we’d go into schools. That was awesome.”

No armed action?

“No way, Jose. I always look at the media perspective and I go, ‘Man, I guess the Panthers were really good at marketing, because that’s not what our lives were like at all!’ You know what I always think about?” he continues. “When I was a kid, there were always people to help across the street. They were just standing on the corner like this” – he
stands up and shuffles forward, feet together, and stops, his head down – “waiting for you to help them. And you knew it was your job. Nowadays, I never see anyone standing at the corner waiting for a young person to come along. Where have they gone?”

He belonged to the Panthers’ Harlem unit, which, he tells me, was an odd and colourful enterprise.

“My section leader was white, going by the name of Yellow Kidney. He was pretending to be a Native American – he looked like one – and his mom was a famous anthropologist. It was almost as if he had taken one of his mother’s stories and channelled that character. He wanted to be someone else entirely. He was fantastic. We had a very privileged lifestyle because our section was in their brownstone, which was right next to Anthony Perkins’s house. Perkins was our guy, used to come to our meetings. I knew the woman who would become his wife, Berry Berenson, all my life – right up until she died in 9/11.”

Rodgers has claimed many times that “the Hitmaker” – the 1960 Fender Strat he bought in 1973 – sounds like no other guitar in the world. A hardtail model without a whammy bar (hardtails were cheaper), it encouraged Rodgers to develop a unique playing style: the spindly, sparkling, wakka-wakka sound he calls “chucking”, which was one of the greatest influences on the playing of Johnny Marr. Rodgers’s model is made from a particular shipment of wood, he explains – thinner, lighter than it should have been. I ask him to tell me more and he says, well, here’s the rumour:

“It’s old enough that it was built under the auspices of the Fender creator, Leo Fender, and he was the cheapest guy in the world. If he saw a screw on the floor, honestly, he would pick up that screw and fit it into something. So they were offered this shipment of wood – alder – for a great price, up in Fullerton, California, and the only caveat was they had to go pick it up. When they got there, they found out that the farm was up a mountain so they had to rent a bunch of trucks to get up there and it wound up costing a whole lot more. Fender said, ‘Oh, man, I’ve spent so much money on this wood. We’ll cut the guitars just a little bit thinner, make a few more, and no one will ever know.’ So my Strat is lighter and thinner than any other Strat in the world.”

In 2013, the NME estimated that Rodgers’s guitar had produced $2bn worth of music. In October that year he left it on the Metro-North commuter train from Grand Central to Westport, Connecticut. It was recovered after several hours with the help of a ticket agent called Bob who “didn’t know me from Adam” and Rodgers went from devastation to celebration in a heartbeat. Given the instrument’s talismanic power, it is strange that he has only recently had copies made and still carries it around in a soft case.

Other areas of his life are guided by a sense of fate and superstition, including, apparently, the decision to play Chic’s music again without Bernard Edwards, who died from pneumonia, following years of hard living, straight after a concert in Tokyo celebrating Rodgers’s work as a “superproducer”. Rodgers discovered his body in his hotel room. A call from a Japanese promoter inviting him back to Tokyo a few years later came around the anniversary of Edwards’s death – “a sacred time of year, sakura, when the cherry blossoms come out. You know The Last Samurai, where the guy is dying and the cherry blossoms are falling on his face?”

Chic’s forthcoming album, It’s About Time, works up unfinished studio material featuring the original band back in the day. Rodgers communed with Edwards’s ghost by listening to the chatter picked up between tracks on the “talkback” microphone during the recording sessions. The subject of these conversations was “both ­topical and typical”, he says: at one point, the pair discuss the amount of weed smoked at Bob Marley concerts (“You couldn’t see the stage”). Rodgers says that whether they were producing a ballad or something heavier, they would joke through the entire session. “We were never serious, even when we were playing emotional music, because, I guess, you’re just trying to save face in front of the guys, you know what I mean? And because I wanted people to always come back to me.”

He tells me that for the past 24 hours he has been wrestling with the notion that making a new Chic album is the most self-indulgent thing he has ever done. “Because it’s all about me. And in those days, the spotlight wasn’t on me at all. My friends had to tell people I was the guy who wrote ‘Everybody Dance’! It shows you how fabulous anonymity can be,” he says, though there have clearly been times in his life when it didn’t feel so fabulous.

“Chic was all about being anonymous. Like Daft Punk. They’ll never get old, because you’ll never know who they are.”

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