This book was generous and non-judgemental in spirit, and featured a dizzying roll-call of creative figures. Suitably, then, Nile Rodgers’ inclusive biography-cum-cultural history was prefaced by a dedication to his ‘biological, spiritual, and musical family’. This references one of Sister Sledge’s biggest (Chic-produced) songs, and Rodgers’ own post-9/11 charitable foundation. And for this month’s bookclubbers, Rodgers’ experience and understanding of what family meant was fundamental to reading the stories he tells in the book. We discussed how surviving a background like Rodgers’ might make someone adaptable, sociable, and strong; perfect characteristics for a musician and producer. Had Rodgers both compensated for and built on life with his biological family – separated across America, strained by drugs and racism – to re-create other families around him as his life and career progressed? We noticed he’d certainly endured some complex progressions: from highschool dropout to Black Panther, from guitarist to band-leader to producer, from working with live-recording analogue technology to making digital sounds, from zero to hero. There was some debate about the extent of Rodgers’ humility as he related the staggering success he enjoyed despite or because of these changes. But perhaps as a young black man making his way on his own talents, he had every right to remind the world of the contributions he had made within and beyond music. Likewise, if a success was due to someone else’s good idea or intervention, we reckoned Rodgers said so. He happily recounted how his partner Bernard ‘Nard’ Edwards simplified his own over-complicated compositions (letting them lead with the chorus), and taught him to play the ‘chucking’ style that underpinned so much of Chic’s work and influence. Even Litpoppers who were not the most avid fans of disco appreciated some of the insights the book offered about such technical details, and the measures necessary for black artists to attain longevity. Combining Roxy Music’s visuals and poise with the organised facelessness of KISS, the Chic Organisation could play the (implicitly racist) games of the record industry, with stylish aplomb. But Le Freak showed Rodgers did not think of himself as a disco act. He wasn’t being in denial, or in disgust at disco. Rather as an ex-Black Panther, ex-hippie, ex-addict, genre-blurring musician, he’d been both barred from Studio 54 and exiled from an industry that spat him out when the world learned ‘disco sucks’. A perennial outsider (who was an insider on his own terms), with musical roots in rock and jazz and everything in between, we concluded he was graced with all the sympathy and insight such positions afford.
LitPop is a book club for lovers of books, music and books about music. It meets at 6pm-7pm every third Wednesday of the month at Newcastle City Library and is convened by Rachel Carroll (Teesside University) and Adam Hansen (Northumbria University). Meetings are free to attend, and the library tries to get copies in. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information, or follow us on Twitter @Litpop1.
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