Punk-funk superstar Rick James sat in his Capital Centre dressing room Saturday night, fingering his Masai warrior's braids. Every once in a while he would tug at them, as if to prove they were real. They are, and James is planning on doing some clipping of his own: He has filed a $450 million lawsuit against several concert promoters who attached his equipment at a Dallas concert in August.
James minded having to cancel the next night's concert, and he minded having to play the next night on borrowed equipment; but mostly James seemed to mind newspaper reports that had him ditching those trademark shoulder-length braids to escape sheriff's deputies who wouldn't be looking to serve papers on a "bald man."
"They seized my equipment -- illegally -- and then they defamated sic my character and professionalism saying I had a bald head," James fumes, spitting out the last two words. "I'm not a criminal; I've never stolen anything. They were wrong and they're going to suffer for it. That tears down my character, anybody says I got a bald head. There's people out there that believe that kind of s---. The braids are important, the whole group wears them. If I'm bald, then the whole group is bald; and if we're all bald, it means we're plastic people up there."
The only plastic in James' life right now is the round kind that goes under a needle. His current "Street Songs" album has held the No. 1 spot in the Black Album Charts since early summer and next week will tie the record for that position -- 20 weeks held by Stevie Wonder's "Songs in the Key of Life" -- flitting around in the pop Top 10 for much of that time as well. James is the top black concert attraction in America; he drew more than 35,000 to two shows at the Capital Centre.
His message is simple -- funk it up. It's a message delivered by a 13-piece band that, like James, looks as if it came to the stage directly from a Star Trek convention: silvery thigh-high boots, skin-tight lame' body suits, a generous dose of silver glitter on the braids. In the last three years, all that glitter has turned to platinum for James and company.
The 28-year-old superstar seems in cautious control of his success, his conversation sprinkled with stories of glitter gone dull through excesses.
"In my head I've always been a superstar, even when I was broke," James says matter-of-factly. "But I didn't make it until 1978, and I was able to watch Sly and Steve Stills fall, watch Jimi Hendrix and others die. Had I made it in the '60s, I might have been blown away, too. The music business is an unnatural business. You come off that stage believing that you're a god . . . It's unnatural."
The on-stage and offstage Jameses are as different as night and day, a conscious division that he has only recently started to talk about. The mythic, public James is a flashy funkster and party-giver. The real-life, private James lives quietly on a ranch in Upstate New York with his mother and his horses and has started trying to cool that hot image, even though it could affect his popularity.
"I don't care if it's dangerous or not. In all my years of following musicians -- Jagger, the Beatles -- they always managed to keep their image and art a separate thing. It's not completely not me, I'm not totally devoid of that stage image . . . it's about 50 percent offstage," James says tantalizingly.
James' references tend to be toward white rock musicians. Until he stepped into the realms of funk, his "roots were basically blues and folk, and of course R&B. What I played over the years as I struggled to live and eat was folk and rock."
In the '60s, the Buffalo native led a Canadian group, the Mynah Birds, that also featured Neil Young; there was also a jazz-rock group called White Cane that recorded a quickly forgotten album for MGM. There are tapes of the Birds, but James laughs at rumors of a group reunion with Young. "I see Neil. I think he'd like the tapes out. He sees them as nostalgia. I do, too."
James' entrance into the funk world after a decade on the peripheries of the record business was partly a reaction against what he saw as the silly sci-fi mindlessness of George Clinton and Bootsy Collins.
Clinton, the creative center of the intergalactic Parliament/Funkadelic empire, "didn't do anything that Sly didn't do. It's all been done, all been said, all been played before. The Beatles didn't do anything that the Isley Brothers didn't do, they just took it to a higher ground, the way I took George's stuff to a higher plateau. The babble that existed on top of their music was out of this orb. I just added sensible -- and sexual -- lyrics and entendres and innuendoes; it made more sense to me. The world is so promiscuous any ----ing way that a lot of writers, like myself, just put it in there. If you don't get sexy, you might not sell a lot of records."
Ironically, now that he is selling so many records, James finds himself the object of white media attention, much of it choosing to accent his rock roots and crossover potential in a rock field that hasn't had a black superstar since Hendrix and Sly Stone.
"I'm already a rock 'n' roll star," James says testily. "When you get a top three pop album, you are a rock 'n' roll star. I have a lot of rock albums in me, but they wouldn't be accepted by black people . . . and that's my first allegiance, musically. They're the ones that made me. Having to go out there knowing that white and black crowds generally don't mix like they did in the Sly days makes a very strong impression on one.
"The Commodores got off into that," he says of the dangers of crossover. "They've gotten away from their black base on the record level. Then you have to come back when you have to go out there and work. If you're black and you don't have black people out there to see you, you're not going to sell any tickets."
Which isn't a problem for Rick James in 1981. ------
A few weeks ago thousands of young people jammed the Capital Centre for one final, funky fling before school bells sounded a discordant note. Friday night Rick James called recess.
James, the self-annointed high priest of funk-punk, presided over a sold-out celebration of outrageous party music. Outrageous may be too mild a word for it. James admitted on stage that his biggest thrill in life was "to hear a woman scream in ecstasy," and his whole show is designed to elicit the same response from a crowd. He seldom fails.
James moved from the raunchy to the tender and back again with blinding speed. One moment he was smelling a rose and whispering French; the next he was bumping and grinding away to "Bustin' Out" or stroking Teena Marie in a particularly suggestive duet. The Stone City Band provided some chunky dance rhythms, but it was James' blatant sexuality and preening that delighted the crowd most.
Also appearing was Carl Carlton. Shirtless, Carlton left no muscle unflexed. -- Mike Joyce