Though he has gone (of apparent natural causes, said Los Angeles police, after a caretaker found him dead in his Universal City home yesterday morning), the singer Rick James will always be with us: at class reunions, bar mitzvahs, wedding receptions. He will sing eternally the 1981 R&B dance hit that made him: "Super Freak," a wonderful song about a nymphomaniac backstage groupie who is waiting in Room 714 of a hotel somewhere, "with incense, wine and candles -- it's such a freaky scene."
Happily, many of us have seen our grandmothers and aunts dance to this song, such is its lasting ubiquity among party deejays-for-hire: "She's a very kinky girl," the song goes. "The kind you don't take home to mother. She will never let your spirits down, once you get her off the street. Ow, girl." (Now, everyone, please: a toast to the lovely bride and groom.)
This is not an insignificant gift to the world, the joy of one hit song that burns itself into the global pop consciousness, leaving its naughty intention behind and becoming something else, something permanent. James, who was 56, was known in his younger days by the blunt, Cleopatraesque funky braids and tight leather pants he wore, and he certainly had other accomplishments, other songs, other things to do with his life than channel the super freaks. (After all, on the same album as "Super Freak" was "Give It to Me Baby." And he gave us, via his guiding hand as producer in the late 1970s to mid-'80s, the Mary Jane Girls, Teena Marie and Eddie Murphy's No. 2 hit, "Party All the Time.")
Did you know that in one of his first bands, Rick James, having gone AWOL from the Navy, played with Neil Young?
(You didn't know. They were called the Mynah Birds, ripping off the Byrds.)
Probably what you do know is that James was for a time an actual super-duper freaky freak, surrounding himself with the proverbial hookers and blow, charged with abduction and assault in 1993, serving two years in a California state prison (the judge called it "a gift" from the jury, which acquitted him or deadlocked on still other charges), emerging in 1996 with a resolve to stage a comeback -- which he did, but mostly in a nostalgic, VH1, frequent-appearances-at-Constitution-Hall sense of the word. He last played Constitution Hall as recently as May, with his old protege Teena Marie. A Washington Post critic wrote that watching him was "sadly suggestive of a really good karaoke version of Rick James. But once he got there, he was ready to go all night."
The comedian Dave Chappelle, in his Comedy Central sketch show, does a Rick James caricature, inspiring people everywhere to walk around and say, "I'm Rick James, bitch!" Rather than bemoan this, James embraced it. According to MTV News, James was talking to Chappelle in June about the comedian playing him in a movie version of his life, based on "Memoirs of a Super Freak," which he'd been writing for years.
In 2002, after he'd recovered from a stroke and surgery to replace a hip, he told an interviewer from a financial advice Web site, Bankrate.com, that he used to spend $7,000 a week on cocaine in the '80s. He also said that he would always be rich, thanks to hits like "Super Freak" (the riff of which was sampled for MC Hammer's 1990 hit "U Can't Touch This") and because so many snippets of his oeuvre kept showing up -- with full credit and royalty payment -- on other hip-hop and rap songs. However, he wasn't a big fan of the new school:
"The majority of them don't have an idea of what it is to entertain a crowd," he complained of today's hip-hop stars in a Washington Post profile in 1998. "Holding on to your [anatomy], walking back and forth with your baseball hat turned backwards, throwing your hands up. . . . That ain't [expletive] entertainment. Today's music just makes me want to go out and buy old-school music even more. Today's music makes me more appreciative of what I did in the '80s, what George Clinton did, what James Brown did, the Gap Band . . . because right now, a lot of these youngsters, all they're doing is taking our stuff, sampling and putting a bunch of rap on it."
That's how it is for super freaks. They age and mellow, make parole, and something comes along that strikes them as irredeemably freaky, wrong, dirty -- something they themselves would never have done. Thus the freak becomes less super, less freak.
Upon accepting a lifetime achievement award at the Rhythm & Soul Awards last month in Beverly Hills, James was able to confidently make fun of his recent travails and recovery. Examining the glass statuette they gave him, he said: "Years ago, I would have used this for something totally different. Cocaine is a hell of a drug."
That's . . . well, that's just freaky. Which is why the song will remain the same.
For years, you may have thought a "Super Freak" was "the kind of girl you read about in Newsweek magazine." That is because some lyrics are never heard quite right. She was, in fact, "the kind of girl you read about in new-wave magazine." (Whereas Eleanor Clift is the kind of girl you read about in Newsweek magazine.)
If you leave this world remembered for one pop song, then you've left it in grand enough style: "She likes the boys in the band. She says that I'm her all-time favorite" -- sing it with me now -- "When I make my move to her room, it's the right tiiiiime. She's never hard to please. . . . That girl is pretty kinky, the girl's a super freak. I really love to taste her, every time we meet."
Rick James didn't want to see anybody sitting down. All y'all on the dance floor, grandmas and rabbis and not-so-super freaks, we're doin' it.