Photo by: Glen LaFerman www.glenlaferman.com
Before I begin this rock and roll tale about my encounter with Rick James, I want to explain in a way—or attempt to anyway—how I write these stories.
If you’ve read any of my previous narratives, you know that a lot of times I’ll talk about stuff that doesn’t seem to have anything at all to do with rock and roll or interviewing some guitar player or hanging out with some rock band. The story might contain bits and pieces of stuff that might strike you as extraneous, unnecessary, unimportant or just plain stupid. I might relate to you how I used to read comic books or build model cars when I was a young boy. Or maybe I’d tell you about playing catch with my dad or being hooked on MAD Magazine. Stuff that—seemingly—has absolutely not a thing to do with life as a rock journalist.
But to me, those miscellaneous memories are inextricably tied up with becoming a music writer. For example, I can’t think about the time I interviewed Ray Manzarek, keyboardist for the Doors, without recalling how I bought the band’s first album in a bargain bin at my local record store years earlier. And that recollection can’t stand alone without being tied up to the earlier memory of all the hours spent reading Superman comics and how that pursuit would slowly give way to hearing songs on the radio and ultimately end up with me walking into Martin’s Music, a neighborhood record store, buying the The Doors album and being forever changed.
Memories are strange, beautiful, haunting and sometimes terrible things. We can’t control them when they come flooding back into our heads and once they’re inside, it’s all we can do to control them, make sense of them and give them some kind of shape and form. That’s a difficult process and an inexact one. It’s not science and there are no rules to follow. In fact a memory is defined as “the mental capacity or faculty of retaining and reviving facts, events, impressions, or of recalling or recognizing previous experiences.”
There are four key words here: retaining, reviving, recalling and recognizing. What this quartet of verbs is trying to express is that memories are weird little dudes, man. It is not a precise process. They can come to you half-formed, distorted, blurred, without a face and missing essential pieces [which will tie into my story down the road]. Memories are gossamer. Cotton candy. They are fragile things and can split apart into a million molecules the moment you think of them.
They don’t come with any rules or set of directions and when you’re trying to remember what that person you ended up marrying wore on your first date, your mind might wander to a point in time years earlier when you were driving around in your first car programming the buttons on your car radio. Seemingly totally separate memories but then you seem to recall—there’s that word again—that you and your spouse were forever changing the stations on your car stereo. Or something like that.
What I’m trying to say is memories trigger other memories and whether they really have any connection to each other is sometimes impossible to say. Memories are formed deep inside the medial temporal lobe, which is buried in the limbic region of our brains [I had to look that up. I have no memory of knowing it]. The limbic region: the name itself conjures shadows, whispers, blurry lines and hazy things. Our whole lives are based on memories. Now you’re reading this line and boom, it’s a memory. It just happened. Boom, that last line is a memory as well.
All I know and I’m sure you know is that thinking about one thing brings memories of other things flooding back into our brain—the limbic region for those of you with the memory of what you just read—and thought it seems like there is no connecting tissue between these events in our past, if we really think about it, there is some thread that ties them together. Which provides the perfect lead in for me to talk about the infamous J. Sloan’s bar in West Hollywood and how it plays such an important role in this rock and roll memory.
Sloan’s was, how shall we put it, a low-rent dive bar in a high-rent district. Located at 8623 Melrose Avenue in the heart of West Hollywood, Sloan’s was the type of place where you could order a mixed drink and not have to sell your kidney to pay for it.
The bar had been in business for 83 years since it first opened during Prohibition and had become a local watering hole that catered to a more downscale clientele (like myself). Back in the day, Clark Gable and Cary Grant would drop by for a drink but in the ‘80s it was the place where locals went to feel comfortable.
I do remember seeing Jennifer Beals there many times before she became famous as the girl who rocked a torn sweatshirt in Flashdance. She was out on the dance floor every time I was there and I can recall what a spectacular dancer she was or maybe that’s just hindsight kicking in and probably the idealized version of my memory of it. Every time I saw her at Sloan’s, I desperately wanted to ask her to dance but knew I never would [that’s not a memory, that’s a fact].
Which is actually one of the reasons why I liked going to Sloan’s. In a strange way, this downscale bar did give me courage of a sort. Let me explain. By the early ‘80s when I was frequenting the bar, I had interviewed everybody from Roberta Flack, Molly Hatchet and Michael Jackson to Ozzy Osbourne, the Police and KISS. I was hanging out with rock and roll people all the time. I was sitting in rooms with them and driving in their cars and going on the road when they toured. I’m not saying I wasn’t nervous or didn’t have butterflies when I was talking to these legendary figures. I was scared silly many times but I fought through the lump in my gut and ended up having wonderful conversations with them and feeling at ease and making these rock icons feel comfortable as well.
In other words, I was able to talk to some of the most famous musicians in the world but approaching a girl at a bar and simply saying hello was like climbing Mt. Everest. Or more accurately, like tracking a wild tiger. I’d see someone standing by herself and I’d start to walk over. My legs would lock and my vision would blur and by the time I reached her side, I would be so tongue-tied and my brain would be so emptied of even the simplest of thoughts and even the idea of saying, “Hello. How are you?” seemed impossible to utter. Usually, I would continue walking past this unknown female as if I actually had some place go to and end up hibernating in a corner. I felt trapped and cornered—the tiger had won.
But somehow Sloan’s was like a shot of adrenaline, a cupful of courage. On that particular night that connects to my meeting with Rick James, I was there about nine o’clock. I had ordered a gin and tonic—what I always drank—and was nursing it. I found the alcove I usually stood in and watched people coming in, playing pool and listening to the jukebox, which played the hits of the day. I think they may have even played “Super Freak” but they probably didn’t and there’s the limbic region camouflaging my memory again.
All of I sudden, I spotted this insanely beautiful girl standing at the bar. I could only see her profile but her face was something God had touched and her brown hair cascaded down her shoulders like a miracle.
Immediately, this internal conversation that always happened when I thought about approaching a strange woman erupted in my eardrums. One voice said, “Just walk over there, man. What’s the worst that could happen?” and the not-so-nice voice countered, “What could happen? You could be embarrassed, disgraced and forever scarred, dude. That’s what could happen.” I normally listened to the bad voice but on this night I felt supercharged. That Sloan’s black magic was coursing through my veins.
I began the long walk over to the bar and attempted to control my breathing and kept repeating my name to myself lest I forgot it. She was turned away from me so I stepped in front of her in order to say hello. As she pivoted, I saw that one of the sleeves of her blouse was hanging limp. I couldn’t figure it out. Then she swiveled completely and I realized this girl had slightly less than two arms. One arm was normal and the other was gone at the elbow. I wasn’t shocked or horrified or anything like that. I was just surprised.
She turned to look at me and in that moment she knew I had seen her missing limb—or didn’t see her missing limb—and the look on her face shifted from having a relaxed night out to a mask so full of hatred, vitriol and venom that it staggered me. Before I even opened my mouth, I knew I was doomed. If I pretended I hadn’t noticed her missing arm, she would know I was lying but I was obviously not going to say anything—I never would—so I was caught in a no man’s land. My first instinct was to turn and run but I didn’t. I had made that long, slow, terrible walk over there and I was not going to back down now.
I faced her and said, ‘Hi. How are you?” Her eyes narrowed to slits and she stared at me like I had spit in her face. “What the f—k are you looking at?” was her response. I felt emptied of everything. Her words were meant to cripple, maim and destroy me. They did. I had walked into a game of Russian Roulette and there were no empty chambers. Any response I could think of was going to result in the trigger being pulled and some essential part of my body being blown to kingdom come. Here was what I thought I could say:
- “Your face. You’re very beautiful.” Bang!
- “I wasn’t looking at anything. I just saw you across the bar.” Bam!
- “I wasn’t looking at your missing arm.” Kablooey!
- “I was looking for your missing arm.” Splat!
- “I was looking for a girl with one arm.” Boom!
- “I figured you’d throw yourself at anyone with the requisite number of limbs. Bangbamkablooeysplatboom!!
In her mind, she must have thought I had known she was minus one arm before I even walked over and that the only reason I was even talking to her was because I felt sorry for her. How could I tell her that I had no idea about her invisible limb and that I really didn’t care? But I never got that chance. She turned around and left me standing there. I finished the rest of my drink in one gulp and was going to leave but thought I’d walk upstairs and maybe play some video games to ease my mind.
Sloan’s had a Galaga video game and it was one of my favorites. It was unoccupied so I strolled over and inserted a quarter. Playing for several minutes, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that a girl had been standing next to me since I began shooting down enemy aliens. Any inclination to say something to her had been completely obliterated by the girl with 50 percent of the requisite number of fingers so I kept playing and did my best to ignore her, which was almost impossible because even with peripheral vision I could see this woman standing next to me was a petite, exotic-looking female with devastating brown eyes.
My concentration had gone to hell and extra-terrestrial spaceships were blasting me left and right when I heard—or thought I heard—this girl say to me, “Use your guns.” Truly thinking I was hallucinating, I ignored her. For all I knew, she had said, “Are you done?” I kept playing. Five minutes later, all my ships destroyed along with any final vestiges of self-worth, I was going to head home. As I’m leaving, the brown-eyed girl taps my arm and says, “Hi. How are you?” Now looking straight at her, I cannot believe how enchanting she really is nor can I understand on any level why she was talking to me.
For one horrific second, I thought she was friends with the one-armed girl and had been sent upstairs to search me out and destroy me. I tentatively said hello and we spoke for a couple minutes. I told her I was leaving and she walked outside with me, which totally shook me up. I wasn’t going to attempt to ask for a phone number because I knew that was about as likely as me splitting the atom with a spoon and fork. Just having her say a few words to me made me feel whole again. Then she said, “You know why I wanted to talk to you? Because you ignored me.”
Everything I thought I ever knew about women flew out the top of my head like a flock of crows. I had only ignored her because I was too terrified to utter even a single word to her. Life could be so strange sometimes that any attempt at unraveling it was useless. Nonetheless, she—her name was Susie—gave me her phone number.
We ended up going out for several months and this is where the story all ties together. I had been given a time slot for a Rick James interview on a Saturday morning. To be honest, I was not a huge fan. I thought he was a capable artist and “Super Freak” was big at the time but there was no burning desire to sit and spend an hour on a weekend with him. Still, I agreed to do the interview and called Susie to see if she might like to come along. What possessed me to ask her if she wanted to accompany me to meet Rick James is something to this day I still can’t figure out. I’m sure I wanted to impress her and make her think I had a very cool job but why I chose this occasion to do that was incomprehensible.
We met at Motown Records [James’ label] down on Sunset Boulevard and from the moment I walked in the conference room with Susie on my arm, I could feel my world burning down. James was on her immediately. Wearing an unzipped leather jacket adorned with buttons that read “I’m #1—Why Try Harder” and “I’d Rather Be High,” he grabbed Susie in what should have been an amicable embrace but held her for just a beat too long. James had been way too intimate in his embrace and immediately I was on high alert.
Pissed off, I looked at Susie and saw she felt uncomfortable. During the entire interview, he kept looking at her and puckering his lips, smiling lasciviously and just generally coming off as slimy as a snake charmer. There’s not a doubt in my mind that had I left to go to the bathroom, he would have tried to ask for her phone number.
We talked for about a half-hour and I don’t even know what I asked him. As I’d mentioned earlier, “Super Freak” was a hit at the time and now watching James slither through his ultra-hip routine with my girlfriend, it provided an insight about how the bassist truly saw women and dealt with them. The lyrics in “Super Freak” read in part:
She’s a very kinky girl
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
She likes the boys in the band
She says that I’m her all-time favorite
When I make my move to her room
It’s the right time
She’s never hard to please
James treated Susie like she was the girl in the song, a member of his stable. He disrespected her and by so doing gave me no props whatsoever. Rick came off as slimy, underhanded, and salacious and I couldn’t wait to get out of there. As we were leaving, he once again grabbed Susie with less than innocent intentions. I hated the dude, man. Born James Ambrose Johnson, Jr., one of his nicknames was Slick Rick and oh how that fit. He was found dead at his home about 20+ years after this interview. The autopsy uncovered alprazolam, bupropion, citalopram, diazepam, hydrocodone, digoxin, chlorpheniramine, methamphetamine, and cocaine in his system. Slick Rick was a walking pharmacy and though the coroner declared “none of the drugs or drug combinations were found to be at levels that were life-threatening in and of themselves,” it certainly couldn’t have helped that James had been doing meth and coke for an extended period of time and had died at age 56.
Speaking ill of the dead is not a kind, cool or proper thing to do and I apologize for that. But the time I spent with Rick James revealed a narcissistic individual bent on trying to pick up my girlfriend. He came off as a misogynistic manipulator who saw women as notches on his fretboard. I don’t know if he was really that kind of man but where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire.
I suppose I should have felt honored or special that Rick James was trying to pick up my girlfriend. I wasn’t. I wanted to kick his butt out the door. Maybe he would have had better luck with the girl who could only make the sound of one-hand clapping…or maybe she would have slapped him silly with her one remaining arm.
Now, that didn’t happen but I wish it had. Maybe there’s a way if I concentrate as hard as I can on that moment, I can make the ending come out the way I want it to. I can make that whole sequence with the single-limbed girl disappear from my limbic region. Perhaps I can plant a seed or in some way retrain the electrons, neurons and synapses swimming around inside my brainpan to take different paths so instead of being confronted by the angriest one-armed woman in West Hollywood, I simply walk by her, head upstairs, play my video game and meet the beautiful Susie.
In my reimagining of my own life, it is Rick James who walks into Sloan’s, sees the brown-haired girl standing at the bar and he approaches her. She unleashes her fury on him, balls up her one remaining fist and socks him right in the nose.
That’s the memory I’d like to have. I’ll work on it.