Nile Rodgers — The man who died eight times

Nile Rodgers is best known as a songwriter and latterly as one of the most influential music producers of all time. When he appeared on the BBC this morning though, he had a different and quite extraordinary tale to tell.

Nile Rodgers photographed on his 2010 European Tour with sound engineer John Ryan.

Nile Rodgers started his music career as a session guitarist in New York. After meeting his partner Bernard Edwards, they formed the Big Apple Band, which became Chic.

Their breakthrough single was Le Freak, which topped the disco chart for no less than seven weeks, in 1978. The 1980s were what might be called his golden period; the two men wrote and produced scores of songs and albums for artists as varied as Diana Ross, Deborah Harry, Duran Duran and Madonna.

The 1990s were also highly productive for the classically trained multi-instrumentalist and his partner. Although black, Rodgers is one of those artists who can’t be pigeonholed, and indeed he has been in the forefront of what might be called crossover music.

Last month he told the BBC’s Outlook radio programme that the first song he ever learned to play was A Day In The Life.

When he appeared on the BBC Breakfast news programme this morning though, he had a different tale to tell, namely his struggle with addiction to cocaine. Motley Crüe bass player Nikki Sixx wrote a song called Kickstart My Heart which is about exactly what it sounds like. Nile went not one better but seven better when he died eight times in the hospital. He told presenters Bill Turnbull and Sian Williams that his death certificate was actually being signed when his heart started up for the final time.

The doctors lectured him and pleaded with him, and he stopped taking drugs. For a matter of weeks. Ironically it was not fear of death but shame that finally put his demons to flight. He went to a party hosted by Madonna, and made a spectacle of himself due to his obnoxious behaviour. He was suffering from cocaine psychosis. Then, after reading a magazine article about Keith Richards giving up drugs, he thought, if he can do it, so can I, and checked himself into rehab.

The punchline is that shortly after he came out, Keith Richards phoned and asked if Nile could score him some coke.

Nile Rodgers is currently in the UK promoting his candid, warts and all autobiography, which must surely be in the running for some kind of literary prize. There is also a message here, for (especially) black youth and for those fighting the war on drugs.

Firstly, although he was a talented kid, he came from what might be called a disadvantaged background, yet he didn’t turn to street crime much less rioting. There are other ways. Second, if legal sanctions including the fear of death won’t stop a man or woman from entering that downward spiral of drug abuse and self-destruction, maybe shame will. The war on drugs is failing because it is consumer driven. If people can be deterred from using drugs, the traffic will dry up. Maybe we should all convert to Islam or something as radical as that?

Nile Rodgers doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks the walk, a native born New Yorker, after the September 11 atrocities he set up the We Are Family Foundation. The name is taken from We Are Family, the monster hit he and Bernard Edwards wrote and produced for Sister Sledge.

His official website can be found here.

[The above article was first published December 13, 2011.]

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