Glow: The Autobiography of Rick James with David Ritz; Atria Books, 342 pages ($25). “New York is bigger, Chicago is windier, Atlanta is warmer but of all the chocolate cities, Buffalo may be the baddest. You’d have to compare it to Detroit to get a sense of the down-and-out feeling that hangs over the inner city. Like Detroit, Buffalo was once a booming Great Lakes city. But unlike Detroit, it never even began to forge a comeback. It’s the filthiest buckle in the center of the Rust Belt. The steel mills are shut down tight, the jobs long gone. The ghetto is one nasty liquor store after another. The bars are dirty holes-in-the wall where the patrons are drinking themselves to death on cheap gin and rotgut wine.”
However much anachronism resides in that Buffalo portrait from another decade (Rick James died in 2004), almost anyone would be hard put to deny this a crucial place on the Buffalo bookshelf. Has Buffalo ever had a more rueful and ambiguous claim to fame than our status as the city that gave the world Rick James, the king of punk funk? Lord knows it didn’t take much to get down with the music and to have a well-developed ironic sympathy for the outrageous, self-annihilating megalomania that never tired of advertising itself, even as he wandered through the world with a coke spoon around his neck.
Rick James was the perfect Rick James – the epitome of something the pop world once needed to exist, something full of talent and energy and truth and a noxious commodity (which, when used productively, was called “fertilizer”). He was turned into a wicked, wicked (and very good) joke by Dave Chappelle and, just a few months later, died at 56 with half a drugstore in his bloodstream (nothing though, said the coroner, that would have been fatal alone or in combination. His body, it seems, just got tired of supporting his “lifestyle.”).
There was an unauthorized James autobiography published after his death, but this posthumous book written in James’ voice is as close as we’ll ever get to the real thing. David Ritz and James talked about it constantly and Ritz did several jailhouse interviews with him. And Ritz, you have to understand, is the ultra-readable emperor of collaborators in the “as told to” world. An important Buffalo book. – Jeff Simon