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Saturday, September 30, 2023

The fascinating hippie upbringing of Nile Rodgers

Chic leader Nile Rodgers has been a staple of popular culture for decades now. A pioneer of the disco genre alongside late bandmate Bernard Edwards, the American musician has many hits to his name. Undoubtedly one of the most fascinating figures of his era, Rodgers has lived a life of mythical proportions, and in true form, it started in the most unique of ways.

From the beginning, it seemed as if Nile Rodgers were to have a life that veered off the beaten track. His mother, Beverly, fell pregnant with him at 13 after losing her virginity. After that life-changing moment, she swore she would never have kids again, and as a result, she had three brutal back alley abortions when Nile was young. Eventually, Beverly had five more boys with five different men, all of whom became heroin addicts, apart from Nile, who always preferred cocaine and alcohol.

Rodgers’ biological father, Nile Rodgers Sr, was also an instrumental force in his life. He was a touring percussionist specialising in Afro-Cuban beats, and although he was a significant influence on Nile, he was very rarely present in his life. After Beverly split from Nile Sr, she met the beatnik Bobby Glanzrock, who would provide Nile with another central figure. Beverly and Glanzrock married in 1959, opening both her and her son up to differing sides of the countercultural world: the intellectually stimulating and the scary, all-encompassing nature of addiction. When writing in his 2011 memoir, Le Freak, Rodgers described his stepfather as a “beatnik PhD, whose observations had angles that would make Miles Davis contemplate his cool”.

According to the Chic leader, their apartment was an open house of beatniks and drug users. The legendary jazz pioneer Thelonious Monk even once came by to purchase a fur coat from his mother. In his autobiography, Rodgers writes, “Heroin often turns addicts into gifted salespeople”.

Further discussing the hippie parameters of his upbringing in the book, Rodgers explains how his mother, father and stepfather’s addiction to heroin introduced him to the world of narcotics and hedonism when he was young. He writes: “Shooting, drinking, snorting and smoking any and everything right in front of me was all part of the daily script.”

Aged just eight, Rodgers spotted a man attempting to jump from the fourth floor of a local dosshouse. It was none other than his father, whom he hadn’t seen for months. The child talked him down, a remarkable and harrowing moment for someone so young. This wasn’t the only moment where his elders’ lifestyle would make a profound impression. When the white and Jewish Glanzrock nearly died of an overdose, everyone in his orbit was panicked. If he died and it transpired the dealer was Black or Hispanic, there would have been a serious police investigation. Here, he learnt the vital life lesson that the world hinged on race realities.

According to a 2018 interview with The Guardian, whilst the dark aspects of his childhood are shocking by anyone’s standards, Rodgers maintains that it was what made him. For all of the severity that he encountered, the family home was artistic and intellectual. Instead of being like a traditional mother, Beverly was different: “Everybody else’s mothers looked like grandmothers, but my mom looked like a hottie.”

“They were high-functioning addicts. Always. I inherited that gene,” Rodgers told the publication. “All of them held down jobs. My stepfather was in the schmutter trade. All my brothers worked for my uncle, who had a clothing line on the Lower East Side. That’s why they were able to become heroin addicts because they all had jobs. They were beatniks, they were cool, and they had money to throw around, and they threw it around on heroin.”

In a way, heroin was trivialised. Rodgers’ stepfather, Bobby, spent his last days in a Veterans Association home. He was admitted as an alcoholic but rejected the tag, maintaining he was a junkie. The Chic leader recalled: “My stepfather was a rampant alcoholic, but he couldn’t identify as one. They almost didn’t let him in. He said: ‘I am a very proud junkie’.”

Being brought up in a countercultural environment also exposed Rodgers to music from a young age, with him learning the flute and clarinet in school and developing a taste for classical. Later, when he was 15, he befriended a group of hippies and spent two days taking LSD in the house of none other than Dr. Timothy Leary, where he was introduced to the music of The Doors, and his love for psychedelic music started. 

These days in California would also be monumental and open him up to another new world. He started playing guitar and was eventually hired as part of the Sesame Street band alongside Luther Vandross and then the house band at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre. Later, he became a section leader of the Black Panthers, was in the same hospital as Andy Warhol after being spiked, and even jammed with Jimi Hendrix. 

What’s even more incredible about the entire tale is that all this occurred when Rodgers was just a teenager. After such a compelling start to life, there’s no surprise that he would go on to have such a significant career. It’s as though he was destined for it. 

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