“I GET EMO­TIONAL”

HE DEFINED THE SOUND OF DISCO, GAVE BIRTH TO HIP-HOP AND MADE A STAR OF MADONNA. BUT SELF-PROCLAIMED “HIPPIE AT HEART” NILE RODGERS SAYS HIS BIG­GEST SUC­CESS HAS SIM­PLY BEEN STAYING ALIVE

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Stellar - - Contents - Words by NICHOLAS FONSECA Chic’s Aus­tralian tour starts Satur­day, Septem­ber 30 in Perth; tick­etek.com.au.

He’s be­hind some of the most well known songs of all time, but Nile Rodgers says his great­est achieve­ment is sur­vival.

“We love Chic! We love Chic! We love Chic!”

It was a Mon­day night in March 2012, and Nile Rodgers was on­stage at Syd­ney’s Metro Theatre, re­cip­i­ent of an im­promptu cheer from the crowd. The gui­tarist and mu­si­cal pi­o­neer had just com­pleted a blaz­ing set with Chic, the disco out­fit he co-founded in 1976. Tears welled in his eyes as shouts and ap­plause tore through the room; Rodgers wiped them away, hum­bled and over­whelmed.

Five years later, he ex­plains what was go­ing through his mind. “I thought my days were num­bered,” Rodgers tells Stel­lar. “My au­to­bi­og­ra­phy had just come out; I had been di­ag­nosed with an ex­tremely ag­gres­sive cancer [17 months ear­lier]. I re­ally didn’t think I’d be around much longer, so I booked an ex­traor­di­nary num­ber of gigs.

“The ap­pre­ci­a­tion over­whelmed me. It’s hap­pened to me only a few times… well, prob­a­bly more than that. A lot of times when I’m play­ing, I get emo­tional,” he adds with a laugh, “and I have to hide it.” RODGERS HAS AC­TU­ALLY hid­den in plain sight for much of his ca­reer. The 64-year-old may not be a house­hold name, but it is no stretch to call him a key ar­chi­tect of mod­ern mu­sic. Chic defined disco with hits in­clud­ing ‘Le Freak’ and ‘I Want Your Love’ and kick-started hip-hop with ‘Good Times’. As a pro­ducer and song­writer, he has worked with Madonna (‘Like A Vir­gin’), Diana Ross (‘Up­side Down’), Du­ran Du­ran (‘The Re­flex’), Sis­ter Sledge (‘We Are Fam­ily’), David Bowie (‘Let’s Dance’), INXS (‘Orig­i­nal Sin’) and Daft Punk (‘Get Lucky’). The re­sults were their big­gest hits, ear­worms that will en­dure across gen­er­a­tions.

“My story has sort of been told al­ready, even though I’m still mak­ing new mu­sic,” Rodgers says. “But I don’t think any­thing will ever feel as urgent and des­per­ate as the late ’70s and [early] ’80s when I met Bowie and Madonna and Diana… that’s when it felt like, man, we could change the world with our mu­sic.”

They were heady days for Rodgers – and they nearly killed him. In his 2011 mem­oir Le Freak, he wrote can­didly about the crip­pling co­caine ad­dic­tion

that al­most de­railed his bril­liant ca­reer. When he at­tended Madonna’s 36th birthday party, “I hadn’t slept in four days”; a sub­se­quent fit of psy­chosis led him to re­hab. On his first day out of an eight-month stint, he got a phone call. It was Keith Richards, ask­ing for a bump.

Rodgers stayed clean, and the ebul­lient mood he ra­di­ates down the line from his wa­ter­front home in Con­necti­cut can be cred­ited to his so­bri­ety as much as his up­bring­ing.

“My par­ents were beat­niks,” he says. “I’m still re­ally a hippie at heart. I used to live in a com­mune. I used to be home­less. I was a street kid. That’s where I come from, that’s how I see my­self.”

In fact, his par­ents at home were also ad­dicts who at­tracted a dodgy crowd – his child­hood was pock­marked with “drug deal­ers, pimps, pros­ti­tutes, book­ies and rob­bers”. As a boy, Rodgers would find es­cape in the old movie houses of down­town Los An­ge­les and the arms of his grand­mother. He later joined the Black Pan­thers and got started in mu­sic by play­ing along­side Jimi Hen­drix and, as part of Se­same Street’s tour­ing band, Big Bird. Through it all, Rodgers main­tained a staunch be­lief in the good­ness of oth­ers.

“My per­son­al­ity is so laid-back,” he rea­sons. “I think ev­ery­body just wants to do the right thing. Mu­si­cians are kind, lov­ing and gen­er­ous – the most al­tru­is­tic peo­ple I know. So when­ever I’m work­ing with peo­ple, I paint them with that brush.”

WHEN RODGERS SPEAKS to Stel­lar, he is less than 48 hours away from em­bark­ing on a north­ern sum­mer tour with Earth, Wind & Fire. He’s al­ready spent much of this year on the road. “We just cal­cu­lated that in the last few months I have trav­elled 130,000 kilo­me­tres,” he says. “That’s a third of the way to the moon.”

He is also nurs­ing a chest in­jury sus­tained af­ter Chic played Glas­ton­bury Fes­ti­val in the UK last month: “It hurts like hell.” Rodgers re­mains cancer-free – he was given the all-clear just a few months af­ter his di­ag­no­sis, but still gets checked twice a year. “Ev­ery six months, the same rou­tine. You get so ner­vous, oh my God. Cancer al­ways seems to want to come back.”

Asked how he stays fit and healthy, Rodgers ad­mits he does not ex­er­cise. “I just work!” He does not sleep much, ei­ther. “Only three to four hours a night.” Isn’t he tired all the time? “If I were, how could I do all the work? That’s the thing: I feel great.”

He men­tions a re­cent ses­sion with Bruno Mars, and says he still hopes to re­lease the Chic al­bum he de­layed last year due to Bowie’s death and the heated US elec­tion. He would like to work with Madonna again, but re­veals the con­tract they signed all those years ago – when she was yet to ex­plode into the strato­sphere – would give him such an eye-wa­ter­ing roy­alty fee he doubts it will ever come off.

“I would love to see who she is now, be­cause I know who she was then,” he laughs, “but we have that pa­per be­tween us!”

In Septem­ber, Chic hits Australia with Lionel Richie for a na­tion­wide tour. Rodgers says that when Richie used to play small clubs in the Bronx and Har­lem with his old band the Com­modores, “those guys would strike fear into our hearts. Lionel would come to New York and just scorch the earth.”

Still, he must have taken a few cues. Forty years in, Chic re­mains lu­cra­tive for pro­mot­ers, and Rodgers prides him­self on be­ing “re­ally old-school… my lead singer doesn’t even want in-ear mon­i­tors. We play live dance mu­sic, which is a dy­ing art form.”

Rodgers shares a mem­ory from their re­cent Glas­ton­bury set. “We played for 200,000 peo­ple, and the en­ergy that came from that au­di­ence felt elec­tro­mag­netic. Some­times – I know this sounds crazy – but some­times it’s so strong I re­ally feel like I could walk right off the stage and their en­ergy would keep me up. I have to check my­self: ‘Nile, you do un­der­stand the laws of physics. Trust me on this, in­ner brain: they can­not keep you up. You will not be able to defy grav­ity. Trust me.’”

“I DON’T THINK ANY­THING WILL FEEL AS URGENT AS THE LATE ’70S AND ’80S WHEN I MET BOWIE, MADONNA AND DIANA ROSS”

THE HIT MAKER (from top) Nile Rodgers (sec­ond right) with Chic in 1977; at the 2014 Grammy Awards with Phar­rell Wil­liams and Daft Punk; with David Bowie in 1983; Tom Bai­ley, Rodgers and Madonna at 1985’s Live Aid.

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