Near a condemned house, a death-chemical vapor hung in the evening air, a spectral mist. Chest-high weeds led to the entry. A milk crate served as a step, wobbling like an evil carnival ride to the steel-barred doorway.
"A crack house," a neighbor explained.
Druggy denizens resembling rabid bats flew in after dark for their crack. All night long, they crouched right on the street and smoked.
And through this unblest fog, a glittering black limousine snaked quietly, carrying one of Buffalo's most celebrated sons who became Motown's biggest selling act -- singer Rick James. Here, just another customer desperate to score.
This was the early '90s, and those small snowy rocks worked malignant alchemy on his career, our city and country.
America cracked, as the malevolence forged steely shackles for our citizens, sapping the resources of whole communities. What happened to James served as a microcosm of the America Cracked tragedy.
A few years ago he was riding high, one of the most successful Buffalo musicians ever.
Rolling Stone magazine this summer called the Buffalo performer "one of the biggest names in the music business. His live shows were legendary. His long braids dusted with glitter, he strode the stage in thigh-high boots and spandex, crouching to accept joints and kisses from his admiring fans. He'd go on to write or produce albums for Smokey Robinson, the Temptations, Teena Marie, Chaka Khan, Eddie Murphy and many more."
James "carried the banner of black pop over that fertile territory known as funk," noted critic David Ritz. "He worked in the celebrated R&B instrumental tradition -- percussive guitar riffs, busy bass lines, syncopated horn punches. His funk was high and mighty, while his attitude stayed down and dirty."
Even Mick Jagger arranged to meet him.
The bass-slapping funkster had earned $15 million by the time he hit his mid-30s. Slick Rick made People magazine's best-dressed list, along with Prince Charles. He spent Christmas with Diana Ross, did movie soundtracks and played himself on TV shows, like "Miami Vice."
Stevie Wonder and James Brown joined him on songs. Even Donny Osmond flew into Buffalo, conferring with Rick, looking for a new sound. At his 30-acre Town of Aurora ranch, guests rode Arabian horses. "RJ" appeared on "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," spotted around Buffalo in a silver Rolls, Excalibur or Mercedes. Champagne-wishes-caviar-dreams Robin Leach called him "a powerhouse in the industry, not only handling his own career but producing and managing a family of other bands," as Rick posed next to his Mary Jane Girls. With a mixer the size of a dance floor, he became Buffalo's Berry Gordy.
Notes the Motown man himself of Mr. Super Freak: "His live shows were so daring they shocked me. Rick did it all -- singer, musician, writer, arranger, producer," wrote Gordy in his "To Be Loved" autobiography. "Watching him work in the studio was amazing. He was innovative and could come up with some of the greatest rhythms and vocal arrangements in his head, on the spot."
James' work became so mainstream it drifted into the recent Olympic Games coverage. His tuneful riffs from the song that won him a Grammy -- "Super Freak" -- were played in a celebration of triumph and fun, as broadcaster Katie Couric (definitely a girl you COULD "take home to mother") commented on a soccer segment.
Pop music is the liquid pad upon which the cultural diary is written; messages about love, society, relationships. To a beat, it tells you what you need to do to be hip today.
James told of intolerance to racism, about having fun. His message was so strong -- it's OK to move from the ghetto to the mainstream society, DO IT, be fearless, you GOTTA do it -- a message so universal, it transcended the dialogue of the black world and it entered the realm of white teens, eventually entering Europe.
What was so controversial about James is that he sang about drugs -- which he regrets today.
But let James himself tell you what went down:
"I happened to let my life run amok because of a pipe and a rock of cocaine," he said recently.
James made that painful self-evaluation while serving almost three years in prison, convicted of furnishing cocaine and assaulting a woman. While in a grim prison cell in Gothic Folsom Prison 3,000 miles away, James quietly contemplated his private victory at 48: his hard-won divorce from drugs. Crack cost him everything. Except life itself. When artists become addicts, it too often means death. But not in this case.
"There's one story I don't want you to write, Louise," he told me in a jailhouse-cast iron chrysalis interview, sounding like he was shouting up from the drainpipe of hell.
"That's the one with you looking at me in a coffin."
His time in fearsome Folsom has been a terrifying blessing, in that "it stopped me from doing drugs. I was always looking to take that hit and hoping to die."
Recently released from prison, James considers his trial by fire a rebirth from crack ashes: "The old Rick James is dead.
"My life has been a roller coaster ride, full of ups and downs, and now I've finally discovered a balance. I'm probably more centered and focused than I've ever been, which is a beautiful feeling."
Behind bars, he found freedom from addiction.
As his brother, Buffalo attorney LeRoi Johnson, put it: "Rick gets another shot at life."
The King of Funk has many plans: a new album, an autobiography -- but the most important of all, to stay clean and sober. He has reason to come home. He's scheduled to be inducted in the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame later this month. James says he will be there if he can.
If he does, he'll be surprised to see the change in his old haunts, like the posh Cloister restaurant. His entourage would parade past a plaque at the door listing his name with those of other celebrities who visited the Delaware Avenue site of the homestead of Mark Twain, another guy who liked to "light out." Today the old Cloister houses "Business First." Yes, business first, as the performer pointed out:
"To end up in a prison because of a drug, and to get beat up by a drug, is a hell of a thing. When I was using drugs, I lived my life in a haze."
Spirit and Demons
It's a sunny afternoon in '85 as Rick's mom, Betty Gladden, celebrates her birthday at her Tudor mansion on Chapin Parkway. James looks resplendent in his ivory suit. The musicians' sisters dance and laugh, his tunes play on the stereo, and there's lots of food: salads, barbecue, lemonade. Everyone's talking and laughing. Mrs. Gladden's small white poodle runs around the tree to which he's tied and gets tangled up. He's barking for someone to come and free him. Everyone's collected in the kitchen, busy telling family stories. With money and power, they're one of the "First Families" in Buffalo's black community.
Thinking no one has heard the puppy, I go to free him. While unwinding him by walking him backward around the tree, suddenly Mrs. Gladden's hand grips mine. The matriarch looks at me, eyes welling, "Do you think he's happy? Do you think he'll be all right?" Her eyes plead for a reassuring one-word answer.
She knew about her son's unbeatable spirit. And the demons that fed on it. In the years since then, when meeting her, and even at her Buffalo funeral as Mayor-to-be Anthony Masiello helped carry her casket, I could hear her voice asking the same simple questions.
"Mom's biggest hope was that Rick would kick this habit," explains James' oldest sister, Camille Hudson of Buffalo.
Growing up in a poverty-stricken matriarchal household, James wrote extensively on the Buffalo African-American experience in his music, which opened the door for other black-white market crossover performers like Prince.
Hate him or love him, few people in the world could make magic like James did -- taking people on the ride of their lives.
"What a ball!" remembered Buffalo keyboardist Levi Ruffin.
"I spoke what was on my mind and had a great time," James recalled. "A lot of bureaucrats didn't like that. No white man, no man, had me pinned down anywhere. I was always so independent and so free."
In his estate bedroom next to his curtained poster bed, I once spotted two portraits. One was of his mother. The other was of Christ handed over by Pontius Pilate to the crowd -- from an unusual perspective, from the "stage"-down view. As California's Press-Enterprise noted: "James collected platinum records and music awards like some people collect bubble gum cards."
Then there were the parties and photos -- Rick with David Bowie, Jack Kemp, Jack Nicholson, Andy Warhol, Bette Midler, Michael Jackson and O.J. and Nicole, they both used drugs, he maintained.
Those were his halcyon days, or should that be spelled Halcion, the sleeping pill James used to take.
Later, before her death from cancer in Roswell Park, Mrs. Gladden called me, distraught that her son was locked in his room, taking drugs. "He's killing himself!"
No one in the entertainment business knew, James would later say, that "coke was so bad. There was no Betty Ford."
"In my insane way of thinking, I thought that Rick James could never get hooked," he says, as if viewing two victims. Just a pipe dream.
His early musical mentor, the late Miles Davis, could have warned him off that occupational hazard, cocaine madness, as James also suffered fear, paranoia and "mental complications."
"I almost really thought the reason why there were earthquakes and rain and tremors and buildings falling around the world and fires was because of me."
Being the 'Big Thing'
As a kid growing up in Buffalo's East Side, little James Ambrose Johnson Jr.'s mother took him to a shrink. Of her eight children, "Rick gave me the most trouble," recalled Mrs. Gladden, a petite former-Cotton Club showgirl.
"I took him to a psychiatrist and he told me there was nothing wrong with him. He had a good mind. He was always on the go and was very stubborn."
When he was just a toddler, his parents split up. Holding three jobs to support her children, his mom even worked as a numbers runner for a time, vowing that her kids would never go hungry.
"Me and my brother used to have to go out with my mother in the winter," James recalled. "We'd be crying and carrying numbers books in big shopping bags.
"Growing up, I never felt like a whole person."
With his up-from-poverty pluck, and smart as new-shoe leather, James went to Bennett -- "the hip high school, where I wanted to be the 'Big Thing.' "
"I fractured my jaw playing football and didn't make varsity basketball, but I won the talent show just by chanting and beating out a funky bongo groove. With the spotlight hitting me hard and the crowd cheering me on, that was my moment of truth. From then on, music was my expression, my ego, my heart and my mind.
"I was able to bring people together, make people fall in love."
From then on in, it was Rick "Jams."
Buffalo singer James Hawkins admired James because he knew "what hardship was. Other entertainers had fathers who were actors or promoters or big directors, and they just walked into it. The doors were open for them, whereas Rick had to go and knock 'em down."
An unhappy military stint propelled James toward Toronto, then in a music renaissance.
"When I joined the Naval Reserve to avoid Vietnam, the bull---- of regimentation and conformity got to me in a hurry. I went AWOL and wound up in Toronto. The scene was loaded with struggling artists -- David Clayton Thomas (who later led Blood, Sweat and Tears), Gordon Lightfoot, Kenny Rogers. Sometimes I'd hang out at Joni Mitchell's apartment; sometimes I'd play with Neil Young," he writes in his autobiography.
"Back in Buffalo, I went with Mom to the Royal Arms to see Miles and Tony Williams. Tony was kickin'. The next day I gave myself up to the FBI and did some time in the brig."
It wouldn't be the last time.
Fast forward to Buffalo's Memorial Auditorium in the fall of 1990. Some 15,000 fans see James jammin' with M.C. Hammer. James looks like a Don Juan in a black bolero outfit. Together the two African-American music titans created the biggest rap song ever, making this street poetry mainstream.
Before the show, he fixes his dark brown eyes on a wall, sweat glazes his face like a reflectional glass-crack pipe. Backstage in the Aud, bodyguards with limbs the size of tree-trunks loom, and the Hammer strikes the funkster with a prophetic warning:
"We all know where dope leads us -- death. Or jail."
Not long after, James set himself on fire, as chronicled by Rayce Newman, the self-proclaimed "drug supplier to the stars" in his "The Hollywood Connection" expose:
"We had run out of coke one morning and were 'jonesing' (seriously craving more). We were waiting for one of our dealers to come over and deliver a new stash. In the meantime, we used rubbing alcohol to clean out the pipes to scratch up some smokeable residues. You put the alcohol in the pipes, shake it around and pour it on a plate.
"Rick had lit the plate on fire and was carrying it into his room. He dropped the plate and the fire caught on to his terry-cloth robe. The flames spread fast up his robe and to his sleeves. I pushed him down and smothered him with the bedspread. He got up, still smoldering, picked up the plate as if nothing had happened and took it into his room."
Months later, the super punk-funk star would be wearing the L.A. County Jail blues -- along with the Menendez brothers -- and later O.J. Simpson. A strange coincidence shared by Buffalo's infamous inmates. Both claimed an L.A. frame-up.
Yet in James' case, it may be partly true.
It's a story that may be more scandalous than the funkateer's sex-drugs-and-rock 'n' roll saga, and it may be another chapter in the Blacks vs. LAPD feud, because the L.A. lawmen like him about as much as Rodney King.
By his own admission, James is no innocent. Evidence seems to show he beat at least one woman, punching her repeatedly during a drug binge.
However, an investigator from the L.A. County district attorney's office, Craig Gunnette -- according to police records -- confessed to supplying heroin to a key witness, Michelle Allen, who later testified against James. The heroin was stuffed between court papers, prosecutors said, when they met in a private attorney visiting room.
"Allen and her attorney maintain that Gunnette was a tool of corruption for the district attorney's office, instructed by superiors to do whatever it took to keep her cooperative," noted the Los Angeles Times. "But prosecutors believe he was just a veteran cop who suddenly turned crooked, lured by a longtime criminal."
Others accused of greater crimes than James have walked because of these kinds of legal misdeeds.
James never even met Ms. Allen, whom Times writer Jodi Wilgoren called "a self-described 'Hollywood party girl,' with a rap sheet as long as her legs."
She claimed James broke her arm, but admitted to another inmate that her boyfriend did it.
And there's more to this seedy story. Ms. Allen also said that Gunnette, flashing his badge, brought her toiletries, the tranquilizer Xanax, cigarettes and a TV, as well as bailing her car out of the impound.
"There were hundreds of collect calls and dozens of jail visits in which Gunnette gave Allen gifts, money," Wilgoren wrote. He sent her as much as $5,000, as well as abusing department computers by running rap sheets and car checks for Ms. Allen.
Gunnette was allowed to retire instead of getting fired.
"A lot of lies went on in this case," James told Vibe writer Michael Goldberg. "I was a guilty man as soon as I walked into the courtroom. My thing was that I had to prove I was not as guilty as they said I was.
"I'm not cold-blooded and I'm not a maniacal killer. I'm James Johnson, also known as Rick James.
"I have forgiven the girl who told lies -- she was a drug addict, too."
Contended Ms. Hudson: "I know my brother -- not that he's uncapable of doing wrong -- but he's not a vicious person. We weren't raised that way."
In the months leading to his "crack-up," his arrest in the early '90s for drug-fueled assault, Goldberg writes that a rocked-out James "became a recluse, seldom emerging from a trash-strewn bedroom filled with smoke from around-the-clock freebasing." James says it was like "looking at Satan in the face."
Even Deputy District Attorney Stephen L. Cooley, who supervised prosecution, said "truly and undoubtedly, his crimes were the result of his crack cocaine addiction."
The king of hearts gambled with drugs and lost -- big time -- millions of dollars up in smoke.
"If only you'd been in that courtroom to see what kind of a circus it was," said his brother LeRoi Johnson, a lawyer here with Siegel Kelleher & Kahn. "The courtroom was full of people. They were actually lined up behind the judge, who must have had 30 people behind him.
"Everybody wants to get their reputation (on his brother's head)."
James added in his capacious voice, "I always thought when people put their hands on the Bible, and when they swore to tell the whole truth under the law of God, they did that. All I saw was a farce."
To prison he went.
Inescapable Folsom, immortalized by the Johnny Cash song, housed some of the country's foul-some killers including "Coed Killer" Ed Kemper, who cut off his mother's head and gunned down his grandparents.
There, inmate #J29237, with shorn hair, spent his time in a cell shared with another prisoner, big Darryl Brown. The cell measured less than 5 feet by 10 feet, smaller than his Aurora 100-pair shoe closet. The man who once couldn't tolerate daylight in his room had to get used to waking just past dawn, to the sight of "bunk beds and a shiny metal commode with no seat," recently wrote Mike Sager in Rolling Stone. "James has passed his days inside the prison with grace, humor and good behavior."
With no special privileges. He put in eight hours a day working in the prison library, and put on weight with jail food: "Would you believe I'm a librarian!" he smiled.
James is grateful for the fans who stood by him, and who set up a Web site. Speaking of Buffalo, James pointed out:
"I am a hometown boy. I got of lot of friends there. Through all the things I've done wrong and all the things I've done good, I still love that city."
And the feeling is mutual, apparently. James' induction to the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame later this month seems to represent a consensus.
"He's the most influential rock musician to come out of Buffalo," maintains Buffalo News critic Anthony Violanti. His problems, the critic says, do "not detract from his musical accomplishments."
The performer has written hundreds of new songs.
"I plan on touring again, I plan on writing music, I plan on working for artists who are in the prison system," James announced. "I met some guys who sing, who are drug-free and sober. I plan on changing some minds.
"I'm still gonna get out there and make funky music. I'm just getting out there a clean and sober person. I also plan on giving lectures to the youth about prison and drug abuse."
And this rocker vows a walk down the aisle, marrying Tanya Anne Hijazi, the mother of his 3-year-old son, Tazman James Johnson.
"I'm going to marry that woman the first thing I do when I get out. She's made me happier than any woman I've ever been with. This crisis has brought us closer together, she has stood by my side through all of this madness. We were two co-dependent people."
The years of waste behind him, James wants to be a "responsible father."
"I'm going to take my son to Disneyland. The one thing in my youth that I never had was a father who was there. My mother was divorced and pretty much raised us on her own. Things like sports, fishing, just the simple things a boy does with his father, I have never experienced. So first and foremost, I plan on giving my son -- ME!
"It's never too late to fulfill a dream."
Even a parent's.
Buffalo News staff writer Louise Continelli, almost 20 years ago, wrote the first article on Rick James to appear in a major U.S. newspaper.