By Brian Turk
By Drew AIles
By Taylor Boylston
By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
To fill in the gaps for those of you who pick up Westword mainly to read the personal ads: The profile in question turned on the contrast between James's funk-god past--"Super Freak (Part 1)," from 1981, remains his signature song--and an operation conducted earlier this year during which his hip was replaced. The procedure, which I noted is "associated more with brittle octogenarians than with fifty-year-olds apparently in the full bloom of health," hadn't slowed him down, James insisted--but that didn't stop me from quoting him talking about his subsequent experience with painkillers ("Sometimes the pills would do something to my vision, where it felt like I was going blind").
Then the news broke on November 10 that James had undergone surgery following a minor stroke. Moreover, the problem was apparently related to a blood vessel that broke during his November 6 appearance at Denver's Mammoth Events Center. A James publicist reportedly told the Associated Press that doctors called the Freaky One's affliction "rock-and-roll neck." The phrase sounded mighty familiar to me, and with good reason: When he was talking to me about his hip ailment, James had said, "I had it checked out, and they told me I had 'rock-and-roll hip.'"
Al Sherman, who co-promoted the concert in question, was with James for most of his stay in Denver (they've known each other since the Seventies), and he says the singer was feeling poorly from the first moment he set foot on Colorado soil. "He'd just done a big concert at the Greek Theater in California, and he was very fatigued--and he had a cold or the flu, or something like that. In fact, I think I caught what he had. He coughed and sneezed right in front of me a couple of times, and a few days later I was coughing and sneezing, too."
James's pipes were in such poor shape in the days leading up to the concert that he tried not to use them unless absolutely necessary: "He was trying to save his voice for the show," Sherman says. "We're old friends, but we probably said five words to each other on the way in from the airport." When James's condition didn't improve, he was forced to cancel an autograph session at the newly opened Hard Rock Cafe (more about that later) and an inspirational chat with students at the Denver School of the Arts.
During the Mammoth performance, before a crowd of approximately 2,000, Sherman says, "Rick was in terrible shape--but I think I'm the only one who knew it. He really pulled it off. He complained about the altitude and he needed some oxygen, but he kept going even though I could tell he was basically struggling. The audience had no clue that anything was wrong." At one point James left the stage in mid-song, and it was then, Sherman believes, the vessel in his neck burst. However, he returned to the spotlight shortly thereafter and even went back for an encore despite Sherman's attempt to convince him otherwise. He kept additional commitments as well. According to Sherman, "He has this ritual with the Stone City Band [his longtime back-up group] where he lights candles in his dressing room and they pray together--and that went fine. And after the show, he was signing autographs, letting people take pictures with him and basically just taking care of the fans. When he left the venue, he seemed to be holding up okay, so I guess he had his breakdown between the time he left there and the time he got back to his hotel." After being examined by a local physician, James was advised to return to his Los Angeles-area home. He took this recommendation, but on November 9 he grew numb on the right side of his body and lost the ability to walk. He was taken to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for evaluation and was operated on the following day.
James's physicians expect him to make a complete recovery. So, too, does Sherman, who was extremely impressed by the Super Freak's determination. "Rick showed a lot of heart in even performing," he says. "I think he was trying to prove something after the hip surgery. And maybe he pushed too hard."
Perhaps I did as well--and now I'm consumed by guilt. But at least I'm used to it.
The aforementioned Hard Rock Cafe held its official grand-opening ceremony on November 12. What follows is an on-site report.
6:35 p.m.: I pull into the far-from-crowded parking facility of the new Denver Pavilions. Could all of the TV-generated hype about the popularity of the place have been a trifle...exaggerated?
6:40-6:50 p.m.: Close up, the mall looks like a set from Gattaca. Looking for a more welcoming environment, I wander into the Virgin Megastore, a sprawling complex about the size of the palace at Versailles--but one that's apparently not big enough to fit a restroom. An employee subsequently directs me to a cluster of water closets on the structure's second level, near a Barnes & Noble, but when I arrive there, I discover that while the women's lavatory is open for business, the men's facility is mysteriously locked. I consider hanging it over the railing, then change my mind after remembering that people already have plenty of reasons to laugh at me. I amble to the other side of the escalators, where Hard Rock Cafe employees are selling assorted gewgaws to laminate-wearing guests in a roped-off area. Having previously noticed a huge queue leading to the Hard Rock's front entrance on the ground floor, I ask a Cafe staffer if I can sneak in the back way because I'm in the media. Sorry, he says: Everyone needs to stand in the same line.