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Endless Lionel

Oh, what a feeling: Lionel Richie says hello again.

True story: During the mid-'80s, when Lionel Richie, the once and future king of marsh- mellow soul, straddled the pop-music sphere like a colossus, I owned a life-sized cardboard standup of the former Commodore that my malevolent loved ones and I would, um, do stuff to. At first, this Richie doppelgänger was used mainly as a target in that favorite pastime of arrested adolescents, suction-cup darts, with extra points awarded for crotch proximity. But later we got more creative, dressing him in different outfits every few weeks -- a bathrobe, simulated rabbi garb, and so on. I fondly remember the day when Mr. Katz, the sixty-something landlord of our poorly lit West Hollywood apartment, tried to start a conversation with Lionel, who I think was wearing a flowered muumuu at the time. Mr. Katz wasn't much of a Top 40 fan...

Eventually my cardboard replicas were lost to the passage of years, around the same time that the real Richie's fame was diluted by several doses of reality. Things began their turn for the worse in June 1988 when his then-wife, Brenda Richie, was arrested after allegedly kicking Lionel in the stomach and beating a young woman, Diane Alexander, whom she'd found with him. Charges against Brenda were subsequently dropped, and in later interviews, Richie (who wound up marrying Alexander) denied that his wife had pummeled him -- but that didn't stop late-night TV hosts from getting in their digs anyway. Richie was also shaken by the death of his father, after whom he was named, as well as a bout with throat cancer that briefly left his career in doubt. Upon his recovery, he attempted several comebacks, but 1996's Louder Than Words and 1998's Time, his two most recent collections of original material (released by Mercury and Polygram, respectively, after he left his longtime imprint, Motown), both tanked. Prior to his current tour -- he's opening for Tina Turner, who opened for him back in 1984 -- he hadn't been on the American circuit for a decade.

Richie, who turns 51 next month, sees his return to U.S. stages as an appetite-whetter for a new album, tentatively titled Renaissance, that Island/Def Jam will release this summer; set for inclusion on it is a collaboration with, of all people, the Backstreet Boys. In conversation Richie is bright, glib, and positively brimming with confidence. He clearly has a very high opinion of himself, but whereas this quality might once have seemed like arrogance, it now comes across as the sort of resilience few would have associated with such an apparent softie.

As for Richie's multitude of swoony smashes, including "Easy," "Three Times a Lady," "Truly" and the Diana Ross duet "Endless Love" (not to mention "We Are the World," the USA for Africa charity chart-topper he co-wrote with Michael Jackson), they no longer provoke the ire they once did; they're generally bland and innocuous, but hardly a threat to the music scene in general. Listening to them again even gave me a pang of regret over the whole suction-cup-darts thing -- although not over the muumuu. Actually, he looked quite fetching in it.

WW: A lot has been made of the fact that Tina Turner opened a concert tour for you back in 1984 and you are now doing the same for her. Should there be, or is this simply a matter of one friend helping out another?

LR: The thing is, I was going to do a warm-up tour anyway, before my major tour. And she said [an extremely accurate Tina impression], "If you're gonna warm up, why don't you come go with me?" And that's exactly what I'm doing. I am in the process of saying, "What can I do to make sure that enough people see me before the next album comes out? What is enough to start the interest up?" Because no one's seen me in the past ten years. And what better way to do it than to hang with Tina?

WW: Do you think the two of you make a good musical match?

LR: I'll tell you what it is. You've got two different styles of music, first of all, so you get two for the price of one. It's not a sameness. In other words, we are totally different. But at the same time, what the crowd gets -- and I'll be quite honest with you -- is two pros. I mean, Tina Turner walks out on stage and delivers something amazing. And I've been doing this long enough now that when I walk out on stage, I have to sit back and watch the crowd sing my songs. Because they know all the words.

WW: Is that unnerving for you, or gratifying?

LR: I'd love to tell you that it's freaking me out, but it doesn't at all. I think probably one of the greatest feelings in the world is to have the crowd sing along with you and at times take over the show. One of the characteristics of my show throughout the years has been the fact that when a song gets ready to come into the hook, they know all the words, so it's kind of an interesting feeling. Of course, after ten years away from an American stage, you're not quite sure what they're going to do. But they're just as enthusiastic as if "All Night Long" had come out on the radio yesterday.  

WW: Did you have any fear that your songs hadn't lasted?

LR: This is one of the situations where you never know. I know I've heard them on the radio in L.A., and I know I've heard them on the radio in New York. Now, what's happening in Tampa or in Denver, I don't know. So I think the confirmation has been that when I show up in these cities, the reaction is just as amazing as it was ten years ago. In other words, no time has been lost as far as the reaction of the crowd.

WW: Has the adversity Tina's overcome been an inspiration to you in the trials you've had to face?

LR: Absolutely. She was the best counselor I've ever had. There's nothing like having Tina on the phone saying [another Tina impression], "Listen, you'll get over it." As she would describe it, it's just life. It's just a slice of life, and people have a tendency to bond with you more if you've lived it. In other words, when Oprah Winfrey announced that she'd been abused, you know how many people bonded with her? Or when she said she was overweight? Everyone went and bonded with her then. Well, when you say, "I've had a crisis in my life," automatically people start saying, "I've had the same crisis." And I think now when I write my lyrics, they're a little bit more meaningful to people, because they think I know what I'm talking about.

WW: Many of those crises came right after a period when you just couldn't miss with anything.

LR: Ah, it was incredible.

WW: And yet in this country, there always has to be a backlash. Was that something that you knew was coming? And can you ever prepare for something like that?

LR: Let me put it this way: You know it's going to come, because life isn't this perfect picture of success, success, success. At the same time, I equate it to the fact that you know your parents are going to die, but when it happens, no matter how much you've tried to prepare yourself, it's still painful, and it's still a shock. I heard the stories all day long about drug rehab and to be careful about the drugs. Well, I managed to stay away from all the drugs and all that stuff. But when life itself comes to the door, you can't say, "It's not going to happen to me," because it is happening. And you have to deal with it head-on. If I think back on what my crises were, there were basically ordinary, everyday crises: death of a parent or death of a friend, health problems, marital problems or relationship problems. So far, I haven't named off one thing that's unusual unto this planet. In fact, if anything, that's the slice of life Tina was talking about.

WW: You seemed to back away from the spotlight after the incident in which your wife was arrested. Did you do that in part because of the way the media reacted?

LR: No, it really wasn't because of that. Really what happened is that it was the final chapter in my book, where I decided that I could no longer ignore my personal life. In other words, I had devoted seventeen years straight in a row to my career between the Commodores starting and the solo career, straight through "All Night Long" to picking up an Oscar at the Academy Awards ["Say You, Say Me," from the all-but-forgotten Mikhail Baryshnikov film White Nights, was named Best Song in 1986]. But along the way, I missed fourteen Christmases in a row -- and there were all the family reunions I missed. So I needed to start paying attention to my personal life.

WW: Yet didn't it upset you when the press and the stand-up comics made sport of the problems in your marriage?

LR: It shocked me, but I must tell you -- when you live in Hollywood, you have friends who've gone through that, so I'd experienced it with them in their lives. When it turned on me, I kept thinking, "Okay, this is what they went through." But the thing was, it was tempting to say something to the press and clear it up. The hardest part was to just leave the press alone and not say a word. And that way, it instantly went away. Well, not instantly; it still took a year and a half or two years. But the point was, it was the wake-up call for me to go, "I think I need to address my personal life. I can no longer put out another album and pretend that nothing happened. Let me just stop for a minute, deal with my personal life, deal with my father, deal with my throat, deal with my marriage problem, and then try and put things back on the right track again." Because you can't build a house on a shaky foundation. And that's what was happening to me. It was very, very eye-opening, I must tell you.  

WW: I found an old Jet magazine article from 1992, and the headline on it was, "I'm Back After Tackling Five Ds: Disease, Divorce, Disgrace, Disaster and Dad's Death."

LR: Hey, man, that was enough.

WW: But when you look back on that period, do you feel you were really back? Or were you in denial about the true situation?

LR: Truthfully, when I was doing that interview, I actually didn't know how bad it was. When you're recovering from cancer and people say you look great, well, at what point do you look great? Is that right after chemotherapy? There's a point where you think you're back to normal but you're really not. It takes a moment to get yourself back in focus, and because I'd been hit from so many different angles, I first thought I was ready to jump right back in it. But then I realized, "You know what? I am not ready yet."

WW: There were also the changes in musical trends -- the grunge, the gangsta rap...

LR: That didn't frighten me as much as the merging of all the record companies. Motown was being sold, which was interesting, because I'd gotten so used to Motown and it being a family-oriented-type company. If I had a problem with a record, there's nothing like taking it to the president of the company, who's also a songwriter [Berry Gordy]. But all of a sudden, corporate America was coming in, and these conglomerates were buying up the record companies. So now if you had a problem with a record, you'd take it to a lawyer who wouldn't know a two and a four [count] if it hit him in the face. It was just another world. Then hip-hop came in, which was fabulous -- but the only thing wrong was, they didn't know how to market anybody else around it. I'd talk to members of U2, or Sting or Billy Joel, and ask what they were up to, and they'd say, "Nothing right now." We were all sitting in the same boat saying, "What's happening here?"

WW: You dabbled in hip-hop a bit on your Louder Than Words album.

LR: I was trying to get onto radio, which was being bought up by two or three companies, just like all the music business was being bought up by two or three companies. And all of them were using the word that I hate the most in the whole world: format. Everybody had a format. For example, if we tried to pull off "We Are the World" right now, I'm embarrassed to tell you that they wouldn't play the record on certain stations because it wouldn't fit their format. You follow me? You used to be able to write a record and say, "I want to be different. I want to drift over to that area." But now you can't drift. They have you in slot number one, and that's where they want you to stay. And it's hard to play around outside of that. So I tried to fit in, but after a while I found myself wondering, "Do I really want to go over to hip-hop? I don't think so." And then Flavor Flav came along and told me, "Man, stay over in the melody business. The only reason I'm rapping is because I can't sing." [He laughs.] And it was at that point that I realized, "Let me stay where I am and not go too far left or right." Which is what I'm doing on the new album.

WW: Tell me a little about that. I know the Backstreet Boys are appearing on the record; do you feel that the rise of groups like that is an indication that the time is ripe for your return?  

LR: Absolutely. There would not be a better time in life. Number one, pop music is back in style. Number two, melody is always going to be king, no matter what. And number three is the idea of two very important mediums coming together. My evaluation of true superstardom is, How many records did you sell and how many people showed up at the concert? And so many people who have number-one records now can't perform. But the Backstreet Boys and these other guys can get up on the stage and perform.

WW: Is that the message you'd like to pass along to the latest generation of pop-music listeners? That you can still perform, too?

LR: That, and to hold onto your seat -- because between writing and performing, you'll see a lot of me this year.

WW: I'll let them know.


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