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In all likelihood, my November 5 article on Rick James had nothing to do with his recent hospitalization--but just in case it did, I'm sorry. Really sorry.

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.

6:50-7:15 p.m.: As it turns out, said staffer is wrong: After waiting for 25 minutes, I learn that every other press person in town went straight to the front door and was immediately admitted. But my curbside time helps me collect some important information. I see a woman on crutches hobble to the entrance to ask if she can go inside early or at least use a chair, then watch her hobble back, rejected. I learn that there's a special line for Denver Broncos--an idea the Hard Rockers probably got from the DIA blizzard crew. And I notice that about half of the people who paid to attend the event (a benefit for the namesake charity of super-Bronco Terrell Davis) look as if they haven't listened to rock and roll since they were in high school. Back in the Eisenhower administration.

7:15-8:30 p.m.: As I walk into the Cafe, several employees serving as greeters shout the lyrics to the B-52s' "Love Shack." I fight the urge to run away crying. A few feet away, the stage is being readied for a performance later that evening by Los Lobos. Mobs of overdressed folks gather on the dance floor in front of it or belly up to either the bar or tables laden with food--not the Hard Rock's fabled overpriced burgers, but salmon and other delicacies. I figure that microwave burritos and Ramen noodles would have been more appropriately rock and roll, but that doesn't stop me from eating everything in sight anyhow.

There's lots of rock-and-roll memorabilia on the walls (including some stuff with Colorado ties courtesy of promoter Barry Fey), but quite a bit of it is lacking in the specialness department. The Beatles wall supplements a couple of decent curios with a bunch of straight-from-Hobby Lobby posters. Same goes for the monument to Elvis, which includes a teen-idol doll that I picked up for $12 at Kay-Bee Toys a couple of years back. (I have the two other dolls in the collection as well, but you don't see me charging people four bucks for milkshakes, do you?) The other decorations veer between the interesting (a tiny Aretha Franklin skirt that probably wouldn't fit around her arm these days; a book of lyrics scribbled by Gram Parsons) and the extraordinarily mundane. The batch of Tom Cochrane flotsam has folks asking the quite-logical question: "Who the hell is Tom Cochrane?" (He was in a forgettable rock band, Red Rider, before embarking on a forgettable stint as a solo artist.) Also present is an outfit worn by Tom Leese of Heart (how exciting) and a jacket loaned by Paul Young, whose career is going so badly that he'd probably like it back.

Music videos play continuously. The most recent song: Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," from 1991. Number of songs by African-Americans played: two. Most frightening discovery: A lot of people have a deep affection for bad Eighties music. When "Everybody Have Fun Tonight," by Wang Chung, begins to blare, a guy in a $900 suit next to me says, "Wow--it's been ages since I heard Wang Chung. I love this song."

8:30-8:45 p.m.: Dignitaries from the Hard Rock and the City of Denver gather on stage to bask in the reflected glow of Davis, who accepts a $41,725 check for his foundation. Watching this from a balcony perch directly over the stage, I suddenly get an inkling about why Davis battles migraines: The top of his head looks weird. On the balcony opposite me is a private room occupied by other Broncos--Alfred Williams, Mark Schlereth and more. Every time the door opens, they seem to be having a really good time. Moments later, Davis is given a guitar to bash against the stage, thereby christening the restaurant in the same manner as the more than ninety Hard Rocks that came before it. That should give you an idea of where Denver ranks on the hipness scale.  

8:45-10:35 p.m.: Los Lobos plays a pretty good set, but it's clear that the players have spent too long on the Furthur Festival; some of their tunes noodle on and on. Fortunately, a string of Latin polkas saves the day. Because most of the folks dancing to the music are Caucasians, the white-man's overbite is prominently displayed. At one point, one affluent-looking dolt stands two feet from guitarist/vocalist Cesar Rosas waving a giant cigar and screaming, "'La Bamba'!" Rosas deserves a Nobel Peace Prize for not killing the jerk and eventually playing the requested song.

10:35-10:40 p.m.: The gig over, I descend into the still fairly empty Pavilions parking garage. After driving my car to a toll booth, I'm informed that I owe eight goddamn dollars. I pay it knowing that it's money well spent. Now, after all, I don't ever need to go to the Hard Rock Cafe again.

A King Rat update: The band appears at the Lion's Lair on Friday, November 20. Then, on Tuesday, November 24, the group headlines at Cricket on the Hill, where a trailer for Nixing the Twist, a forthcoming film starring Rat Luke Schmaltz, makes its debut.

No, it's not a sequel to Mousehunt. On Thursday, November 19, Spectator Pump gushes at the 15th Street Tavern, with the Bangs. On Friday, November 20, Emilio Emilio's Bitches Brew records a live album at the Bluebird Theater; and Ta Mere clocks in at Round Midnight. On Saturday, November 21, Swirl goes to Eck's Saloon, and Martin Sexton croons at the Fox Theatre. On Sunday, November 22, the Heuristic Ensemble refuses to do the ordinary at the Houston Fine Arts Center. And on Wednesday, November 25, Chixdiggit, the Hi Fives and Boss 302 are on their best behavior at the 15th Street Tavern. Or maybe not.

--Michael Roberts

Backbeat's e-mail address is: Michael_Roberts@westword.com. While you're online, visit Michael Roberts's Jukebox at www.westword.com.


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