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I recently stumbled across the best Friday night TV that 2018 has to offer, and it’s called Mike Judge Presents: Tales From the Tour Bus. Yes, that Mike Judge – the creator of King of the Hill plus Beavis & Butthead. He’s got a new documentary-type show in which he animates interviews he’s done with rock stars to make stylized historical episodes. The first season covered a variety of old timey folk and rock acts, but season two has a specific genre focus: Funk. The premiere episode covered George Clinton, and then last week they aired part 1 in a two-part pair of Rick James episodes.
As James is dead, most of the stories are told by members of his supporting band, though as Judge points out in the first moment of the episode “Rick James got Neil Young high on marijuana before he’d ever even met Crosby, Stills or Nash.” Before delving into his rise to stardom, they recount an evening in Arkansas where their tour bus faced a militant raid, with snipers on the roofs, that they refused on account of a lack of warrant. When the cops came for James at the concert venue, they had a Spartacus moment, where everyone was yelling “I’m Rick James” until the cops left them alone and the show could start. James was veryyyy pro-pot and also had some strange ideas about “pimping his crowds.”
After establishing what a wild showman he was, Judge rewound us to his childhood in Buffalo, where we learned that his mother worked for the local mob as a cog in their gambling operations. He was raised Catholic along with 7 brothers and sisters. When the draft was pulling men his age over to Vietnam in the army, James opted to join the Navy, which saw much less action in that war. While enlisted, he started to get into local music bands and was AWOL when he founded the core of his first band. After spending 30 days in holding, he was discharged, and he got to work on being a musician full-time. His aspiration was to be the black Bowie or the black Jagger. He felt the world was ready for a black man in as extravagant and famous a rock persona as those two, and sure enough within a year he was signed to Motown Records.
He got the other band members to go along with his flashy ideas on how they should dress on stage, with long braids and tight spandex suits covered in glitter. They didn’t like it initially, but James sold it to them as a macho thing, and they were sure getting laid plenty. They recounted how the inspiration for “Superfreak” came about after Berry Gordon flew the band out to L.A. to record an album. A set of attractive white girls were walking down Hollywood Boulevard dressed just as James does: as a cowboy in all white. James hollered out the limo window where the girls could find him, and sure enough later that day the girls were in his hotel room. The events of that evening inspired the song that would be the #1 smash hit off their album Street Songs.
The episode ended on a sad note though. Once MTV launched they were more accommodating to white artists like James’s old pal Neil Young and they hardly gave him any airplay at all, despite having a platinum record and several hits. Hopefully tonight in part II of this set of episodes, he’ll finally get his moment on MTV.
On tonight’s episode, “Rick James Pt. 2,” Funk star Rick James rides high on top of the music world in the mid-’80s, but between his rivalry with Prince, crusade against MTV and run-ins with the law, he falls further under the influence of cocaine.
Check it out tonight on Cinemax at 10/9c.