I’m doing a lot of interviews with cool people right now, but I wanted to jump on for a few minutes and add a little back story to a story that was published today. In a feature I think turned out pretty good, I interviewed the great singer-songwriter Joe Henry and his talented filmmaker brother David about their new collaboration, Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World that Made Him. You can check out the resulting feature, “A Little Pryor Love,” at Kirkus Reviews here.
Now, I know a lot about Richard Pryor—we’re talking professional-level lore about his comedy, his process, and his deeply screwed-up life. Not only did I read his autobiography and several other books about the man, but I own maybe three box sets that chronicle his decades of comedy and dozens of associated albums. To me, he was in that pantheon that includes George Carlin and Bill Hicks where I just couldn’t get enough of the man. Much of comedy is of its time. People like these—and let me include contemporary comedians like Tig Notaro in that lineup—somehow breach that barrier.
In these very early interviews, Joe and David both said they were the same way; swapping Richard Pryor albums and staying up late to see him on television. I had heard a rumor that Joe keeps a portrait of Richard in his office, and I was pleased to find out that not only was the rumor true, but it still hangs there today. Anyway, the point is that I took this book with me on vacation to the heart of desolate Mesa Verde National Park and was just absorbed by it, and learned a great many things about Pryor that I—and in fact, not many other people—knew at all about the fiery rise and doomed arc of his life.
I tend to write long anyway, so I’m grateful to my editors at Kirkus Reviews for as much rope as I get, but there’s a lot that gets left out of these stories. I always liked liner notes, so here’s a couple of unpublished bonuses for you travelers who followed this story down the rabbit hole. Here’s David Henry on the dual nature of Richard Pryor:
“Almost everybody we talked to still absolutely love him, even if they were brutalized by him or betrayed in some way. He was an irresistible person. But no, we didn’t soft-pedal any of his behavior. He was very forthright about using coke to wild excess, but he always placed it in the past. He never owned up to being a current user. He could still tell the truth but he wouldn’t admit that he wasn’t going to stop.”
And here’s Joe, when I asked him if the experience of producing or collaborating with so many different artists (and it’s a laundry list) comes to mind when he thinks about the mad life of Richard Pryor
“It does have an effect. Anytime I’m that deeply invested with another artist, it changes things for me in ways that I sometimes understand, and more deeply in ways that I don’t. I think the most visceral way I can suggest studying Richard has changed me is to be so aware of how vulnerable one has to be, in the grander sense of the word, to be able to give something back of substance.”
Just to add to the experience, I wanted to share the song that started this whole ride. In 2000, Joe wrote a song that later appeared on his 2001 album Scar, and featured accompaniment by the legendary jazz trumpeter Ornette Coleman. It’s an extraordinary piece of art in which Joe sings in the persona of Richard Pryor.
You should also check out Joe’s Esquire article that followed, “How to Write a Song.” And on David’s behalf, I would also encourage you to check out his new movie, Pleased to Meet Me. Although the film hasn’t been sold yet, there’s a lot of interest in it, and it’s a very strange comedy starring John Doe from X, Aimee Mann, Loudon Wainwright III, and Joe Henry. There’s a great trailer on the site as well.
And by all means, go check out Furious Cool. It’s a fantastic examination of one of America’s most gifted, searing and flawed personas. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite moments with Richard Pryor from Live on the Sunset Strip.
Keep in mind, almost everything Richard Pryor ever put on tape is NSFW, so be forewarned—it’s not at all my intention to offend anyone, so be aware there’s some hard language here. But give yourself a few minutes of open-mindedness and you’ll experience a great moment of enlightenment on the part of a guy who was often not very self-aware. Ladies and gentlemen, Richard Pryor.