Fast and Furious

I wait for the day that Bob Dylan dies only so I can explain to some people how I feel about Richard Pryor, who is remembered now as a very funny man who did a lot of good in the world, which he was, except that makes him sound like Bill Cosby, which he wasn't—he was crazy, as the record says, and he was the best. There's a cartoon that caught him in 1979, just after he'd taped the best set he'd ever do at Long Beach's Terrace Theatre: Pryor halfway through a wild laugh, the characters from Live in Concert—the monkey who sticks his dick in Pryor's ear (like a warm Q-Tip), the German shepherd who promises to chase him again tomorrow, the furious heart that tells him, "You a lyin' motherfucker!"—perched on his shoulders and whispering in his ears. Here in cheap four-color was the quality that so many critics missed in Pryor's obituaries, settling instead for paternalisms about humor and race and anger—which were true at heart, but so deflated and general that the meaning just blatted out of them. As they wonder now what it was about Richard Pryor ("Absolute genius," said Carl Reiner; "The most conflicted, tortured personality I have ever met," said Paul Schrader, who directed Pryor through the volatile Blue Collar), it really seems so self-evident: "For Richard Pryor," a friend told me, "everything is alive."

Joke here now. But even in 1979, Rolling Stone could make uncomfortable jokes about how long Pryor had left; in a mocked-up obituary, they killed him off with "exhaustion and poor color." By June 1980, he'd almost killed himself—he was always a little circumspect about the exact details: there had been some freebasing, and some cigarette lighters, but also some homogenized milk and some low-fat milk (". . . and I dropped in the cookie and it blew up!"). The 911 call said that a man was running down the street on fire, and the paramedics had to chase him down to get him in the ambulance. "I was running because I didn't want to die sitting down," Pryor told Barbara Walters later. "I tried to run so that I could bust my heart. I just wanted to run out. I didn't want to die sitting there waiting on an ambulance." Joke was on him: he died 25 years later at the long end of multiple sclerosis, retreating by inches into a life of dignified but still painful restriction—"MS is God's way of telling you you done fucked enough!" Or joke wasn't: he died, said wife Jennifer Lee, with a smile on his face—done fucked enough.

"Being with Richard one week was like 15 years," said Lee once. "Everything was so fast and furious." By that count, she spent more than 9,000 years with the guy; by that count, he had a lot of being alive. He had been raised in a brothel in Peoria, Illinois; his dad had been fucking the first girl he got pregnant behind his back; he joined the Army just to get out and he stabbed a soldier in Germany after a couple of guys tried to roll him late one night (as he tells it, he smashed him with a pipe, and then they were friends: "Waaaaalll, Richard, I guesssh youse all right!"). Onstage at the Aladdin in Vegas in 1970, he said fuck it—right out loud to a packed house—"What the fuck am I doing here?" And walked out: "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, ha ha. You know, a funny thing happened, hee hee . . . it really wasn't me." He spent the next year or so playing Marvin Gaye's What's Going On so much the grooves flattened out, reading Malcolm X and doing massive amounts of coke ("I snorted up Peru. I could have bought Peru!"). And in 1971, Richard Pryor was reborn as the Richard Pryor we all know: crazy, wanted and deep, too. These were the years that made him famous: Pryor could put his own life into anything, he could pull it back out, he could slow it down and speed it up and pinch it shut; but then he had these flashes of insight and honesty that still come off as unrehearsed and spontaneous and private. "He maxed it out," said Chris Rock. Everything was alive for Richard Pryor: "I'm everybody," he said once. "I'm everybody that I can re-create—I'm somehow part of them."

So: one night me and my friends were driving around listening to Pryor's father punching him in the chest and Pryor's grandma shushing him about the roaches in his salad and Pryor's car taking four or five bullets and giving up. Real loud laughing: cars driving by and looking in our windows, running over the Braille-bumps on the center line—and then Pryor finished "Bicentennial Nigger," and we all shut up. That was the only moment of silence I ever attached to the man; as an epitaph, it's a little blue ("I'd like to see him not be so dirty," said Johnny Carson once, "because I don't think he needs it."), but Pryor put his last line through with precision so tense and deliberate and concentrated that everything just stopped. It sticks with me now like a line from a song: he wasn't ever gonna forget, and so you couldn't ever forget him either.

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"You all know how black humor started? It started in slave ships, you know—cat was on his way over here rowin', and dude said, 'What you laughing about?' He said, 'Yesterday, I was a king.' They're havin' a bicentennial—200 years! They're gonna have a bicentennial nigger—they will, they'll have some nigger 200 years old in blackface, with stars and stripes on his forehead. With eyes and lips just all shiny—and he'll have that lovely white-folks expression on his face. But he's happy. He happy 'cause he been here 200 years: 'I'm just so thrilled to be here! Over here in America! I'm so glad you took me all out of Dahomey—I used to could live to be 150, and now I die of high blood pressure by the time I'm 52, hyuk hyuk! And that thrills me to death! I'm just so pleased America's gon' last. They brought me over in a boat—there was 400 of us come over here, yuk yuk yuk, 360 of us died on the way over here, yuk yuk yuk. I LOVED that! That just thrilled me so! I don't know—you white folks are just so good to us! Got over here—another 20 of us died from disease. Ah, but you didn't have no doctors to take care of us—I'm so sorry you didn't. Upset you all some too, didn't it? Then they split us all up, yessiree: took my mama over that way, took my wife that way, took my kids over yonder, yuk yuk yuk. I'm just so happy—I don't know what to do! I don't know what to do if I don't get 200 more years of this! Lord have mercy, yessiree—I don't know where my own mama is now! She up yonder with that big white folks in the sky! Y'all probably done forgot about it . . . ' But I ain't never gonna forget it."

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