Saddam "Madman" Hussein, the puckish, jaunty Iraqi roller, was found this past weekend to have literally gone to ground, living in a dirt hole within sight of one of his former palaces. He was a star of international impact, the jewel of United States Records' Middle Eastern roster, but when VH1 Behind the Music's cameras caught up with him, Hussein's universe had contracted to a dank hole, where the satrap of rap was surrounded by melon rinds, filthy bedding and a mere $750,000 in cash.
In a career trajectory eerily similar to MC Hammer's, Hussein plummeted from the top of his profession and didn't even stop when he hit the ground, but was found six feet under.
"You know, most other people six feet under are dead, and it's really a wonder he isn't, with all he's been through," said Hussein's former bass player, Donald "Rummy" Rumsfeld. "I mean, I can't tell you all the times I've seen him bombed. No one else could keep up with that lifestyle. We left whole neighborhoods buried in rubble, yet he'd bounce out of it smelling like a rose. You almost thought he was immortal. But then he vanishes, and the next time you see him, they're picking lice out of his hair."
"If you could have seen him in his prime: the powerful handshake; the gleam in his eye; the probing intellect; the necklace of human ears. You couldn't help but feel drawn to him," Rumsfeld said, shaking his head with a sad grimace as he looked at a photo of the two of them laughing and shaking hands in 1983. Rumsfeld started playing with Hussein over 20 years ago, and he wonders what happened to those happier times.
"You have to remember, that was the '80s, when everyone was trying new approaches, and the prevailing mood was that you could get away with anything. If it was audacious, we'd try it, and we'd be as amazed as anyone when it worked. A lot of the work we did, I'll admit, had a little assist from chemicals, but as long as we were producing results, everyone was willing to turn a blind eye to it. It was only after the hits stopped that anyone started using terms like 'chemical weapons dependency.'"
Another '80s bandmate, keyboardist George "Poppy" Bush, claims the charisma may have been Saddam's, but that the label was making most of the creative decisions. "They were so good that half the time he'd end up thinking the idea was his," Bush recalled. "Remember that big feud Saddam had going with Simon Le Khomeini's band Iran Iran? Here US Records was supplying Saddam with all this promotion and tour support and supposedly doing its best to help Saddam bury Iran Iran in the charts, while at the same time US Records was secretly equipping Iran Iran. Then they were using the proceeds from those sales to launch a sort of Central American Milli Vanilli band they'd created, the Contras. So here they are, duking it out on the charts, and US Records was providing the boxing gloves to all sides."
Publicist Paulie Wolfowitz was on the promotion team at the time. "It was uncharted territory, and we were making the rules up as we went along," he said. "Aside from the Singing Nun in 1963, there hadn't really been any non-English-speaking stars on the scene for years. But then you had Pol Pot in Cambodia and Idi Amin in Uganda absolutely slaying hundreds of thousands of people with what they were putting down. You attach a dollar figure to that, and the label saw there could be some real money in it. The Middle East was a market that looked like it could bust wide open at any time, so we put our machinery behind Saddam, and he didn't disappoint.
"But then all the success started going to his head. If you look at the record, the time when he was really knocking people out by the hundreds of thousands was the time when he was taking direction from the label. Then he got this wild-haired idea to take his show to Kuwait. He said he got the go-ahead from US Records, but that's certainly debatable. The bottom line is he went in on his own, and stunk up the place. That's when the tailspin started."
Ironically, Poppy Bush had by then been tapped to replace Ron Reagan as head of the label, and circumstances now forced former bandmates Bush and Hussein to become bitter rivals.
"Golly," said Bush, "this is still painful for me to talk about. I'd already had a similar experience with one of my acts, the Panamanian crooner Manuel Noriega, where he'd become headstrong and stopped taking direction, and we'd had to suspend his contract. I'd been close with him as well, so with Saddam turning on us now, it was like seeing your family disintegrate."
Internal memos show that the company had long known of Saddam's chemical dependency. Now, in 1990, with the Kuwaiti market at stake, they decided they finally had to act.
Bush said, "There are certain responsibilities that go with being the world's lone media superconglomerate. It was time to apply some tough love."
In "the mother of all contract disputes" the label prevailed, and Saddam retreated into his luxury palaces, while his organization foundered, stripped of infrastructure. The friends who stuck by Saddam in this difficult time say he was a shell of his former self.
One recalled, "Sure, he'd shoot an advisor once in a while, but it seemed like his heart wasn't in it. Without the label there to back him up, all his grandiose plans melted away."
In recent years, there had been talk of a comeback. Rumors circulated—he was putting a new band together called Imminent Threat; he was stockpiling Mp3s; he was secretly producing acts for Osama "Cutout Bin" Laden's al Qaeda label. US Records, which still holds Saddam's contract, issued a preemptive restraining order, but in discovery their attorneys found the rumors were only that: rumors. The Baghdad Fad had joined Sly Stone and others in the "where are they now?" hole.
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Then came the startling pictures of that squalid hole—where apparently the only chemical Saddam could still lay his hands on was a can of Raid—and of his haggard, defeated face, showing so little of the boyish pluck that had once inspired the loyalty of Bush, Rumsfeld, Reagan and so many others.
Today, Saddam says he's cleaned up, deloused and ready to reconnect with his old partners, if they were only willing to pick up the phone.
"I don't know, today they act like they don't know me," he said, tears welling in his eyes. "Did you see the LA Times? The first 14 pages of the paper were just about me, a big picture, everything. But nowhere in there do they talk to my old friends or about the times we had. Look, I had some real successes and I can admit today that US Records played a big part in it. But if they want to act like they don't know me now, I understand. Elvis died alone, too.
"But I know I still have a lot to offer, and I hope people are willing to give me a second chance. If Rick James can make a comeback after torturing a woman over cocaine, if they can send John Negroponte to the UN, I can hope they'll give me another turn at bat. If not, I'll roast their stomachs in hell. Ha, ha, that was just a little joke. That was the old Saddam."