Furious Cool is the story, as its subtitle boldly states, of “Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him.” While it accompanies a host of newly released material including a new box set from Shout Factor, No Pryor Restraint, and the new Showtime documentary Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic, this messy, brilliant look at one of the 20th century’s greatest comics may be the first volume to truly put Pryor into historical context. Its origins are as strange and compelling as the story within.
The authors are David Henry, a talented screenwriter who recently completed production on the indie comedy Pleased To Meet Me, which stars musicians John Doe, Aimee Mann and Loudon Wainwright III, among others. David’s partner on Furious Cool is none other than his brother, Joe Henry, the legendary singer-songwriter and Grammy-award-winning producer who has worked with artists ranging from Hugh Laurie to Ramblin’ Jack Elliot to his sister-in-law, a little-known vocalist named Madonna. In fact, Furious Cool started with a song, as Joe Henry remembers well.
There is a song he wrote in 2000 that opens his album Scar, called “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation.” “I recorded it with the great Ornette Coleman and I sing it in the first person, as Richard. I was on a label that was owned by Disney at the time, and because Richard was such a volatile character, they were just terrified,” Joe recalls. The label demanded that he either change the title, forget about the entire thing and leave it off the record or get Pryor’s permission. That’s when Joe met Pryor and his wife Jennifer Lee through the legendary producer and songwriter T-Bone Burnett. “They were very moved by the song and gave me permission to use his name,” Joe says.
Joe subsequently wrote a terrific article for Esquire titled “How to Write a Song,” telling the story of how Richard Pryor led him to working with the legendary jazz performer. To his surprise, Jennifer and Richard asked him to write a screenplay about Richard’s life. It was a thrilling offer for the two brothers, who had followed the comedian since childhood.
“When Joe and I were really young, Richard Pryor was like Bob Dylan and Muhammad Ali and Miles Davis rolled into one, just a really major figure for us,” David remembers. “Joe and I are always interested in getting to the origins of a thing. Like some people move from Bob Dylan to Woody Guthrie to Leadbelly, we moved from Richard Pryor to Moms Mably to Lenny Bruce.”
Unfortunately, after two years of working on speculation, the brothers say that Jennifer Lee Pryor abruptly dropped them from the film project, which is reportedly now in the hands of Oscar-winning actor Forrest Whitaker. David, never one to waste hard work, suggested to Joe that they transform their research into a book. Joe got connected to Algonquin Books through his friend Roseanne Cash, and the brothers Henry had their work cut out for them. Much like their subject, they were after something raw, different and very messy.
“Our impulse was not to write a book that worked as a traditional biography,” Joe says. “I think Dave and I knew instinctively how dark and rugged the terrain was going to be. When you’re meditating on someone’s real life, it’s very sobering to be reminded how some people live. It’s hard to know that people we’ve loved and cherished and to whom we owe a great debt have in fact been alone, a lot. I feel a tremendous amount of affection for him, just as I would for any frail or fractured human being who enlightened us.”
To that end, the brothers Henry have fearlessly tackled difficult subjects like Pryor’s infamous cocaine addiction, his 1980 suicide-by-immolation attempt and chronic abuse of friends and family. The book is punctuated by fascinating, poetic imaginings of urgent moments from Pryor’s difficult life, like this one, which finds Richard returning home after his “accident.”
The hollow rooms, airless and hot, echo his footsteps. Dust bunnies stir in his wake as he tosses aside a pile of rumpled sheets, steps over an abandoned extension cord. He goes to the back room, into the rear closet. Its ill-fit molding gives way at the floor and he pries up a short corner board with his boot, as easy as a kid’s thick puzzle piece to reveal his secret, secret stash, still there. He closes his eyes and offers up a prayer.…Of thanksgiving? For deliverance? He makes himself comfortable on the floor and begins one step at a time. Pipe. Rock. Rum. Lighter. Light.
“They’re kind of like prose poems in a way,” Joe explains. “I wrote them believing that the narrative should be sort of fragmented and as messy as our subject suggested it should be. I also wrote them partially as pace makers for myself, vignettes that I stylized as moments that are not about expository writing. They’re just these impressionistic blasts that portray where Richard may have been at certain moments in time.”
Although David talked with more sources than Joe did, Joe’s career in the music industry lent him some credibility in talking with people like Tom Waits, who followed Pryor’s infamous meltdown at the Hollywood Bowl in 1977 when Richard told the audience of gay rights activists to, “…kiss my rich, happy black ass.” Asked who made the biggest impression on him, Joe’s answer is something of a surprise.
“It was significant for me to talk to Harry Belefonte about Richard, because Harry doesn’t have a default point-of-view either as an entertainer or an African-American or as a civil rights leader,” Joe remembers. “That’s the conversation that most vividly comes to mind. Harry had a very personal reaction to Richard. He loved him, thought he was brilliant, and thought Richard should have made a commitment to a cause bigger than himself. He came from a place of real love, but he was absolutely calling Richard out on the ways in which he did not live up to his responsibilities.”
Another remarkable aspect of the book is that while the authors had a strong aversion to writing a cradle-to-grave biography of Pryor, their story is informed by the fact that they both actually met the man, not too long before Pryor’s untimely death in 2005.
“At that point his MS was so advanced that it was tough for him to even say hello, but he was all there,” David remembers. “You could see in his eyes that he was completely alive and following the conversation. We had to do most of the talking, but every now and then he would lean back and give you that look, and you’d think, ‘Man, that’s really Richard Pryor.’ ”
Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines and websites. He is based in Boulder, Colorado.