Monday Night in Pasadena with Richard Pryor

Pasadena City Hall
An autumnal chill had descended on the foothill city. The breeze at my back, nudging me down Colorado Avenue, made me feel like I was back in the Midwest.

Students from Le Cordon Bleu shuffled to the bus stop and young adults in hoodies darted in and out of doorways. On one side of the street were splashy retailers and eateries with exotic names. On the other side, the merchants that have been around for years and survived volatile economies: a bridal shop, a school supply, a furniture store. A 20-something wearing a Stanford sweatshirt skipped mirthfully down the sidewalk, stopped abruptly, wheeled about and tore off in the other direction to the amusement of her male companion – giggling all the way.

Compared to Burbank and Glendale, Pasadena is old world and genteel. People project an easy confidence – not in a rush but living with purpose.

A clutch of women in their 50s emerged from Tender Greens, chirping in that tone that lets you know they’re having an intelligent conversation and you’re not included. They were on their way to Anne Lamott’s book talk at All Saints Episcopal Church.

A friend had recommended I visit the legendary Vroman’s Book Store. So, I hustled down the street with the November breeze at my back, wondering why I didn’t wear long pants on this chilly evening.

I came upon Vroman’s unexpectedly. First, you notice the warm and inviting coffee bar and don’t realize it’s part of the bookstore. Then, you come upon a series of shelves and displays on the sidewalk under the not-so-watchful eye of an attendant checking his phone.

I leaned into the double doors, stepped inside and found myself in what looked like an appliance store from the 1960s with its harsh fluorescent light, uneven, squeaky floors and general lack of charm. This is the brick-and-mortar bookstore that your parents remember, and while the model goes the way of the dinosaur, Vroman’s holds fast to tradition knowing its clientele treasures the touch of a book, the feeling you get when you flip a page. Staff members have penned handwritten notes recommending their favorite reads; you'll see them on practically every shelf.

I browsed the Fiction, leafing through Dave Eggers’ latest novel. Sauntered over to Music, where I became absorbed in the letters of the great Leonard Bernstein. He was somewhat controversial in his time and boy, did Jerome Robbins take him to the woodshed over his initial sketch of West Side Story! (It was nevertheless a collaboration made in heaven.)

My concentration was broken by an amplified voice: “Attention, Vroman’s customers. In just a few minutes, brothers David and Joe Henry will discuss their new biography of comedian Richard Pryor, Furious Cool. Please join us on the second level for their talk and book signing.”

Looks like my next hour is booked, I thought. After all, I had time to kill as Mary was at the aforementioned Anne Lamott talk up the street.

I mounted the stairs, snaked through the greeting card section and followed the sound of voices belonging to a well-heeled crowd of musicians, poets, actors, activists and showbiz people. Many were dressed in black or other muted, solid colors, mingling and chatting with an easy self-confidence. 

Joe Henry took the microphone and explained in an unassuming way that as kids he and his brother were mesmerized by old Richard Pryor concert footage. Years passed, but the flame continued to burn, so much that Joe wrote a song called Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation. (Note: Joe's a musician of considerable renown who has written, produced, played and sung with the likes of Aaron Neville, Loudon Wainwright III and Bonnie Raitt.) As he told it that night, Disney, which owned the label on which the song was to appear, asked him to get Pryor’s permission. Pryor and his wife dug the song and asked Henry if he would write a screenplay about Pryor’s life. So, Joe summoned his writer brother (whom he admitted is far more meticulous about research) and they wrote a screenplay on spec.

Joe and David Henry sign copies of Furious Cool.
Unfortunately, after a couple of years of diligent work and little to show for it, the brothers were dropped from the project. Undaunted, they repurposed their work and turned it into a biography called Furious Cool.

Most people remember Richard Pryor from The Toy, Stir Crazy or Brewster’s Millions, forgettable films he made later in life. But that’s fool’s gold. The true gold lies in his standup performances from the 60s and 70s – a treasure trove of R-rated social commentary from the heart of a bitter man. How bitter? David Henry pointed out that Pryor’s mother was a prostitute and was raised by his grandmother, a formidable woman who didn’t hesitate to mete out abuse in the guise of punishment.
Whether you liked him or not, there’s no denying Richard Pryor spoke with a unique voice – bitter, brilliant, provocative. The Brothers Henry haven’t attempted to chronicle every seminal moment in Pryor’s life; rather, they set out to reveal what made him tick and explore his influences, from Lenny Bruce to Redd Foxx. Apparently, they’ve succeeded. Noted Joe: “Kirkus [Reviews] seems to hate everybody but they love us. So that’s something.”

I asked the brothers if they’re concerned Pryor will be lost on younger audiences and forgotten by future generations. Joe said he hopes Pryor is remembered for his off-the-wall, unrehearsed riffs onstage rather than scripted moments in bad movies. I guess it’s not the biographer’s job to promote his subject on the masses – but instead to put it out there and hope our children and grandchildren will discover Pryor on their own.

The destructive lifestyle caught up with Pryor, who famously set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine. At the end of his life he was confined to a motor scooter and crippled by multiple sclerosis when Joe Henry visited him, bearing gifts of jazz CDs. While Pryor was barely able to speak at that point, Henry said he walked away from those encounters with an eerie feeling that entire conversations had taken place. And that’s sort of a metaphor for Pryor’s influence, which lives on in the work of David and Joe Henry.