Here’s an L.A. experiment: Carry a stopwatch, then measure how long it takes for new acquaintances to ask your birth sign. Yes, the old cliché is true! Astrology, not Scientology, is the secret spiritual scourge of the city, entire loop-de-loops of which seem to be permanently lodged in a singles’ bar circa 1978. There is nothing to do but smile and nod politely-after all, when you get right down to it, is a singles’ bar circa 1978 such a bad place to be?
The singer Chaka Khan clocked in with her astro-moment after about 14 minutes, as the conversation turned to her daughter Indira Milini, herself trying to break in as a performer, and apparently resisting maternal counsel. “Sagittarius-very headstrong … about her own thing,” said Ms. Khan, 50, who was seated next to her younger sister and manager, Tammy McCrary, at an outdoor table at the Ritz-Carlton in Marina Del Rey, near the one-acre compound she shares with her son, his family and a menagerie of parakeets: Blue, Pookie, and K.C. There is currently no special guy in Ms. Kahn’s life. “I just got out of a relationship, and I am sooo happy,” she said. “I’m loving it, yeah.”
Whether it was ordained by the heavens or not, the siblings posed a striking contrast. Ms. McCrary (“Cancer-Leo on the cusp, very business”) was quiet and restrained, huddled under a turtleneck and cape and discreet gold jewelry against a whipping late-November wind. Ms. Khan, “an Aries on the cusp of Pisces, not a full-on, thick, crazy Aries” (just go with it) was messily magnificent in embroidered jeans and a ruffled denim duster and Samsarra perfume, her hair a shade of redwood that she said exactly matched the color scheme of her kitchen, an aquamarine ring on her middle finger, her opinions issuing forth like cloudbursts.
On radio: “I don’t listen to the radio because I can’t . ‘Cause it sucks . They play the same crap over and over again.”
On video: “I don’t look at any of the videos because it’s just disgusting. It’s just crap.”
On the dismal state of the music industry in general: “Now, everybody can be an artist. Talent has nothing to do with it anymore. It’s about a look and too much junk. It’s like a bleeding circus, you know? Sometimes I’m so embarrassed to be in this business, I don’t know what to do.”
But the pair had arrived single-minded and purposeful, armed with a copy of Ms. Khan’s recent autobiography, Chaka! Through the Fire , published by Rodale, the folks who brought you The South Beach Diet (“The other publishers wanted just dirt and ‘name names,’ you know?” Ms. Khan said) and a box of “Chakalates” gourmet chocolates-brace for the inevitable “Oh, sweet thing” jingle-half-a-dozen dark, half-a-dozen white, now for sale exclusively in the Epicure department of the Beverly Hills Neiman Marcus (telephone orders: 310-550-5900). Mindful of the fact that there really is no such thing as a pure vocalist anymore, Ms. Khan is also mulling a “Chakaroma” therapy line (candles, skin creams) and a line of plus-sized “Chakawear,” though she may scrap the latter in favor of her “passion,” boots and shoes, of which she has at least 200 pairs. “I have my own style,” she said, considering the seepage of the red carpet from screen to sound biz, “but I’m not chi-chi and pee-pee and all of that nonsense.” Ms. McCrary reached over, gently, to pluck out a piece of salad that had found its way into her big sis’ coiffure.
Ms. Khan’s place in the pantheon of musical big shots is decidedly secure-skip the chocolate sampler and buy her greatest-hits compilation, Epiphany , should you need a refresher course-but fame-wise, she’s in a weird place these days. Initially poised on the “cusp,” if you will, between the stickier funk of the mid-70′s and the slick disco-diva phase embodied by Donna Summer (who has a memoir of her own, Ordinary Girl , recently published by Villard), Ms. Kahn was then dropped coldly into the age of the Video Music Awards, which has permitted very few outsized, uncontainable female characters. Or rather, which has contrived an idea of “outsized!” and “uncontainable!” that is readily embodied by Madonna media events and Beyoncé’s buttocks, rather than by actual artistic virtuosity.
Let’s remember that long before the canned pairings of this era, Ms. Khan, the earthy former front woman of the fractious band Rufus, was collaborating with the likes of Joni Mitchell (“My absolute No. 1 favorite artist,” she said), Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, George Benson, Lionel Hampton, Prince, Tom Jones, Barry White, Miles Davis. “We were great friends-I loved him,” she said of the latter.
Asked about the young artists she admires today, Ms. Khan went off-piste a bit, naming Mary J. Blige, Faith Evans, India.Arie and Kim Burrell, a gospel singer. “I think she’s the best thing in the world right now,” she said.
Ms. Khan broke with Warner in the 1990′s and is now recording on her own label, Earth Song Entertainment. She said she’d really like to do something with Sting-yes, that New Age–y old goat-but that his allegiance to a large record company makes negotiation difficult. “It’s nuts,” she said. “It’s the weirdest thing, man. It’s a control issue; it’s totally control. It’s insane. All the bureaucracy and crap that you go through just to sing with somebody-it’s nonsense. They keep us in a sort of competition. And music is noncompetitive. Music is noncompetitive! Music is noncompetitive !”
In the book, whose rejected titles include I’m Every Woman and To Hell in a Limousine and Back , Ms. Khan discusses love, politics and her forays into pretty much every drug out there. “I bit a hole in that Apple, yes I did,” she said of her time in New York City. The heroin chapter is particularly vague. “I don’t remember how I got into it. Somebody turned me on one day, I guess,” she said. “And when I stopped, I just stopped. I probably would’ve been more comfortable in a rehab center, but I wanted to go through the pain of withdrawal, so I could remember. That shit is no joke.” Her one remaining vice, she said, is half a pack of Parliaments per day. “You know what, though, I’m getting ready to stop.”
The waiters were hovering. “Why don’t you just wrap it up,” Ms. Khan said. “I’ll take those, too”-indicating the untouched basket of bread. “I ain’t ashamed. I ain’t ashamed.”
She works out three times a week with a coach using equipment in her garage, which she pronounces the European way. She relies on tinctures, colonics, herbs. As for her spiritual health, it’s safeguarded by a coach named Bob Joy, a sort of combination physicist-astrologist. “He’s spot-on, he’s brilliant,” Ms. Khan said. And about the astrology: “It’s fascinating-I can’t help it. There is so much about it that makes sense to me.”
Everyone here believes in that stuff! What is the deal with that?
“People want to know your birth sign. Well, I’d be interested, too. What is it-Cancer?”
Yeah, so what if it is? So ?
“I just would like to reiterate that the holidays are coming up,” Ms. Khan said, gathering up her things to leave, “and people should buy those friggin’ candies.”