04/06/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
WHEN LINDA BLAIR, STAR OF The Exorcist, entered the L.A. hotel room of an old boyfriend, rocker Rick James, one day in 1990, she felt she was back in hell. "I walked into a room of lowlifes," she recalls. "It was obvious they were druggies. I said, 'Are you going to lose everything before you realize that you are falling?' And [Rick] looked at me and just said, 'Probably' It was very sad."
James, who strutted through the '80s as a dreadlocked Dionysus singing funky songs about "very kinky girls," was jailed for drug and assault charges in 1993 and served three years in California's Folsom State Prison. Since being paroled, however, he has taken a page from Blair's book and exorcised some nasty demons, including a pre-Folsom addiction to crack cocaine that lasted 12 years. And after bedding by his count "thousands" of women, James, 50, has settled down with dancer Tanya Hijazi, 27 (whom he married last December after an 11-year relationship), and their 5-year-old son, Tazman. "I'm too old to do crazy things anymore," says James. "Before, I'd just smoke dope and have sex. I never knew if it was day or night. Now I go to bed at 11 and get up at 7.1 don't have aluminum foil on my windows anymore."
His career seems to be getting brighter too. Last October he released Urban Rapsody, his first CD of new material since 1988, to critical acclaim—The New York Times praised his "irresistible craftsmanship and spark"—and launched a sold-out 25-city U.S. tour. (His world tour begins in September.) James, who hadn't written anything in several years, wrote five of Rapsody's tunes in prison, where, he says, "I was writing a lot of introspective music."
As well he might have. In 1993, James and his then-girlfriend Hijazi were convicted of beating and imprisoning Mary Sauger, a music executive, in a Hollywood hotel room in 1992 and, in a separate incident the previous year, furnishing cocaine to another woman, Frances Alley. (James was acquitted of charges that he tortured Alley and forced her to have sex with Hijazi.) In 1994, Sauger, who was imprisoned for 20 hours, was awarded $2 million in a civil action that left James bankrupt.
That same year, James was sentenced to five years, four months in prison, while Hijazi received four year (she served 15 months). Although James now calls his Folsom stint "a curse that turned into a blessing," he says he had to cope with "redneck" correction officers, and he craved the simplest of pleasures. "I would have loved to have had a Big Mac and fries," he says. "Or pizza. I dreamed about a bath, a tub, as opposed to a shower."
A Buffalo, N.Y., native, James was one of eight kids raised by a single mother, Betty, now deceased, who supported the family by working the numbers racket. As a teen he was sent to two juvenile homes for stealing cars before he took solace in music. After leaving Bennett High School in 1964 and enlisting in the U.S. Naval Reserve for a year, he moved to Toronto and, with Neil Young, formed the rock group the Mynah Birds. Superstardom eluded him, though, until his 3-million-selling 1981 album Street Songs, which included the classic "Super Freak."
As a reformed super freak today, James spends most of his time at the Spanish-style Woodland Hills home he shares with Hijazi, Tazman, daughter Tyenza, 27, one of two children from a previous relationship, and her daughter Jasmine, 8. (His other son, Ricky, 24, an artist, lives in L.A.) "Rick's a really self-centered narcissist," says Hijazi, who attends weekly support-group meetings with him. "But when I need him, he's so there for me." And while he has yet to turn into Ward Cleaver, James is trying. "When I was doing drugs," he says, "I was the last person I'd want my kid to follow. Now I want to be a role model for my son, and I want to live the right life." Is he through with drugs? "You never feel sure," he says. "I pray that I am. I just live one day at a time."
JOHN HANNAH in Los Angeles