Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Some of the best conversations I’ve ever had with my fellow Black artist/intellectual/activist/eclectic visionaries have been over food and have gone on for hours. The opinionated and the receptive have gathered to share ideas, disagree, learn, and break bread. My seven year friendship with Vernon Reid is an excellent example of this. From sushi and poori to maafi and grits, these formative conversations have taken both of us downtown, uptown and back to roots (Brooklyn). So naturally, the best place to conduct an interview was a laid-back cafe so we could really talk. Below are some excerpts from our conversation. Vernon’s emergence from relative obscurity to bonafide rock star status — as demonstrated by the recent release of his band Living Colour’s third album, Stain — is almost parenthetical in one of these typical conversations which are multi-dimensional, multimedia, but always rooted in mutual understanding and a sense of community. While fanzines and rock jocks will go on about the obvious, the focus of this get-together was on the underpinnings of the aesthetic.
Tracie Morris You’re quite the shutterbug.
Vernon Reid Yeah, well actually I’m coming back out into the world of photography. Last year, I suffered a major setback. I had locked my portfolio and an attache case full of negatives and contacts in the car trunk and had gone to see Alice in Chains at the Roseland. I drove home. There was nothing wrong. The car was still the same. I opened up the trunk and everything was gone. It’s a devastating thing.
TM I experienced the same thing, in fact, at the first big concert Living Colour did at the Ritz. It was really packed, they started moshing, and I went upstairs and got separated from my backpack. My first book of poetry was in there. I saw some pieces of my book thrown into the air.
VR I lost a book of lyrics for the songs on Vivid. I called it The Red Notebook of Dreams. I fell asleep on the subway writing a song. I must’ve put the book next to me. I opened my eyes, it was my stop, the doors were ready to close, so I jumped up and off the train. I went into some kind of shock and couldn’t even remember the premises for the songs. But, you know, you get over it. You just have to go on to the next body of work.
TM One of your other interests is collecting art.
VR Yes. I’m starting to take a look at contemporary African art. I have a few good tribal pieces. I have some pieces that speak to me, some Dan, some Yoruba masks, some Ibo masks. I tend to lean more towards highly figurative art, not so much the naturalistic work. Some people would call it abstract but that’s … I am definitely interested in the ways in which African sensibilities have been filtered and reshaped in America. Certain things that stayed more or less the same, like call and response, trance, a transcendental state. You see that in the Pentecostal church and in a lot of initiation songs, a lot of Cameroon music. How have these things survived in contemporary music? How does that sensibility survive in James Brown’s music?
TM Give me an example of how you feel that manifests itself in contemporary music.
VR I’d say a lot of Naughty by Nature’s O.P.P. is connected with call and response. The canter or the chorus and then the response, like a great chorus, is an ancient ritual. It’s also connected to the old blues topic, “the other;” the back door man, another mule kicking in the stall. O.P.P. is a very adult, mature look at that subject, Your Husband’s Cheatin’ On Us, He’s Yours, Mine, and Somebody Else’s Too.
TM I did a poem not too long ago called So What. This is the beginning of it: “You sound really smug and your face is full of glee/But the only reason you had my man/Was that he couldn’t handle me.” There’s something about that “other” that’s compelling. It’s not the only poem I have on sex, but this thing on the affair has really got some visceral response.
VR It comes down into some very real, ineffable, magical, sexual, places. The “other,” whether known or unknown, is the unseen: confronting the other. The unknown nemesis. The unbeatable enemy. The battle ground is affection. When your psychological well-being gets involved and this person becomes your focus of desire, your love, your pleasure, security, intimacy … Then it gets into some more difficult things. The idea of the rival: I see her there across the room, “Bitch.” From a male point of view, the same sort of thing goes on. The power of sexuality is an incredible power. Man or woman. You know how it goes, “Ain’t no man or woman going to make me disrespect myself.” That’s a damn lie. I believe that it is a dangerous thing to meet the person who has your number. What you really want to meet is that certain someone that you can have a healthy relationship with.
TM You got to have a cool head.
VR The Living Colour songs have never been about flowery, romantic, angelic love. Love is much too powerful. It can end your life. You’re really susceptible to these states depending on the framework in which you developed. You just work with these things as adults and utilize the sexuality. God knows you’re never satisfied.
TM So, what’s up with Bi, one of the songs off your new record?
VR It’s looking at the whole idea of being yourself. Sexuality is looked at as so polar: straight or gay. You’re in one camp or you’re in the other camp. There are so many shades of gray in between. When you come to someone who’s bisexual, their desire cuts both ways, they’re not uncomfortable in either situation. What I have seen happen with the bisexuals I have known is that other people reject not only their sexual desire, but their validation.
TM What’s your opinion of Prince’s former and current states of sexual ambiguity, being a fellow rocker?
VR Anyone who’s ever been around Prince … I played at the First Avenue Club in Minneapolis in ’82, ’83. The area around the club was overrun by pimps and hookers. It’s right by the bus station, kind of a seedy point. On one level, him in the garters and the panties, was an affectation of the hookers around the First Avenue Club. You walk out of the First Avenue Club, it’s like walking into a player’s place. I’m talking about cats wearing Robin Hood hats with long, curly feathers, pimp socks, women in rabbit fur jackets, hot pants and platforms—in the ’80s! The black bourgeois was probably, at that time, the most easily shockable bourgeois. Black people are very conservative. There’s a lot of, “Do as I say and not as I do” in the black community. This is true of American society in general. I think that Prince was practicing a sort of melodramatic dialogue. Dialogue only works when you have a moneyed, educated bourgeois. This flirting with bisexuality and gay sex, I mean he’s straight, he is manipulating the shockability.
TM It’s not poetic.
VR It’s marketplace.
TM Who do you see as your audience these days?
VR It’s a combination. On one level we appeal to people that miss Hendrix and Sly Stone, people who miss that idea of rock and roll. There’s a core audience. There are a number of bands that appeal to that: The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fishbone. Our careers have been very close. People who are into this alternative metal thing: Soundgarden, Faith No More, Alice in Chains. The fringe rap: Public Enemy, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest.
TM Why do you think they connect with you?
VR The mix of music, for what we’re saying. We’re the first band to sell a lot of records, to crash through that barrier. A black rock band selling records—it hasn’t happened in a long time. In a lot of ways Living Colour has been a measure, which is unfair. We’ve caught flak. The whole thing with the 24-7 Spyz … they went past distancing themselves and went into put-downs. It really hurt because we are really supportive and mean it. Now a lot of bands, because of competition, take potshots, say negative things. That’s their right, but, I just don’t slag other artists. Generally, I don’t spend time talking about artists I don’t like. Our biggest mistake was selling a lot of records and then knowing how the game was played.
TM How do you see your role?
VR I see our role as being as honest and conscious—to really witness our lives. Some of these songs have been a reflection of how we’ve felt, what we’ve gone through as people.
TM You see your role as what?
VR To live that out, to make honest music. To be conscious of conflicts, emotional highs, lows, aspects of the African American story that ain’t being told.
TM Tell me some general themes that have run through these albums, starting at your latest, Stain, and working back.
VR I’d say how to deal with ambivalence, with being an outsider, with not being part of the mainstream. How do you deal with being the odd man out? How do you deal with being tragically unfashionable?
TM Do you find the band to be tragically unfashionable?
VR At times. I don’t think it’s ever been a fashionable band.
TM How do you sell so many records then?
VR On the strength of songs. People dig a song, but it hasn’t turned into a fashion trend, there’s no Living Colour “look.” I’ve always felt disconnected from the band’s fame. It would have been a gas to have been in New York when Cult of Personality became a hit record, but we weren’t here, we were in little towns. We would go into record stores, we’re like selling hundreds of thousands of records, but there would be no display up. Here we are, supposed to be famous, but in this little town we’re invisible. Then, all of a sudden, everybody knew about us. But it was like walking through a door. It’s very surreal.
TM There seems to be a strain in this new album: edgy. Not too many songs have resolution.
VR When I first started, I wanted resolution—everybody wants a happy ending. But things are continuing, like movies. I love movies—Sci-Fi movies, trash movies.
TM Name a couple of favorites.
VR Carnival of Souls, Night of the Living Dead. Carnival of Souls was about a church organist who is the only one to walk away from a car accident. Basically, she escapes death but wasn’t meant to. So all the spirits of the others who died in the accident hound her. Alien is such a metaphor for the ’80s. Movies figure really big in my aesthetic.
TM We were talking about themes in your records.
VR Aloneness, apartness. I have yet to feel like a star. I only want to sell enough records so that we can make another record without the record company looking over our shoulders.
TM Have you achieved that?
VR Oh yeah, nobody’s messing with us. First of all, the record we made, nobody knew what the hell we were doing. We have managed to succeed by hook or by crook through video more than radio. Radio is a very conservative media. You have to have something that they feel the advertiser can deal with.
TM Name a few other themes.
VR Well, this record has a theme about individuals coping with tensions, the pressures of society, of being an outsider, an outcast. But the second record was really swirling with different kinds of music and culture. It was our apocalyptic record, Time’s Up.
TM The song, This is The Life, is very compelling.
VR That song has a very powerful meaning for me. I always wish I were more handsome, taller, smarter. I start to think, in another life. In a sense, that was the real cornerstone of Time’s Up, This Is the Life.You gets no more and you gets no encore. Even when you have lives again, which is entirely possible, you are not you. Energy can’t be created or destroyed, you die and a child is born. But it’s not your name, your family, sex, or ethnicity. The life you have is the life you have.
TM Is it about coping, then?
VR It’s about not sleepwalking through this shit. You can spend a lot of time wasting time. A lot of time’s spent in immobility. We are all victimized by circumstance. However, to take up the victim mentality—that immobilizes. There’s a kind of impotent rage that says it’s not only this other person’s fault, but I am incapable of rising above because of The Man. I feel that the people who are really important have always transcended. Look at James Baldwin who transcended major difficulties in his life.
TM We talk about African sensibilities and art, that’s what it is about, the point of transcendency. That’s when you know you hit it. That’s when it should be explored.
VR Maybe in New York there are 2,000 people, maybe less who have heard our really personal songs. Songs we never recorded but played at CBGB’s, at Tramp’s. There is a song, Wall, from that period which is on our new album.
TM The wall between us all. But, you changed Wall!
VR We put a new arrangement around it. It was too sentimental.
TM Oh, you guys, that’s one thing I found about this album, you’re trying to play the hard rock role. The black stud.
VR I think that’s undercut by Bi, by Nothingness. It’s one of the most emotionally open things that the band has ever done. It’s not claustrophobic. That song is about looking into the abyss. I think there’s always going to be vulnerability in our records.
TM Well, that may be true, but I want to talk about the issue of transcendency.
VR Nothingness is the song where that happens. I felt, hearing that vocal, I was sucked up into it emotionally.
TM I miss Little Lies, but I think I’m going to have to interview Corey about it.
VR He can’t distance himself from that song.
TM I understand what you’re saying but if we’re talking call and response, we go with him. That’s the point of the art, to take us all.
VR You have to be open to receive. People don’t listen without baggage, it’s hard. Just listen and experience the music. It’s really a shame that people can’t do that. They listen through the filters of lifestyle, ethnicity, class, a lot of things, but they don’t actually listen.
TM One thing that I heard when I was listening to Nothingness—you have a real strong orientation toward film and orchestral scoring.
VR I really want to do music for a movie.
TM Have you read Darius James’s Negrophobia?
VR Are they going to score it?
TM I’ve heard some fantastic rumors, but I’m not even going to put them on tape.
VR There are certain artists that I have a strong connection to and now they are coming into their own. Darius, Greg Tate, Ralph Lemmon. It’s so fucking wonderful to see people who were uncompromising rising to the top, getting their work heard. The thing that have broken my heart was seeing people breaking up, the death of certain musicians before they got recognized.
TM We always used to talk about Little Jimmy Scott. I subjected you and a couple other people to an old scratchy recording of The Source. And now he’s getting recognition. What an artist, what a thinker. The way he thinks about the music. He’s so clear.
VR Absolutely. It’s taken years. An artist like Dee Dee Bridgewater who’s always been a step away from being truly recognized for what she’s done. There’s a lot of artists who are well known but who have never been recognized. I don’t think Chaka Khan has ever been recognized. She is clearly the heir to Aretha.
TM In our community, I think she’s a lot more easily dismissed. The margin of error for a black artist … there is none. But white artists can be totally outrageous.
VR Yeah, but part of the thing is aesthetic choices. What’s really good about the whole hip-hop flavor is when it breaks past its aesthetic and into something new. Before hip-hop was a method of making music it was just crazy, going here, going there. Then it became really mainstream.
TM The thing that was cool about it in the early days is that it was on the edge, but it was still closely linked to this whole oral, African musical tradition.
VR I had to revisit Vivid and Cult of Personality because in its own weird way it was a cultural signpost. Years before this Malcolm X as product and the cult of personality around Malcolm X …
TM Wasn’t he on the beginning of that record?
VR He is the introduction. It’s an excerpt from his Speech to Grass Roots. John Dillinger is there with Martin Luther King, they’re all part of that currency of notoriety.
VR Social currency, like the media. It’s like how we love the bloodletters and bad men: Dracula, Billy the Kid …
TM Do you see this love for the outlaw in connection to Malcolm X?
VR Absolutely. I think that he is the American outlaw hero.
TM I agree with that, because there is no emphasis on his critical thinking.
VR There can’t be an emphasis on Malcolm X’s critical thinking and still sell Malcolm X as a product. Nobody talks about the fact that Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were incredibly handsome men; they were sexy, handsome men. Angela Davis was a beautiful woman. The iconography that followed, it’s very clear. Marcus Garvey dressed like Napoleon. The image of Marcus Garvey, grand and regal, is absolutely why he is who he is. It’s a component that almost has as much weight as his thoughts. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King—their impact is tied to a lot of things.
TM Where do you and Living Colour fit into these impulses?
VR We are participant observers.
TM Okay, but perceptually? Do you think that part of the reason you guys sell is because you’re cute?
VR I don’t think we’ve ever been seen as a cute band. I think that Corey, when he wore his hair really long, wearing skin tight rubber—that’s a component of it. He was voted one of Playgirl’s ten sexiest rock stars.
TM A couple of people asked me if he was a girl. I was like, “That’s no girl, that’s Corey!” How do the other members of your band fit into the component, the entity that is Living Colour?
VR Everyone in the band has their own idea, but I tend to think of myself emotionally, but I’m just a talking head, I talk and talk and talk.
TM I love that Amos and Andy character imitation you do, you fell into it so smoothly. It’s like an “in” thing with black bohemians though.
VR Amos and Andy are cultural icons. It’s a funny thing, that component of black life, that component of ourselves. The ignorant yardie. This is a part of who we are. In the migrations from the rural South to Chicago or in various journeys. I only went to the islands as an adult. I grew up very much African-American, that’s who I grew up around, children whose parents were from the South. But, I was talking about the other members of the band. I think I’m more internal, Corey’s more external, more immediate with emotions. William is the trickster. And Doug is the veteran, he has all these abilities, all these mutant powers.
TM I did an interview with you in 1986 for a Black student magazine. I have to mention the Black Rock Coalition because it’s been an integral part of the band and of you as founder. You said then that you didn’t want the BRC to be perceived as racist. You also said, “Black musicians should be able to make music without trying to water it down, without bowing to pressures from the record companies, public, management or producers. The artist should not be forced to be commercial.” How do you feel about that statement now that you are commercially viable?
VR I did this interview one time and there was a question I couldn’t answer: “How long can you openly criticize a system that you are increasingly a part of?” That question has dogged me. It’s a balancing act, a high wire act. This band has always taken risks. We don’t play a role, we’re no tough guys, we’re not minstrels, we’re aware of how the game is played and we talk about it.
TM Do you feel pressure?
VR Well, the biggest problem is when you have all this anxiety. You have management real concerned, record label real concerned … about everything. For me success is the ability to move and to be able to conceptualize. One thing about having an audience, people depend on you to be certain things. They want us to validate where they are at. It’s cool because we do what we want to do. Always. The problem is, people dig it. Then all of the sudden, you’re this. Whereas you’re really manifesting what you are at a particular time. We’re the band that did Cult of Personality, Love Rears Its Ugly Head, and Time’s Up.They’re all in our aesthetic. We have a weird relationship to pop music. Sometimes we have a pop sensibility, sometimes we don’t.
TM What do you see as a continuity?
VR I see the things that connect up to Love Rears Its Ugly Head, which is talking about a personal apocalypse. I tend to look at things that way. The problem is, when you present it to an audience, there’s a certain segment that only likes what it can relate to. We do what we want to do.
TM So you see the connections as thematic?
TM In the ’86 interview, you said, “It’s one thing to call yourself an individual when you’re a check-out clerk and another calling yourself an individual when you’ve sold millions of records and made millions of dollars. However, the movement of Black people in the industry is under strict control.”
VR At the moment that was said, that was very true. It’s a different time now. Chuck D. doesn’t work without Flav. Public Enemy doesn’t work without the trickster, without the fool, the jester. That’s why Public Enemy works. Public Enemy, Arrested Development, Sade—they’re part of the landscape. Fishbone, whether they’re selling millions of records or not, are part of the cultural landscape. Tracy Chapman. Things are very different and a lot more needs to happen, but there is more of a chance.
TM How many other black rock bands do you see with your success?
VR Fishbone is the only one that’s comparable. Urban Dance Squad had a single. Follow For Now is making a record. A.R. Kane even though they’re a cult band is part of the landscape.
TM You still have political statements in this album?
VR Oh sure, I’m not saying we don’t. But there’s a lot more ambiguity. This isn’t saying that our concerns are any less. We haven’t made an escapist record, a fluff record, but I feel freer to explore any aesthetic that’s available to us.
TM What informed your literal and lyric sensibilities?
VR The biggest influences for me are James Baldwin’s books: Go Tell It on the Mountain, Blues for Mr. Charlie, Notes of a Native Son. Baldwin moves me so deeply, his witnessing of our times. What I have seen, what I feel, is a big part of the conceptual frame, lyrically.
TM We are reporting on the times now. How do you translate that into the lyrics for your songs?
VR Well, a song like Type. The lyrics, “We are the children of concrete and steel …” It’s witnessing what it’s like to be part of the shell game, taking a look at what it was like to be involved in the music industry. There is no innocence in the street. It’s beaten away, siphoned away at a microscopic age. Things are harsher. That’s what the idea of Type is. And really taking a look at the ’90s, looking at it with this loveless velocity. A song like, Bi, “Everybody loves you when you’re bi …” Literally, when you look at it that’s true. But, you know that’s not true because homophobia is rampant. Love is more insidious than hate.
TM What’s your connection with the Black Rock Coalition these days?
VR I’m a member of the Board of Directors. It’s a big part of my life and it always will be. On a day to day basis I’m not that involved. For a number of years, when I was president, BRC and Living Colour had equal weight in my life. I got a lot from the BRC spiritually. Now, I’m more an advisor. I give my viewpoint about where we think the organization should go. It has to rise and fall on the work of its people. I never really wanted to be the president of the BRC.
TM Anything else you want to say?
VR I think this album marks a new step in the band’s ongoing story. Each record is connected to the one before. In a way they’re reactive to the records before. We don’t want to repeat ourselves. It’s an evolving story. We have a unique position. On one hand, we are the invisible band. You can love us, or hate us, or neither, or like the idea of us. One thing that I have always wanted the band to do is not play the role.
Tracie Morris is a poet who has recently released a chapbook, First Chap-T-Her. She works in theatre, film, and has recently started a band.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.