Living Colour,
The TVD Interview

In 1988, Living Colour forever etched a mark in rock music with their smash hit “Cult of Personality.” Like a finely cut diamond, there were many sides to the band’s music—smart, socially aware songwriting about issues such as politics, race, love, and loss. Turning that diamond around a bit more reveals layers of rock, soul, funk, and punk influences that drove their music with a hard to define complexity.

A little older, a little wiser, and sounding better than ever, Living Colour is out on tour thirty years after their formation. During their stop at Rams Head On Stage in Annapolis, MD, I had a chance to sit down with singer Corey Glover and guitarist Vernon Reid. As much a social discussion as a musical one, we talked at length about life, success, vinyl, George Clinton, and the 25th anniversary of their sophomore album, Time’s Up.

Living Colour just turned 30. How does it feel to be back on the road playing together 30 years later?

Vernon Reid: Well they said never to trust anyone over thirty, so…

Well, we’re all fucked.

Reid: [Laughing] It’s a crazy experience. It’s every cliché you can think of, like “Where does the time go?” The thing is that the band’s been in a conversation, I think a uniquely American conversation. In things that we seek, a lot has changed, and a lot has not changed. That’s the weirdness of time. You’re still yourself. There’s us, living around the corner from each other. All those things that happened, like having the loft in Bushwick, and having some people pull for us, and having a lot of faith and a lot of rejection. Building a local following, the ups and downs, all of it. It’s all part of this history. Then our personal lives…marriages, divorces, all of that.

So, how has having thirty years behind you affected the interpersonal relationships within the band?

Corey Glover: I think it’s strengthened them, actually. Like Vernon was saying, those things that were going on in our lives sort of mirrored what was going on in the band. We couldn’t move froward unless we were dealing with each other. The music wouldn’t mean the same thing, the things we were saying wouldn’t have the same sort of resonance if they didn’t really reflect what was really going on in the interpersonal dynamic between the four of us.

We have to not particularly honor it, because sometimes it doesn’t need to be honored. It needs to be dealt with. There’s a distinct difference. We have to deal with that. Our records, even after the successes, sort of reflected not only the world that we lived in, but the world that we are in. When you hear something like “Burnt Bridges,” from The Chain in the Doorway, that’s not just about the world around us, this is about what we’ve been going through. It sort of reflects what’s going on outside of us as well. In a way, it’s sort of a microcosm of the way we as human beings work, but more generally as Americans in this society, and as African-Americans in this society. As husbands and parents, as brothers and sons, and human beings within the construct of whatever this is, and we have to deal with that.

While we are talking about anniversaries, Time’s Up is now twenty-five years old. What do you see when you reflect back on the album twenty-five years later?

Reid: When I think about Time’s Up, I think of how we suddenly had a platform to kind of make music about the things that concerned us. Those things that concerned us were a compendium of the social and the personal. An example, the song “Love Rears Its Ugly Head.” That’s a song about a woman that I was involved with, and the song “Broken Hearts” is about the same woman. They were kind of reversed in the order. “Love Rears…” is about the beginning of the relationship, and “Broken Hearts” is about the end of a phase of the relationship.

The personal thing has always been a part if it, and even the thing that seemed…take a song like “Time’s Up.” We were influenced by Bad Brains, and we wanted to kind of do something that was our own thing. We kind of collaborated on the music, and Corey came up with the lyrics, and the lyrics were just really novel, in the sense that they were talking about environmentalism. Time’s Up is extraordinarily relevant. It’s more relevant now than when we first did it.

Oh, sure.

Glover: That’s another thing about Time’s Up. All the stuff that we started talking about never really went away.

Reid: It comes back to haunt you. A song like “This Is The Life” is a weird song to live with, because it was a song written when the band was savoring real palpable success, but it was talking about how in another life, things are better. In another life you sold even more records and had even more fame, because for Americans it’s never enough, nothing is ever enough. That’s the whole construct of the trophy wife. It’s unbelievable, but that’s the way we live.

We’re obsessed with stuff.

Reid: We’re obsessed with stuff and we’re obsessed with status. Stuff and status. In a way, they’re powerful engines, but they’re also symptoms of a much bigger problem. “This Is The Life,” when that song was written, we were doing well. Thinking about this song, and people’s reactions to it. In another life where all your jokes are funny. You’re the sparkling, scintillating center of attention at another dinner party that you weren’t invited to. That’s a part of the thing, there’s a whole hierarchy. That was one of the most chagrinning aspects. When you’re on the outside looking in, you imagine what it is. You’re outside of the party, looking at all these fabulous people. Champagne is flowing, there’s a conga line, and you’re on the outside.

You always want to be in there, then once you’re in there…

Reid: It’s like “Get me out of here!” Once you’re in there, you realize that there’s all these rules to follow. There’s all these ways you’re supposed to be. There’s this hierarchical crap. I like fellowship, I like the sense of mission, I like the thing, not just for us, but when we’re connected to other people.

In a way, there’s a fundamental disconnect, when you really get into the scrimmage. It’s all about how your records do, how you’re tour’s doing, as opposed to this tour or that tour. It’s about scorekeeping. I never liked the scorekeeping. I never liked that. When were on the first Lollapalooza, it was a fantastic tour to be a part of, but there was kind of a gloaty, like Monsters of Rock, the big metal tour was out. Lollapalooza was doing better than this metal tour, and it became gloaty, like “Ha-ha, we’re the cool kids now.” It just bothered me. That part of it, we are drowning in snark now. That snark trickled down!

Now the internet gives everyone a chance to snark.

Reid: Yeah, you could just say some nasty, thoughtless shit, and not even think about the fact that there’s an actual person, with feelings on the other side of this, what you think is a witty comment, which is just nasty and ill-informed. It’s also about a sense of threat, about where you are in the food chain. What it is to be above and below. It really gets into the hierarchy of who gets to help. If there’s some kind of issue, they don’t really want the people necessarily with the most cogent thing to say, they want who’s gonna get asses in the seats. Now you’ve got somebody who doesn’t know the issue, doesn’t care about the issue, and there’s a mic in front of them. And it’s not their fault!

No, it’s what America wants, or thinks it wants.

Glover: What it thinks it wants. And that’s not exclusive to America. It’s not exclusive to the music industry, it’s not exclusive to social issues, it’s not specific to politics. You can go to any school board meeting and see the same thing. I do it all the time. These people who think that they know better than you, because “I’ve done this and I’ve done that. I’ve been here and I’ve paid my dues, so I have an understanding.” But you don’t know any specific child. You don’t get that these human beings, these people need what they need, and how specific their needs actually are. How specific information is to specific individuals. What’s right for Vernon is not right me, and it’s not right for Jon.

Correct.

Glover: So, there are some universal truths that we should live by. In this particular time, I don’t think there’s really a want to really deal with specifics in a macro, you want to deal with specifics in a specific. That doesn’t work either.

No, it doesn’t. I feel like we’re more closed off from change and suggestion than we have been in a long time, in ways, especially politically. You’re either on the right, or you’re on the left, and damn you if you don’t agree.

Reid: You can’t concede that the other side is any worse at all.

Glover: Right.

Reid: That’s really unfortunate, and it’s really sad. You can’t acknowledge that the conservatives have anything worthwhile to point out. That’s not true. It’s not true, but at the same time, the game of invalidation has been going on for such a long time. Selective attention to facts, like the United States government has reneged on essentially every treaty that it’s ever made with Native Americans, and those are legal treaties that are enforced. They made the treaties that Congress refused to ratify, because they don’t want to…this land was taken by force.

There’s this whole notion of freedom. Freedom meant a very specific thing in the 1600s, the 1700s and the 1800s. It meant white men, it was the freedom of enterprise for a very specific group of people, and that took hundreds of years to move an inch. It took a long time. Another thing is that people who were pressed by this system, also helped to cooperate, because it also gave them an identity. That’s why feminism was very threatening to certain women, because they liked the thing that was happening. Everybody knew their role. If you blow it up, then all of a sudden I have to find a new thing.

Everybody loves Martin Luther King now, but Martin Luther King was in a problem when he went to Memphis. People were withdrawing their sponsorship [of him], he had done his speech on Vietnam, and Lyndon Johnson felt very betrayed by this, he was angry about that. There were preachers that were like, “You should be about preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, why are you talking about Mahatma Gandhi?” That, for them, was anathema for them. A lot of the underpinnings of that were really conceived by an openly gay, male, black activist named Bayard Rustin, whose name is hardly ever mentioned. Dorothy Height is hardly ever mentioned when we go down the list. These things are intertwined, and for us, we were the beneficiaries of a lot of progressive thinking.

Our parents, our neighborhoods, we had people who really schooled us about this whole idea of fairness. About the potential of America. We took it to heart. When people think of Living Colour, they think of black guys that play rock who wanted to make a point. The real point we were making is that no one’s gonna tell us what we can and cannot be, and that this thing is part of our DNA. It’s not some weirdly novel thing, or an identity crisis. It was never the point, the point was always that we were kind of misfits, we have this language that we developed that cobbles together Al Green or Ornate Coleman in this mix, with Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix. That’s in the DNA of the band. When you hear us, we’re doing power chords, and it’s field hollers. That’s what we’re doing.

At the time though, you were one of the only all-black rock bands out there in the mainstream.

Glover: That’s not true.

You don’t think so?

Glover: There were bands out there that were doing it.

They didn’t get thrust quite as far into the mainstream as Living Colour did.

Glover: Their heads didn’t poke as far above the rabble as we might have, but they were there.

Absolutely.

Glover: We were in solidarity with them, and sometimes we were in opposition to them, because the system had set itself up to the point where it’s like, we let them in, so you’re gonna have to wait your turn. I have friends that love to tell me their story, that they did an interview, and they were told, “Too bad we can’t play your record, we just added Living Colour.”

That’s amazing, and not in a good way. So just through the order of things, you ended up a little higher on the mainstream.

Glover: Yes.

Did you feel any added social pressure to convey your personal beliefs through the music, considering where you were at the time?

Reid: We felt a lot of responsibility. What we did was we, as much as we could, we would mention other artists, other bands, we would try to put ourselves in context. People hear it, people didn’t hear it, but we did it. It was painful, because when you’re perceived a certain way…we live in a competitive society. There was this whole thing, like, “Oh, these guys are really a pop band, they’re this or that.” In our DNA we’re all over the place.

It was so hard to classify you. Rock, punk, funk, jazz.

Reid: If you think about the Beatles, say, the White Album. Or take There’s a Riot Goin’ On by Sly Stone. These are the things, that’s what music sounded like to us.

Glover: Abraxas.

Reid: Yes! Abraxas and Houses of the Holy. That’s the thing. It’s also when DJs used to cut up “Walk This Way.” When Run-D.M.C. did “Walk This Way” with Aerosmith, everyone went, “Wow!” We were like, “Oh y’all finally got to that!” That was a thing that the DJs were the great democratizers. They would take a song like “Big Beat” or Kraftwerk’s “Trans Europe Express” and you would hear that in the park, blasting.

Glover: Or “Miss You” by the Rolling Stones.

Reid: Exactly.

Glover: We’d hear that, like there was a summer where that’s all you heard. I thought it was black folks doing it, I had no idea that it was the Rolling Stones.

Reid: Well, “Miss You” was the way that the Stones survived disco. Just like “Shattered” was the way that they survived punk.

“Miss You” had just enough of a groove to hang in there.

Reid: It’s a great song!

What a great bass line.

Reid: It’s funny, man. All of these things, including Bad Brains’ ROIR [Records] cassette, all of this like “Big Take Over,” and “Pay To Cum,” then I Against I and “Re-Ignition,” that was part of the thing that helped to forge Living Colour. The thing was, we had to make our own noise in the midst of that. Rightly or wrongly, we had to do our own thing. Raise up your freak flag, and some people are gonna salute, and some people are gonna go, “Meh.” You know what I mean? And that’s also having the conviction to throw yourself out there. Again, part of the thing is that it was true for us. Take the song “Desperate People.” “Desperate People” was written because of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s overdose.

Really?

Reid: It was not written as a song against drugs, it was a song written about a specific person. Jean-Michel’s untimely death was a shattering experience. He broke into the art world, and that is unbelievable that he did that. He went to parties and Deborah Harry and the Talking heads are right there. Warhol’s right there. Here’s this guy, who used to be in SAMO in Brooklyn, and now he’s the toast of the town. The news that he had overdosed was just brutal. All these songs, even up to now, it’s very much the story of being a New Yorker. That’s a big part of it. Also, having kind of a world view, beyond New York.

After the explosive success of Vivid, did you feel any pressure creatively to live up to or surpass Vivid, or did you purposely set out to do anything differently, or just keep doing what you do on Time’s Up?

Glover: There was a push for us to make a “Cult of Personality 2.”

From the business end?

Glover: Yeah, from the business end. Their attitude was, “You have to do that again.” We were like, we still have stuff that we haven’t finished talking about. We still have to have this conversation. This conversation is not going to repeat itself, to a degree. It can’t. it has to move forward, and there were things that we didn’t really touch on at length on Vivid that we tried to continue on. For the most part, we were just trying to make the next record. That was our goal, let’s make the next record. I don’t think that we were under the delusion that Vivid was going to blow up.

Reid: There were a lot of Monday morning quarterbacks. [Corey and Vernon are laughing] “It was genius!” When I go back and listen to Time’s Up, it’s amazing where it’s coming from, the history lesson, tag-team partners and fight the fight for information, it’s really tight. It’s a tribute to the fact that Vivid was so unexpectedly successful, that we trying to not mess with too much. I go back and listen to it, and it’s like a concept album. It’s crazy. We did all of this stuff, and really all of our -ness is baked in.

Glover: Right, right.

How do you react to the staying power of “Cult of Personality?” What was it, just the year before last, you played it live at Wrestlemania?

Glover: Yep.

It’s still very prevalent and relevant today.

Reid: We’re very fortunate.

Glover: I think we touched upon a truth that has never really been refuted in any way, shape or form, in that you can pour all of your hopes and dreams into one person, but it doesn’t mean that they are exactly who you are. I think that’s a universal truth. The phrase “cult of personality,” in and of itself, really sort of encapsulated that idea.

It’s a timeless idea. It’s not specific to a single era.

Glover: It has really encapsulated history. “Cult of Personality” encapsulated history in its entirety, from Jesus to George Washington.

Reid: The thing about it is, when Khrushchev denounced Stalin, he said that Stalin murdered millions of people. For Khrushchev to do that, in the way he did it, he didn’t repudiate the Communist system. What he said was that Stalin had erected a cult of personality around himself. That just jumped at me.

That’s where it came from?

Reid: That’s where it came from, from Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin. It was Khrushchev walking away, of course the KGB and all that stuff was still in place, but that was the beginning of a process that would end with Glasnost and the fall of the Berlin Wall and everything else. Literally saying what he did was wrong, and because basically, he had made it about him, and not about the people.

Glover: That concept goes beyond any one specific thing. It is history, it is what history is. The history of this country, the history of many countries. If you look at France, for example. Joan of Arc was a cult of personality. Jesus Christ was a fucking cult of personality.

Reid: These things take on a life of their own.

Glover: Buddha. Mohammed.

Reid: Cult of personality, it’s Che Guevara and it’s Pol Pot. It’s not about placing a value system of where this person is good, this person is bad, it’s really beyond that.

At this point in the interview, the tour manager pops her head in and says they only have thirty minutes until showtime—much to everyone’s surprise. I assure them that we will wrap up soon, and would like to talk a little about vinyl, prompting an excited “Woooo!” from Vernon Reid.

Are you guys both fans of vinyl?

Glover: Oh yeah.

Reid: Absolutely.

Still collect, still play?

Reid: I actually still find them in nooks and crannies, and I still refuse to give my mother back her 45s. [Laughs]

I wouldn’t either! [We both laugh]

Reid: I love those 45s. It’s amazing that this supposedly obsolete, archaic methodology of playing music has survived. It’s amazing. It’s amazing that it survived, especially with young people taking on the idea of making new music and making 45s. Very, very cool.

What’s one record you had early on that changed your life?

Glover: Bitches Brew. Bitches Brew changed my whole family’s life.

Really?

Glover: Yeah. My father, my brother and sister, that was the record that brought everybody in my family together. I was just fascinated my the naked people on the album cover. [Laughs] It was the record that everybody in the house listened to. Everybody in the house listened to it for very specific reasons, but they all could agree that was the record we could all hear together.

Reid: The record that changed my life was Cosmic Slop by Funkadelic.

What a great album.

Reid: It’s such a great record, and it’s really visionary. It’s got roots, and it’s also got this whole other visionary thing, like the “March to the Witch’s Castle,” and “Nappy Dugout,” and “No Compute.” It’s a funny record, because it’s not like America Eats Its Young or Maggot Brain. In its own way, Cosmic Slop is kind of like “Sympathy for the Devil.” It’s the story of a woman who is a prostitute, and she’s also a woman of faith. The whole song is about her praying. “Father, father it’s for the kids/Each and every thing I did/Please don’t judge me too strong/Lord knows I meant no harm.” Right? And the devil sang, it’s a call and response. The devil sang, “Would you like to dance with me/Doing the Cosmic Slop.” It’s really abstract.

George Clinton’s really abstract!

Reid: George Clinton is one of the great masterminds of American culture.

Absolutely.

Reid: He really took on the Summer of Love. Like, the for real Summer of Love, ’67. And one thing that George said, and he said consistently, was that “Woodstock was the end. Woodstock was the finale.” For mainstream America, Woodstock is kind of the beginning of them seriously paying attention in pop culture. For him, it was the end. It was bringing down the curtain. That was a very powerful thing. He said he never experienced white people who were so kind. He said people would literally give you the shirt off their backs. He talks about it really as something that affected him a great deal. Cosmic Slop was almost a part of his reckoning with the end of the Vietnam War, with all of what that was. To me, Cosmic Slop is almost like an answer to Jagger’s “Sympathy for the Devil.”

What’s next for Living Colour? Is Shade coming out this year?

Glover:
Yes!

Reid: Yes, definitely.

When do you expect to release the album?

Reid: Probably in the fall. We’re gonna finish it up in the spring, then we’ll need the summertime to set it up, proper.

Glover: We’ll put together a show that sort of reflects all of that stuff. This record is us really tackling the blues as best as we can. Really trying to deal with that, in our canon, is going to be a challenge. Even though all the stuff that we’ve done is very much blues-based, what we’re trying to do in our shows is to tell a story. Not just tell our story, but tell sort of an up-and-down of a particular story. For me, that’s going to be the challenge of really trying to get that across, from Vivid to Shade.

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PHOTO: KARSTEN STAIGER

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