Friday, April 20, 2012

What's Your Favorite Colour, Baby?

In September 1988, all alone on a Friday night, I walked into an old Army hangar on the campus of the University of Connecticut to watch a band I had never heard of play music I never knew existed.

I walked out with my head spinning. And a need to shout to the world that I had just seen the coolest, craziest, most impossibly different band on the planet. Alas, I didn’t do that. Though I did tell plenty of people about it. I really had no clue how to describe them.

They were loud and fast, kind of like heavy metal but so much better than what was passing for “metal” at the time (and what was inexplicably dominating the airwaves). They were edgier, angrier, and way more real. A cross between metal and punk, with a hearty dose of funk to back it all up. They had a dervish of a lead singer whose voice wasn’t at all screeching like most metal of the day, but clear and brutal, menacing and intoxicating. They had a guitarist who seemed to perform calculus on the guitar – that was the only way I could describe his lightning-like precision and mystifying ability to still produce actual, well, music. The two-man rhythm section was tight and lethal as Muhammad Ali’s fist, somehow able to not only keep up with the mayhem, but also propel it along. It was all so unreal.

Oh. Also? They were black. All four of them. Four black men in a rock band, playing a molecularly perfect mix of heavy metal and punk and funk. In 1988, you need to understand, this just...wasn’t...common.

The band was Living Colour. And I was their new Number 1 fan.

I mean, finally! A band that could rock way harder than the countless poseurs of the day – Warrant, Winger, White Lion, whatever the hell that bullshit “supergroup” of asshat Ted Nugent and that dude from Styx was called, they were all awful. Yet the kids I went to school with at the UConn ate it up. But this – what Living Colour was doing – was the real thing.

Singer Corey Glover. Guitarist Vernon Reid. Bassist Muzz Skillings. Drummer Will Calhoun. They even had cool names. All by themselves they would lay waste to an era of hair and vanity, excess and faux rebellion. Even better, they were from New York. Can’t get more real than that! This was the sound of a new era that would send Sebastian Bach slithering back to the primordial ooze that had grown tired of having him crash there.

Only…not really. They never did get to do that. Nirvana did! Oh, did they ever—kicked all of those clowns in the balls but good a couple years later, ruining their top-of-the-bill careers and relegating them forever to the dog track of oldies circuits.

But that’s a different story for a different time. No, Living Colour didn’t change the world as I thought they would that night, and as I really thought they would a few days later when I bought their absolutely mesmerizing debut record, Vivid. But for a while they sure as hell seemed destined to. They had it all – talent, attitude and a boatload of the anger that has always created so much of the best of rock-n-roll.

I’ll admit, the night I saw them, before owning the album, I walked out of there not exactly humming the tunes. Even though yes, they were hummable, I would come to realize. But it was more of an explosion to me, like watching a fireworks show that went on 10 feet from you for 75 straight minutes. Do you remember each individual starburst of magic? No. But you sure as hell recall how the night felt, and looked. And, in this case, sounded.

When I did get the album, my instant love affair was confirmed within seconds of the opening track, “Cult of Personality,” a razor slash through every inch of phoniness the plastic 80s had brought us. (“I exploit you, still you love me.”) These songs were three-dimensional, apparitions that jumped from the CD player and splatter-painted your walls like Jackson Pollock. And they all said something.

“Cult of Personality” and its rollercoaster of sonic mayhem was their statement of purpose, an announcement to all that this wasn’t anything you had heard before, and to get the hell out of their way.

“Middle Man” and “Glamour Boys” were fascinating indictments of the industry, with Muzz doing things on the bass to backup Vernon’s SAT-level solos that could have gotten him arrested in some parts.

“Desperate People” was the rawest look at the failure of the Reagan-era War on Drugs I had ever heard, each chord change thumping like an axe-handle to the solar plexus. “Which Way To America?” and “Open Letter (to a Landlord)” addressed poverty and helplessness with the same ferocity, the latter demonstrating how melodic they could be, how they were still able to tear the sounds down to their very roots. (“You can tear a building down, but you can’t erase a memory.”)

Hell, they even had a great cover of a great fellow New York band, “Memories Can’t Wait” by Talking Heads. Black people listening to Talking Heads? Black people playing Talking Heads? Black people had heard of the Talking Heads? I was so delightfully, deliciously, delovelely ferschimmeled by all this I could barely contain myself. (Remember, I was only 20 and wasn’t nearly as versed in the cross-racial history of rock-n-roll as I should have been).

And then there was the song, out of all this, that remains my favorite. Towards the end of an album that was such a wall of firepower came “Broken Hearts,” a…ballad? From these guys??? No. No way.


An exaggerated hip-hop tinged carnival barker-like opening, replete with a distorted harmonica and snares, suddenly turned into gorgeous, impeccably delivered soul, Glover’s voice snaking through the air as if Marvin Gaye had temporarily taken over his body.

A breeze reminds me of a changing time and place,
A tear that takes forever rolls down a timeless face.”

Are you freaking kidding me? A line like that in the middle of everything else, so perfect and pretty and seductive? “Broken Hearts” was Living Colour’s way of telling the listeners, “Not only are we tougher than you, but we can be sweeter, too.” And they were right.

Fame came fast for the band. They won awards, made popular videos, appeared on SNL and Arsenio. Got a great gig opening for the Rolling Stones on their 1989 World Tour and, in the opinion of at least this now-aging rocker, blew the Glimmer Twins off the stage. People began talking about that “black rock band” and how fast and crazy they were. And whenever they did I wanted to ask, “Were you there? Were you with me that night in the armory? Did you see it too?” Hoping someone would say yes. A few did and we relished reliving the experience. Most didn’t and that night was left for me to remember as I was, alone and awestruck.

Sadly it didn’t really last, the fame. Their next album in 1990, Time’s Up, had similar moments of brilliance, but was just a little too sprawling and disjointed. Skillings would leave the band and be replaced by a true marksman on the bass, Doug Wimbish (from MY hometown of Bloomfield, CT!), but the band was missing something it had back a few years earlier. Some…thing that rock bands sometimes hold onto, sometimes don’t. Danger? Maybe. Fear of failure? Possibly. A marrow-level connection with each other and the music? Perhaps. I saw Living Colour twice after seeing them open for the Stones, and I enjoyed what I saw each time, but I never saw again what I saw that first time. And hey, maybe that’s on me, as they surely didn’t get less talented. But they seemed to come and go like those fireworks I thought of when I first saw them. Astounding but fleeting.

Did they change the music world? Perhaps, at least a little. Again, Nirvana and their pals from the Pacific Northwest would put an end to the glam stranglehold, but Living Colour’s proof that you could blow it out without compromise and without being afraid to bend genres and styles played a part in shaping the next generation. Listen to Vivid (and some of Time’s Up and their 3rd effort, Stain) and you hear traces of R&B and ska and reggae and new wave and fusion alongside locomotive-paced hard rock, as well as many of the wall-of-fuzz meets pop stylings later heard on Nevermind and In Utero. Music saw more and more cross pollination in the 90s and later at the century’s turn. Maybe Living Colour had something to do with it. Even if they likely won’t ever get into the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame. (And sidenote? They should.)

Still? Living Colour had it all on that September night 24 years ago – the look, the sneer, the talent and the vision. And to me, it looked like they had everything they needed to change the face of music.

For a while they did, and the future seemed to belong just to them. It didn’t, as it turns out. But Living Colour left a hell of a mark that will be there forever. Beautiful. Tough. Relentless.


1 comment:

  1. Spot on. Reid's guitar prowess is just stunning. He's fluent in the kind of obscure modes and scales typically employed by only the most advanced jazz masters, yet his tone and approach are sheer rock and roll. And Calhoun's bass drum triplets are like listening to a dragon's heartbeat speed up before he devours you. The way Glover toys with the melody in the last chorus, then slows the lyrics down by half for the following chorus before kicking it into double time? The way the entire band plays with with the occasional compound time measures?

    I remember the first time I heard this song, I thought, wow...this is the band Van Halen desperately wishes they were. That wasn't true, of course—I'm pretty sure for much of their career VH has been the band VH has wanted to be. But this damn band, man: in their prime, if you were to place a lump of coal on stage in the middle of the four of them, by the end of the gig, it'd be a diamond; they're THAT tight.