Guitarist Vernon Reid of the prescient, still-vital hard rock band forever plugged in to the moment
Living Colour released its debut album, Vivid, 30 years ago. And yet, somehow, the music sounds as vital today as the year it was written, the bandmates addressing complex issues of gentrification, racial inequality and consumerism in brainy, cast iron-heavy songs that navigated art-funk, hard rock and searing, psychedelic R&B.
It's a realization that both surprises and saddens the band's guitarist, Vernon Reid, who, while grateful for Living Colour's continued relevance, remains struck by the lack of social progress made within society.
“I'm thankful there's a relevance to the band. Simultaneously, I'm sad that ‘Funny Vibe' is still a thing; I wish it was irrelevant,” Reid said, referencing a song written about the side-eyed glances that he, as a black man, still receives from white people while out in public. “Living Colour is an American conversation, and that's always been at the forefront of my mind. … I think the thing I've always held to is that I always want our music to be this ongoing chronicle and conversation of what it means to be an American, in our particular situation and our particular skin.”
This conversation, which Living Colour continues to carry on in its records, including the blues-inflected Shade, from 2017, spills over into a wide-ranging phone interview with Reid, reached at home amid a tangle of pedals and guitars. “I do these wire-ups and teardowns all the time,” said the guitarist, who will join bandmates Corey Glover (vocals), Will Calhoun (drums) and Doug Wimbish (bass) in concert at the inaugural Inkcarceration Music and Tattoo Festival, which runs Friday through Sunday, July 13-15, at the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield. “Just plugging in different things to see if they work well.”
Over the course of 30-plus minutes, Reid manages to expound on, among other things: his views on the Confederate battle flag, which he termed “treasonous” (“Somehow people do these mental gymnastics where they're gung-ho about this place called America, but they want to wrap themselves in a flag that represents the ultimate betrayal of that thing”); how the late Notorious B.I.G. is akin to a mythological figure from the blues (“The interlocking relationship between him and Tupac Shakur, and the whole idea one was based on the East Coast and one was based on the West Coast, and they had a woman between them, Faith Evans, and all of this ultimately culminated in both of them being murdered by gunfire”); the ongoing #MeToo movement (he recently read Roxane Gay's Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture on the recommendation of a Twitter follower and endorses it fully); and the reason he believes the country continues to have the same conversations that formed the backbone of the band's three-decades-old debut.
“As a nation, we're dishonest about the past. We're dishonest about the present, too,” he said. “We prefer not to talk about it and keep things moving and work our dark subterfuges without review, if you will. There are fundamental problems, and one party gets aggrieved and doesn't want to talk about it, or wants to talk about it in a way that holds their ancestors blameless.”
Living Colour, in contrast, has never shied from throwing itself headlong into the muck, writing songs about issues such as gentrification (“Open Letter (To a Landlord)”) and minority control of the majority. On “Information Overload,” released in 1990, Glover sings that “Only 10 percent control the rest,” and Reid's only issue with the lyric is that the band understated the consolidation of power, which now rests in the hands of the one percent, as he explained. Then there's the group's biggest hit and best-known song, “Cult of Personality,” from 1988, which includes myriad lines that could have been written about President Donald Trump's current reign: “I know your anger, I know your dreams/I've been everything you want to be”; “I exploit you, still you love me”; “I tell you one and one makes three.”
“‘Cult of Personality,' remember that? We're in it,” Reid said, and laughed. “And we're in it in a way that is so bizarre and so macabre and so insane.”
With Shade, an album that functions as a nice bookend to Vivid, it's almost as if the inverse takes place, in a way. The album is dotted with covers lifted from the past (Robert Johnson's “Preachin' Blues,” Biggie's “Who Shot Ya?” and Marvin Gaye's “Inner City Blues”), each of which centers on a gunshot, and that collectively paint a picture of a modern society and culture prone to violence.
“It's this terrible aspect of American life — the impulse to violence, and a particular kind of sudden violence,” Reid said. “And why is that? We need to have a national conversation about guns, but we also need to have a national conversation about our relationship to violence. We need to have a conversation about rage.”
For Reid, everything boils down to being plugged in to the moment — be it culturally or onstage with Living Colour, where he eschews perfection, favoring a live-wire, anything-goes approach to guitar that allows for moments of transcendence. (In a decades-old Guitar World interview, Reid described himself as a “not-every-hair-in-place-type player.”)
“I always hope for something to occur that has never occurred before,” he said. “There are things where I go, ‘Man, I wish I could do this part cleaner.' Well, just slow down and take a little more time with it. But do I want to be perfect? No. Nothing's perfect. What I do want to be is available. No matter where I am I always want to be available to a real moment in time.”