Living Colour

The first thing I noticed about Living Colour the very first time I saw the video for ‘Cult of Personality’ on MuchMusic in the fall of 1988 was that this band, who were clearly not Canadian, spelled ‘colour’ properly. Why were they clearly not Canadian?  They had swagger.  Canadian bands did not have swagger in 1989. Hell, even Neil Fucking Young doesn’t have swagger (like a good Canadian, he’s far too humble). The video largely features the band on a stage blasting out the song.  The way frontman Corey Glovers struts around the stage, the way guitarist Vernon Reid shreds that guitar, the way bassist Muzz Skillings smashes that bass, there was no doubting that these were Americans.  But, fuck me, what an incredible song.  Beginning with Malcolm X’s voice, this vicious, wicked riff hits, and then the band staggers in, which included drummer Will Calhoun, that riff, with thunderous bass and drums, and then Glover’s soaring, fiercesome voice.  This was a track for the ages.  Perhaps the greatest hard rock song of the 80s. Maybe even my entire childhood.

That fall, Living Colour opened for the Rolling Stones (blech), my mom’s favourite band.  Now, all these years later, I see the reason why, Living Colour rocked harder and fiercer, but they tapped into a rock history that very much included the blues-based Rolling Stones, and Glover was clearly a devotée of Mick Jagger, a man who could own a stage and a crowd.  I refused to go to BC Place, a cavernous dome that, in those days, fit close to 70,000 for a concert, and I refused to stomach the Stones.   But, I did convince my parents to scoop me a Living Colour t-shirt, which I proudly wore for  most of high school.  At the same time, my good buddy, Mike Robinson (RIP) was getting into Living Colour.  This, in fact, was how we bonded in Grade 11 Science.  Robinson failed the course.  I can still hear him mocking our teacher (I forget his name), ‘Mr. Robinson, you missed class today’), and I passed. He was very jealous of my Living Colour t-shirt.

‘Cult of Personality’ ranks amongst the greatest opening tracks of all-time.  But, like so many other albums with killer opening tracks, Vivid lives up to the hype.  It was a massive début, it went double platinum in the US, it is in 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You DieRolling Stone ranks it amongst the greatest metal albums of all-time.  Of course, this speaks to how clueless Rolling Stone is, this ain’t metal.  But it is hard, hard rock.  It reached #6 on the Billboard charts.  It was epic.

Vivid had actually come out in May 1988, after Living Colour had paid their dues.  Vernon Reid, the axeman, was a veteran of the NYC music scene by the time he first formed the band in 1984, as Vernon Reid’s Living Colour.  The early incarnation of Living Colour, which involved only Reid amongst the classic line-up, was more based in the jazz and jazz fusion for which Reid had become known in NYC, and the occasional punked out political diatribe.  They also got into the dreaded guitar synth.  Happily, Reid recovered from that and a stable lineup coalesced around Glover, Skillings, and Calhoun (a graduate, with hounours, of Berklee College of Music in Boston).  They cut their teeth playing at CBGBs, in a regular, weekly spot, and they landed a record deal with Epic.  Vivid originally face-planted.  The album came out in May 1988, and the first single, ‘Cult of Personality,’ didn’t surface until July (what kind of back-assward thinking was this from Epic?).  And, of course, it was only that fall that the video hit the big time.

I finally got my hands on a copy of Vivid sometime early in 1989, long before I met Robinson.  But they played BC Place, opening for the Stones, on 1-2  November.  My parents went to the first show.  And I had that t-shirt.  I wore it long after, too, well into my university days, but then it disappeared, I think into the wardrope of my girlfriend at the time, Tracy.  She liked to wear it.  I mourned its loss for years after.  My god, I loved this album.

Living Colour, who are still rocking out, are African American.  This was uninteresting to me, a Canadian lad, in the late 1980s.  For a white kid in the suburbs, race didn’t really matter, at least not then.  I learned that it did matter in Canada in high school.  I was stunned.  But, the more I saw, the more I got it.  Some of my awakening came from the media, some from what went on around me.  That latter part was embarrassing, given the large East and South Asian minorities I grew up around, friends and teammates and opponents on the soccer pitch.  But I thought racists were just losers, and that it really didn’t matter anymore, that we were Canadians.  Period.  Turned out I was wrong.  But, at any rate, the fact that Living Colour were African American didn’t register with me when it came to the larger genre of rock and the absence of black artists in a music form invented by African Americans.  Apparently, black dudes didn’t play rock’n’roll, they were into hip hop and R&B.  But, in those days, I was also into King X, who were also black and rocked hard.  And, of course, Bad Brains, who I had just been turned onto by Robinson, and his cassette copy of The Youth Are Getting Restless.  But the fact that Living Colour were black dudes slamming out hard rock made them a bit of a challenge for Epic to sell to Heartland, America.  This album did well, of course, but subsequent albums from Living Colour did not do so well.  Time’s Up, their brilliant sophomore album, was their last to chart in the US, hitting only gold sales.

‘I Want To Know’ starts with a funky little riff, and Glover, ‘Hey kids, let’s go!’ And then Reid gets dirtier.  This is a basic love song, but Reid’s guitar veers from crunching and heavy to slinky and funky.  ‘Middle Man’ is almost metal, with its menacing guitar riff, Skilling’s stuttering bass, Calhoun’s drums cacophonous.  Glover has a voice, to this day, that cover any base, it can soar, it can grind, it can growl.

‘Open Letter (To A Landlord)’ told a familiar story, even faraway from the wars of gentrification in NYC, to a Canadian kid in suburban Vancouver.  Vancouver was going through a fit of gentrification in those days, on the heels of Expo ’86, which saw even the legendary Vancouver skid row, along East Hastings, cleaned up for a few months.  Expo opened Vancouver to the world in so many ways, as it overnight went from a sleepy outpost of Canada and the British Empire to a dynamic, multicultural urban centre (it turns out there had always been an Asian and South Asian population there, but white Vancouver didn’t notice).  And so, buildings were getting torn down all over the place as the city shed its skin and emerged anew.  And so, a song with lyrics like:

Now you can tear a building down
But you can’t erase a memory
These houses may look all run down
But they have a value you can’t see…

Well, this made sense in Vancouver as much as it did in New York City, at least largely minus the racial politics of the American city.  But this also is a difference between Canada and the US.  Whilst Canada has its own issues with racism, issues pertaining to the inner cities of the major cities wasn’t necessarily about race (I even wrote a book about this when I grew up, about Montréal).  It is also a killer song, both hard rocking and sensitive all at once.

This was also the end of Side 1.

Side 2 began with ‘Funny Vibe,’ the oldest song on this album.  It dated back to the era of Vernon Reid’s Living Colour, heavily re-worked here.  This is also a heavy song, beginning with Reid shredding, with input from Skillings and Calhoun before the beat kicks in, hard and heavy, and we’re in the midst of a metal shredding class taught by Professor Reid.  Then the chanted lyrics, which bust out over a funky beat:

No, I’m not gonna rob you
No, I’m not gonna beat you
No, I’m not gonna rape you
So why you want to give me that
Funny Vibe!
No, I’m not gonna hurt you
No, I’m not gonna harm you
And I try not to hate you
So why you want to give me that
Funny Vibe!

Racism, kids.  Racism. This was the experience of Reid, and every other black man in America.   Then Chuck D. and Flava Flav show up and decry racism, with Chuck declaring ‘we gotta do something about it.’  And then Reid shreds some more.  In 2003, Rolling Stone claimed he was the 66th best guitarist of all-time.  Lists like this are ridiculous, of course, because they don’t include the likes of Donnie, this guy I know, up in the HIlltowns of Western Mass.  Nobody can play guitar like Donnie, he manages to fuse punk, funk, post-punk, and metal all at once into these riffs that should be illegal.  But he’s not on Rolling Stone’s list of best guitarist.  Reid is.  He should be higher.  He does more than just shred, and he doesn’t limit himself to a single sound.
‘Memories Can’t Wait,’ which is one of my favourite tracks erupts with this wicked riff and solo out of ‘Funny Vibe.’  This guitar always gets me, even all these years later.  Glover’s lyrics, delivered over a staggering bassline from Skillings and Calhoun’s steady hand:
There’s a party in my mind
And I hope it never stops
I’m stuck here in this seat
I might not stand up
Other people can go home
Other people they will split
I’ll be here all the time
No, I can never quit.
The killer part of this song, though, is the ending, as Glover sings:
Everything is very quiet
Everyone has gone to sleep
I’m wide awake on these memories
These memories can’t wait
These memories can’t wait
These memories can’t wait
These memories can’t wait.

32 years on, those words still hit like a tonne of bricks.  I think of all the times those words have popped into my head, processing something amazing, horrible, beautiful, traumatizing, stunning, mundane.  And years later, of course, I became a scholar of memory, for a while anyway.  I remember the day I was awarded my PhD, it was actually the Dropkick Murphys I name-checked in my defence, but, as I prowled the halls outside the examination room, I wanted to grasp this moment, I wanted to hold onto it, I was nervous as all fuck, even though I knew I wasn’t going to fail at this point.  My wife was there, my mother, and my great-aunt, Mercedes, too.  And my friends.  I saw them all in my prowling back and forth, I felt their love, their hope for me, their pride in me.  And I wanted to be able to hold onto that forever.  Corey Glover’s words came flooding into my head.
Vivid ends with perhaps one of the most vivid windows I ever had into the United States as a kid growing up in Canada, including all the hip hop, Springsteen, and everything else I listened to, including all the TV shows, the movies, the endless inundation of American culture into my Canadian home.  This was the blatant other side of racism in the US, clearly and eloquently stated in ‘Which Way To America?’:
I look at the T.V.
Your America’s doing well
I look out the window
My America’s catching hell.
Go west young, go west young man
Don’t want to crossover
But how do I keep from going under?
Where is my picket fence?
My long, tall glass of lemonade?
Where is my VCR, my stereo, my T.V. show?

Like I said, this was their biggest selling album, this was their moment in the sun.  I guess eventually the Heartland realized Living Colour was black.  This was also their most radio-friendly album, produced by Ed Stasium, who massaged the likes of Talking Heads, the Smithereens, and Motorhead into mainstream success.  But the rest of Living Colour’s oeuvre is as good as this album, if not better.  Stain, their 1993 offering, was for a long time after amongst my favourite albums.  So much so that that summer, My Main Man Mike took my cassette copy of the album out of the tapedeck in the Mikemobile, which got us all around the Vancouver area, and tossed it out the window he was so sick of it.  Their most recent album, Shade (2017) also rocks hard, and got a lot of play around here.
I did eventually get to see them, too.  In 1993, they came back through Vancouver, though I can’t remember if they played the Commodore Ballroom or somewhere else.  But it was a small enough venue and I was a big enough guy that I could get right down front with Mike (Braun, My Main Man Mike, not Robinson, who had not yet actually died), and close enough to be hit with the band’s sweat.  It was a fucking great show.  I had lost the t-shirt by then, though.  Dammit.