In Does Rock 'N' Roll Kill Braincells?!, we quiz a grizzled artist on their own career to see how much they can remember – and find out if the loud music and hard rockin' has knocked the knowledge out of them. This week: Vernon Reid, guitarist and founding member of Living Colour.
1: Who once introduced himself to you by saying ‘Hi! I’m one of those glamour boys you been singin’ about!’?
“Oh yeah, it was Mick Jagger!”
WRONG. It was Little Richard.
“Owwww! It was Little Richard. Goddammit! You threw me off because when Mick Jagger heard our set and wanted to produce ‘Glamour Boys’, he said something akin to ‘I’m that glamour boy!’. He did that song because of that.
Meeting Little Richard was like being summoned into his presence. He referred to himself as the architect of rock’n’roll, and it’s true. The whole idea of the flamboyant frontman is because of him. He invited us to his hotel room the day after but swore us to secrecy about what we talked about. But it was very much like meeting a legend. Pretty wild!”
Later, Little Richard ended up guest rapping on your 1990 single ‘Elvis Is Dead’…
“I know it happened, but it’s unbelievable! (Laughs). It was like being in the studio and seeing Mick Jagger in the control room – it was incredibly special.”
2: Which artist once painted your guitar in his distinctive style?
“He was the official artist of the 1983 Montreux Jazz Festival where I was playing with the Decoding Society. He saw us play and loved it. He’d completely painted a range rover with his illustrations and I just asked him: ‘Man, would you do something on my guitar?’. And he said, ‘Sure man, come to my hotel room’, and he did it and signed it. It’s one of my most prized possessions. I kept playing that guitar, which was crazy because my sweat started to rub parts of the illustration off! At that moment, we had a community of young, remarkable artists, including Kenny Scharf and Julian Schnabel. The passing of Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat affected me greatly.”
Like Living Colour, Keith Haring railed against racism and homophobia. When you toured with Guns N’ Roses in 1989, you called out their noxious track ‘One In A Million’ (in which Axl Rose rails against ‘f*ggots’ and ‘n*ggers’) and his subsequent onstage tirade at you, by telling the audience: ‘“Look, if you don’t have a problem with gay people, then don’t call them ‘f*ggots’. If you don’t have a problem with black people, then don’t call them ‘n*ggers.’ I never met a nigger in my life. Peace.”
What did it feel like at the time?
“Well, it was weird! (Laughs) I just remember jeers and boos – there was a lot of noise coming in our direction! But one great musician – the multi-instrumentalist Arthur Rhames, was a huge influence on me, and he was felled by AIDS in ’89, so it felt especially important for me for straight people to stand alongside gay people and against prejudice.”
3: Name four other acts who appeared on the first Lollapalooza tour in 1991 with you.
“Nine Inch Nails, Rollins Band, Ice T & Body Count, Siouxsie and the Banshees and – for a bonus point! – Butthole Surfers.”
CORRECT. You could have also had Jane’s Addiction, Violent Femmes, Fishbone, Lords of Acid and EBN.
“It felt like things had shifted, that the alternative underground had become the mainstream. It was the biggest tour of the summer and was pivotal in introducing tattooing and body piercing into the mainstream because they had an extremely hygienic and professional tent where you could get it done – after the first Lollapalooza tour, you’d start seeing people who worked in banks with pierced eyebrows and police officers with sleeve tattoos. Your lawyer probably had a Prince Albert! (Laughs).”
4: Which dictator was originally set to be mentioned in the lyrics of ‘Cult of Personality’?
“I didn’t want to give him any more energy than he was already getting. I mean, Mussolini is just as culpable as Adolf Hitler, but I didn’t want to have Hitler’s name repeated in a song over and over again. Also Mussolini is more melodic! (Laughs). With the likes of Trump and the rise of other populists, that song feels even more relevant. ‘Cult of Personality’ is a song that makes Living Colour constantly relevant, but it’s a pyrrhic victory.”
5: You’ve already partly answered this but…Who produced the demos of ‘Glamour Boys’ and ‘Which Way to America’?
“Oh man! I’d really have to have dead brain cells to forget it’s Mick Jagger!”
“I remember Mick Jagger made a mixtape for Corey [Glover, Living Colour singer] – a cassette of all these really obscure blues artists. I was like, ‘don’t ever lose that cassette!’. It was amazing he took the time to really dig into the crate and make this 90-minute tape of really cool stuff. During the time we were touring with the Stones, we’d have dinner with Mick and he’d flip out whenever they had mint sauce. Being American, I thought it was funny that he was making a big deal out of these tiny bowls of freakish greenish liquid (Laughs).”
6: On which Living Colour song do you quote Public Enemy’s ‘Fight the Power’?
“That would be Elvis Is Dead!”
“I actually played the Keith Haring FrankenStrat – I call it that because it was cobbled together out of different parts – on the first Public Enemy record on ‘Sophisticated Bitch’. They’re such a groundbreaking group and they really changed the direction of hip hop. So I have a huge amount of affection for Chuck D and Flavor Flav. Their hearts are in the right place and I’m proud to be associated with them.”
They both appear on the 1988 Living Colour single ‘Funny Vibe’.
“I wrote that after being so mad at an old white lady clutching her handbag in a department store when she saw me. And I just had to say I’m not going to rob you. The funny vibe is funnier than ever these days – where we’re in a situation where people are calling the police on black people for just doing everyday things. But it’s better to have these uncomfortable, challenging discussions about race than not have them. We move slowly, painfully towards justice and we’re going to fall back and have reversals of fortune, but my sincere belief is we’ll move forward.”
Any more collaborations in the pipeline?
“Right now, I’m working on a solo album and there’s a number of people I’ve reached out to. I’ve had a conversation with Money Mark who’s the keyboard player for the Beastie Boys. I’m thinking of covering one of his songs and I may be playing on a song of his. I’m excited because his album ‘Push the Button’ is a lo-fi masterpiece.”
7: Which pop icon once came down to see Living Colour when you played Minneapolis?
“He was a genius. Hearing ‘Little Red Corvette’ on the radio at my work station at a little job I was doing gave me the strength to keep going after being rejected by record companies. When it seemed like it was impossible, Prince was there flying the flag for being unusual and made you feel like you weren’t completely crazy. He was so daring and outrageous and it was an honour that he came to our shows. In fact, we jammed with him one time. He played London one time and we went to the show and met up at the side of the stage. To get a ‘Hey Vern, what’s up?’ from Prince was incredible! (Laughs)”
8: Which Grand Theft Auto radio station is ‘Cult of Personality’ featured on?
“Oh my God!! I can honestly tell you I don’t know that because I’ve never played it. I think I’m going to get a PlayStation 4, but at the moment all of my gaming is on my iPad and they only have naff versions of Grand Theft Auto for iOS. I’m a Plants vs. Zombies guy! (Laughs)”.
WRONG. It was Radio X.
9: Living Colour did a residency at CBGBs. Who was the last ever artist to play there?
“I think it was Bad Brains.”
WRONG. It was Patti Smith.
“Of course it was! Playing CBGBn was exciting and crazy. Hilly Kristal [CBGB owner] – God bless him! – really believed in us and the band would not have happened without his mentorship. We went through different incarnations, Corey made his debut at CBGBs and we even had female singers at one point. I remember one show that went horribly wrong and I was feeling destroyed after it and Hilly said: ‘That was pretty good!’. We played a lot of clubs in New York but that was the main one that made us happen. I was too sad to go to the last ever night there.”
10: Which character did Corey play in Jesus Christ Superstar in 2006?
“Judas! I saw him in Washington DC and he was great.”
What’s the most unusual offer you’ve ever turned down?
“I turned down being part of Lou Reed’s band. It was weird! I knew him and got a call saying he’d been thinking about me and wanted to jam. I was given a time and phoned to say I was running late – and somebody told me ‘Man, I think you’ve lost your slot for the audition’. I was like: audition?!’ It turned out this was some audition to tour with him – which I wasn’t told about! So I get there and I’m told to go in and see him. I noticed he had a Tony Fitzpatrick painting on his wall – a Chicago artist who once painted one of my guitars – so he talked a bit about him and then I said, ‘Do you know what? I’m going to go’ and left. Because he was acting as if he didn’t know me! It’s like ‘You called me recently to ask me about recommendations for guitar synthesisers!’. It was a creepy, crazy atmosphere. I was like ‘Whatever this is, I don’t want any part of it!’ Rest in peace to one of the greats.”
The verdict: 7/10
“Pretty good – I only got a few questions wrong. I’m on the rock ‘n’ roll braincells + side of the scale!”