When Living Colour steps out onto the stage these days and launches into "Elvis Is Dead," the lyrics and the attitude answer a lot of stupid questions. The band members aren't freaks. Rock 'n' roll is black. Chuck Berry invented it. And Elvis Presley was never the king. "That `King of Rock 'n' Roll' thing, black people were never part of that," says guitarist Vernon Reid during a phone interview from a tour stop in San Francisco. "When we play `Elvis Is Dead' in concert, people who have been grooving the whole concert stop cold. You can see it in their faces, they're saying, `I'm not singing that.' To others, though, it's a great unburdening. Elvis' shadow has hung over rock 'n' roll long enough. They finally get to say, `He's dead, he's dead. It's time for a new epoch.'"
For the past three years, Reid, Corey Glover, Muzz Skillings, and William Calhoun have lived a musical life of epic proportions. Bursting out of the Black Rock Coalition and the C.B.G.B. New York club scene with the 1988 release of the now-landmark record Vivid, the flamboyant four have become the most visible blacks in rock 'n' roll since Jimi Hendrix. Having answered a thousand questions about how they can be black and yet play rock 'n' roll, they are back with their second record Time's Up.
Initially ignored by radio programmers, Living Colour's scorching, insistent grooves have forced their way onto playlists. Live and on record, they have equaled their funk-metal predecessors Bad Brains, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Their fearless success and untamed wardrobes have spawned a slew of similiar bands of every race, creed and, of course, color.
Favoring a less aggressive, white-bread-in-your-face social commentary, Living Colour deals in the same issues that power Public Enemy. Racism, drugs, AIDS. Infused with hopelessness and anger, their music has begun to offer solutions along with the finger pointing.
Reid concedes, after seeing a video of Elvis, that the man had something. But musically, he and the rest of Colour have fixated on Elvis as a natural symbol for all that is racially wrong.
"When people hear about Hendrix, it's always a black guitarist who choked on his own vomit in the back of an ambulance," says Reid, "You hear about [Jim] Morrison, Sid Vicious, Syd Barrett, Janis Joplin. But Elvis is never associated with drugs. He's never lumped in with the casualties of rock 'n' roll."
Reid's ruminations on Elvis belie the struggle the band has had to go through to get to where it is today. The slammed doors of racism run like poison through the band's history. A Manhattan phenomenon, the group had trouble getting gigs and being accepted in the hinterlands. Reid's voice takes on an exhausted tone when he brings the subject up.
"It's a tired subject for a lot of reasons. There are a lot of people, not just white people, who don't like the band but are afraid of being called racist if they say they don't. This subject's as tired as racism in society is tired."
Because of the extraordinary hype this band has had to survive and the legions who were waiting for its fall, Living Colour knew its second record would make it or break it. Every inch the killer sophomore record, Time's Up proves with better melodies and more on-target lyrics that the band was no one-hit wonder. Reid still does a majority of the writing, but everyone in the band contributes a tune or two.
Dismissed by some simple minds as a record that gives Corey Glover room to stretch out as a vocalist, the real story of Time's Up is the songwriting. It's stronger than on Vivid. The loud moshin' jams are still there, but there are also movie-theme fusions like "Love Rears Its Ugly Head" and outright pop gems like "Type." Glover does sing more, but Reid gets ample space to display his unique way with a guitar.
Faced with equaling Vivid, the band cut toward melody instead of noise. Despite the record's more accessible facade, Reid doesn't feel success has cooled the group's convictions.
"It's not that it's less angry--less declamatory maybe. My songs have grown more in empathy. I still look at things like what happened to Rodney King in L.A.," he says, referring to the videotaped beating of a black man there, "and get angry. That kind of thing goes on all the time in major American cities. There's been some outrage over it, but not enough. Man, it all comes down to how we treat each other."
One new tune from Time's Up has taken on an unexpected life of its own. Predating the film New Jack City, Reid's "New Jack Scene" talks about the same kind of new-breed street dealer that Wesley Snipes portrays in the film.
"They are smarter, have more business savvy," says Reid. "What's interesting, and what I try to show, is that they carry with them this set of ideas about how they are invincible. Any glimmer of humanity in them is smothered by the feeling that they have no alternative."
Alternatives are what Living Colour was faced with when it came time to book an Arizona date on the current concert tour. According to Reid, the band's management and their label Epic Records backed off and left it up to them whether to play or pass. Although there was discussion, it came down to the same points that a variety of artists and athletes have faced lately when the subject of Arizona comes up.
"Is engagement more positive than just saying, `We're not coming to Arizona'? The NFL has made it a lot worse by choosing the latter," says Reid. "Even if you take out the Evan Mechams, I hear there are questions about was it really voted down or were the voters confused. Most of why we are coming is to support those who want it to happen."
Living Colour will perform at Mesa Amphitheatre on Sunday, March 24. Showtime is 6 p.m.
Elvis was never the king.
Faced with equaling Vivid, the band cut toward melody instead of noise.
"Is engagement more positive than just saying, `We're not coming to Arizona'?