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Colour-izing the Rock Landscape : More than Prince or Michael Jackson, Living Colour has reintroduced rock to its black music heritage

September 23, 1990|STEVE HOCHMAN

If Living Colour ever thinks it can ignore the race issue, all it has to do is recall last October when it shared the bill with the Stones and Guns N' Roses for four nights at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Guns N' Roses was at the height of controversy over the use of racial and gay epithets in its song "One in a Million." As the shows approached, Reid was quoted in the news media about the matter, and Guns N' Roses singer Axl Rose was perturbed.

"After we played on that first show I wanted to check out Guns N' Roses to see if they were good live," Skillings recalled. "I was standing backstage. I saw Axl coming down the stairs and he walks by. But then five minutes later somebody taps me on the shoulder. I look up and it's him.

"First thing out of his mouth: 'You got a problem with me, man?' I said, 'What you talking about?' So then he goes on, 'It's in the media that I'm some sort of racist, man . . . I ain't no damn racist.' He went down this long list: 'I don't think you're a (racial epithet). Anyone can be a (epithet). If you're a bad person you're a (epithet). I don't think black people are (epithet). I don't think black bands are (epithet).'

"And he just went on and on. So then he sticks out his hand and I say we should talk about it, just talk about it."

But moments later on stage, Rose attempted to defend the song and managed to dig himself in deeper with a string of profanities and slurs that only served to further inflame the matter.

On the second night, Reid used the stage to make a brief attack on anti-black and anti-gay language before the band launched into a furious version of its hit "Cult of Personality."

"We all played a little harder," Calhoun said. "I broke a few more sticks that night."

Said Skillings, "Something like that does remind you, it does smack you in the face in case you might have dozed off a little bit, that it's reality that certain attitudes don't change."

"Type" is the title of one of the new album's key tracks and its first single. The song isn't so much about racial stereotypes as the tendency to use labels indiscriminately, be they "type O" blood or Abstract Expressionism .

"It's like people don't take the time or don't have the time to know what post-structuralism is or post-modernism," Reid said. "They just say, 'Oh yeah, that's modern,' or, 'That's Cubist.' You know what I mean?"

Now Living Colour is confronting its own typing--apart from the racial identification. The first album came with some mystery and intrigue. What does a black rock band sound like? How will it be marketed? What kind of audience will accept it? Now there's no novelty, and certain expectations--both in terms of sounds and sales--have been established.

"We're no longer the X-factor," Skillings said.

"When a band does a first album and it does well they have nothing to lose," Glover said. "The question becomes how much do you believe in your concept? How much do you let people's expectations and the thought of losing your success affect your work? And the main thing is it's important to keep your work away from that."

"We do this for ourselves first," Skillings said. "But it's not like we do it totally for ourselves and (ignore) the audience. It's good to get feedback and figure out how you affect people on one level. That's good and healthy. But when it gets to the point where people put their own head trips or baggage or their own value systems on your music and say, 'I think you guys should be doing this or that,' that really has no place."

But if on the tour they learned through the Guns N' Roses episode that the racial issue can't be ignored, they learned from the Stones that a band can survive on its own terms.

"They could have gone out and done a tour of their hits," Reid said. "But they actually had to support a new album. Their whole thing was the Stones are still a viable, vital thing, not a nostalgia band and not trying to cash in on the old hits. They went out there trying to pump out the new songs, even with all the machinery going on around them."

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