[Originally published 1995 |
Updated here 1999.06.20
Living Colour is dead. The band called it quits in March after seven years of recording and a mere three LPs.
Why should you care?
Living Colour restored blackness to rock. Just by hiking their ebony bods onstage, Living Colour told fans that black folk belong in rock – yesterday, today, and tomorrow. (Living colour, indeed.) Kids still need reminding of this. Remember that cat named Jimi Hendrix? How about Little Richard? Now think of average people walking through a suburban mall. Ask 'em who the first rock & roller was and as sure as RuPaul is blonde they'll say "Elvis." Not. Try Otis Redding or Bo Diddley, maybe, if not Hendrix or Richard.
"Elvis was a hero to most, but that's beside the point. A black man taught him how to sing – and then he was crowned king," sang Corey Glover in "Elvis is Dead," the tune from Time's Up (1990) that single-handedly injected the line "Elvis has left the building" into the popular argot and debunked Elvis's reign as king of rock ("I heard that when he died, he was sitting on his throne"). And let's not forget dreadlocked guitarist and shameless aficionado of Kawasaki pants Vernon Reid, whose Black Rock Coalition organized some 30 bands to fight for their right to rock Afro-American style.
The band seduced racists while slapping them in the face. Consider "Funny Vibe," from the début Vivid (1988). Picture a smartly-dressed black guy amid smartly-dressed white people in an elevator (or just watch the video, which pictures it for you). "No, I'm not going to rob you. No, I'm not going to beat you. No, I'm not going to rape you. So why you want to give me that funny vibe?" Now try not to think of "Funny Vibe" and its lesson in reflex stereotypes the next time you find yourself in that kind of elevator.
They had, like, neat words. These are American guys, yet they spelled their name Colour. Adding unnecessary letters to the "American" language – home of thru, nite, lite, lo, and E-Z – is tantamount to communism. Then there's "Type," lead single from Time's Up, which has Glover cry, "Minimalism! Abstract expressionism! Postmodernism!" – surely the first singable overview of twentieth-century art in the history of rock & roll.
Gay people are their friends. Moreover, the band told its fans gay people are not the enemy. When you're sharing a bill with Guns 'N' Roses, as LC was at the time (you'll recall the "immigrants and faggots" line from GNR's "One in a Million"), even that watered-down countering of assumed prejudice resounds. Reid stuck up for us sensitive types in TV interviews; all this began with learning that one of his major influences (I still haven't figured out who) was gay.
Last year's video "Bi" was praised in this column for letting it all hang out, though to this day the too-hot-for-airplay cuts of that video are kept under lock and key. (Anybody got a samizdat copy?) But their crowning achievement is surely the gayest song of '80s rock, "Glamour Boys": "The glamour boys swear they are a diva. The glamour boys have it all under control.... I ain't no glamour boy – I'm fierce!" And the video! Sheesh! Pee-wee Herman meets Barbie and Ken meets Fashion Ave. in set design, while superbutch Lycra enthusiast Corey Glover does snaps.
They put captioned videos on the map. Through the efforts of Vivid producer Ed Stasium, whose daughter is hard-of-hearing, LC's "Cult of Personality" was the first closed-captioned video to air on MTV. (Some accounts point to one or two earlier clips whose captions were blocked by MTV's ill-adjusted equipment.) The fact that pop music is now accessible to deaf viewers – and with-it hearing people who dig captioned TV, the original "multimedia" – traces its roots directly to four black rocker guys. (However, you wouldn't know this from the tiny smattering of U.S. captioned vids on MuchMusic.)
Now the bad news. The group's 1993 album Stain, despite its attention-getting cranberry CD case, was so stilted and disjointed as to be unlistenable. (Think of R.E.M.'s Green. Same deal.) Now Corey Glover is actually a VJ on VH-1, the adult-contemporary MTV analogue, and I'll be damned if I can find out what Reid and the other lads are doing. (Incredibly, there appears to be no LC fan club or online presence.) Living Colour dies not with a bang, but a whimper.