Some people are lucky: They experience a moment where they realize rock 'n' roll can save their lives. You can sit down with a lot of music fans and let them tell you the time they first heard this band, or how their older sibling got them into that band, and the nutty things they've done to show their affection.
Take all those hippies chasing down the Grateful Dead, for example. I know a girl who turned down a date to her eighth-grade dance with the cutest, baddest boy in school so she could go see dorky, whiny Paul Simon. There's a higher calling out there, and a lot of us are fortunate enough to hear it. For Vernon Reid, his family offered an entire childhood of these moments. His affection for the form turned into a life as one of rock's most well respected guitar players.
"I always remember hearing music when I was a child," he says. "My parents played a lot of music, they were avid record listeners. I remember the first time I heard Led Zeppelin, I remember the first time I heard Santana, I remember the first time I heard Sly Stone. Hearing 'Whole Lotta Love,' hearing 'Black Magic Woman,' hearing 'Family Affair.'"
At age 15, Vernon Reid got a guitar from his cousin John, after a conversation about music. "I guess he was impressed by my... obsession with [music], and he said, 'Well I got this old guitar I don't play anymore, you can have it.' And that changed my life."
A few years later Vernon Reid's interest in harmolodic jazz (which allmusic.com describes as: "essentially everybody solos at once") led to his joining Ronald Shannon Jackson and The Decoding Society, which also featured such esteemed improvisers as saxophonist Zane Massey and violinist Billy Bang.
"My life was... part of free jazz, and harmolodic jazz, but it was also attached to funk," he says. "Rock 'n' roll was something that, I felt, could bring everything together, 'cause rock bands did everything. I only found out later on that there was separate situations... the separation that people have, 'this is black music, this is white music,' I didn't grow up with that. As a listener I didn't make those separations."
After working with artists ranging from Bill Frisell to Public Enemy, Vernon Reid formed Living Colour in 1983, a band that would bring his dream of category-less rock 'n' roll, as well as a strong sociopolitical bent, to the mainstream. After a personnel change or two, the band landed its first major advocate: The Stones' frontman Mick Jagger found the band playing New York's CBGB in 1986.
Jagger chaperoned a deal for the band, and Living Colour became, as Rolling Stone magazine said, "The black Led Zeppelin," garnering critical acclaim and a few Grammies to boot. "Cult of Personality," off 1988's Vivid, will no doubt be their legacy to the music world, but 1990's Time's Up is like having an entire record store in one album.
"Living Colour was what I dreamed about when I first picked up the guitar," he says. "It was my dream, and it became the dream of the people that became part of the band, and it also became a dream for the fans. It was weird. It had a life beyond me, whatever its merits and faults."
Living Colour's success also helped Vernon Reid get the Black Rock Coalition on its feet, which opened the doors for many black rock 'n' roll artists pursuing the same dream as Reid.
The band released one more album --- 1993's dark, introspective Stain --- before splitting up, freeing up Reid's time to pursue various experiments. 1996's Mistaken Identity was Reid's first solo outing. Co-produced by the mighty Prince Paul and Teo Macero, Reid encompassed myriad musical styles and his trademark special effects, along with a tongue-in-cheek humor that makes the album much more pleasing to the ear.
Since then, Vernon Reid has continued to break down the distance between genres. As opposed to Guitar Olympians like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, Reid's open-mindedness takes him to places beyond such silly self-gratification as Vai and Satriani's "G3" tour. He helped compose music for Bill T. Jones' ballet "Still / Here," which addressed the AIDS epidemic. He's produced albums for Salif Keita and James "Blood" Ulmer, while composing film and documentary scores. With each project, he tries to bring something new to the audience.
"You need to capture the public's imagination," he says, "and bring forth something -- whether it's novel or profound -- that people really don't have the ability to express. Mistaken Identity and, to a certain degree, the Masque project, and even My Science Project [an unrecorded project], all of those were an inquiry into the nature of my reality, identity, and the nature of fear, and the nature of what's next."
In 2000, the members of Living Colour answered years of "Are you guys ever getting back together?" by regrouping to produce last year's dense and cacophonic Collideoscope. Teaming up with long-time collaborator DJ Logic, Reid is currently working on the second Yohimbe Brother's album (the quirky and fun Front End Lifter came out in 2002).
Earlier this month, Vernon Reid released Known Unknown, with his band du jour, Masque. If Collideoscope speaks to Vernon Reid's sociopolitical side of rock riffs and power chord mania, then Known Unknown is his vacation album. Breezy while still distinctly from Vernonland, the instrumental album is one that again brings all Reid's musical influences into one showcase.
"With Known Unknown, I'm working with this wonderful keyboardist Leon Gruenbaum.... We share the harmonic space. Our drummer Marlon Browden... is a very different drummer than [Living Colour drummer] Will Calhoun. They're both tremendous drummers, but they're almost completely opposite."
"Even though making another Masque recording... had its own intensity," he continues, "there was a lightness of spirit about that record. [With the last Living Colour record] I kinda wished that we could have just relaxed into just making 'our next record.' Not attempting to make the penultimate record. [With Known Unknown] my spirit wasn't as burdened."
Vernon Reid maintains that, among other things, Living Colour will return. In the meantime he will continue to bring the rock 'n' roll classlessness of his upbringing to the ears of his fans, whether they enjoy his life as Living Colour's guitarist, or as a solo artist, or as a social activist, or as a producer.
"I actually asked [Cream founder] Jack Bruce about all of [his] projects," Reid says. "I asked him about [his career] and I said, 'man, how do you reconcile all of that and all the stuff in between?' And he said, 'Well, you know Vernon, we live so many lives inside of one life.' And I think that's really true."
Vernon Reid plays two shows Saturday, May 22, at The Montage Grille, 50 Chestnut Street, at 6:30 and 9:30 pm. Tickets: $22. 232-8380.