EVERY now and then it’s nice to talk about yourself to a stranger. Doesn’t matter how much they actually listen, because you’re bound to find out more about yourself than they do.
William Calhoun is the drummer for Living Colour, a black American band who are so caustic, so abrasive, so sobering and so funky they defy explanation. What he’s trying to tell me from a Cleveland hotel room is that it isn’t all he is, and it can never be all he is.
“We have to deal with people treating us differently because we’re black, and that may come out in the songs we write,” he says. “We’re black people, we’re not just black artists. Some people think because you’re an artist and you’re doing OK and making money that you’re being accepted, but that’s garbage. I can still go down town in Manhattan and not get a cab – and our record’s platinum in the States!”
William Calhoun tells me about school, about Mick Jagger, about touring, about the fact he only trusts three or four people in the world. He tells me how much he despises the ‘white American history’ taught in schools. He tells me how creative Africa is, gesticulates on the virtues of Miles Davis, Prince, Fishbone, Bad Brains, Tracy Chapman and a dozen others, I keep asking and he keeps telling.
The tag ‘revolutionary’ is not carried lightly by Living Colour. Not only does their razor- edged guitar work haul the two most vital elements of today’s popular music – metal and black funk/rap – together, but their rise is strangely un-American. That is, they didn’t do it with hype or even hits.
Living Colour was formed three years ago in New York, by four musicians with the most diverse backgrounds imaginable. Funk, reggae, Latin, jazz, even a touch of thrash. What they’ve done is to turn racial preconception in music on its head.
Living Colour went to Europe last year because nothing was happening at home. When they returned their debut album, Vivid, had gone gold. Everyone knows that their guitarist Vernon Reid was ‘discovered’ by Mick Jagger and Reid subsequently played on Primitive Cool. What they don’t know (until now) is that Living Colour owes its as much to an Australian as to Jagger.
“Jagger was in town and he asked Roger Davies, Tina Turner’s manager, what the hippest new act in town was that he should go and check out,” said Calhoun. “Roger Davies had invited us to Tina Turner’s concert at Madison Square Garden. He said to Jagger, ‘Go check these guys out, they’re nice guys and a great band’. And he did. He came down with Jeff Beck, we talked and we hung out.”
It was Davies, Australia’s most successful rock manager, who actually discovered Living Colour.
The link with Jagger has helped the New York foursome get the supporting role in the Rolling Stones Steel Wheel[chair?}s Tour, which is expected to gross several hundred million US dollars overall.
Living Colour recently took home three trophies, including best band, from the MTV awards.
Like the music he plays, William Calhoun is a refreshing paradox. He’s a college graduate (with a degree in production and engineering) who became a rock star. He’s a reasonably wealthy man who lives in the rough-and-tumble Bronx, and he’s a former Harry Belafonte band musician who plays hard rock.
Calhoun is also very talkative – just ask CBS Australia who had to pay $178 for the longest phone interview in the company’s history. “…[Our] sound and style comes from growing up [as a black kid). It comes from… walking in the store and having someone ask you as you’re buying something ‘Do you have money?’ Or getting on a train and having the old lady next to you get up.
“Things like that are the things that you deal with while you’re growing up and they’re going to have an effect on what you say and what kind of songs you write or how you play your instrument.”
The idea that Living Colour changed just to get signed, to get popular with whites, and aren’t actually playing what they want to angers Calhoun.
“I’ve never approached Living Colour as a rock drummer and I don’t think I ever will. As long as I’m with this band I will never sit behind the kit and say I’m gonna play rock drums tonight’ – I just can’t do it. I have to be William Calhoun, and William Calhoun is made up of lots of different things, different styles.
“Boy it’s frustrating trying to express yourself, then make a lot of money and have all these geek people come out. You have to invite them to your parties to hang out, when you know what it was like for you growing up,” he confides sombrely, “It’s a difficult change. It’s difficult to just say ‘Oh yeah, this is cool’. The reality of it is, for that particular person – and they don’t have to be black, they could be white – it’s ‘I remember when…
“And to me that is something you should always stay plugged into. Everyone asks us ‘Why do you drive a regular car?’ or ‘Why do you live in your old neighbourhood?’. Everyone assumes that we should be driving Mercedes-Benz and we should be living here or we should be living there. We are plugged into a society and, personally, I want to stay plugged into that society. That’s what I grew up with. Why deprive me of my roots?”
Will Calhoun met Vernon Reid in 1986, when Will was with a progressive rock band called Dark Sarcasm. “Vernon called me up and asked if I could rehearse that day – for a Living Colour gig that night!”
After Jagger and Davies’ involvement. Epic Records signed Living Colour. The 11 tracks they recorded were but a fraction of their repetoire, and some of those early songs are set to be included on their follow- up next winter, Will says.
Vivid didn’t sell at first. When Living Colour toured Europe for the first time, they shared rooms and squeezed everything into one truck.
“If the record only sold 500 copies, I’d be happy ’cause I was very satisfied with the way that album turned out. The fact that we went platinum makes me even happier, because I can feel like there are a million or so people out there who are into this band for what it is.”
Vivid is astoundingly vibrant. Hard rock, so often misused, abused and trivialised, becomes relevant again in deeply considered songs like “Cult Of Personality”, “Open Letter (To A Landlord)” and “Desperate People”.
“Things are getting bad now. I mean, we have AIDS killing people, cancers killing people, the problem with the ozone layer, the problem with the tropical rainforests. And I think now people are starting to wisen up, they’re beginning to realise these things don’t discriminate between black and white.
“That’s what turns people’s heads. We’re dealing with real things that are in people’s minds and backyards, but they don’t like to deal with them every day.
“Some people look at us and see a black band playing rock and say ‘I’m not comfortable with that’, Y’know? ‘I can’t swallow that,’ Some people aren’t comfortable with black people. It’s OK for them to go to a concert and see Michael Jackson and see Prince, or go to a basketball game and see Michael Jordon or Magic Johnson, but it’s not OK for somebody black to live next door to them.”
Calhoun and bassist Muzz Skillings are college graduates, Reid studied music with jazz musicians, and frontman Corey Glover was an actor in Platoon. Hardly the street-level background you expect from an angry rock band.
Just a short time ago, Living Colour found themselves on the bill with another act so much like them, but so much different. Guns N’ Roses. The occasion was three shows in LA with the Stones, and Calhoun was feeling somewhat tentative about the whole thing when I spoke to him shortly beforehand.
The reason? That infamous song about ‘niggers’ and ‘faggots’ on GN’R Lies; “One In A Million”.
“Yeah well, to tell you the truth, I got my problems with that. That’s probably something I’d like to even approach them about personally.
“Like, we approached Jagger about “Brown Sugar”. It was something that we wanted to know. It was something that we all sat down and we talked about. He had an experience that he wrote a song about and we were just talking to him about it and seeing if it was a racial thing. And he told us a pretty hip story…”
Calhoun was somewhat uncertain, however, if Axl Rose and Slash would greet such enquiries so receptively: “I don’t know what the vibe’s gonna be like with Slash and Axl and Guns N’ Roses. It may be cool, it may not be cool. It may not be cool that we can approach them and ask them.
“It’s one of those songs you hear and you get your meaning off it and you ask yourself ‘What does that mean?’ It can mean something different to you, but it can mean something different to the person who wrote it.
“It’s funny, some artist told me one of his [Slash’s] parents are black. I hear that and I ask myself ‘Why..?'”
At least Living Colour have a new album and a trip to Australia mid-way through next year to look forward to. They were set to come down here when they suddenly took off back home last year.
Whether they can continue to avoid categorisation is anyone’s guess, but if anyone is goddamned strange enough to pull it off, then they are. No single image, no plagiarism but success anyway. Beats me…
“I think artists like Fishbone, Tracy Chapman and Bad Brains are starting to make people realise it doesn’t take a hit song to make it. It doesn’t take a look to make it, or a sound to make it.
“If it doesn’t have what you want, if it doesn’t have a fat bass sound, or a big snare sound, or hand-claps, or if it doesn’t have background singers, or if it’s not love songs, then that doesn’t mean it’s not happening. I think the companies are starting to get hip to that.
“Living Colour is an example of a band that’s doing their thing, their way. Some people love the stuff and some people attack the stuff. Some people say ‘Oh well, they’re a pet band, it’s some crummy image thing, it’s black rock’.
“It’s never just rock, it’s ‘black rock’. Which to me is a very redundant term, ’cause rock ‘n’ roll is a black-originated art form.
“For someone to call Living Colour a black rock band is to me like calling it a black black band,”