September 23rd, 2011
Rock might not be dead, but its stars are fading fast. Most rock stars still alive hardly look it, and their heirs? The new guitarmen and women might play something called rock, and they might be stars, but rock stars they are not. Once, rock smashed rules and mores and was larger and louder than life, and so were the dudes (Jagger, Cobain, Iggy Pop) and babes (Patti Smith) who made it. They were glam, rude, addicted, ill-behaved, unabashed, often un-hip and thus eternally cool.
Today there’s an actual “rock” hit called “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall” and the hardest-core band I listen to is Fucked Up. People will go on and on about Fucked Up, then stop and say, oh, but Damian Abraham is such a nice guy. But I don’t want Damian Abraham to be a nice guy. I want him to be Fucked Up.
Still, holes make the theory, and there are holes in mine. There are the Strokes, older now and rehabbed, but nonetheless proper Manhattan assholes in leather jackets. There is, admittedly, Dave Grohl. There’s Pete Doherty, but is he even making music? There was, until recently, Amy Winehouse.
And there is Lenny Kravitz.
Maybe he’s not the most obvious example of classic badassery. Your mom’s a fan (especially if she’s seen the shower-stall Twitpic he once posted so, uh, cheekily). He’s only been on Pitchfork once, in 2009, when Justice remixed “Let Love Rule.” And his throwback attitude, stadium-ready sound and one-world inspirational lyricism make the 47-year-old Grammy favourite seem massively middle-of-the-road. And yet, still, he makes it look more middle-of-the-freeway.
Like any old rock star, Kravitz is a nomad, a noted womanizer (ex-womanizer, he tells lad mags), and a notoriously difficult interview. More than one media friend warned me on that last point, and I too had seen the infamous FashionTelevision clip: sitting front-centre at a Galliano show in 2007, Kravitz ignored Jeanne Beker by pretending to talk on the phone for minutes. And then more minutes. At last he hung up, smirked and said, “yeah, John [Galliano] is a super-creative guy.” Last year, Beker told me that moment was the most embarrassing of her career.
And so Kravitz is the rare celebrity subject who actually makes me nervous. There is an eerily long pause while the PR connects us. Right now, he’s filming The Hunger Games in North Carolina; he’ll play the stylist Cinna, which suits well enough, given his proclivity for tight-ass leather. I ease my will-he-answer anxiety by imagining him all up in that Rick Owens, prowling slick streets, answering his cell phone via an old-school huge black handset. (This is not so much imagination as an actual photo I’ve seen, captioned on the Gawker blog Gizmodo with “Lenny Kravitz, you look like a dickhead.”)
Hello? Hello? And finally the reply: “Whoa. You sound like you need coffee.” This is him? I laugh and say my voice is just like this and plus, since I work in isolation, he’s the first person I’ve spoken to today. I like it that way. “I don’t blame you,” he says, seriously.
Kravitz has a way of talking as if he’d rather be not talking. Most entertainers dread dead air like death itself, and so to make them talk you just stretch out a vacuum in the conversation, knowing they’ll rush to fill it with the sound of their own voice. His is a sound worth hearing, at once somehow gravelly and mellifluous. But the old journalistic trick doesn’t work. Pause too long and he’ll pause longer.
But say anything about the way music used to be, and he comes back, roaring.
“I’m not happy nobody makes albums anymore,” he says, explaining why he chose to make his new album, Black and White America, a double. “The album is a piece of art. A painting, a sculpture, a book, a photograph. I grew up in a time when albums were monumental. Stevie, Marvin Gaye, Led Zeppelin, Miles Davis, Stones, whatever it might be. They were serious things and they were beautiful. It was a statement, the entire album. Now we have the ability to pick apart the songs. As far as keeping the preservation of the album, it’s the worst thing. It’s like going to buy art and saying, I’ll just take the left corner of the painting in the bottom. I want the foot. Well, the intention was the entire painting. It’s the same thing with the album.”
As for the title, it says multitudes. On one level, Black and White America has a nice vintage ring, apropos of its mid-century funk influences and retro optimism. On another, it’s a racial commentary, all about the Obama era. “Actually,” says Kravitz, “I thought of the name while I was watching this documentary about Obama. These people were saying they were going to stop him from being president, saying we got plans, he’s going to be killed, we want to take America back to the way it was 100 years ago. Of course we know racism exists, but when we hear people that are so hateful and ignorant, it’s like really? I want to transcend black and white.”
Kravitz can say that because he’s both. Growing up in L.A. with a black mom and white Jewish dad — both of whom made good money in entertainment; his is no ghetto story — he was always told he wasn’t enough of one or the other. “I grew up in the middle of everything,” he says. “I’ve never fit into a box. I love that. At one of my shows, you’ll see a seven-year-old kid and a sixty-five-year-old woman and everything in between, every colour.”
With such apparent universal appeal, it’s hard to see Kravitz as a musician’s musician. And yet I know he plays all his own instruments: the guitar, the drums, the keys. So I call the rapper k-Os, who explains. “People ask me all the time to comment on this musician or that musician,” k-Os says, “and I only ever want to do it for two people: Lenny Kravitz and Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest.” That’s it? “That’s it. Lenny Kravitz is like… I’m still trying to get my head around Lenny Kravitz. There’s a lot of musicians I looked up to when I was young that I would call my peers now. Lenny Kravitz is not my peer. He’s like Prince.”
Kravitz may or may not be like Prince, but after nine studio albums, four film credits including The Hunger Games (“it’s going to be a huge movie,” he says, indifferently) and a few Miami design projects including a Philippe Starck hotel, he’s living like one. When he’s not on set or tour, he spends summers and springs in Paris and falls and winters in the Bahamas, where his mama’s from. It’s another one of those black-white things. It’s a retreat, he says, from cities to inner peace. Perhaps it’s also part of his oft-asked-about 2004 promise to swear off women till marriage. (Whether or not he’s done so is up to Page Six; all I can say is he only wants to talk about one girl, and that’s his boa-stealing, Met Ball-attending daughter — and actress — Zoe.)
So what does he do all day? Easy: “Well, I live in a trailer, like a little Airstream on the beach. First thing I do is get out and look at the sky, thank god for the day, get into the water, sit, think, make music, think about where I’m gonna get lunch from. Go to the studio, make some music. In and out. Whatever I feel like doing. Hanging.”
So much for the rock-star life, I think — out loud.
“It’s the real rock-star life,” says Lenny.
Writer Sarah Nicole Prickett Photographer Steven PanTweet