Vernon Reid was the founding member of Living Colour and led the band through a successful 10 year career, highlights including a platinum selling debut album Vivid (1988), two consecutive Grammy Awards, opening for the Rolling Stones on their 1989 stadium tour and appearing on the first Lollapalooza tour in 1991. Vernon has played with many other musicians and in many other musical contexts, such as with Decoding Society, Defunct, Mick Jagger, Public Enemy and John Zorn, and he is also the founder of Black Rock Coalition. Vernon's latest release is a solo album entitled Mistaken Identity (1996).
UV: There's a Jimi Hendrix book called Crosstown Traffic by Charles Shaar Murray that's partly dedicated to you. Have you read it?
VR: Yeah, yeah...
UV: What did you think of it?
VR: I like it because it places Hendrix in a context of other music. It's the first book to deal with Hendrix as an R&B guitarist that says the reasons that his playing was the way that it was is not that he was a blues guitar player, it's that he was a rhythm and blues guitar player that could play blues. And that's the thing. His sense of rhythm is like if you listen to Curtis Mayfield playing guitar - that's the school that Hendrix came from. Curtis Mayfield is an amazing guitar player. So that book is really useful in that it identifies something that is generally overlooked. It's sort of like, here's an R&B band and it sucked and he got away. Generally it's never acknowledged that all of that stuff was part of what made him who he was.
UV: Can you remember the first time you heard Jimi Hendrix?
VR: Oh yeah... I remember the first time I saw Jimi Hendrix was on the Dick Cavett Show and I just thought, "Who is this black man all in blue?" 'Cause black folks were so rare to see on TV - period - so to see a freaky black man was like, "Oh my God!" Umm, the first time that I heard Hendrix... What was the song that I heard? It might have been "Foxy Lady", it might have been one of the singles and I thought, "Wow, I like that." And I was so young I couldn't explain it, I just totally reacted. "Oh that's cool - what is that? I like that."
UV: Have you got a favourite Hendrix album or track?
VR: Pretty much all the albums were really great to me. I wanna say Electric Ladyland but it's hard because Band Of Gypsys is like a perfect concert and in that version of "Machine Gun" Hendrix was able to encapsulate where the country was, the feeling of the time, in his guitar playing which is...
No one has done anything like "The Star Spangled Banner" - to me it's the greatest rock guitar solo of all time because his interpretation of 'The Star Spangled Banner' was completely in line with what was happening to America. He brought it to life and I'd say the same thing about "Machine Gun". You feel the Vietnam war in it - you feel what it is to walk through a rice paddy and have friends shot down around you. He went completely there with total abandon like the way he lived his life.
UV: What do you think he'd have done had he lived?
VR: Well, it's hard to say... Speculating about what Hendrix would have done, it's like you got a couple of different options. We both know that Carlos [Santana] lived and Clapton lived. Carlos went on a deep spiritual quest and he did some of his greatest work in the '70s - Caravanserai , a terrific record. But life goes on and you do other records and some records are not so great... Clapton nearly killed himself several times and we live to see him do a commercial in America!
If Hendrix had lived I would like to think that he would have broke out of the funk and had been freed. 'Cause the thing at the end of his life - he felt completely trapped, a terrible thing. He was really pissed off and he was around negative people. His manager was negative, it was a real drag. So I would like to think that he would have gotten rid of all the jerks and bloodsuckers and hangers-on and did something magnificent - whatever it would have been. Hendrix and Miles Davis? I could hear that. But we'll never know. He's like James Dean - he'll always be beautiful and young and sexy... Forever in our hearts.
UV: Hendrix wasn't especially interested in politics or racial issues - do you think he ought to have done more along those lines?
VR: I think Hendrix was very, very concerned. In the stuff he was doing with Roland Kirk and the Ghetto Fighters - I think he was trying to figure it out. There was part of him that was really bothered by the fact that for the most part black folks weren't with him. I mean, there were always black folks that were down on him - a very small minority - and it bothered him. I think he had a lot of conflicts and I think partly the Band of Gypsys was about that - it was a complete statement at the time. I think Hendrix did what he should have done - he was an amazing artist and he lived his life and he represented freedom more than anything else and so for him to have taken on a doctrinaire point of view would have been a drag. You do what you can. Do what you feel - that's the key. Do what you feel not what people expect - that's the real challenge of living this life whatever you're doing. Of course, there are other aspects that come into play but if you're an artist the best thing you can do is do your art 'cause that's what you're called to do. You don't have to be a selfish prig about it but you really do have to be honest. Even if you're dishonest you have to be honest about your dishonesty - it's like David Bowie's best work is completely artificial but it's completely great. Like an actor tells a lie to tell the truth.
This interview was originally published in 'UniVibes' issue 24, December 1996.
Copyright UniVibes 1996 - reprinted by permission of UniVibes, International Jimi Hendrix Magazine, Coppeen, Enniskeane, County Cork, Republic Of Ireland
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