Lenny Kravitz Goes Nude For america Magazine
This nude cover of Mr. Kravitz won me an award from The Village Voice in 2007
Three years earlier I wrote about him for Trace, after spending a few days with him in NYC’s Greenwich Village. He was promoting his great album, 5, and hitting up some tattoo parlors. I was trying to capture the true personality of a very private man. I always liked my opening line…
“5th TIME LUCKY”
Lenny Kravitz is a rock star. You can tell by the outfit: tight, straight-legged red leather pants, wide square-toed black boots, a short vest. The vest is cut small enough to reveal a muscular, well-tanned upper body; the pants ride deep below the waistline to show off a well-cut set of stomach muscles; his left arm and shoulder is decorated with a large swirling tattoo that he got while rebelling as a teenager, and there’s a hoop earring in his nose. Then it’s his heavy dreadlocks that extend past the middle of his back and seem quite massive even when tied in a loose knot on top of his head; and he wears huge wrap-around sunglasses with white plastic frames and dark – celebrity-dark – black lenses. It’s not an atypical outfit for Manhattan’s trendy SoHo district, nor is this a homoerotic description. It’s that Lenny takes his physicalness very seriously, and his outfits, his attention-getting kind of outfits, are the all-or-nothing images that say I’m a star – whether in my own head or in the minds of millions – and Lenny wears them with a vintage confidence.
“Where do you want to go?” he asks walking ahead of me, his wide shoulders overpowering his tiny, almost bird-like hips. It’s five P.M. on a Tuesday in early April and Lenny has just finished a photo shoot to promote his new album. “Let’s go sit somewhere and enjoy the sun.”
“I feel very fortunate that I’m still around,” the star begins after we’ve settled into a small sidewalk cafe a few blocks away. “I really appreciate it. I mean I remember all the groups that came out when I came out in ‘89 and I don’t know who’s still there. Not really any.” Lenny Kravitz’s journey started nine years ago with the retro basement sounds of Let Love Rule. It was a bold, Princely introduction to the world: Lenny composed all the songs, played all the instruments, and refused to be categorized. Over the next decade this black boy with the Jewish name and roaring guitar would release three more albums that would traverse the realms of funk, soul, rock and R&B. Now for ‘98, he has arrived at 5, probably the best and most consistently satisfying album he has ever made.
“It’s been hard. People are very fickle. You know, things change, fashions change and I’ve never really fit into any of that. But I’ve been able to get away with not following a mold, so now people don’t expect me to be any one thing.” It hasn’t been easy. The industry has never been too kind to Lenny Kravitz. While commercially successful with hits like ‘Let Love Rule’, ‘It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over’ and 93’s ‘Are You Gonna Go My Way’, Lenny Kravitz was often panned by critics. His ability to interpolate the strongest of past musical forms wasn’t seen as genius, it was seen as thievery. Lenny was a wanna-be, a pretender, with a sound that was too derivative of the 60s and 70s masters to be considered special in any way. He was also described as an artist who got too caught up in his own affairs to write accessible music (he dedicated his entire second album Mama Said to his then estranged wife Lisa Bonet), and thus his lyrics became overly personal, melodramatic even. The labels have stuck with him through the years, but 5 may change all that. It’s a remarkable album of impeccable grooves and luscious melodies, a rhythm and blues piece of rock and roll joy that brings together Lenny’s wide influences into a musical whole that is not an instant throwback. 5 is an album that can stand without reference.
“I’ve definitely had the chance to develop,” he says, “and it’s not like thirty years ago when an artist could knock off three albums a year and just keep going and going. There’s no artist development anymore. We’re an instant society now, if this don’t turn you on right this second, we want it outta here! Like now there’s this guy who has to edit your music. He wants you to get right to the hook, so there’s no time for the song to build or develop nicely.”
And what about the criticism you have received for too overtly looting the sounds of the past? Has that been a way of appeasing our need for instant recognition or easy gratification?
“I just get picked on, man. My influences are there just like any other artist. I never took anybody’s songs, I write my own songs,” he says raising his voice. “Listen to the Stones, you hear their fucking influences. No one says anything about that. People sample other people’s exact material and no one says shit! So, whatever. When you’re dreaming of being in this business you think it’s all about the music, and then you get in it, and it’s just not.”
Lenny hasn’t taken his shades off yet. The sun is still bright, but underneath the awning of the cafe, there’s really no glare. He takes a sip of his virgin daiquiri before continuing. “When I go to the studio, that’s my time, that’s my art. I have to please myself. I can’t do it any other way. See, no record people come around when I make my record. I just turn it in when I’m finished. I know they’re scared half the time because they don’t know what the fuck I’m going to hand in, but that’s how I have to do it. Then comes the music business part,” he says with a frown.
Lenny likes to describe himself as a “real schizo, a classic Gemini,” and he just may be that. But nonetheless, he is a true music-man. Spend time with him and you’ll see how attentive he is to his band and to his rehearsal schedule (he actually showed up on time for an hour-and-a-half afternoon session in the pouring rain). He also seems to have a problem with forgetting songs he’s dreamed up in the middle of the night. “I’ve lost a lot of material when I wake up and I’m too tired to find a tape recorder. I tell myself I’ll remember it in the morning, but then it’s gone!” I ask him how much he loves to play. “That’s all I love. I realized that when I was five, and I would take all the pots and pans out of the kitchen, put them on the floor, and beat the shit out of them. That was my favorite thing to do; or bang on the piano we had.” That’s not the most unique child-musician story. “But then I heard my first Jackson 5 record!” he laughs.
“Music became the best way I found I could express myself,” Lenny continues, after admiring the springtime outfit of a female passerby. “It has always been very personal to me. And each of my albums is like an account of that time period.” What do they say to you now? “Well, usually before I make an album, that’s when I listen to my old albums. I listen and see what I did and say okay, this is where I’ve been and then I can go forward. And each time I listen to a record, I can remember, I can smell, I can see everything I was going through at that time. It’s a trip. That’s where my memories are. They’re not so much in photographs, and I don’t write a diary, so my past is in those records.”
Lenny’s last album, Circus,was released in 1995. The opening track, “Rock And Roll Is Dead” was aptly titled for the dreary “life is just a lonely highway” kind of record that followed. Lenny’s voice came through distorted on almost every track, his sadness and rage bottled in to a set of meandering, uneven tunes. Check “God Is Love” or the stripped down “Don’t Go And Put A Bullet In Your Head” and you can hear the despair. If his music really reflected his life, something must have been wrong.
“Ohmigod, that was the craziest time because at that point I was totally disillusioned with the music business. I was fed up, I was tired of all the people around me: the managers, the accountants, the record people. It wasn’t just me anymore. Back in the beginning it was me and my music, that’s it. And all of a sudden it grew into this big crazy thing, this circus.” You see that frustration in the album’s imagery: the horns, the masks, the evil smiles. On the last page of the booklet Lenny is bent over, his head to the floor, standing on a bullseye. “And at the same time my mom was dying of cancer. So it was like everything was fucking crazy and it was a really heavy record – really heavy emotionally. On a lot of the songs I was like crying out to God and looking for strength, because that’s where I was – and during that tour, my mom passed.”
Roxie Roker, Lenny Kravitz’s mother and star of the hit television show The Jeffersons, had a huge impact on her only child. Lenny and her bonded at an early age and without the existence of a strong father-son relationship between Lenny and his father, Sy Kravitz, Roxie Roker can easily be seen as the most important person in Lenny’s life. “A week after the funeral I was back on the road, though. I had to keep on working. Everyone in my family thought that was what I should do, that she would want me to carry on. But there were many nights on that tour when I was just fuckin’ miserable. I was up there, but I wasn’t feeling it. And here I was with all this success and all this stuff and wasn’t happy.” Lenny adjusts his legs under the table, his shades now resting quietly on his lap. “I mean after witnessing a death like that, watching someone deteriorate and die, it’s such a deep thing. I mean all of my priorities changed.”
In ‘96, Lenny took a year off to reevaluate his life. He escaped to the Bahamas, where he was born, to come to some new understandings of what was important to himself personally and professionally. When he returned to the States in late ‘97, he was ready to record a new album. He also wanted to try some different things with his music, the biggest being to incorporate some digital technology into the mix – something you’ve never heard on a Lenny Kravitz record before. But not everybody, he realized, was on the same page.
“I had an engineer named Henry Hirsch that did all of my records. Everything I had ever produced was done with him on the board. But when I played “Black Velveteen” and “Can’t Say No” for him, which were the first things I was working on for this album, he was like, ‘what the fuck is this?’ He lasted two weeks and then he quit! He just didn’t understand what I wanted to do.”
You hear the disappointment when Lenny speaks of this abandon-ship episode. It’s obvious he was surprised by Hirsch’s decision and artistically at least, he felt betrayed. When he was younger, such an event would have sorely undermined his music, this time he just moved on. “When I cut “Can’t Say No” I too was like, ‘what am I doing?’ because it just didn’t sound like anything I had ever done before, but I was feeling it. I knew that that was the center of where I wanted this album to be.”
A slow, somewhat moody blues number centered around the threat of deceit, “If You Can’t Say No” is driven by a heavy, 90s bass beat that will seek out that urban audience – something Lenny hasn’t had for several years. But I ask Lenny why the negative vibes around Circus didn’t make for better music in ‘95?
“I don’t know, both sides are good,” he answers, as we are being driven across town to the East Village. “I mean during Mama Said I was really distraught; I was jacked up. I had just broken up with my wife, I was sleeping 2-3 hours a night, I was barely eating. Man, I was fucked up – but it made for a really good record! But lately I was feeling that sometimes you just want to feel up. Like the last few years it’s been really cool for everyone to be miserable and unhappy. Everything has been down: fashion, the look, the models…I just felt like it was time to live again, and that’s why I started 5 with the song “Live”.
Our stop across town is at “NY Adorned”, an ultra-hip tattoo and body piercing shop where Lenny has an appointment. As he strides to the back room, the rock star gets more gasps from the tourist/trendy clientele then the manager does who appears in the doorway with two-inch wide wooden blocks in his ears. Lenny’s there to decide about the twelve year-old tattoo on his left arm he’s been really bored with. A choice has to be made between designing another image on his forearm that would complement the existing one, or to laser it all off and start from scratch. The tattoo artist, who is off to Germany the next day to needle another client, will spend three and a half hours discussing with Lenny the pros and cons of both. A serious star moment. But Lenny handles it with a surprising lack of pretension.
“I get it from my mom. She wasn’t Hollywood at all, she was really down to Earth. Even when The Jeffersons were #1 and she was riding on top, what mattered to her was how the family was working and how we all got along. She was just humble and chose to live a very family life. I know a lot of kids whose parents were celebrities and they were neglected so much because their folks were always running off to the studio or running off to be here and there, but my mother wasn’t like that. She used to get up extra early to make my breakfast, to make my lunch and dinner with notes in the fridge on how to warm everything up. It was refreshing. I remember one Saturday morning she was in the bathroom scrubbing the bathroom floor and I was like, ‘What are you doing?’ and she was like, ‘This is my house isn’t it? And it’s my bathroom floor, right? Well, I’m going to clean it!’ When you’re a kid you don’t get it, but I get it now. So that’s how I’m somewhat grounded,” he says with a smile. “I’m crazy, but I’m somewhat grounded.”
There’s an oft-repeated story about Lenny Kravitz the teenager, about how he ran away from home when he was fourteen and lived in a beat-up car he rented on Santa Monica Boulevard for $5 a day. The image is all very James Dean: rich mixed kid, Beverly Hills High School music student, slumming in a Ford Pinto with nothing but his guitar in the back seat to keep him warm. But he swears it’s true; and when he speaks of his father during those years, the father he ran away from, you’re likely to believe how much they really didn’t get along. “Now he’s a big sweetheart,” Lenny says about his father Sy, who at the time was a major television producer, “but then he was doing his discipline job or whatever and I had to do things on my own terms.”
One of the ideas Lenny discusses with the tattooist that evening was how to draw an image of his mother on his arm. There was a portrait of her in his home Lenny knew he wanted replicated, but he couldn’t remember the Japanese flower he wanted her image surrounded in. He decides to wait. I ask Lenny if his relationship with his mother has been mirrored in his relationship with his daughter Zoe.
“Oh yeah, it’s already there. That’s my buddy,” he says. Zoe, Lenny’s only child and his daughter with Lisa Bonet, lives in Los Angeles. “We have something that’s a friend thing despite us being father and daughter. She’s very protective of me, too. It’s funny to be nine years old and protective of an adult, but when we’re in public and people come up and talk to me, she’s like head-to-toeing them! One day we went out and we said it was only going to be me and her, and this girl came up to our table where we were eating and Zoe said to her: ‘This is a father and daughter day! Who are you?’ She doesn’t care, she doesn’t want anybody to take my time away from her.”
There was a time when the press referred to Lenny as ‘Mr. Bonet’. That was when Lisa was the young high-profile star of The Cosby Show and before Lenny dropped his talent on Let Love Rule. But the meteoric rise and fall of the Bonets was front-page news. “Lisa and I, we learned,” Lenny says, exhaling. “We’re real tight now, but it took a lot of time. We had to realize that we loved each other and we had a child to raise. But it’s funny how when once you were married, you can end up almost hating the other person.”
See, Lenny Kravitz will always wear his heart on his sleeve, and he will always be a rock star. And if 5 is the product of a well-adjusted soul, then, well, we all need to go there. “But you know,” he tells me on his way off, “it’s like that classic saying: there’s a thin line between love and hate. And I’m telling you, it’s thinner than a motherfucker…”