Living Colour’s ‘Stain': Underrated and Ahead Of Its Time
"A lot of things don't get 'got' in their time."
Vernon Reid is discussing "Nothingness," the Living Colour ballad, penned by drummer Will Calhoun. The song is about mortality, and as Reid explains, "We all come to nothing in the end, it's about the trail we leave behind."
When Reid says that something or someone didn't "get 'got,'" he means that some people, or things, aren't appreciated during their heyday. It may take years, or decades, for the general public to catch up with certain art, or artists. And perhaps that's an apt description for Stain, Living Colour's 1993 album that contained "Nothingness," and which was the band's last album for a decade.
Stain was the band's first album not to crack the top 20, and there was a sense that the band was moving further from pop culture's zeitgeist. But twenty-five years later, the album seems more relevant than it ever was in its day. Lyrically, it seems to draw from today's headlines (although at least one song on the album wouldn't be nearly as controversial now as it was in 1993).
In a wide-ranging conversation, Reid discussed a number of themes that resonate as much (or more) today as when Stain hit record store shelves on March 2, 1993.
"For certain people, their dream coming true destroys them." This is a central theme to the song "Never Satisfied." Reid says that some surprising influences informed the lyrics. "There's a Peggy Lee song, 'Is That All There Is?' That song is a tremendous piece of work. We were in a solid part of our career, we were touring, we had a merch deal, we had things going on. But they say money can't buy happiness. What happens if the dream that you dreamed comes true, and your dream coming true won't rescue you? It needs to be said that for certain people, their dream coming true is the thing that destroyed them."
"I firmly believe that Thriller destroyed Michael Jackson. I think it warped everything around him. It warped him. It warped his expectations. Thriller is the peak of the music industry that I grew up with. It literally is the pinnacle of what is possible. He later insisted on being referred to as 'The King of Pop.' If you wanted to do an interview with him, you had to agree to refer to him as 'The King of Pop.' But many people have found that the pot of gold won't help you. The unhappy person who becomes a quote-unquote success in the eyes of the world, will be more miserable. No matter what's going on with them, depression or anxiety, that's not assuaged by success. They have many more things to worry about and to be depressed about, and that's impossible to explain to a lot of people. Negotiating that, and navigating that, is a difficult thing."
Refugees deserve compassion: "Auslander" is sung from the perspective of a refugee, something that resonates today, as countries struggle with how to help refugees from Syria, among other places: in the song, Corey Glover sings, "I don't want your life, I've got my own needs/A life of my own, a chance to be free/Everything that I want, isn't it everything that you've got?"
"When we were in Germany, Will Calhoun kept hearing this term 'Auslander,'" Reid recalls. "And he asked someone what that meant. 'Oh, they're not from here.' They were considered 'outsiders.' The song explored what it means to move into a country that isn't your own. People assume, [immigrants or refugees] came here to get the goodies. But they're like, 'I'm heartbroken every day [from losing my home], I'm just trying to live.'"
Bringing the subject to the present day, Reid says, "People talk about Syria. I went to Syria before I was in Living Colour on a jazz tour. I went to Aleppo. It was beautiful. I've been to Damascus. It's fantastic. The whole thing of demonizing the Syrian [refugees], it's terrible. Those people don't want to be refugees."
Fact-free gossip has evolved into fact-free news: In "Mind Your Own Business," Glover sings, "Don't you hate it when those little facts interrupt? So much more fun just to make it all up!" Back then -- and it was the pre-TMZ era -- gossip rags created their own narrative. That crass and dangerous tactic, of course, has since been taken on by "fake news" sources. "Gossip has always been a kind of a social lubricant," Reid says. "[The writer] Dorothy Parker said, 'If you can’t say something good about someone, sit here by me.'"
But today, the stakes for creating news are a bit higher: "Gossip has been weaponized. We've gotten to a place with technology where all kinds of things can be faked. Things are crazy now, but it's nothing compared to what it'll be in 10 or 20 years. The ability to imitate people's voices, the ability to fundamentally alter what is seen, the relationship to information is going to become very slippery."
"We have to figure out what is happening with super-damaged people": "Postman" is sung from the point of view of someone with the lethal combination of anger and a loose grip on reality, and is taking revenge on the world. "'Postman' takes on the role of the shooter, and it's something that bothers me," Reid says. "But I feel like we have to figure out what is happening with these super damaged people. Super damaged dudes. It's dudes [who are mass shooters]. The postman, it's clearly someone that's mentally damaged and not well."
"The song is about a monster, a human being who does a monstrous thing. Playing that song live, there's a part of the song that always gets a visceral reaction, it's the last verse, 'Chaos and carnage around me/I hear their shouts and cries/Well I laugh when they try to surround me/They won't take me alive.' This guy's the villain, but there's a part of that line, 'They won't take me alive,' that a lot of us, as men, relate to. That's a disturbing thing, but it's also a real thing."
The conversation veers towards recent developments, and newer ideas of how to deal with horrific situations, including school shootings. "Today, they're talking seriously about arming teachers. It's the worst idea. Are you serious? I think it's a horrible idea. There are four solid reasons why it's horrible. Number one: who watches the watcher? Who vets the mental stability of the teacher who is armed? It's a stressful job anyway. You've got kids who are just gonna test you. Two: if you know there's a gun in the desk, what kind of atmosphere does that create in the class? If you're called on to answer a question, doesn't it take on a different edge, if the teacher has a gun? Three: let's forget about shootouts between intruders. Think about what goes on in any break room. There are teachers who despise each other sitting in the same room, every day. The social studies teacher hates the science teacher. Now, the social studies teacher has a gun! Four: we know, by department of education statistics, that there are disparities in discipline. All kids are gonna act out. But white kids and black kids get different types of discipline. White kids get a 'time out,' black kids get a detention. They know this. In the atmosphere where there are disparities in discipline, you don't want to give teachers a gun."
"The walls between us all must fall": In this incredibly divided era in American history, the lyrics to "Wall" cut deep: "We hate each other 'cause of race and religion/We hate each other 'cause of class and position/We want to know why is love so hard to come by." That situation seems to have gotten exponentially worse in the last decade.
"The thing is, things are a little more out in the open now, because of social media. Back then, a lot of attitudes could be kept and not expressed. A lot of these things weren't even being looked at back then."
Reid relates this point back to the issues in "Auslander": "We've got to keep 'them' on the outside. Peter Gabriel had a song, 'You're Not One Of Us.' The lyrics go, 'You might look like we do, talk like we do, but you know how it is. You're not one of us.'"
"That lyric: 'You know how it is.' It's accepted wisdom. But we don't have to accept that this is how it is."
"There was an even older song, a song from [the 1949 musical] South Pacific,'You've Got To Be Carefully Taught.' It's a brilliant song about prejudice and the need to raise children to have those same values."
He notes that accepting change is hard for everyone, whatever your politics. "Everyone can be conservative. I can be conservative. Like, I wish that there were still guitar stores on 48th street [in New York City]. I wish that that didn't change. but it did change. I was conservative about that. I wish that CBGB was still around. I wish that Tower Records was still around. But things change!"
One song that probably wouldn't have the same impact, had it been released today, is "Bi," a song that looks at bisexuality, and was pretty controversial in 1993. But in 2018, we're a decade past a hit single celebrating female bisexuality -- Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl" was a No. 1 hit in 2008 -- it wouldn't be as big of a deal. "One of the songs I'm most proud of from Stain is 'Bi.' And I'm really proud of the band for taking the song on. To even go there. It was very risky. 'Bi' is as much James Baldwin as it David Bowie. But it's also a tribute to the first woman I had sexual relations with. She was bisexual. She was beautiful! She walked up to me! She asked me if I had a problem with bisexuality. I may have thought, 'Mine or yours?' It was like going into the deep water. I learned a lot about life from her."
"But ambiguity and uncertainly are two of the things that we battle in human nature. Like Frank Ocean. How long did it take for an African American male to say that [Ocean posted a letter on Tumblr in 2012, discussing his bisexuality]. It's so refreshing and so daring. He's part of the Odd Future camp [a collective of hip-hop and R&B artists]; he's connected to [rapper] Tyler the Creator and these out-of-control guys, and he is part of their crew, and they didn't disavow him for who he is. Azealia Banks, that '212' track, wow! Now, that sort of thing is more and more accepted. Back then, to even acknowledge the existence of this thing was daring."
"Stain is, in a way, the most stark Living Colour record. It has a harder edge. [We didn't use] the kind of cartoony, bubbly, logo. The record is a reflection of a dark, and darkening time. Our records are reflections of an American narrative from our perspective, of a band of African-American dudes." And the record's strength lies in how well it holds up, and how much it speaks to our time, twenty-five years later, regardless of whether or not you're African-American, in a band, or a dude. If you missed it the first time around, do yourself a favor and check it out now.