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Among the Living

At the height of MTV's cultural influence, musicians still kidded one another into believing videos were propagandistic statements, short-format art films, while hiding from the reality of what they were really creating: television commercials. And it is harder to find a more revelatory clip than Living Colour's strafing "Cult of Personality," 1988's flashy, fist-pumping metal anthem, which thrust the black quartet into the spotlight. But black audiences never accepted the band, despite the fact that Living Colour was at the vanguard of a whole movement of guitar and optimism called the Black Rock Coalition. After a lineup change (Doug Wimbish replaced bass player Muzz Skillings in time for 1993's Stain) and an extended hiatus, internal struggles sent the outfit into a death spiral. Now, tentatively testing the waters with a series of small shows, Living Colour has been reborn.

"We still have something to offer," announces ebullient bassist Wimbish with typical enthusiasm. "We're being extremely honest with ourselves, and we're starting to push a whole new envelope right now. The possibilities of where this can go really is phenomenal" -- if it holds together, that is: The band's initial falling out was reportedly due to the tempestuous relationship Wimbish, singer Corey Glover, and drummer Will Calhoun had with guitarist and mastermind Vernon Reid. Evasive as always, Reid is the only member of Living Colour who is unwilling to be interviewed about the band's current comeback. Wimbish, however, is so eager to talk that he even poses the questions himself.

"Here's what everybody wants to know," he begins. "Why did the band break up? Was it Vernon? People know what the deal is. Vernon got tired of dealing with the band. He was having problems with Corey even before I got in there. They never addressed the real problems; they kind of shuffled things under the rug, and then, after a while, everything catches up to you. It was a little dodgy how Vernon ended the band, quite honestly. It was done very abruptly, and he dicked around with us for a year before he made up his mind that he didn't want to do it anymore."

Did bad feelings contribute to an uncivil atmosphere surrounding the four members? "There were some, yeah," Wimbish confirms, "based on wasting people's time, not being honest. But we had a series of Camp David meetings, and we realized we're not going to be able to solve everything at one time. We have to get together, play, and assess the vibe."

Although Living Colour's arc never again reached the zenith of "Cult of Personality" from its debut album, Vivid, the 1990 follow-up, Time's Up, was just as strong and well ahead of its time, appearing a full five years before funk-flecked hard rock became the norm. Stain (1993) boldly documented a nascent black-rock revolution, yet MTV and most of the public were all but blind to the movement by then, precipitating the band's collapse. Following Living Colour's final concert in New York City that December, the band recorded a few tracks for a posthumous album, Pride, but they ultimately weren't included on that package.

"We never got a chance to complete them, because Vernon was really wiggin' out then," recalls Wimbish. "Guitar players are a trip, man!" Wimbish contends that dealing with Reid's volatile personality is still among the chief hurdles to clear in this version of Living Colour. He doesn't deny the elusive guitarist is a high-maintenance guy.

"That's absolutely right," he says. "I love Vernon, but he's a bit moody. Well, not so much moody, but... yeah, moody is the word. He's a very sensitive brother. Some things should be an open-and-close situation, but he'll sit and dwell on it a little longer. But we've worked a lot of things out, and actually Vernon had a little therapy just to feel some clarity about what he wants to do. He's really come around. He tried to deal with the things he knows he can do better. He's done a 359-degree turn to how he was seven years ago. At the same time, I know these are the conditions under which I can work with Vernon Reid, and this is what I have to do to make that happen. There's no scoop in this -- we're really mates now!"

During the time the band was apart, its members did anything but slack off. Reid started another group, Masque; recorded with fellow guitar wizard Joe Satriani; played on an album by comedian Chris Rock; and recently became part of Jack Bruce's touring band. Glover released a solo album, performed with Calhoun and Wimbish as Headfake, and is testing the waters as an actor. Calhoun leads his own jazz quintet, and he and Wimbish, under the name Jack Johnson, compose rapper Mos Def's backing band. Wimbish is likely rock's busiest bassist, judging by his impressive workload since the breakup of Living Colour. He sat in on sessions with Depeche Mode; played on the Rolling Stones' Bridges to Babylon tour, as well as Mick Jagger's trio of solo albums and a Ron Wood solo outing; oversaw a drum 'n' bass project (Jungle Funk) with Calhoun; produced an album for Herb Alpert; released a magnificent solo album, Trippy Notes for Bass, in 1999; and got back together briefly with Tackhead, the industrial-funk powerhouse he led during the 1980s. But Wimbish's accomplishments hardly end there: His bass work has also been sought by Jeff Beck, Madonna, James Brown, Al Green, Billy Idol, Annie Lennox, Carly Simon, Seal, and George Clinton.

The Connecticut-born Wimbish, who turns 45 years old next week, was destined for session-work stardom as a teenager, building a solid foundation as four-stringer for the house band at All Platinum Studios in Brooklyn, which led to a similar gig at Sugar Hill Records, playing on some of rap's seminal hits such as Grandmaster Flash's "The Message" and Mel Melle's "White Lines." During the 1970s he founded Wood Brass and Steel -- a prototypical funky-soul outfit -- with future Tackhead guitarist Skip McDonald.

Wimbish's excitement at the prospect of going back on the road with Living Colour is contagious. Earlier this summer the reunited foursome showed up at a few low-profile shows, sporting new twists on old favorites, an arsenal of new material, and a well-received cover of Bruce Springsteen's "American Skin (41 Shots)."

But the band has no aspiration to resurrect the Black Rock Coalition. Wimbish reveals that he and his cohorts are seeking a South Florida studio to work on some brand-new songs, though he hesitates when asked if the sessions will lead to a new Living Colour album.

"I'm not going to say yes, and I'm not going to say no. I'm going to give the Michael Jordan answer," he eventually replies. "We're not signed to a label. We're doing this just to get a taste, to see how we feel, what it sounds like. If it works we'll keep going. We're not going to fart around as one of these comeback bands. We're not here just to make some loot. That's not the reason we did this at all."

Given the band's tumultuous past, however, how long can it last? "I like controversy," Wimbish laughs. "If you've got some love, then you've got some drama. We're absolutely fine, and it's blazing better now than it's ever been. Everyone has more under their belt, and at the same time they've gotten rid of stuff. In order for you to fly, you can't be weighed down. You have to have a certain buoyancy about your vibe, and we've got that. We're mates."

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Jeff Stratton
Contact: Jeff Stratton

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