Fragile Families by Vernon Reid
That time span contains Promethean struggle, astonishing good luck, brotherly communion, hard won triumph, communication breakdown, line-up changes, personal conflict, headache, heartache, tears, rage, hysterical laughter, the birth of wonderful children, the death of wonderful parents, strange vibrations, new technologies, never-speaking-to-each-other-again moments, wrong moves, right decisions, painful realizations, anguish and forgiveness.
Any band that lasts more than a decade is a thing of wonder. Rock bands are, by and large, fragile families of choice, as well as daring soldiers of fortune, choosing to be a band of brothers (and sisters where applicable) without the familial bonds of DNA to enforce a sense of relatedness. It’s hard work and it’s a continual process of renewal without which it can be impossible to continue when a fundamental rupture occurs.
A fundamental rupture is that shock to the system which forces sudden drastic, unwanted change. The death, catastrophic illness or sudden departure of a bandmate is perhaps the hardest event for a group to recover from. If the band doesn’t crumble under the crushing weight of its grief, it usually continues in diminished form—everyone aware of the gaping hole onstage, its mojo gone. INXS, Queen, Van Halen and Little Feat are prime examples of bands struggling and coping with disruptive departures.
On the other hand, such existential hardship can serve to reenergize a band after the last teardrop dries. The Stones managed to rally after the death of its founder Brian Jones. Pink Floyd was inspired to create some of its most groundbreaking work when its leader Syd Barrett was hospitalized with debilitating mental illness. In one of the most heroic turns, the band Def Leppard remained loyal to their drummer Rick Allen after he lost his arm in a horrific car crash. Faith No More didn’t miss a beat when switching frontmen from Chuck Mosley to Mike Patton—having success with both of them. In Living Colour’s case, the departure of Muzz Skillings was a weird unraveling of trust and friendship. The arrival, however, of the amazing bassist Doug Wimbish catapulted us back to work on our third full-length album, Stain.
Another serious challenge to the survival of a rock band is the fickle cultural ecology surrounding it. In a way, the harsh and unforgiving nature of the zeitgeist is the great equalizer. The rich and the popular are not to be spared. Those once in vogue can find themselves on the outside looking in, in short order. The once hot career can find itself cool to the touch. The hiring of top engineers, the best musicians, the most professional arrangers and successful producers and the hefty weight of a multinational corporation guarantee nothing.
As hard as we worked on the album, and as good as we believed it was, the sales for Stain were a disappointment. The commercial failure of an album is often the death knell of the rock and roll band—a fraught and emotional time of Hunter S. Thompson-esque fear and loathing. The hardest fact of the rock and roll life is that the love that you get from audiences is conditional by necessity. We amuse, we entertain, we provoke, we rock—but in time, people’s tastes change, their minds change and people vote with their feet out of the back exit. It’s not personal, and yet it feels that way at the time of the turning away.
Yet some folks really take a band and its music into the deepest part of themselves. The songs become their personal soundtrack. Their love for these musicians is boundless—driving for hours to get to a small show in an obscure town, passionately defending the band against detractors and trolls of all stripes. Fans like these are what keep a band going through the worst times. The people who never stopped believing in us often reminded me of how Living Colour’s music gave the band a sense of possibility and a step past hope. The very existence of our new album The Chair In The Doorway is an embodiment of that possibility.
The Chairway In The Doorway, Living Colour’s fifth
album, will be released on September 15th on Megaforce Records.
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