I first saw Lenny Kravitz in 1990 on TV performing ‘Mr Cab Driver’, this incredibly cool-looking guy in a fluffy pink coat singing an equally cool track about casual racism sold me instantly. I ordered the 10″single Mr Cab Driver and the album Let Love Rule as soon as I could afford it and, with a couple of reservations was blown away. It was great, I was really into Lenny, he was really into me and everything was groovy I thought it would just keep getting better and this was for keeps. Little did I know that the writing was on the wall for us before it really started. Love’s like that sometimes.
At first Kravitz was like an explosion in the K-Tel warehouse, all these great disparate bits of the 1960’s thrown up into the air and reassembled in a pretty haphazard way. I mean that in an entirely complimentary fashion by the way, Beatles, Sly, Hendrix, War there were bits and bobs from them all in there, but with enough personality to make it work as a cohesive whole, rather than a pastiche. Although I may have been the only one to think so as I remember all the press coverage being universally negative at the time, what the hell did I care? I was 18 and wanted music to dance and drink to, rather than to curate.
Authenticity? Hmm, there are times we rock fans seem to get SOO obsessed with it, forgetting in our po-faced way that basically all this great stuff we love is part of an entertainment business and that record companies will happily sell you today, tomorrow as a golden yesterday we all loved so much. There are times and things that I do get all het up about in that regard, but I try to stop myself becoming too much of a boring pseud and when the results can touch these heights sometimes it’s fine; I’ve learnt, as I’ve got older, that not everything has to burn with a golden purity of purpose, neither should it.
But anyway, music and stuff. ‘Mr Cab Driver’ is a great track, a brilliant urban shuffle which the Beatles somehow managed to plagiarise 24 years earlier in their pitiful copy, ‘Taxman’. Playing spot-the-original isn’t really the point with Lenny Kravitz, you either listen to it and suspend your disbelief for a bit, or just step away from the stereo, fatty! I really like this tune and, of course it gets 1537 bonus points for the line, ‘Mr cab driver, Fuck you, I’m a survivor!’. The B-sides on this sweet 10″ record are a live version of 1537-fave ‘Rosemary’, where Lenny tells the audience ‘I’m honoured to be accepted’ very earnestly* and a much extended radio session version of ‘Let Love Rule’, which is enjoyable, the band cutting loose in a far-rawer sounding version of the track which builds to a decidedly raucous end.
Let Love Rule is a mixed bag for me, brilliant in places, far too sickly in others – depends which bits of his record collection he’s been pilfering from to be honest. There was always a bit of a whiff of contrived hippiedom about tracks like ‘I Built This Garden For Us’ and ‘Sittin’ On Top Of The World’, dropping out and turning on but with a corporate safety net in place, adopting the trappings and sentiments, but not the substance. Let’s face it folks, before passing time rendered them quaint and innocuous and before fashion attracted too many incinserios to the camp, hippiedom was as radical as it got – middle-class kids, genuinely rejecting consumerism and the material world, this was a threat! What we have here is perfectly well-crafted and no doubt well-intentioned ersatz rebellion, that’s fine, far be it from me to criticise Lenny Kravitz for being 20 years too young.
Where Let Love Rule picks up some serious traction is in terms of just how well executed, played, written and produced it is, let’s not forget that Kravitz was to all intents and purposes a one man band and his own producer this LP is a helluva feat. In fact the production is excellent, warm and fulfilling, carrying just enough sharp edges to be real. Take ‘Let Love Rule’, a pretty simplistic sentiment and track** but just superbly played and recorded, it really becomes far more than the sum of all its parts. My personal favourite is ‘Freedom Train’ which is basically every nasty Hendrix jam you’d like to think he’d have gone on to make if the man was still alive, funky and mean with a guitar tone that many would kill for. The man can definitely sing too.
Best/worst of all is ‘Rosemary’ the tale of a homeless 5-year-old, which has a very explicitly religious conclusion. Now normally this would have me retching wretchedly into my hat, but … something about this song has always grabbed me and still exerts a hold over me even now, despite my heart having been transformed (I thought) long ago into a cold-black flinty substance by over-exposure to hardcore punk, Killdozer and Big Black. It’s the equivalent of one of those big, soggy C&W ballads that has truckers sobbing in lay-bys from Tucson to Anchorage, that I always mock, but … I don’t know, somehow ‘Rosemary’ just seems to have the combination to the mental safe where I keep the true, mushy essence of myself. It’s a puzzler and if it caught me just right I know I’d just grizzle and sob. Hell, just give me those opening chords and the first line and I’m half-way there. Incidentally the live version on the Mr Cab Driver 10″ is even better and more emotional^, as if I needed that.
Anyway, unsightly displays of emotion aside, I do really like Let Love Rule. But it was the end of the line for Lenny and I, he may have penned the brilliant ‘Always On the Run’ but I sold Mama Said about 3 months after I bought it and I really haven’t been a fan of much else I’ve heard from him; a bad case of diminishing returns. Sorry pal but there wasn’t really a vacancy for a less-inspired Prince in my life. Lenny may have sung, ‘It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over’ but it was, sorry but it’s you, not me.
*Mr K doesn’t really do irony, ironically.
**yet another criticism, he’s not a great lyric writer and neither is Mrs Kravitz, Lisa Bonet, who penned two lyrics here. It’s all a bit obvious and heavy-handed for me. Maybe it’s my Britishness but I find in-your-face sincerity a bit of a difficult one to deal with, to paraphrase Mussolini it’s when I reach for my (entirely ironic) revolver.
^purely from memory I’m pretty sure Kravitz released a promo-only album recorded live in Amsterdam around the time Let Love Rule was released, I’d bet it was pretty damn good too.