Et tu, Lenny
Paul McCartney and Duran Duran did it for James Bond. The Bee Gees followed Tony Manero's lead. And even Survivor got into the ring. The marriage between established rock stars and movie characters has produced songs of widely varying quality and impact. But this summer a natural pair will get together for their own take on soundtrack fever: supersoulfighter Lenny Kravitz and triple-secret agent Austin Powers.
Well, at least they have the same taste in fashion ... and shaggable birds. (Oh, behave!)
"If things work out, I'll be doing the theme for Austin Powers 2," says Kravitz. "That will be the next single released in the U.S. And I know that should be a lot of fun."
And what else is rock and roll celebrity but fun? Speaking of which, during the next few months, Kravitz and his regular band will be headlining Live '99, a nationwide amphitheater tour that features Southern rockers The Black Crowes (see "Crowes Feat," page 83), hip-hop artist and ex-House of Pain front man Everlast and Cree Summer, the former TV actress who has recently released an amazing debut record of sultry, sharp funk and roll.
"I've always liked summer festivals, and I loved the feeling I got when I did the H.O.R.D.E. tour a few years back," says Kravitz, "so I thought it would be fun to take some musicians on the road and hang out, put a little thing together. And once we get it rolling, I'm sure there'll be some jamming together. I can't wait."
Kravitz has reason to sound more upbeat than usual these days, almost a year after the release of his last record, 5. The disc has gone platinum, the subsequent tour was mostly sold out (including a stop at Houston's Aerial Theater last September), the single "Fly Away" was a huge hit on rock and alternative radio, and, amazingly, the song's Grammy for Best Rock Performance made Kravitz the first black ever to win the award in that category.
"When I found that out, it blew my mind; especially since [blacks] basically invented the form," says Kravitz. "That's heavy. But it was a great feeling, and I was happy and really blessed to get it." All the more astonishing to Kravitz is that "Fly Away" wasn't even an officially released single at first. A radio station in Boston plucked it off the record and began to play the hell out of it. Others around the country did the same thing, and sales of 5, which started slowly, began to grow.
"There's no rule of method to having [a hit], but it's cool that it happened that way," Kravitz says. "That song was a real people's record; it wasn't forced down anybody's throat." Kravitz also believes that people have responded to the words as well as to the beat. "At times, we all want to escape reality, but that doesn't mean you should buy drugs or buy death. Buy what's in your head. Buy sanity. Buy what's in your soul. There's lots of positive ways to escape when you need that break, and that's what I hope people relate to in that song."
5 is a summation of sorts of all of Kravitz's music, a benchmark record for the guitar rocker's first decade in the business. It contains life-affirming hard rock ("Live," "Fly Away"), funk ("Supersoulfighter," "Straight Cold Player"), ballads for family ("Thinking of You," "Little Girl's Eyes," written for his mother and daughter respectively), something harder for the ladies ("I Belong to You") and even a few futuristic-sounding numbers ("Can't Say No" and "Black Velveteen," an ode to a sexual female cyborg, which will be his next European release).
"Sometimes success takes time," says Kravitz. "And that's cool, because I'm in it for the long haul, not the instant bang. I've been blessed and fortunate to be making music that's true to me for ten years."
5 is an upbeat departure from Kravitz's last record, '95's Circus. Dark-themed and laden with heavy religious imagery (its first single was "Rock and Roll Is Dead"), Circus was recorded while Kravitz was going through myriad personal and professional problems, including the terminal illness of his mother, actress Roxie Roker, Helen from the long-running sitcom The Jeffersons. She died right after its release.
"I listen to that record more than I used to, but making the new one I felt very open and excited to record again," says Kravitz. "I didn't have anything specific in mind; I just wanted to have a good time in the studio. And I was thinking a lot about the live situation, how the songs would translate on stage. I wanted people to dance, and I want to dance, so there's a lot of groove-oriented stuff, which adds more dimension. But no matter what we play, we funk out."
When he first played "Thinking of You" for friends, Kravitz says he surprised everyone by applying his usual positive outlook to such a somber song. The lyrics were joyous. It's exactly the kind of tune his mother would have wanted written for her, though, he says. "They expected it to be really sad and down, but I wasn't thinking of that at all," says Kravitz. "It's very much a celebration of her life. I had a very strong, loving and warm relationship with her, and that [track] is my way of honoring her spirit."
As an artist, Kravitz has certainly matured since his debut in '89 and his psychedelia-awash Let Love Rule and its follow-up, '91's funkier Mama Said, an open letter about his crumbling marriage to Cosby-kind Lisa Bonet, which resembles another divorce disc, Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear. The resemblance is more than coincidental given the fact that Gaye -- along with other '60s and '70s artists such as the Beatles, the Stones (both Rolling and Sly) and George Clinton -- is one of Kravitz's main influences. Gaye and others are also the performers that Kravitz has been accused (not always falsely) of appropriating a little too closely on his records. His commercial breakthrough, '93's Are You Gonna Go My Way?, should have at least muffled some critics and helped fight the stigma, but it didn't.
"'70s ripoff" is a barb that Kravitz shares with a group that debuted the same year as Let Love Rule, tourmates The Black Crowes. Still, the pairing is something both bands have thought about for years, and when Kravitz had the opportunity to handpick his support acts, he thought of the Crowes first.
"The Crowes rock," he says. "They play, and they play for real. No bullshit, and they're really powerful. With Everlast, I just liked what I've heard from him and thought he would be a really interesting add. And with Cree, I just produced her debut record, and she's got a lot of really great material."
Summer's decadelong intermingling with the former Mr. and Mrs. Kravitz has been soap operatic. After playing Bonet's best friend on the Cosby spinoff, A Different World, Summer befriended Bonet off camera. During the course of the '90s, Summer found a few acting jobs, a lot of voice-over work and limited success in the music business. That was until Bonet passed along a tape of Summer's to Kravitz (who shares custody of his and Bonet's daughter, Zoe). A short time later, Kravitz was behind the boards and Summer in front of the mike to record Street Faerie.
Kravitz, who has honed his producing skills on Madonna's Justify My Love as well as on records for French star (and former girlfriend) Vanessa Paradis and world-beat performer John Product (on his upcoming new Roxie Records label), injects his style into all the tunes.
For Live '99, Kravitz will be backed by longtime road band Craig Ross on guitar, Jack Daley on bass and the hugely afroed Cindy Blackman on drums (even though Kravitz usually plays all the instruments on a record). Austin Powers will be providing security.
Live '99 with Lenny Kravitz, The Black Crowes, Everlast and Cree Summer takes place Sunday, May 2, at 6:30 p.m., at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. Tickets are $26 and $46. Call (713)629-3700 or (281)363-3300.
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