Lenny Kravitz, Nov. 1998, The Japan Times (as “Merle Pangloss”)

I recently realized that almost all of the music reviews I wrote for the Japan Times in the 90s are not available on the Internet, so I will remedy that by slowly, methodically posting them here on my blog. I have not edited these, so all the prejudices and dumb assessments remain. Enjoy.

Before we get into Lenny Kravitz’s concert at Budokan on Nov. 27, I’d like to reproduce what I believe is the heaviest of the many heavy lyrics on Lenny’s latest CD, 5 (named so because it’s his fifth album). In the final song, which is about our destruction of the environment and its tragic consequences for our children’s futures, Lenny sings, “Excuse me for saying ’cause I’ve never been shy/But if we don’t stop this we sho’nuff goin’ die.”

Lenny, of course, didn’t lay this heavy rap on the fans at the show, because they were all there to party and he didn’t want to bring anyone down. But I think it’s important that everyone realize that Lenny is not just a big rock superstar who rides around in limos and knows how to hire bodyguards. No, he cares about trees and rivers and everyone loving one another and the fact that people from New York are just like people from L.A. only they talk funnier.

Of course, everybody wants to know about Lenny’s new hairstyle. Some fans were pretty disappointed when they heard about it and even picketed the venue, demanding he immediately put back the dreads (“I mean, what are hair extensions for?” one former fan told me on condition of anonymity). But to me it’s just like Dylan going electric in ’65, or Gino Vanelli giving up polyester in ’79. You can’t dictate to a true artist. A change is gonna come. Having recently embraced pre-disco funk with greater dedication than he has in the past, Lenny knew he needed a look that would demonstrate this dedication and prove that he wasn’t — God forbid — trying to rip somebody off.

And the look was a big success, as you could tell from the huge ovation that greeted him when he took the stage, the band playing “Straight Cold Player” behind him. In addition to the well-publicized afro (not as small as Al Green’s and not as big as Sly’s, but medium-sized, like the late Donny Hathaway’s), Lenny was sporting two-toned denim bell-bottoms, a denim shirt over a sleeveless navy blue T-shirt (with the life-affirming phrase “Jesus Died For You” printed in orange day-glo), and blue suede platform shoes.

Lenny wasted no time in getting down. The first song, “Live” (that’s “Live” as in “Live free or die,” not “Live” as in “Live at Budokan”) sounds a lot like Sly’s “Life,” and Lenny didn’t try to hide the similarity since he was careful to point straight up to the sky on the chorus just the way Sly used to do. Of course, Lenny’s song is better since Sly’s is so old.

“Welcome to our celebration of life,” he said to the cheering audience, referring, of course, to the concept not Sly’s song. The band went straight into Lenny’s already classic soul number “It Ain’t Over Til It’s Over,” with the man proving that his falsetto is better than the Artist Formerly Known As Whathisname’s, since Lenny was once a member of the Metropolitan Opera where they learn how to hit those high notes. Lenny picked up a guitar in the middle and played a nice one-verse solo before giving it away to one of the fans in the front row. (Proving that he’s a nicer guy than Billy Corgan, who usually demands money.) He drew out the ending for several minutes, rightly sensing how much the fans dug the song’s chorus. It truly wasn’t over ’til it was.

Lenny is, of course, a dynamite dancer, and though he seemed to be having trouble getting the platform shoes to go where he wanted them to go, his knees and shoulders worked overtime. He did the funky chicken, the mashed potato, and the boogaloo. The crowd particularly loved the dying swan, which was closer to Maya Plisetzkaya’s version than it was to Margot Fonteyn’s.

The energy level increased even more for “Super Soul Fighter,” Lenny’s funk song for preschoolers, and “Tunnel Vision,” a syncopated rave-up like the ones the Average White Band used to play but not as well since they’re all white and Lenny is half black. The trumpet player, Michael Hunter, came front and center to play the same staccato note for three minutes while Lenny gave away another guitar as well as some matching pen-and-pencil sets. The crowd was really rocking and I noticed that the guy in the seat next to mine had rudely fallen asleep. In anger, I shook him awake, saying how dare he allow himself to doze off and insult the man up there on stage who was working so hard for our entertainment? He apologized.

“Always on the Run” featured some excellent fretwork by Craig Ross, who not only had tighter pants than Lenny’s but a bigger afro. When he and Lenny stood side-by-side with their guitars and those haircuts, they were dead ringers for Leslie West and Felix Papallardi of Mountain, except, of course, Lenny isn’t disgustingly obese. Lenny did a solo, then Craig, then Michael, then the sax player Harold Todd, then Michael again, then Harold on flute, then some guy on bongos. One thing you gotta say about Lenny: he can sure write long songs.

To prove he could still bang heads as well as shake booties, Lenny did “Rock and Roll is Dead” from his Led Zeppelin tribute album, Circus, which is, of course, better since Led Zeppelin is famous for exploiting women in their songs and Lenny is probably the least sexist superstar in the galaxy. Would a sexist hire drummer Cindy Blackman and allow her to play as pointless and tedious a drum solo as any you’d expect to hear from Carl Palmer, not to mention let her on stage with an afro that was bigger than Clarence Williams III’s? Not on your life.

During the last song, “Let Love Rule,” Lenny jumped down off the stage to mingle with his adoring fans. He made it halfway around the right side of the auditorium before doubling back and making it halfway around the left side. Then, with bodyguards in tow, he climbed up some cables and shook hands with fans in the balcony for a few minutes, had a beer with the Waseda University Lenny K Fan Club, used the men’s room, checked his e-mail, and made it back to the stage right in time for the big boffo finish. Now that’s professionalism.

He didn’t keep the kids waiting long for an encore, which consisted of “Fly Away” from the new album and the title track from his third, Are You Gonna Go My Way, his big Hendrix tribute which, admittedly, isn’t as good as Hendrix because Hendrix is dead and Lenny wouldn’t want to show any disrespect to a dead person by writing a song that was better than the dead person’s. But it’s still a great song and the whole audience was jumping up and down as if they couldn’t care less that it was inferior (to Hendrix, that is). “Thank you so much Tokyo,” the funky one yelled as the music crashed to a close, “I love you!” And the second he was off the stage the house lights were up full, which was very considerate since it allowed us to leave quickly and in an orderly fashion. I’m sure that was Lenny’s concern, too.

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