Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Let Love Rule' is Lenny Kravitz's origin story

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Lenny Kravitz's book 'Let Love Rule.'
Lenny Kravitz's 'Let Love Rule.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

When Zoë Kravitz's dad first met her mom, he introduced himself as Romeo Blue. Only years later would Romeo Blue have an epiphany and realize he needed to make his mark in the music world under his given name...with one small change. "I liked the shape of the y more than the ie," he writes in his new memoir. "It looked stronger." Romeo Blue became Lenny Kravitz.

By the time Kravitz became a star with his 1989 debut Let Love Rule, the 25-year-old had been making music for a decade. He'd acted on TV, he'd played session work, he'd wowed crowds in his band Wave, and he'd become an accomplished classical choral singer. He'd even played drums in the pit orchestra while his schoolmate Nicolas Cage was onstage playing the lead in a high school production of Oklahoma.

He'd come close to having record deals. He'd turned down the chance to sing "Somebody's Watching Me" with Rockwell, whose dad Berry Gordy tapped Michael Jackson instead. He'd seen Cosby Show star Lisa Bonet on the cover of TV Guide, declared he was going to marry her, and did. Stardom still eluded him, though, until Virgin finally backed him as a solo artist and he released an album with a title track espousing his personal philosophy.

He'd go one to become one of the most recognizable rockers of his generation and sell around 50 million albums, but that's another story...and another book. Let Love Rule (buy now) is the first volume of his memoirs, tracing his life from childhood to that first record release. If you think that a Lenny Kravitz book that ends just as the author gets on MTV leaves out the good parts, you don't know much about Lenny Kravitz.

To be fair, neither did I until I cracked this book. Nearly every chapter in Let Love Rule has a "wait, what?" moment, and these are some short chapters. By the time Kravitz became famous, he knew so many other famous people, no wonder his rock star look was so effortless.

He grew up in New York, the son of a white Jewish broadcast journalist (that would be the Kravitz) and an African American actor. Their young son always moved between worlds: through his mother's family he was deeply immersed in Black and Caribbean American culture (his maternal grandfather was Bahamian), while his father's parents, after overcoming their shock at their son's interracial marriage, showed their grandson a world of "kosher butchers, delis, synagogues." It was Kravitz's paternal grandfather, an amateur singer with a private passion for D.I.Y. karaoke, who first put a microphone in little Lennie's hand.

His parents, who bonded over jazz club dinner dates, shared a love of music, which became a shared language between Kravitz and his father even as distance grew between them. Sy Kravitz took his son to see the Jackson 5 at Madison Square Garden, and for the boy's sixth birthday, the family went to the Rainbow Room — where Duke Ellington lifted young Lennie into his arms and conducted his band in "Happy Birthday." Musical starts don't get much more auspicious than that.

Kravitz was surrounded by so much possibility, so much inspiration, that in retrospect it may be unsurprising that he fought for a record deal where he could make music with minimal compromise. A chapter on his "five godmothers" mentions names like Cicely Tyson, Diahann Carroll, and Toni Morrison — who doesn't even count as one of the five, but was a close family friend. The family lived just down the block from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and local kids would sometimes toss the ol' pigskin around with their neighbor Joe Namath.

When legendary TV producer Norman Lear caught Kravitz's mom on stage, though, the family's life got even starrier. Lear was casting an All in the Family spin-off starring Sherman Hemsley (another family friend) as George Jefferson. Roxie Roker got the plum supporting role of Helen Willis, the Jeffersons' neighbor whose marriage would be the first interracial relationship to be a regular fixture of prime-time TV. That moved the family to Los Angeles, where they became wealthy as The Jeffersons ran for 11 hit seasons.

Kravitz would watch tapings, reflecting on how surreal it was to see his home town of New York through windows on a Hollywood set. He hung out with the Diff'rent Strokes kids, and as a transplanted Californian was duly introduced to weed. His first high coincided with the first time he heard Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog," and he reflects that was it: that was the moment rock and roll grabbed him. He also discovered Jimi Hendrix, and KISS.

When his friends tried to dismiss those glam rockers with homophobic slurs, Kravitz stood by the band and even borrowed a leotard from his mom to complete a Gene Simmons Halloween costume. When Kravitz eventually started his own musical career, he'd often find himself associating with gay peers, who he found to be kindred spirits although Kravitz himself is straight. (He writes about his mom's reaction to seeing him in a Gaultier man's skirt: "If you're gonna wear that skirt, you need to change your shoes. Those shoes are not working.")

Kravitz would continue to move among worlds as the family bought a house in a neighborhood known to some as "the Golden Ghetto," a haven for well-to-do Blacks like Ray Charles. The Kravitzes partied with stars like Flip Wilson and Robert Guillaume, and cut a deal with Beverly Hills High: Lennie could enroll at the school, and enroll in its well-funded art programs, if Roxie taught a few acting classes each year.

The second half of Let Love Rule covers Kravitz's long and meandering musical journey. Kravitz's talent was clear to all — by the time he actually recorded his debut album, he played every single instrument on the record — but none of his many projects ever caught fire.

At choir, he was good enough to sing on professional recordings and perform with the Metropolitan Opera. He and a high school buddy ran a successful DJ duo that played parties all over Los Angeles. His new wave band aptly called Wave found success as a live outfit, but Kravitz's dad would only let him spend his college money on music if he went solo. "There's only one person with talent up there, and it's you," said his dad, who also helped Kravitz avoid record deals with unfavorable terms.

He didn't get hired as Teena Marie's guitarist, but at the audition the two became close friends. Kravitz spent a lot of time in studios, but kept waiting for the right opportunity to release his own music. He turned down a chance, for example, to pair with Tony LeMans when Prince signed that artist to Paisley Park Records.

Fate might have had it that Kravitz would never have become a star in his own right, in which case he'd be a footnote in dozens of other stars' books. A meeting with Andy Warhol at Bret Easton Ellis's Less Than Zero publication party? Just another day in the life of Lennie. He was backstage with Rockwell at a New Edition show when he first met Bonet: the two complimented each other's hair.

As his friendship with the actor developed into romance, Kravitz finally found his feet: he took back his name and cut a series of demos that generated interest from labels, but by the time Let Love Rule came out, the two were already married with a child. (Kravitz describes Bill Cosby's reaction to Bonet's pregnancy. While a Different World producer wanted to write the pregnancy into the show, Cosby declared that "Lisa Bonet is pregnant, but Denise Huxtable is not.")

Kravitz says it was his love with Lisa that inspired the songs that became Let Love Rule. The music was warm, and producer Henry Hirsch agreed that the sessions should be as well, with Kravitz using vintage equipment, eschewing trendy sounds and sticking to their guns. Finally, Virgin agreed and the record was released.

Let Love Rule ends with the video shoot for the title track, directed by Bonet and shot on Super 8 at Central Park. Cicely Tyson, who lived nearby, came down to observe. ("I knew my godchild's voice.") Kravitz built a band and sold two million albums...in Europe. At last, the U.S. took notice.

It's quite a story, but the author's straightforward style (put on paper in collaboration with David Ritz) doesn't particularly distinguish Let Love Rule as a book. This is one for Kravitz's many fans, and perhaps for young artists looking for some inspiration. Does Kravitz have any advice for them? Yep: just read the title.

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Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

January 21: Sweet Dreams: The Story of the New Romantics by Dylan Jones (buy now)

January 28: Me and Sister Bobbie: True Tales of the Family Band by Willie and Bobbie Nelson (buy now)

February 4: The Meaning of Soul: Black Music and Resilience Since the 1960s by Emily J. Lordi

February 11: The Big Life of Little Richard by Marc Ribowsky


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