Editorial Comments -
It's always encouraging to see stories of people like Lenny Kravitz who have re-discovered Jesus Christ and have taken the first steps to improving his life based upon our Lord's teachings. While his story is not a full Catholic conversion, it is still an inspiring one. Let us pray he continues to find God with every step of his new life. Enjoy this story.
"Finding God and Purity" - The Lenny Kravitz interview
By Chris Heath
JUNE 18, 2009 (www.telegraph.co.uk) - At the far end of an unmarked, unpaved track on the Bahamian island of Eleuthera is a small metal-clad trailer home. As you step down from its doorway, and walk seawards over the 20 yards or so of sand towards the open beach, scattered to either side are occasional pieces of furniture – rooms, almost, if there were walls and ceilings and not just the surrounding palms trees and tropical flora – and nothing else but the sea breeze. Just above the high-tide line are three or four more chairs, lined up together, facing the ocean.
If you have extensive wealth, a restless spirit, considerable flexibility as to your work schedule and a love for many different kinds of culture, mood, intensity and decor, you may one day discover that your global portfolio of homes has swelled to include a penthouse duplex in New York’s SoHo, a waterfront Miami base, a grand residence in central Paris, a creole cottage in New Orleans, and a 1,000-acre farm in the Rio province of Brazil. Lenny Kravitz owns all of these. But often – as during the first few months of this year – he prefers the escape and calm to be found here in his own private cove in the Bahamas.
Originally, when he bought this land, he planned to build a house on the water. He keeps threatening to do so, but sensibly failing. 'I kind of love the trailer too much,’ he says. 'It’s so simple. I wake up, open the door, I’m right on the beach… It never gets old. Every morning I’m pretty thankful. Just go and sit in my chair, look at the ocean and the sky.’
Eleuthera is a thin strip of land 110 miles long, one of the more remote Bahamian islands, to its east nothing but Atlantic ocean. Populated in 1648 by Utopians fleeing religious and political upheavals in Bermuda, its name derives from the ancient Greek word for freedom. I have been here before. Sixteen years ago. Then, too, I came to visit Lenny Kravitz.
In 1993 Kravitz’s music career was still beginning to take off. The modest success of his first two albums had been counter-balanced by a barrage of suspicion and scepticism. As he succinctly summarised, 'When I first came out the only words I ever heard were “retro” and “unoriginal” and “old”.’ Looking back now, from the vantage point of a 21st century in which almost all successful and celebrated musicians openly and heavily draw on some segment or other of pop music’s history, mostly without censure, it’s a little strange to remember how damagingly uncool Kravitz’s respect and reverence for the past used to seem.
Scanning over my old notes I see that in 1993 I ceaselessly harangued him about the merits of the music of the day – Nirvana, Morrissey, techno, rap. Occasionally he would fire back things such as, 'Have you heard a better soul singer than Aretha Franklin or Al Green? Have you heard a rock’n’roll singer better than Jimi, or better than Zeppelin? Have you heard better reggae than Bob? You haven’t!’ We both thought the other was missing the point.
Given all that, he was a gracious host. He was staying in a small rented house high above the ocean; the first night he sautéed fish and mashed potato for dinner. The next night we went down the hill to his friends Bill and Deanna’s house; Bill the local schoolteacher, Deanna the local nurse. She used to babysit Lenny – his mother’s father came from the Bahamas and he spent many childhood holidays on the islands – and was the person who first suggested he visit Eleuthera. They slow-baked some barracuda that Kravitz’s manager had caught in the ocean earlier that day and discussed whether it would still be toxic. Later, we went to a local bar called Cush’s where a house band was performing. Kravitz asked to sit in, and ended up on the drums. The last night he cooked again: jackfish and spaghetti.
In between our uneasy attempts to make sense of him, it seemed as if he was always offering fish, or a piece of cake, or a mug of tea. 'It’s the Jewish mother in me,’ he said at one point. This wasn’t a completely fatuous quip; Kravitz’s background is unusual. His father, Sy, a TV news executive, was a white Jewish American of Ukrainian descent. His mother, Roxie, who went by the name Kravitz at home but by her maiden name, Roker, for work, became one of the most famous black faces in America as one of the stars of the sitcom The Jeffersons. (Both have since died: his mother in 1995, his father 10 years later.) His upbringing, and sense of self, would reflect this complex heritage: plenty to escape, but plenty to carry with him, too.
On the first night of my second visit, this March, Lenny Kravitz cooks for me again. He hasn’t planned to but all the local restaurants close early, and the clock has drifted onwards until the only food available for either of us is the single piece of tuna marinating in his fridge. We are at the first property Kravitz bought on this island, a small house in the forest about a mile from his beach trailer, itself little more than one room with a bed and a sofa, its walls covered in a Haitian mural dominated by a peacock on one side and a large, looming figure of Jesus on the other. Somewhere in the dark surrounding us is the organic farm he had told me he was planning on my last visit: 'Fruits and vegetables and herbs, lettuces and beets and pumpkins and tomatoes, basil and rosemary and cilantro and peppers…’ He sears the tuna in a pan then cuts it in half, and presents it with some salad and wasabi. 'Bon appetit,’ he says. We sit at the kitchen table to eat and talk.
He tries to remember what happened on my last visit, and looks downcast when I mention Deanna. He says she died a while back, of an asthma attack. 'That’s one of those…’ he begins. He doesn’t finish the sentence, and doesn’t need to.
Sixteen years ago, we talked a fair amount about Kravitz’s emotional life. His first album, Let Love Rule, had been written while he was married to the actress Lisa Bonet, one of the stars of the sitcom The Cosby Show. They had a young daughter, Zoë, but by the time I visited they had been separated for some time and were soon to be divorced. (A Swedish model called Helene was here with Kravitz in Eleuthera then, a fact I was encouraged to ignore.) He described to me how everyone is striving for love. 'Because it’s the nicest feeling there is. We all seem to be striving for it like a motherf***er. Like fish swimming upstream.’ But he also said that not long ago he had gone four months without having sex. Discussing a new song, Come On and Love Me, he told me it was about 'God and sex and guilt’, and explained what he meant with detailed reference to how the Ten Commandments were sent to quell the children of Israel’s confusion, and what Christ’s death means when it comes to following God’s laws and how human nature betrays us. He added that he believed it was wrong to have sex without being married. 'Obviously,’ he conceded,
'I break the law. I don’t like to, and I ask for forgiveness, and I try not to do it as much as possible. I’m just like, “God, forgive me.”’
I mention this old conversation to Kravitz as we sit in the near dark after our tuna, because it seems to prefigure his more recent history. Over the years Kravitz’s public reputation has been somewhat that of a lothario. Though at least two longer-term assignations – with the Brazilian model Adriana Lima and the Australian actress Nicole Kidman – were said to be heading towards marriage, he has remained single. Then, last year, he let it be known that he had been celibate for the previous three years, and had resolved to remain so until married. It was only when re-reading my notes of our earlier encounter that I realised it was an issue that had long preoccupied him.
'But I wasn’t being celibate then at all,’ he clarifies. 'It took years to get it right. To actually do it, and really try to walk the walk and not just talk it. It’s not like it’s not important – I think sex and intimacy and all that is very important. It’s just that I’m going to do it with my wife.’ He laughs. 'And not everybody else.’
This summer, not long after he turns 45, it will be four years. The final trigger came after a night in the Carlyle Hotel in New York. (His apartment was under renovation.) 'I was doing my normal thing and I was with somebody, and I remember waking up in the morning thinking, “What am I doing?” It’s not that I was all over the place. It’s not, like, groupies or somebody you’d pick up on the street. I didn’t carry on like that. It was somebody that I know. But it was still, “What am I doing? And why?” And that morning I was just talking to God, as I do, and I said, “You got to help me to stop this. I just really want to stop this.” And that was the day that it changed.’
Had the other person left by then?
So you were lying there thinking this?
Presumably you didn’t bring it up. It’s not great morning talk.
'No, it was just a personal thing.’
Can you put your finger on what, at that moment, seemed upsetting about what you had been doing?
'I knew it was not consistent with my beliefs. So that’s hypocritical, and I don’t want to be a hypocrite. And I could just feel the emptiness… it didn’t feel good. The feeling afterwards. Just that empty sort of… weird space. And I’d had enough.’
You knew there and then that this was a decision you would stick with?
'Yeah. It’s very hard. For some periods of time it’s easy, and then it’s really hard. It goes back and forth. It’s not hard just walking through life, and you see women, and I admire them – I love being around women. But if you’re seeing someone, you’ve got to explain, “Well, this is what I’m doing in life – so that’s not going to be part of it.”’
When I ask him if he is in a relationship he says, 'Right now I’m just kind of sailing and watching and waiting and trying to be patient. There are times when I’m patient and there’s times when I’m, “Come on, Lord, bring this for me…”’
Kravitz of course comes from a country where people are more open to those who will say, as he does, 'I really do use Christ as my example and try to live this life and not just bullshit with it.’ The modern British cake-and-eat-it way is simultaneously to query the rationality of someone’s faith, but then also to scrutinise their consistency in living up to it. When it comes to the religious declarations of American entertainers there is a tendency to treat these less as an expression of deep belief than as one more kind of insincere celebrity affectation. But I don’t think there’s a chance to even begin understanding Kravitz without understanding the seriousness of his faith. (And, whatever his complexities and inconsistencies, four years without sex is a fairly emphatic emblem of seriousness.)
Kravitz did not grow up in a deeply religious environment. His father’s family were Jewish, but his father was a non-believer. His mother was Christian but not, he seems to suggest, in any intense way back then. When he was 13 he was at choir camp – he was in the California Boys Choir and performed regularly with the Metropolitan Opera – and found himself sick in the infirmary with another boy, the son of a minister. 'He was telling me about God, asking me if I knew about God and if I knew about Christ. We were in there for a couple of days, really talking about it, and I don’t know if we were praying or talking about it at that point but this energy came in the room. It was that kind of thing where you felt the intensity and you felt the heat. And we both felt the same thing because both of us were crying. There wasn’t anything sad or anything. This thing we were feeling… tears were streaming down my face. It was a really strange experience. I know the presence of God just came in the room and touched me. That’s really the simple explanation. And I knew that’s what it was, and he knew that’s what it was.’
After that, he started going to church – 'I think my dad thought I was a little strange,’ he recalls – and his faith has endured. About 10 years ago he got a large tattoo across his shoulder blades. It reads my heart belongs to jesus christ. Like most tattoos, it was a message to himself. 'I just wanted to have this tag on me,’ he says.
When Lenny Kravitz explains to me that his father was not at all religious, he also mentions that, while this was true for nearly all of his father’s life, his story became a little more complicated right at the end. 'Until the last two weeks of his life. But he actually had a real experience. His whole life changed.’ To understand that change, and its significance for his son, it is necessary first to understand something of Sy Kravitz’s life. 'My father was not a spiritual man at all. Ever,’ his son says. 'Was not a communicating man. He was very secretive. Had secret lives. I left home at 15 because I just couldn’t deal with it.’ (Last time, Kravitz told me that their final row was over whether he could see the cantankerous jazz drummer Buddy Rich play at Disneyland.)
Sy Kravitz went into the military when he was 18: 'My dad was a sergeant, a Green Beret – the most hardcore, above the Marines. He was a very hard man.’ He fought in Korea, as did his younger brother, Leonard. Sy came home alive. Leonard did not. 'He got blamed for that. His parents. Just the fact that his little brother followed him to war.’ That blame hadn’t eased by the time Sy married Lenny’s mother – 'there wasn’t a white person at the wedding,’ Kravitz says – and only dissipated with the arrival of their firstborn son, and the naming of the baby after his late uncle, killed in action when he was 20. 'The minute the son showed up and his name was Leonard, everybody ran,’ Kravitz says. 'And I had a great relationship with my Jewish relatives, and I knew nothing of this until I got older.’
Sy was a successful television executive, but Kravitz believed he wanted to be something bigger – 'a Richard Branson or a Berry Gordy or a David Geffen… and it didn’t quite pan out’. Instead, it was his wife whose career exploded. 'His wife and son ended up being that thing that he wanted to be. I could understand what it was with other women, because he felt he needed to be The Man. Although he already was the man, and my mother treated him as the man. But in a superficial world, she was the star, and he was not.’
When he was young, Kravitz felt like his father treated him like a private in the army: ' “Leonard! Hup! Clean your room!” That was nerve-racking. I was a messy kid, and sometimes, instead of my father saying clean your room I’d come home from school and the entire room would be in the centre of the room. A mountain. Everything… clothes… the bed. A pile. I’d open the door and it was a mountain of shit.’ Later, when Kravitz decided he wanted to be a musician, his father supported his son’s ambition financially, subsidising time in a recording studio, while also dismissing it. 'He sort of helped me,’ Kravitz says, 'but at the same time was like, “This’ll never happen… I know this is a waste of money.”’
When he was 20, Kravitz became aware of some of his father’s secret lives and alerted his mother.
'I brought it into the light,’ he says. 'It was quite intense and heartbreaking. But she knew about things all my life that I didn’t know about. She would tell me stories about having me in her arms – it reminds me of the scene in Goodfellas – and she’d go to another woman’s apartment and ring the bell: “Tell him he has to come down.” Stuff like that.’ Soon afterwards, his parents split up.
One day, during the break-up, his father sat down with his mother and Lenny. His mother asked his father, 'What do you have to say to your son?’ Kravitz expected some kind of apology, or at least some kind of explanation, for the cheating. Instead, the words his father said to his son, looking him in the eye, were something else altogether. Awful words, it seemed, for a father to tell a son. Words that he would struggle to shake off:
'You’ll do it too.’
'It took me years to realise how powerful that was. There are things called word curses. You talk to Bahamians out here and if you say something, they’ll say, “Don’t put word on me.” And it was a word curse when he said to me…’ – Kravitz thumps on the table between us to punctuate each word of his father’s curse – '…“You’ll… do… it… too.” If you go and look at his history, his dad did it, he hated his dad for doing it. And then he passed the buck to me. He kind of handed that to me. And I had to wrestle with that.’ Wrestle with the fact that his father would say such a thing, with the fact that such a thing had been placed in his head, and with the fact that yes, he, too, would sometimes come to act this way.
Over the years, their relationship was difficult, but when Sy Kravitz’s leukaemia demanded it, he moved into his son’s New York home. 'I had turned my apartment into a hospital, basically. I had
the nurse living there… My mother taught me to respect my father and to love and take care of him, regardless of what he’d done. She’d always quote the Bible: it says, “Honour thy mother and thy father.” And it doesn’t say “unless…”, “except…”, or “if…”. That’s what it says and that’s what your job is to do. And I had a hard time with it, but I did it.’
Eventually, his father had to go to hospital. That’s where it happened.
'It sounds like…’ Kravitz begins, and then says, 'It’s going to sound like whatever it sounds like, but this is what it was. I mean, spiritually hospitals are very intense places. It’s like death’s doorstep. And he was in his bed one night and he looked at me, and he wasn’t on drugs, and he said to me, “There are these things flying around my bed, and these things crawling on the floor.” I said, “What are you talking about?” This is from my dad. He doesn’t do with any kind of spiritual thing. No heebie-jeebie kind of thing. And he’s, “There’s black-winged things and they’re flying around my bed… the things that are crawling on the ground, they look like they’re rats and they’re not… I see them.” I didn’t quite know how to take it. And he then began having this revelation and he accepted Christ – this is a non-religious Jewish man – and somehow the spirit world opened up to him. Almost like he had spiritually been bound his whole life and now this thing was released.’
After this spiritual experience, his father started answering some of the questions Kravitz would never get answers for. When Kravitz asked him before, “Why did you do what you did? Why did you do this to Mom?”, his father would stonewall. 'That’s just the way it is,’ he would say. But a couple of nights after the experience, sitting in hospital with Lenny and his two half-sisters, Sy started talking. 'He apologised to us in the most sincere, heartfelt manner. “I am sorry for what I’ve done, how I’ve been, how I’ve treated you, and I love you.” Real. And it was shocking… And what he said to me is that he always wanted to change his life, and he felt there was this thing on his back and he couldn’t get it off. His whole life, he knew inside himself that he wanted to change. But, he said, “I couldn’t.” ’
There would be one further unexpected moment: 'As he got closer to his death, another night in the hospital, he was really tired and he looked over at me and he goes, “There’s angels all around the room. Because of Jesus.” And that was it. He turned and looked away. If you knew my dad – it was the furthest thing from him.’
These were the last words Sy Kravitz would say of this kind. But for the son, something real happened in those hospital days that changed everything. 'The last three weeks of his life was the best relationship I had with him. And it cancelled out the 40 years before.’
It’s hard to pin down exactly when or how Kravitz’s music career blossomed, though one spur was the single and album that he was about to release when I was last here, both called Are You Gonna Go My Way. But, for the most part, it just seems as though Lenny Kravitz carried on being Lenny Kravitz until one day the world decided to agree that he was the kind of figure he had always appeared to assume he already was.
Music remains at the centre of his career – he will spend much of the next two years on tour – but there are now plenty of other tendrils. One is Kravitz Design, an interiors company he started up a few years back, which has an office in New York and about 10 full-time employees; just this morning he has been on the phone negotiating a hotel job in Las Vegas. (He creates his own furniture for each project: 'very soulful; lots of ethnic tones mixed with a sophisticated European sensibility; very comfortable, very sensual,’ he explains.)
Another is acting. He appeared in off-Broadway productions when he was in his teens, then gave it up to concentrate on music, but he has been looking for a suitable way back in. Some time ago he met the director Lee Daniels at the upmarket New York Chinese restaurant Mr Chow when the artist Julian Schnabel brought Daniels over. Daniels told him that he was a fan of Kravitz’s mother’s theatre work, and that he should act. They have been looking for something Kravitz would star in, but in the meantime Daniels was filming an adaptation of the novel Push, Sapphire’s celebrated stark tale of a Harlem girl’s brutal experiences, and asked Kravitz to take a small role. The film (now called Precious) is yet to be released but won three awards at the Sundance Film Festival; according to the Hollywood Reporter, 'Lenny Kravitz is low-key perfect as an empathetic nurse’s aide.’
He has also been writing his own film, Barbecues and Bar Mitzvahs: 'about an artist, a photographer, who gets to a point in his life where he realises he wants to find a wife. My character’s half-white and half-black, as I am, and it really shows the different dynamics of biracial people. It’s about the dynamics of love and fidelity and relationships, and also family and betrayal and race.’ (He wrote the first draft with a half-black half-Jewish friend he grew up with, and is now working with the scriptwriter Vincent Patrick, best known for his novel and screenplay The Pope of Greenwich Village.)
Recently, Kravitz has taken a serious interest in photography himself. At my request, he shows me some of his photographs on his laptop. Among them are appropriately random and interesting people on the world’s streets; the occasional naked woman posing (he skips over these without comment); commissioned photos backstage at a Marc Jacobs fashion show; Russian Jewish scholars in death metal T-shirts; and occasional celebrities – Alicia Keys at Kravitz’s Paris home; Quincy Jones at the Montreux Jazz Festival; Robert Plant’s 60th birthday party in the back garden of a Midlands pub; Lionel Richie in a chandelier shop at the Paris fleamarket; Estelle in her hotel room after a show; Ronnie Wood enjoying coffee in a friend’s kitchen here in Bahamas; Jay-Z at Sunday lunch in Miami; and a stately, sombre Beyoncé at the same meal. ('To me, it’s like Nina Simone,’ he enthuses. 'Such a different picture than you could ever see of her.’)
One series, which will make up his first show, is a collection of black-and-white shots of the paparazzi around the world photographed as they are photographing him. It has become something of a cliché, the celebrity turning the tables on those who follow them in this way, falsely imagining that the gesture has really any effect or meaning or power as an act of retaliation or retribution. But these photographs are somehow much more interesting than that: in what repeats in the images, and what changes between them, and in how, though the photographers’ faces are hidden behind their raised and flashing cameras and so can rarely be seen, they still ooze an absurd and very contemporary combination of manic energy, insincerity, complicity, camaraderie, idolatry and fury. Lenny Kravitz just says he wants to show 'what I see, which is that’, which also seems fair enough.
One evening after sunset he drives me to his trailer. When we pull up, music is already playing, outdoors, though no one but us is here; his iPod, on shuffle, has chosen, rather incongruously, Elton John’s Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting). He walks down the beach, lighting torches stuck in the sand that illuminate the outdoor furniture ('my living-room,’ he says) and lead the way to the water. There, we both gawp in wonder at the moon: a thin crescent lying on its back, low on the horizon, and, directly above it, as though almost cradled with it, Venus. (I have seen a good many fine celebrity homes over the years, but very few I would long to live in. This is one.)
He leads me into his trailer – 'take off your shoes’ – past the Bible just inside the door. He talks about teaching himself to be less impatient and how one of the causes, looking back, was 'smoking bags of weed a day – I mean, I honestly used to smoke as much, if not more, than Bob Marley’. He talks about knowing Miles Davis, a friend of his parents’, as a child: 'This deep voice that would talk like that. Just mysterious and dark. But he was always nice to me.’ (He now has a statue of Davis at his Paris home.) He talks about simplifying his life, at least in property terms, by selling the New York and Miami homes. (The New York apartment was recently listed at $15 million.) 'I’ll always be a New Yorker,’ he says, 'but New York to me has lost a lot of the things I loved about it. It’s become so homogenised, and the artists can’t afford to live in Manhattan any more – it’s kind of lost the vibe… Paris, for when I want my city vibe, when I’m jones-ing for some city, to me that’s the most beautiful city.’ He talks about his daughter, Zoë, now an actress, who lived with him from the age of 11. 'That’s the best thing I have in this world,’ he says. 'That’s it. The rest of the stuff is cute and it’s great, but that’s what I have – that relationship with my daughter which can never be broken. I’m there for her, she’s there for me.’
One fact I learnt about Kravitz on my previous visit – not by any serious measure an important fact, though it was the kind of distracting detail that lingers in the mind, and it did also somehow seem illustrative of the particular, single-minded, un-dissuaded path he was taking through life – was that he customarily went without underwear. He told me that he had done so since he was a teenager even though two or three times a year his mother would send him a fresh supply in protest, and he told me that he didn’t understand people who considered his way unsanitary. ('If you’re nasty,’ he reasoned, 'you’re nasty under the underwear.’)
Now that we are both 16 years older, I find myself feeling that it seems wrong to ask. But sort of wrong not to ask, too. So, of course, I ask.
Do you still not wear underwear?
'Uh, I’m wearing it right now. Usually not, but in the last two years I’ve grown fond of it.’
Fond of what the rest of us have been fond of all along?
'Yeah. I’m, “This is kind of interesting… another layer.”’
For comfort, or have you come round to the practicalities of it?
'I don’t know how long it will last. I think the truth was my assistant bought me some. I think it was, “Here, put these damn things on so your ass crack isn’t hanging out all the time.” So I did.’
For years, Kravitz resisted building a studio here on this island, because he worried it would spoil something: 'bring a work stress element, ruin my entire oasis’. Though he has written plenty of songs in Eleuthera – his biggest British hit, Fly Away, came as he drove his Jeep along the beach near his trailer – he has avoided recording. Maybe he even began to believe that the person he became in Eleuthera was someone slightly different from the one who makes the records.
Recently, he relented. Down another forest track is a clearing; in it, an almost cube-shaped, glass-fronted recording studio. When I visit, he is working on a rolling piano-driven 1970s-style soul song. 'I just woke up one morning and the hook was in my head,’ he explains. The song is called Push. When he realised what it could be, he began to tailor the lyric to fit in with his new film, and he has played it to the director down the telephone. The current plan is that it will be added at the end and over the closing credits.
On this song he has already recorded the drums, piano, bass, guitar and vocals himself. 'For somebody who plays all the instruments and writes and produces and arranges and does what I do, you know, it’s not really an art form that’s appreciated these days,’ he has told me. These days, when people ask which particular instrument he plays, he tries to take it as c