IMAGINE YOU’RE IN New Orleans with a few friends, lying on your back and getting your nose pierced. “There’s a little blood,” the piercing queen says reassuringly. “That’s good. It means it will heal soon.” You open your eyes, and Lenny Kravitz is hovering over you, dreadlocks tickling your chin. “It looks good,” he informs you with a sincere smile. You grin weakly.
Kravitz is wandering among the booths in Rings of Desire, having just given the seal of approval to a nervous, newly punctured college kid. It’s not clear how often he comes here to inspect the work, but by the time he leaves, he has plans to have dinner that night with half the staff. Kravitz is a social dandy, flitting from art gallery to piercing parlor, making more plans and friends than he has time for. By the end of one day together, he has promised me that the next afternoon we’ll go to Mother’s Restaurant for a shrimp poor boy, spend time with Crescent City R&B great Allen Toussaint, have a salmon dinner (cooked by Kravitz), rummage through his record collection to find Earth, Wind and Fire albums and, of course, get our nipples pierced.
“It doesn’t hurt at all –– actually, it feels really good,” Kravitz says, looking down at his right nipple with a wicked smile.
Kravitz is an outsider in the world of pop. He makes music that acknowledges that technology has improved since the ’70s but refuses to admit that music has progressed. From his first album, 1989’s Let Love Rule, to his newest, Circus, Kravitz has always pledged allegiance to 1969. His detractors write him off as a throwback, a pretender in flashy retro garb riding to success on the back of a few Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix riffs. Kravitz’s argument is that everything you hear on his records and see at his concerts was determined in the first few years of his life –– not just the clothes but his musical proclivities, his vegetarianism, his refusal to wear underwear and his religious obsessions.
To find out which of these is the true Lenny Kravitz, it’s necessary to examine the many pieces that make up the man.
LENNY THE CLOTHESHORSE
TODAY, KRAVITZ IS WEARING BROWN suede bell-bottoms with leather laces up the sides, exposing flesh where underpants should be. Those are topped by a second-hand hockey jersey that’s tight enough to show off a well-defined chest. It’s easy to poke fun at Kravitz for dressing like he just stepped off the runway at a Woodstock fashion show, but he won’t stand for it. He walks back from the piercing parlor to his French Quarter home, a 200-year-old spread that he bought last year, and marches upstairs. He comes down with his junior high school graduation photograph, proof that he has always dressed the way he dresses now.
“No, I couldn’t just wear a regular suit at graduation –– I had to wear ruffles and frills,” he says, pointing at the picture of an angel-faced kid wearing the exact same vintage brown the 31-year-old Kravitz is wearing today. “I mean, in the third grade I had a pair of suede chaps. I had some cool clothes. My mom knew where to shop. I had the big shirts with the sleeves that puff out and come back. Knickers, man. My mom bought the stuff, not me. I remember my fourth-grade or third-grade school picture. I was wearing a pair of jeans with patchwork and cool sneakers and a big ol’ Michael Jackson shirt with a peace sign around my neck, and that was just normal.”
Kravitz isn’t defending himself anymore. He’s bragging.
LENNY THE MYSTIC
KRAVITZ’S HOME IS SOMETHING OF A shrine. An inconspicuous wooden door off the street leads to a leafy courtyard with a working fountain. On the top floor of the house are Kravitz’s private quarters, a red-and-blue-lit bedroom and bathroom so sultry and plush that it would take the glow of a hundred lava lamps to approximate the mood they evoke. On the ground floor there are glass doors, black lighting, a framed pair of purple bell-bottoms that once belonged to Jimi Hendrix (who probably wore underwear) and a makeshift altar surrounded by metal crosses, pictures of Christ and candles. There’s even a giant wooden crucifix hanging over the toilet in Kravitz’s bathroom.
“I lit a candle there the other day,” Kravitz says. “I mean at the altar, not in the bathroom.”
Kravitz has had a need for religion, to believe in something that can be neither created nor destroyed, since the age of 5. “I had these really weird recurring dreams then,” he says, moving from the altar to his patio. “I’d be put in a casket. I wasn’t alive. I was dead, I suppose, but I could still see. They’d put the top on the thing, and then they’d lower it into the ground. And then the dirt. And I would wake up with the bed full of sweat, screaming. Later I figured out that I couldn’t deal with the concept of death –– that we’re born, and then we die, and that’s it. It didn’t make sense. So that was the beginning of me believing that our souls are eternal.
“Then when I was 13, somebody talked to me –– this kid that I knew whose father was a minister,” Kravitz says. “He started telling me about God and Christ, and then I got this feeling over me that was just like I knew what I was hearing was correct.”