Living Colour performs tonight at the Howard Theatre. They recently performed on ShipRocked. They were a highlight. They would not be performing anywhere if Vernon Reid never quit a certain job. -ed.
I was working at laboratory in Long Island City. I was basically a clerical worker. Specimens would come in for all different kinds of diseases, stool samples, urine samples, and I had to label them. It was kind of pre-computerized, and it was a kind of sweatshop of the damned. It was pretty appalling and we went out on strike twice and I walked the picket line, you know it was 1199, my mom was an 1199. I was sort of in between. I had been playing in an R&B thing and this R&B project fell apart and so my mom was like “Hey, there’s an opening at this thing.” So I went and had a conversation with a human resources person and they took me on.
I started playing with Ronald Shannon Jackson, a great jazz drummer/composer. The first time I went to Europe was with him and I met Dizzy Gillespie and I actually saw Muddy Waters with Pinetop Perkins playing piano and James Cotton playing harp and I was standing next to Joseph Jarman from the Art Ensemble of Chicago. So my life was changing kind of seismically but I had this little job, right?
I had this little job and I had a great supervisor, Dr. Fonzie. He looked like Gandhi. He’s like this really kindly Indian doctor but he really kind of looked like Gandhi, spectacles, bald head, you know. And he said, “Oh you play music, oh that’s very nice, that’s very good.” So I would walk with my guitar case and whatever. Shannon was becoming more popular we were starting to tour a little bit and I would have to arrange my sick days for a weekend and my supervisor was cool. Then I had another supervisor, because we worked in departments, and my other supervisor was the sorting supervisor, his name was Maurice. And he was a nightmare guy. I’d be working, doing my normal thing with Fonzie, right? And they had a thing where you you had to float, so I was doing this thing and it was great because I could listen to Prince’s “Little Red Corvette”. Then Maurice would enter my life and go, “I need you on the floor.” And it was just a drag.
I had rehearsal with Shannon about three, four times a week. His music was very tough and it was the most music reading I’d done. I was really slow but I would get these parts playing guitar. We did a little tour and I had to take my vacation time to do this short tour, which dovetails into another story about going to take my check and being in a bank as it was being robbed. I used to get my check every Thursday. I’d go in to cash my check and I’m standing there, you know, with the punters who’re waiting and then all of a sudden a guy comes in, a guy and a woman come in, to the bank. And he’s got like a knit cap, and he looked like Cecil Taylor. [laughs] He looked kind of like Cecil Taylor. And this woman comes in and he had a gun and he was like ‘Nobody move’ and he says to his accomplice…Anyway, I wish I could get into details, this whole thing and it involves the FBI calling my apartment, but that’s a whole another thing….
Anyway, I’m in a rehearsal with Shannon, it was just me and him and everyone else had left. And I was leaving, I had to get on the number 7 train to get to Long Island City to get to my job. And he said to me, to my back, he said, “You know you’re going to have to give that up.” And when he said it to me it was like a Twilight Zone episode, this cold thrill went down my spine, because it was true. You know I held on to this gig for dear life, I struck twice and he’s like, “You know you’re going to have to give that up.” I think I lasted another week and quit the job.”
As told to Jenn Tisdale and Brandon Wetherbee. Edited for clarity.