'Nothing was the same after that': Lenny Kravitz on the childhood concert that changed his life

Thirty years after the release of his landmark album Let Love Rule, Kravitz has just released a new memoir.

Thirty years after the release of his landmark album Let Love Rule, Kravitz has just released a new memoir

Lenny Kravitz says his relationship with Lisa Bonet marked a pivotal point in his music career. (Henry Holt and Co.)

Originally published on Oct. 15, 2020

Lenny Kravitz was just five years old when he went to his very first concert — one that would change the course of his life forever.

Kravitz was in first grade, and his father Sy Kravitz, an NBC news producer in New York, picked him up from school and took him to Madison Square Garden, not telling him who they were going to see.

The band was the Jackson Five.

"My mind was blown away when they came out on the stage. Nothing was the same after that," says Kravitz in an interview with Q host Tom Power.

"The next day, I was putting on my knee-high rubber galoshes pretending they were the funky boots they were wearing. I would go in my mom's closet and get scarves and things and pretend that I was in the Jackson 5."

Even half a century later, hearing a clip of the Jackson 5 classic I Want You Back still excites.

"It doesn't get any better than that. It's amazing hearing this through the little speaker on the phone. It still explodes," says Kravitz, adding the group combined the best Motown writers, the best producers, the best musicians, and the best arrangers.

But it wasn't just the musicianship that appealed to Kravitz.

"I identified with the sound and also with the visuals, because they looked like me. I could see myself in them. We had the same hair, we had basically the same skin tones," remembers Kravitz.

"Their stage performance was impeccable, their choreography, their moves, the whole thing. It was the same level as seeing the Beatles. Different thing, but that same vibe."

Let Love Rule

The vignette is just one of the moments in Kravitz's memoir Let Love Rule, named for the artist's groundbreaking 1989 debut album that mixed R&B, soul, folk and guitar-driven rock, and produced multiple hits including the title track, I Build This Garden For Us and Mr. Cab Driver.

Since those early days, Kravitz has won multiple Grammys, sold more than 40 million albums worldwide, performed at the Super Bowl and the Grey Cup, and was made an Officer of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France.

And decades after their release, hits including Let Love Rule, It Ain't Over 'til It's Over, Are You Gonna Go My Way, Always on the Run, as well as his cover of the Canadian classic American Woman, are still mainstays on radio and film soundtracks.

He has also acted in high-profile films, including The Hunger Games and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and landed a recurring role on the Fox series Star.

Another artist that had a profound impact on Kravitz as a child was Stevie Wonder — in particular his 1973 album Innervisions. For the young Kravitz, it was the first album where he really took note of all the parts.

"I studied it. I found the album to be fascinating and deeply spiritual. Now, what did I know about deeply spiritual at that age? But I felt something inside of me, in my spirit," he says.

"I always say that Innervisions sounds to me like Stevie was sitting in the palm of God's hand when he made that record, that God was just holding him," explains Kravitz, who remembers putting the record on the turntable in his family's apartment and listening to it over and over.

"And [I would] beat out the drums and listen to the Moog and the pianos and the bass and all the orchestrations. It gave me a great education."

'It just came to me'

Lenny Kravitz's mother was Roxie Roker, best known for her role as Helen Willis on the hit sitcom The Jeffersons, and Kravitz remembers the family moving from New York to Los Angeles when he was around 10 years old.

In his new memoir, Kravitz talks about how, in a way, his family's story mirrored that of Roker's multi-racial family on The Jeffersons.

"It's very interesting that my mother was chosen. [Creator] Norman Lear had no idea. In fact, after the audition, he sat with her and said, 'Now listen, I want to make sure that you're going to be comfortable, because you're going to be playing the wife of a white man, and you're going to have to be close with him, you're going to have to kiss him, and I don't know how you feel about that," recounts Kravitz.

"And my mother just laughed and took out her purse, and showed him a picture of my father."

The move to Los Angeles was also a key turning point for Kravitz, who later met actress Lisa Bonet, best known for her role on The Cosby Show. The pair split in 1991, and divorced in 1993, but Kravitz says their relationship helped make him the musician he is.

The cover of Lenny Kravitz's new memoir, Let Love Rule. (Henry Holt and Co.)

At the time Kravitz was playing in other bands, working on other projects, and "would have been fine" being someone else's guitar player or drummer. He knew there was something he needed to do, but wasn't sure what it was. Then he met Bonet.

"Because of our relationship, because of the magic that was being created around us, starting with our love, and the group of people that we were surrounding ourselves with, it really helped me to open up," says Kravitz.

"I'd moved in with her at her house and put all my instruments in a room. And one day, it just came to me. I started to hear the music," says Kravitz, who wrote the songs Fear, then Rosemary, then I Build This Garden For Us in quick succession.

"I just heard it — and I accepted it. I don't know if it's what I thought I was looking for, but it's what I was given, and I grabbed it," says Kravitz. "And that was the beginning for me. That's another time when a portal opened."

Kravitz is currently riding out the pandemic on the island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas, where he was supposed to land for just a few days in March on his way from France to New Zealand and Australia for a string of tour dates. But then COVID-19 hit, the tour was cancelled and travel came to a halt, and Kravitz has been there ever since.

It's a long way from the days when he was living out of his car or sleeping on people's couches, trying to piece together a living as a young musician.

At the time he was offered deals by multiple major labels, but they wanted him to change his style, so he said no thanks — a brave move that ended up cementing his future.

I knew that what they wanted me to do was not me, and that they were trying to change me. And there was a feeling inside of me when it came time to sign the paper. I physically felt ill. I felt off. I felt wrong. And I just kept saying 'I can't do it.'- Lenny Kravitz

"I'm turning them down, and everybody's looking at me like I'm crazy. I don't know how I had the strength to do that. I hadn't even found my sound yet," remembers Kravitz.

"But I knew that what they wanted me to do was not me, and that they were trying to change me. And there was a feeling inside of me when it came time to sign the paper. I physically felt ill. I felt off. I felt wrong. And I just kept saying 'I can't do it,'" he said.

"It was something inside of me that spoke to me."

Written by Jennifer Van Evra. Interview produced by Beza Seife.