I've got Lenny Kravitz on the phone, so I have to ask him about that iPhone gizmo.
A few months ago, a picture of Kravitz became its own Internet meme -- a widely posted and forwarded photo of the rocker walking down a street talking on his iPhone, but using an old-fashioned telephone handset plugged into the device via a coiled cord. Kravitz has been accused more than once of being a retromaniac, and this seemed to perfectly sum up his nostalgic bent.
"That's funny," Kravitz says, "because I'm talking on it now."
with Raphael Saadiq
7:30 p.m. Jan. 31
Chicago Theater, 175 N. State
Call (800) 745-3000; ticketmaster.com
You record an album, you tour, you work hard -- and then the biggest publicity spike you've had in years comes from a quirky cell-phone snapshot.
"That's just the way of the world," he says. "You never know what people will give you attention for."
Kravitz ("Let Love Rule," "It Ain't Over Til It's Over," "Are You Gonna Go My Way?") has had his share of non-musical headlines, from his marriage to Lisa Bonet to hanging out with Madonna. But he's back on the road, playing concerts in support of last year's "Black & White America" album.
The New York City-born Kravitz lives a life of extremes -- playing hard rock and smooth ballads, in and out of the spotlight, splitting time between a private life at a studio he built in the easygoing Bahamas and the more limelit glare of Paris.
"I'm very much into contrasts," he says. "When I'm in the Bahamas, I live in a trailer. It's a simple life. I eat fish from the sea and vegetables out of my garden. In Paris, it's a very glamorous existence. I live in a wonderful hotel, and I enjoy what Paris has to offer -- the art, the fashion, the culinary experience, the architecture. I like the contrasts. Because I grew up between the ghetto and the Upper East Side, that's made a big impression on me. I tend to like the bottom and the top. The middle, I don't have a big attraction for."
The opening title track to "Black & White America" addresses Kravitz's upbringing by comparing it with the vision of Martin Luther King Jr. The cover photo shows a young Kravitz with a peace sign painted on his forehead, and over the 1970s funk groove Kravitz sings, "There is no division, don't you understand?" The video depicts this mindset through Kravitz's childhood photos ...
That upbringing occurred in a home colored by contrasts. His mother was Roxie Roker, a television actress (she played Helen Willis on "The Jeffersons"), Christian, black. His father was Sy Kravitz, a TV producer and jazz promoter, Jewish, white.
"Being that I grew up that way, I didn't understand prejudice. I had no understanding of that. It wasn't part of my reality. I just thought people looked different, and that's the way it was. My house was full of every kind of person you can imagine. My family was mixed white, black, Christian, Jewish, and my parents had friends from all different backgrounds and other biracial couples. It was very colorful. Not till I got to school did I realize there was a thing about it."
He remembers that awakening moment quite clearly.
"It was the first day of first grade," he says. "A kid walked up to my parents -- they were walking me into class -- and this kid pointed his finger and said very loudly, 'Your dad's white!' It really threw me off. My mother had a conversation with me about race, about my life, how I'm not one thing, to embrace both sides."
That early understanding of permeable cultural borders explains why Kravitz is such a musical omnivore. Since his debut album, "Let Love Rule," in 1989, Kravitz has tried on dozens of styles. "Black & White America" is consistent in quality while being all over the map genre-wise -- soul, R&B, pop, rock, funk. He says the next album, currently titled "Negrophilia" (no release date yet), is "very funky and rough" and nearly finished.
The one constant, though, is his guitar playing. When he first launched his career, dubbing himself Romeo Blue, Kravitz hit the stage as an unabashed Prince copycat.
"I did a lot of Prince. I learned a lot from players like him. He was one of them -- Hendrix, Curtis Mayfield, George Benson, Jimmy Page, to name a few."
His focus on guitar chops helped Kravitz zero in on the perfect opening act for this tour: acclaimed retro-soul maverick Raphael Saadiq.
"He's amazing," Kravitz says. "We've become really good friends, and we're having a great time. It makes the road inspiring when you're around good people. For God's sake, we're playing music, so it should be fun."
Kravitz takes on another role this year, too. After making his acting debut in the 2009 film "Precious," Kravitz appears as Cinna in the hotly anticipated movie adaptation of "The Hunger Games."