30 Years Ago: Lenny Kravitz Takes a Stand on ‘Are You Gonna Go My Way’
Lenny Kravitz admitted in 1993 that the American press had never really known what to make of him.
"Well, it's changing now," he told Rick Rubin during a talk for Interview. "But for some reason at first people thought I was really arrogant and a snob about music because I'm so intense about my production and sound – and because they knew I didn't like new music so much.
"They thought I was someone who didn't acknowledge his roots," he added, "and it's total bullshit because I completely do. ... I just made a record and all of a sudden I had to face the world and get judged."
Kravitz's influences stretched about as far as possible, from British rock essentials like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who and Led Zeppelin to American R&B artists like Bill Withers, Marvin Gaye and Al Green. Kravitz also explored the music of outside-the-box innovators like David Bowie and Prince.
His father had been a jazz promoter and was friends with the likes of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis and others. There was little that Kravitz didn't absorb.
Kravitz's first two albums, 1989's Let Love Rule and 1991's Mama Said, propelled his career. He collaborated with several legends, including Mick Jagger, Curtis Mayfield, Slash and Aerosmith. As his success built, Kravitz encountered an odd situation: He was regularly compared to his influences – most often another hero of his, Jimi Hendrix – but also criticized for gravitating toward older artists.
"I was raised on good music, and I haven't met a lot of musicians from this time period that inspire me," he told Q magazine in 1993. "I listen out for good new music, but the recording fucks me off right from the beginning. People accuse me of being Mr. Romantic for the old stuff – I'm sorry, but I hear better melodies, better musicianship, better music."
Kravitz's preference for legacy music — or at least, older-sounding stuff – worked in his favor when he recorded the Craig Ross co-written title track for his third album. "Are You Gonna Go My Way" happened in about "five minutes," as Kravitz and his band squeezed the most out of their allotted time at Waterfront Recording Studios in Hudson, N.Y.
"The next group were already waiting in the hallway and getting a little pissed off because we were probably running over, like, 15 minutes and so we had to record that really quickly and run out and I had no idea what I had. No idea," Kravitz told MusicRadar in 2019. "Took the cassette home, put it in and wrote the lyrics and the melody and then came back the next day and sang the song. Then, although I dug it, I still really had no idea what I had. I had no idea that it was going to be 'that' song, you know?"
The inspiration behind the hard-rocking "Are You Gonna Go My Way" stemmed from Kravitz's religious background. (His mother, the actress Roxie Roker came from a Christian family, while his father, a producer for NBC, was Russian-Jewish.) "The talents that we have, I believe, come from God, whatever those talents are," Kravitz told BBC O-Zone in 1993. "For me, God and the spiritual world is very important – especially in this world where things are so temporary."
The lyrics, as Kravitz told Rolling Stone in 2018, were meant to sound as if they were "coming from the mouth of Jesus Christ": "I was born long ago, I am the chosen – I'm the one," the first few lines of the song proclaim, "I have come to save the day, and I won't leave until I'm done."
"So basically, 'Are you gonna go my way?' meaning 'my way of love,'" Kravitz continued. "I had no idea that that song would become what it became. No idea. There was nothing on the radio like that and the recording is so raw, it's ridiculous."
Watch Lenny Kravitz's 'Are You Gonna Go My Way' Video
"Are You Gonna Go My Way" was released as an airplay-only single, which made it ineligible for the Billboard Hot 100, but it still topped the Mainstream Rock chart. Kravitz also garnered two Grammy nominations, for Best Rock Song and Best Rock Vocal Performance, Solo. The music video, directed by Mark Romanek, earned the Best Male Video award at the 1993 MTV Awards. (Cindy Blackman Santana plays drums in the video, though she did not perform on the record.)
The video, which featured Kravitz in a blood-red, sleeveless suede tunic suit, was in and of itself a statement. "The first time I put it on, it felt amazing," Kravitz told The Guardian in 2019. "It felt powerful and beautiful and ceremonial, and it was perfect for the video. At the same time, I knew that I was taking a risk."
It was very different from what anybody was wearing at that time, in 1993," he added. "but people loved it, and when that video came out, it broke down walls. ... The tunic was just a piece of clothing, but it felt like a fashion expression of me at that time, and it set me apart from everybody else."
Kravitz later wore both black and bubblegum pink versions of the same tunic while on tour, debuting the latter at a 1993 music festival in Amsterdam called Pinkpop. "The band Living Colour were playing, too," Kravitz remembered, "and as I walked to the stage they were teasing me like schoolboys about this pink suede tunic that I was wearing and how silly I looked. But then we went on and gave an amazing show, and nobody had anything to say after that."
This sense of rugged individuality was hard-earned. "Critics at that time were always trying to say that I sounded like this or that – or that I got this from here, got that from there," Kravitz told Interview in 2020. "That’s because I was new, but it was also because I was Black and playing rock 'm' roll. Over the years, I learned that you have to grow a thick skin. People are going to say what they say."