BAM – December 2, 1988
Jane’s Addiction Probes A Mass Media Madhouse
By Nina Ellerman
Perry Farrell, lyricist and lead vocalist for Jane’s Addiction, doesn’t follow the rules; he makes his own, often on impulse. It’s the same way he writes his tersely poetic lyrics. The same way he and his bandmates, guitarist David Navarro, bassist Eric Avery and drummer Stephen Perkins, create their intense psycho-metal music. The same way he defies, seemingly at every turn, what’s considered acceptable, regardless of the personal cost. “The only restriction we set for the band was that there would be no restrictions,” he says. “In that respect we’ve held true from the very first day.” Farrell even looks the part of the maverick, sitting in the rear of a make-shift studio where he’s spent countless hours supervising the editing of the band’s debut video. Mercurochrome-colored dreadlocks hang well down his back; cut-off Levi’s top great long-john leggings; a silver hoop dangles from the sinew that separates his nostrils; a tattoo that might be an ancient Egyptian symbol for water decorates his right temple; his intense, sunken eyes are rimmed with black. His very presence seems to offend the room, which contains an orderly array of video tapes and equipment and the most bizarre sofa you’ve ever laid eyes on: dingy white, lowered to the ground like a Cholo Chevy, with two great peaks rising up from its back in red brocade. It isn’t an easy couch to offend.
Jane’s Addiction, one of the most talked about bands to emerge from L.A.’s underground in years, has been causing a stir – through savage stage shows and a self-titled indie album – almost since they arrived on the scene three years ago. That stir became a torrent when they found themselves on the block in a major label bidding war last year. “You know we got signed to Warner Brothers,” Farrell asserts in the band’s self-written biography, a rambling, speculative and often outrageous account of their brief history. “Do you want to hear about the bidding wars? We had ‘em all kissing our feet. Getting a record label to put out the bucks in the best insurance a band has.”
In the end, Jane’s Addiction opted for control over maximum cash. The deal with Warners allows the band to retain almost autonomous control over both production and artwork. And it’s an insurance policy that started paying off the minute Nothing’s Shocking, their major label debut, was released. The album’s title is Farrell’s anthem for the times. “I wanted to summarize what our generation is confronted with, which is this media blitz to just kind of gross you out,” he says. “Look at the talk show people. They’re trying to out-horrify each other. They can’t do it. They’re showing straight gore now on TV.”
But some things, it seems, have retained their shock value. Namely, nudity. Nothing’s Shocking has been banned by seven major record distributors who object to the album’s cover, which depicts a sculpture by Farrell of nude female Siamese twins with their hair ablaze. “I think we’re doing things that will be considered censurable,” he says, “except that we’re doing it with enough premeditation and enough care and thought that it should be looked upon as something that’s valid. I find it really odd that after all this time nudity would even be questionable.”
The album is being stocked by such big retailers as Tower Records and Music-Plus, but has been branded with a label warning consumers about its profane lyrics. Some record companies might consider the band too hot to handle, but Farrell insists Warner Bros. knew what they were getting into. “I was very upfront about what I planned on doing,” he asserts. “They can’t just dump the band because there’s so much invested in it. They stuck their necks out.”
Farrell isn’t just sticking to his guns; he’s adding fuel to the fire with the band’s first video, which, like the album cover, contains nudity. But Farrell sees the video as an artistic expression rather than a commercial venture. “I’ve been waiting all my life to get some money to do some art,” he explains. “It’s the change of a lifetime for an artist. You think I’m going to blow it now by considering people who are unartistic? There’s not a chance in hell.”
The fact that the video, which artfully captures the band’s frantic stage show, might never be seen on MTV is of little concern to Farrell. “I don’t think it won’t be seen,” he insists. “Either I’ll have to think of a way to create a new market for our video, or it’ll be seen in the clubs where the kids go. I can’t sit around and think about what MTV likes. They’re not part of my life.”
The nude clips are of Farrell’s girlfriend, K.C., and show the plaster casting process used to create the sculpture for Nothing’s Shocking. Mostly, though, the video is a testament to the band’s ability to whip their audiences into a frenzy. On stage, Farrell hurls his lean, naked torso and long dreadlocks about like a madman. His lyrics, buried somewhere beneath screeching guitars and a distorting echo, are delivered with all the composure of a banshee.
Will he allow the video to be shown without the nude scenes? “Play it with the bits or get out of my face,” he says. “Those bits are put there because they’re part of the expression. You might not like it and it might not be worth a shot, but that’s what I foresaw for the video.”
Although Farrell knows his actions are limiting his record company’s ability to promote the record, he has no intention of cleaning up his act. “Believe me, there’s been plenty of talk about the video down at Warner Brothers,” he points out. “But my original discussion with them and my original argument [was] that, ‘Look, if you’re gonna sign this band, then you sign the band for how the band is. If not, sign another band.’ But that’s the way it is. I feel bad for them in a way, because I know I’m taking away a major tool for them. And I did the same thing with the music. I took away, I think, a pretty big tool by keeping the profanity. If I’d taken out the profanity, maybe they could have gotten certain things on the radio that they can’t.” (As it turns out, Warner Bros. has managed to get some of the album’s “cleaner” tracks on the radio. CMJ New Music Report lists 36 station nationwide with a “jones for Jane’s Addiction,” not including LA’s KROQ, which regularly plays two of the album’s selection.)
“The main thing to me is the music,” Farrell says emphatically. “All those other things are just gravy. Things that are hyped can’t last very long, because they’ll fizzle out if there’s no substance underneath. I’ve always tried to build the foundations of this band on our live shows. You can’t knock us out; you can’t dump us. Because all we have to do is go out there and play live. And that’s all we’ve been doing to sell this record. And this record has sold really, really well for a band that’s not been on the radio or MTV.”
Part of its popularity owes to the music critics, both American and British, who are hailing Jane’s Addiction as the second coming. Literally. Reviews of Nothing’s Shocking have call the band everything from “the rightful heir to Led Zeppelin” to “more qualified than Captain Kirk to break new ground and open doors out beyond the Twilight Zone.”
Jane’s Addiction are exploring new frontiers with their raw and unrelenting “time warp rock.” From Farrell’s cryptic and compelling lyrics to the band’s psychedelic-tinged instrumentation, they roam freely, almost wildly, through a maze of speed, sight and sound. Washes of white noise and thrashing metal chords dissolve into gentle acoustic portraits. Farrell’s gritty tenor is at times a defiant shriek raging against society, at times a compassionate observer of the downtrodden. “It would almost be pretentious for me to sit here and tell you exactly what we’re doing to break new ground, because it would sound really contrived,” he says. “But there’s definitely a new scent in the air. Things feel and look different, to me anyway, when I see the video and hear the record.”
To some, that scent isn’t terribly sweet, but Farrell says he’s used to people missing the point. In fact, he finds it healthy, even amusing. “People have done reviews of the record and sat there and cut me down so bad,” he nonchalantly explains, “and pointed a finger at all these things that are wrong about the record. And I read them and I just laugh to myself. Because everything they point out is something that I’ve tried to do on purpose so it would break ground. And they look at it like it’s a flaw.
“I have confidence that the band is just a really good band and it’s going to be liked on its own merit,” he adds. “It might take a little bit more time, but I’m not concerned about the short-term. I’ve seen too many cases where a band’s gone in two years. And it’s because they’re full of nothing. They’ve got no character. I’ve got confidence that this band’s going to succeed, whether its seen on MTV or not.”
No one can say that Jane’s Addiction lacks character, or, at the very least, guts. “Jane’s Addiction are the foremost experts on beauty,” Farrell writes in the band’s saga. “They are the biggest braggarts, money grabbers. Their mascot is a rooster. They can make a song out of everything. They say they can blow you away because they know they can. If they couldn’t they swear they’d shut up – but they can.”
The story goes on to tell of how the band came together. Farrell, an LA street kid who got his start doing impersonations of Bowie, Jaggar and Sinatra at a private Newport Beach club, was looking for a new bass player for his band, Psi-Com. The band’s members, it seems, were converting to Hare Krishna one by one. “Within their music lay the squirming seeds of Jane’s Addiction, mixed with the fanatical wailings of god worship,” he writes.
At the time, Farrell was sharing and eight-room hose with Jane, “a personal friend who shall remain personal,” and twelve other roommates. Bassist Eric Avery was a friend of Jane’s and she put him in touch with Farrell. “Eric put his head down and locked into something,” he recounts. “He played the same groove over and over for about 45 minutes. It was the first song Jane’s Addiction ever played together.”
The pair, sometimes aided by a drummer, started playing impromptu gigs around town. “I would supply what the guitar dos, your musical wash, while Eric held down a rhythm, and then I would just say poetry,” Farrell explains. “I’d be singing it, but I had a big wealth of my own poetry intermittently through the courts of his jam. It was all improvisational and some of it was really good.”
Some of it still is. Farrell uses scant, yet meaningful lyrics – a new form of rock ‘n’ roll haiku – to reflect his view on the world. “When Perry Farrell… offers his views on, say, pervasive media violence [in the psychodrama “Ted, Just Admit It”] or the social order [in the horn-spiked “Idiots Rule”], he doesn’t have much to say that’s new,” a Rolling Stone critic wrote. “But when he tells us where he is coming from, Jane’s Addiction is at its disturbing best: ‘Had a Dad’ and ‘Standing in the Shower… Thinking,’ for example, are hard-boiled riff rockers, unsettling, lyrically incisive and musically excessive.”
“When you’re writing lyrics, you have to get to the point right away, because you’re competing with the music, and the music is traveling,” Farrell says. “And you’ve got to keep up with it. But at the same time, you’ve got t slow a person down enough so that they know what you’re saying.”
Nevertheless, eh feels his lyrics are secondary to the music. “I’m at the point now where I believe that the instrument, which is trying to imitate the voice to being with, is really more important when it comes to popular music,” he states. “Take for example all the shitty bands who are putting together things that have nothing to say, but people go along because they like the melody, they like the instruments on it. I realize the ultimate importance is not the lyric of the song. In fact, I can write some incredibly great lyrics, but if it’s just not grooving, if it just doesn’t hit that nerve, I would say, ‘Save it for a poetry book.’”
Whether or not a song will groove depends on Farrell’s bandmates, especially Navarro and Avery, who build the instrumentation. “We do different kinds of collaborations all the time,” Farrell explains. “A lot of the time I’ll come in with something I’ve worked out on guitar and I’ll give it to Dave. And he’ll take that and do something that a real guitarist would do to it. I frame it out and then the guys will come in and work on it. Sometimes it’ll change, sometimes it won’t. It’s never cut and dry like, ‘Here’s the song. This is how you play it.”
Farrell is particularly pleased with the way “Ted, Just Admit It” came together. “’Ted’ was written without thought of music,” he says. “It was written right at the moment I was frying on acid and watching a video called Murder: No Apparent Motive. And it was just interviews with murderers. And, of course, you got to relieve the dastardly deed through dramatization. And after that I just sat down and put a melody behind it. But it was good because I had a chance to see what the words did and then put music to accompany the words, rather than ice versa, which is the way a lot of let’s just say bad rock band will word. They’ll start with the song, then hurry up and throw words down on top of it.”
Jane’s Addiction are at their musical and lyrical best on “Jane Says,” an emotionally evocative portrait of a drug addict, and “Summertime Rolls,” a rambling ballad whose strained vocal harmonies and simple acoustic melody are reminiscent of a nursery rhyme. But it’s the riveting “Mountain Song,” subject of the video, that best reflects Farrell’s disregard for the rules. “It’s like cash in, do it now, don’t let anything stop you,” he says of the lyrical message. “I look at life like ‘I do what I want. And some things are illegal.’”
Farrell readily admits that Nothing’s Shocking is just the beginning or Jane’s Addiction, who’ve signed a seven record deal with Warners. But he refuses to disclose his ultimate dream for the band for fear a wealthier band will steal his ideas. Neither will he discuss his musical influences. “I don’t care to talk about them,” he says tersely. “Would it really matter if I like Charlie Parker? Where do you hear that in my music?” (He does, as it turns out, like Charlie Parker, and says he rarely listens to rock ‘n roll.)
And Farrell is initially reluctant to reveal his age, although he quickly rationalizes that the years he spent on the street have contributed to his current success. “The only thing that throws me about being 29 is that I feel like, ‘Well, why didn’t you make it when you were 21?’ But I wasn’t involved in this when I was 21. I was doing crazy shit. Now I’ve got some backbone.”
Despite his late entry, Farrell insists he’ll get out when he’s done what he set out to do. “Twenty years from now, if I’m around, I don’t plan on singing ‘Idiots Rule,’” he claims. “I plan on having a completely different life. And I feel like I’m going to get more into the fine art aspect of things as time goes on. I still haven’t accomplished everything I want with the music. And when I do I’ll step out of it.”
For the time being, though, he’s pleased with where he is – and that includes being the center of controversy. “I’m not expecting everybody to like it. I don’t think it’s possible anyway. But I think it’s good stuff. Otherwise, I wouldn’t’ do it.”