Trash ‘N’ Vaudeville
A Tale of Two L.A. Bands
Details, February 1989
Los Angeles – Remember Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, railing about cleaning those mean streets of their slime, scum and filth? One thing ole Trav didn’t count on was having it all wash ashore on Jones Beach. But New York’s not the only place where used syringes are dotting the coastline. Even in LA, where the garbage goes out once a week and magically disappears, there are sewage spills and old pill bottles in Santa Monica Bay.
Perry Farrell, leader of LA’s underground darlings, Jane’s Addiction, likens the environmental crisis to the current cultural repression from the right.
“You can only clean up so much,” the twentysomething Flushing, Queens, native explains. “There aren’t enough trash cans to hold it all. People keep stuffing it in the top until the bottom gives way, but the dirt doesn’t disappear, it just comes pouring out the other end.”
“We’re that other end. We’re what happens when you try to suppress, compress and repress. It’s like German Expressionism. That was some really strong art and it came out of oppression So, I’m really looking forward to these coming years….”
Farrell wears an earring through his nose and matted dreadlocks dyed red and stuffed underneath a cowboy hat tied with a red bandana. There are probably a lot of people who’d like to stuff him in a can. He has just returned from Warner Bros., which won a bidding war about a year ago to sign the band, and received their blessings to proceed on a video “that doesn’t go for the MTV market.”
“Is ‘kiss my tuchus’ a blessing?” he chortles, fumbling in his pocket for a near-empty baggie of pot. My kind of guy. And my kind of band.
Most of the attention on the Los Angeles rock ‘n’ roll scene over the past year and a half has centered on the remarkable success of Guns N’ Roses, a prototypical hard-rock band in the neo-classical blues ‘n’ grunge tradition of the Rolling Stones and Aerosmith, with a dash of the punkish spirit of the New York Dolls and the Sex Pistols. That group’s debut album, Appetite for Destruction, has sold more than five million albums in the U.S. alone and topped the LP charts for four weeks. But Guns’ amazing climb has been the culmination of a particularly lucrative period in LA rock ‘n’ roll, starting with Van Halen, stretching through Mötley Crüe, Ratt and Quiet Riot to Poison, Great White, L.A. Guns and Faster Pussycat. There’s a vibrant SoCal youth culture that flocks to hard rock clubs like Gazzarri’s, the Country Club and Doug Weston’s Troubadour, where underage patrons are stamped, allowed to attend but not drink.
“New York’s cold, expensive and there’s nowhere to play,” says the colorfully-named Taime Downe, the vocalist for Faster Pussycat and founder of the famed Cathouse, a venue which has become a meeting ground for the city’s punk-metal scene. “Here, there are places to play and people who come to see you.”
“LA’s got good rhythm,” adds Perry Farrell, no slouch in the moniker department himself. “Everyone just things about the heavy metal shit coming from here. But there’s a Latin, salsa thing and a funk thing happening here, too. Most of the metal stuff doesn’t even come from LA. It just gravitates here from all over. These people spawn from places like Iowa. I mean, I don’t hang around with a bunch of dumb Seventies rockers. I know I’ve never met a guy with a shag haircut who was an idiot, have you?”
Of course, California natives are as rare as a day without sunshine. Taime Downe came to Los Angeles from Seattle and set up shop working at Retail Slut on trendy Melrose Avenue, where he filled each customer’s shopping bag with fliers from his band.
“I got to be friends with a lot of weird people there, like skinheads and stuff,” he recalls. “They’d tell their friends and we’d get a lot of skinheads at our shows. We’d also get blacks into funk and dance because we had a groove. We’re basically a blues-based rock ‘n’ roll group, which separated us from the typical heavy metal bands on the scene.”
Like rock ‘n’ roll itself, LA’s local scene has splintered into numerous offshoots, from surf punk to speed metal to thrash to glam to hardcore, with minimal interaction between the various subcults.
“Back in the Sixties, you could be into a wide range of different music,” laments Greg Steele, Faster Pussycat’s darkly good looking guitarist. “Nowadays, it’s like if you’re into Metallica, say, you can’t like Poison. Kids shouldn’t feel like they’ll get laughed at for being into certain bands. That’s not right.”
In fact, Jane’s Addiction and Faster Pussycat, despite the fact they started about the same time, three years ago, in the same city, playing back-to-back basics, postmodern punk-metal hybrid, are at distinct poles of the LA rock scene. Perry Farrell’s primal-scream psychodramas have been compared to both Lou Reed and Jim Morrison, while J.A. guitarist David Navarro’s shards of psychedelic fuzztones crossed with an unadorned acoustic approach has evoked the hallowed name of Led Zeppelin. If JA is closer to Sonic Youth than Kingdom Come – in other words, more art than rock – then Faster Pussycat is more rock than metal, closer to the Georgia Satellites than Mötley Crüe. In a melting pot as incestuous as the LA rock circuit, those are important distinctions.
“When us and Guns N’ Roses first came out, everyone went from Poison look-alikes in spandex and makeup to leather, scarves and bandanas,” boasts Faster’s Downe.
“Everyone at Gazzarri’s was trying to be Van Halen,” echoes Greg. “Now they all look like us. That’s one thing about this town. A lot of people will jump on anything that’s happening.
That’s an accusation you can’t aim at J.A.’s Perry Farrell, who is determined to do things his way. The tag line on Jane’s Addiction is that the band’s full of shit and great at the same time, capable of the fake-shock ranting “sex is violent” in “Ted, Just Admit It…” as well as the poignant slice-of-life in the signature “Jane Says” or the therapeutic release of “Had A Dad.”
“We’re not trying to make fools of ourselves, if that’s what you mean, but if that’s the way you wanna look at it, OK,” says an amiable Farrell. “This is our music. We’re not a PG, singles-type of band. Warner’s is allowing us the time and freedom to develop naturally. We’re selling a lot of records for a band that gets no radio or MTV airplay.”
And for one whose major label bow, Nothing’s Shocking, was pulled form the shelves by seven distributors who found its cover photo – a pair of naked female Siamese twins with their hair on fire – offensive. After Farrell convinced them his sculpture, for which his girlfriend Casey served as willing model, was art, not porn, the outlets agreed to carry the disc.
“Anybody who’s doing what I’m doing wants to be a success,” he says. “Of course we want people to hear our music and enjoy it, so we can continue playing it for them. But, the further away we can get form the local scene, the healthier our music is gonna be. The worst thing that can happen to your music is for it to get too methodical, too formulaic. I don’t listen to rock n’ roll. I listen to whatever I can get my hands on. I just got an album of East Memphis soul, Stax, stuff like that. I like Cajun music. I don’t get off on hearing that same rock ‘n’ roll riff. It’s boring. I don’t feel I have to become a rock ‘n’ roller just because of my age and the instruments I use. I do whatever is enjoyable.
Faster Pussycat’s speeding-up Chuck Berry-by-way-of-Johnny Thunders riffs on their self-titled debut LP are more roots-oriented.
“We’re not so much metal as hard rock,” says Downe. “We don’t write about anarchy in the UK or stuff like that. We write about our own lives, our own problems. People hear enough about that crap on the news.”
“We’re not trying to do anything new and amazing,” adds sidekick Steele. “We’re doing what any kids in any garage can do. We’re a bluesy band that can go into any club and just play.”
Both Jane’s Addiction and Faster Pussycat’s first albums are selling without the benefit of radio or MTV exposure, a fact Farrell is only too glad to point out.
“I’m doing what I want to do,” he says. “Why should I compromise? The Beatles went from thinking they had to compromise to realizing they didn’t have to. By the time they did the White Album, they were doing what they wanted to do. I’m just starting out with our White Album. I’ve already clued the record company and everyone else about that. If you don’t like it, say so now and get out of the way, because I’m doing it this away until I decide to stop. I’m not just a rock ‘n’ roll musician. There’s so much more to me than that. This is just a phase.”
“I don’t feel I have anything to lose. I’m having fun doing this. I’m singing what I want to sing and I’m visually putting out what I want to see. Luckily, people are buying it.”
If Farrell has his sights set on using rock ‘n’ roll as a springboard for other careers beyond J.A> – he has acted and sculpted – Pussycat’s Downe and Steele are more focused in their immediate plans.
“We’re gonna be what we’re gonna be,” says Downe. “Elektra didn’t tell us to change, and now they’re pleasantly surprised at how well we’ve done. They thought we’d do 30,000 and we’ve ended up selling 250,000. We didn’t get a big advance. The label signed us on a whim and we ended up doing a quarter million. Mötley Crüe’s first album only did 100,000 and they didn’t get any press or radio play, either. The next album will be much heavier. We want to get that hard rock overtone, which I feel was missing on our first record.”
“The best part is people can hear how we progressed,” chimes in Steele about the LP they’ll start to record early in ’89.
Though Jane’s Addiction and Faster Pussycat each hard back to the communalism of Sixties rock ‘n’ roll, tempered through the cynicism of post-punk culture, their message has come a long way from the casual sex ‘n’ drugs of that earlier, more innocent time, darkened by the twin ravages of AIDS ‘n’ crack. Songs like J.A.’s “Pigs in Zen” and F.P.’s “Babylon” portray sex as dangerous, forbidden and, of course, violent. As in Hollywood itself, beneath the glitz and glamour, shoved under the rug and out of sight, is a backlog of psychosexual debris.
“Sex and violence are one and the same,” calmly intones Perry, as his girlfriend Casey looks on unflinchingly. “It’s like when you wake up in the morning and think about whether it’s your lucky day or you should kill yourself. We’re not about vulgarity. It’s not necessary to shock all the time, but there’s still room for things to happen. Take pornography… would you rather see a sensual film with a plot and style or do you just care about big tits? That’s where we are today. We’ve already pushed and seen as much as you can. Now, it’s a matter of taste.”
Taime Downe’s Cathouse is filled with hot, garter-clad El Lay teen queens looking to bed their rock heroes, but even that’s getting pretty old for the club’s founders.
“I don’t fuck a lot of chicks. Never have,” says Pussycat Steele. “I used to fuck a lot,” adds Taime. “It’s like a dog chasing a car. He makes a lot of noise, but sooner or later you know he’s gonna get hit.”
“There are just so many people on this scene who’ll fuck anybody,” complains Greg.
“Yeah, but what comes around goes around,” concludes Taime.
So, as George Bush and Dan Quayle take office to fight against everything Jane’s Addiction and Faster Pussycat stand for, these two hopeful bands slouch toward Babylon with the confidence and conviction which breed like palm trees underneath the sunny LA skies.
“Everyone’s coming out here,” says Downe. “Fuck, when I was a kid, I wanted to come out here, too. The sunshine, the ocean, the blonde bitches….”
“N’yah, I wouldn’t want to give this city too much credit,” sneers Farrell. “Even though I’ve lived in LA for a while, I’ve still got New York in my blood. Shit yeah, I’m a Mets fan. I don’t know if we could have done this there, though. This town’s got a cool thing of its own. There are groups like Fishbone and Red Hot Chili Peppers, with whom we share that block-white crossover thing.”
Which doesn’t explain how you can ride around LA in your car for hours without seeing a single black person, but that’s a subject for another story. There’s no doube Hollywood can be a seductive city, the kind of place where legend claims Orson Wells sat down in an easy chair when he was twenty-one and didn’t get up until he was sixty. The star-making myths are potent, and nowhere are they more apparent than in the city’s diverse and booming local rock scene, surely the equivalent of Fifties Memphis, Sixties London and San Francisco or Seventies New York. But it is also a town that worships youth, and no one realizes that better than young Perry Farrell, who insists he won’t be crooning “Pigs In Zen” when he’s forty years old.
“I don’t want to be singing anything to anybody at that age,” he says. “I want to be fan and on my own island surfing.” Next stop, Hawaii….