Nothing’s Shocking: Meet L.A.’s Wildest New Band Jane’s Addiction
Perry Farrell and Co aren’t always on speaking terms, but they’ve produced a unique blend of punk, metal and funk that’s landed them in the top twenty
February 7, 1991
By David Handelman
The band members aren’t always on speaking terms, but they’ve produced a unique blend of punk, metal and funk that’s landed in the top twenty.
“Attention in the compound, attention in the den,” crackle the speakers throughout the Jane’s Addiction tour bus. “We have a cop right behind us, so please refrain from smoking in the rear window.”
Though there’s hash aboard that must be consumed or discarded before the border crossing between the Netherlands and Germany, this broadcast warning causes hardly a ripple among the four band members — who are sitting as far apart from one another as a bus will allow.
Both bassist Eric A., up front beside the driver, and guitarist Dave Navarro, in his bunk, are currently wrestling with drug recovery and are abstaining; drummer Steve Perkins, though lounging in the back in full view of the police, is simply grooving to a tape of last night’s concert. Only lead singer Perry Farrell is partaking, and he’s sequestered in the lavatory cubicle, using a pipe fashioned out of a soda can.
The mischievous Farrell was recently rumored to be a candidate for rehab himself, but he prefers the occasional self-cleansing with herbal teas. Last year, when the band split from manager Gary Kurfirst, he sued, contending that drugs had clouded the band’s judgment. Kurfirst’s replacement, Lippman Kahane Entertainment, tried to make Farrell take a urine test, causing Farrell to retort — between two songs on the band’s recent album Ritual de lo Habitual — “Get your fucking piss cup out of my fucking face.” And Lippman Kahane, too, was soon gone.
Ironically, when the band formed in 1986, its name had nothing to do with drugs. Jane was a prostitute who supported the band in its early days; depending on his mood, Farrell would identify her addiction as anything from “wrapping herself in wet blankets” or “life’s violent strobes and erotic colors” to, most convincingly, music.
And it was Jane’s Addiction’s glam-gloom music, a wondrous fusion of funk, metal, punk and pretty acoustics, that created a hallucinatory major-label bidding war, landing the band a juicy deal at Warner Bros. and initiating the recent feeding frenzy for alternative bands. But the signing brought with it the classic rock & roll drama: the pressure, the management changes, the funds squandered on experimentation both in the studio and out.
Even as his band mates were getting clean, Farrell was informing the trade publication Hits that heroin is “great.” “I don’t think it’s anybody’s business if I want to sit there and bang myself on the head with a board,” Farrell said. Asked if the drug was dangerous, he replied, “So’s driving. . . . You take your chances.”
In its short life, Jane’s Addiction has made taking chances an art form, poking at slumbering, flabby, middle-aged rock music, trying to revive the intensity and personal passion that used to beat at its core. In this era of Just Say No, lip-syncing and power ballads, the only other band that comes close is fellow L.A. export Guns n’ Roses, but as Farrell has said: “There’s a lot of bands like Guns n’ Roses. There’s not a lot of bands like us.”
In a business most comfortable with categories, however, Jane’s often falls through the cracks. Eric A., for Avery, says: “An interviewer in Amsterdam told us that intellectuals and art students there totally overlook us, view us as some stupid metal band. I sometimes worry about that when I see the bruisers who come backstage.”
Despite the self-consciously attitudinal presentation — Farrell recently cavorted onstage in a black S&M vinyl bodysuit, Perkins often wears skirts, and Navarro and Avery sport tangled, neon dreadlocks — Jane’s isn’t a band of dopey posers. Avery absently quotes authors like Lawrence Durrell and Sylvia Plath; though Navarro sports a tattoo, it’s of Hope II, the portrait of a pregnant woman by the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt. Navarro had it done in memory of his mother, who was brutally murdered by her former boyfriend.
Farrell, too, experienced violence at home; his mother killed herself when he was four. In Ritual’s “Then She Did . . .,” his multitracked, old man’s voice sings to an ex-lover who overdosed, “Will you say hello to my ma? . . . She was an artist, just as you were. . . . She was unhappy, just as you were.” The eight-minute song builds, Zep-style, from quiet meditation to transcendent yowl.
“Our music is an escape, a journey,” says Perkins. “And it represents drug-ridden, fucked-up people — whether we are or not. I like when people are inspired by the music, not just going to see some industry band out to sell records. We might make choices that are harmful to us moneywise, but I don’t want to see a bunch of bored old fellas playing just like the record.”
The choices are usually initiated by the control freak Farrell, 31, an inveterate extremist who is one of rock’s only true multimedia artists. Well before Madonna warranted an episode of Nightline to justify her video, Farrell had codirected with his longtime girlfriend, Casey Niccoli, a riveting R-rated clip for “Mountain Song” and refused to cut it for MTV, which initially banned it. His arresting nude sculptures adorning the album covers for both Nothing’s Shocking and Ritual were at first refused by several record-store chains. To film the Ritual videos, including the irresistible shoplifting romp for “Been Caught Stealing,” Farrell got Warner Bros. to fund a $250,000, hour-long movie, called Gift, to be released as a home video. And then, for the first single off Ritual, the band audaciously released its ten-minute-plus menage a trois epic “Three Days,” which radio adamantly rejected.
Even without the airplay, Ritual still broke Billboard’s Top Twenty and went gold, yet Farrell was soon quoted announcing: “This is going to be my last record, and then I’m out of here. . . . I don’t want to be a rock star.”
Although Ritual is ballsier, more personal and more ambitious than its predecessors (the band also released an independent live album), all but two of its songs were written before the band was signed to Warner Bros., and Farrell says, “I don’t think I’ll better Ritual; the songs I’m working on I plan to save for other projects.”
The other three refuse to comment on Farrell and even profess ignorance of his lyrics. “My dad told me a quote [from Voltaire] that’s really fitting,” says Navarro. ” ‘I may not agree with what it is you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ ”
This tension is part of the legend and magic of Jane’s Addiction — you’ve got to see them because it might be their last show. It’s not calculated — just their peculiar chemistry. Indeed, Avery hasn’t really talked to Farrell in nearly two years, yet the fact doesn’t seem upsetting to any of them. “We butt heads a lot,” says Navarro, “but if we all thought the same, we’d be Poison.”
“Am I gonna be sad?” Dave Navarro is asking Avery. “How was it?”
Wearing a T-shirt from Exodus, the rehab center he attended just before Jane’s Addiction’s first European tour, the twenty-three-year-old, soft-spoken guitarist is sitting in the lobby of a Hamburg hotel. Avery has just returned from the Kunsthalle museum, which Navarro chose to skip.
Avery, 25, looks dazed. “It was so good, I had a real problem getting out of there,” he says. “Look what I saw, up close and personal!” He passes over a brochure.
“No way!” says Navarro, ogling the pictures. “Wow, this is a really early Hockney.”
“There was a room with six Munchs in it,” says Avery.
This half of Jane’s Addiction has been spending much of its time on the Continent wandering the halls of museums. The day the band played Paris, the Louvre was closed, so the two stayed an extra day just to see it.
Avery is the most culturally steeped of the group, thanks to the efforts of his stepfather, actor Brian Avery, who played the make-out king who almost steals Katharine Ross in The Graduate. Avery’s bass bears two stickers: one BUTTHOLE SURFERS and the other BRAHMS. “Back in high school, art was kind of my secret shame,” he says. “I was trying to be a tough guy on the outside, wearing leather and a baseball hat flipped up but carrying Herman Hesse under my arm.” He was kicked out of a series of private and public schools and never graduated.
“I spent a lot of time alone as a kid because I traveled with my dad when he went off to do a show,” Avery says. “He had an old guitar he didn’t know how to play, and when I was thirteen, I taught myself with a Burl Ives how-to book.” He soon switched to drums and, by seventeen, to bass. “It was just so resounding and physical.”
Navarro, the son of an advertising man, attended elementary school with Avery and later briefly dated Avery’s sister. Navarro, too, didn’t finish high school; he was kicked out of L.A.’s Notre Dame High for drugs, conduct and grades. But while there, he drummed in the tartan-and-spats-clad marching band alongside Steve Perkins, the curly-haired, sunny son of a plastics salesman and hair-salon manager. Perkins, who had used his bar mitzvah money to buy his first drum kit, got to play the solo during the school band’s version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk.”
“Marching band was a competitive thing,” recalls Navarro, sipping coffee with his band mates in the Hamburg hotel. “Rehearsals every morning, driving to San Juan Capistrano for contests. We were amazing.”
“Remember when we led the Christmas parade on Hollywood Boulevard?” asks Perkins, also twenty-three.
“Yeah,” says Navarro. “I met Angie Dickinson!”
Eventually, Perkins and Navarro (who’d been playing guitar since childhood) formed a speed-metal band called Disaster, which played local clubs to some success. “Steve and I have been playing together since ninth grade,” Navarro says, “so we almost know what we’re going to do before the other one does it.”
Avery introduced the duo to Perry Farrell, whom he’d met through mutual friend Jane. Farrell had recently quit the band Psi-Com and was performing songs with Avery, accompanied only by chemical-tank drums.
Farrell was born Perry Bernstein in Queens, New York, the son of a jeweler in the city’s diamond district. As a kid, he’d accompany his father on large transactions, either to carry the goods as a precaution or to charm the customers. “All the yentas would buy jewelry off me,” he says. “They couldn’t say no, because I was so goddamn adorable in my Beatle haircut and Beatle suit.”
After his mother’s death, which Farrell declines to discuss, the family moved to Woodmere, Long Island, and later Miami, where he attended high school but preferred surfing. “I like things that are esoteric and strange,” he says, “and school is not full of esoteric and strange things.”
“Perry was the same in high school as he is now,” says his friend Bill Hoftstadter, a landscape architect who designed the lights for Jane’s Addiction’s current tour. “Driven, a great sense of humor. He’d tell stories and always could attract a crowd. And instead of Just Say No, we grew up saying, ‘Let’s Try It.’ ”
Farrell went west to attend college in Oceanside, California, supporting himself by working in a vitamin factory. But the chemicals made his eyelashes and eyebrows fall out, and he dropped out during his freshman year after having a nervous breakdown. Then a job delivering liquor led him to a strange private club in ritzy Newport Beach, where he was asked to “model and dance.”
“They were also pushing prostitution,” says Farrell. “I had to wear a pair of Speedos. It was pretty sleazy stuff.” Soon, however, he was asked to perform — well, lip-sync — to Sinatra and Bowie recordings. “I bullshitted my way to being the star attraction every weekend,” he says. “Then I wanted to try singing, because there’s not many things I’m better suited for. I don’t know — I just look like a singer.” Even today he says that when onstage, “I feel like I’m a prostitute or an erotic dancer — I go out there and the vibe is really a sex vibe.”
Quitting the club, Farrell bought himself a PA and headphones and experimented in his basement apartment; he took his brother Farrell’s first name as his last, creating a pun on peripheral. “If you’re ever really drunk and want to laugh your ass off,” he says, “you should hear some of the early stuff I sang a cappella into a cassette recorder. I can’t believe the people who get into this business when they’re twenty-one and have something to say that’s valid. I sure didn’t.”
But he did by the time Jane’s was formed. “Had a Dad” was about feeling abandoned by God; “Ocean Size,” a plaintive cry of the dispossessed. Titles like “Whores” and “Idiots Rule” were more self-explanatory. He was also artfully processing his voice with heavy echo and other effects, rendering it a fourth instrument.
Jane’s started getting regular gigs at the local underground club Scream. With a possessed gleam in his eye and a neon girdle on his hips, Farrell would slither and prance around like a witch doctor; Navarro and Avery weaved over their guitars in musical trances, and Perkins pounded them all home.
What really caught the major labels’ ears, however, was a wistful acoustic number, “Jane Says,” released as a demo by their then manager, Charley Brown, on his label, Triple X. “Jane says I’ve never been in love,” Farrell sang about his prostitute friend. “No, she don’t know what it is/She only knows if someone wants her/’I want ’em if they want me.’ ”
And the band suddenly found itself in a similar predicament — the corporate music business wanted Jane’s Addiction, but the band didn’t exactly feel loved. Performing before one particularly industry-dense crowd, Farrell yelled out, “Fuck all you guys, we’re making our own record.”
Today, Jane’s seems as terrified of success as most are of failure. Another reason the band says it broke with Lippman Kahane is that it wanted to make Jane’s an arena band, complete with 1-900 phone messages. (The band is currently supervised by its road manager, Ted Gardner, and New Order’s manager, Tom Atencio. Kurfirst will draw thirteen percent of the band’s take until his contract expires later this year.)
“We’re blown away by how far we’ve gotten,” says Avery. “I never thought we’d be on a major label or expected to be playing the same size venues as Sonic Youth or Iggy Pop, people I think of as heroes. It actually scares me. I catch myself trying to live up to some image, judging anything I write or paint as being not caustic or angry enough.” (He also says what finally motivated him to quit drugs in mid-1989 was a friend’s observation that his habit was a “rock & roll cliche.”)
“It’s a strange business,” Farrell says. “A filmmaker doesn’t go from town to town and make the same movie over and over — oh, here comes the murder scene! But as a singer, you’re trapped doing the same thing for the rest of your life. Mick Jagger, I don’t think he even knows what he’s saying anymore when he’s singing `Satisfaction.’ He’s not thinking about being satisfied — he’s like in another world.”
Asked about the fragile unity of Jane’s Addiction, Farrell shrugs. “It’s always hard being in a band,” he says. “Anybody who doesn’t have a hard time probably doesn’t have an opinion. I look at them like we’re working on a project together and we work great together. All you should be concerned about is what it sounds like. And it sounds like we get along.”
“Just what I need, another shmatte,” Farrell says, picking up the shirt a fan has tossed onstage at New York’s Ritz. He throws it back into the sardined crowd, which is swaying like a field of wheat and spitting up the occasional crazed slam dancer.
It’s just before Thanksgiving, and Jane’s Addiction has returned from Europe intact and is selling out almost everywhere, including two New York dates. At a party to celebrate Ritual’s going gold, it’s apparent that the band’s dynamic hasn’t changed much, though Navarro seems to have fallen off the wagon.
Stateside, the Ritual show is more elaborate, with a stage set cluttered with icons inspired by the Mexican religion Santeria that suffuses the album’s cover art. But it’s still stripped down by current rock standards: There are no introductory or exit tapes, no explosions or high-wire acts, no makeup or pouffy hair.
The band still never plays the same set twice. Tonight’s playlist includes a medley of songs by L.A. groups the band views as forefathers: the Doors’ “L.A. Woman,” the Germs’ “Lexicon Devil” and X’s “Nausea.” During “Pig’s in Zen,” Navarro and Avery tongue-kiss.
For the encores, Farrell comes out clutching a wine bottle, dressed only in a towel, which he whips off to reveal black underpants. He douses himself with the wine, then slips and falls dancing around on the wet stage. When “Ocean Size” ends, Navarro lays his guitar on the stage and it reverberates without him.
After returning for “Jane Says,” the band again departs, but Farrell lingers. Staring out at the audience, he smiles, bows and salutes. Earlier in the night he’d commented, “Not bad for a guy from Queens.” For a moment, rock’s dark angel seems content.