Ritual de lo Habitual

Posted on July 27, 2007


By Darran Anderson

“Ladies and gentlemen – we have more influence over their children than you do, but we love them. Bred and spread in Los Angeles, Jane’s Addiction!”

Los Angeles is a monument to man’s insanity. A place where nobody dares get out of their cars between destinations and the freeways are the ghosts of the Wild West wagon trails. A city where they build cathedrals and skyscrapers of glass and steel on the world’s biggest fault line, where millionaires build luxury homes surrounded by highly flammable vegetation. A city sent loco by the unrealities of Hollywood and the inheritance of Manifest Destiny, more famous for its deaths than its births, its darkness than its Pacific light: River Phoenix convulsing outside the Viper Room, the Black Dahlia, O.J.’s glove, the bar flies of Buk, the Bloods and Crips, Charlie’s Angels carving their way through Cielo Drive. Even the famous L.A. bands (The Doors, Love, X, Black Flag) seem strangely alien, too dark for the Californian sun. The desert heat drives creativity underground, the promise of fame ends turning tricks on Sunset Strip. There was no band that would belong to and personify this nocturnal world more than Jane’s Addiction.

“Señores y señoras: nosotros tenemos más influencia con sus hijos que tú tienes, pero los queremos. Creados y greados de Los Ángeles, Juana’s Addicción!” So it goes, a lone female voice on a tannoy, intoning proud and threatening, before the band surge into life with their trademark, “Here we go!”

You can make the case for a dozen bands having a crucial role in inventing what became modern alt-rock: The Pixies, Faith No More, Husker Du, Sonic Youth, R.E.M.. In those early days, and indeed since, there were none deeper, more ambitious and ultimately more fucking beautiful than Jane’s.

It was the eighties, a cultural no mans land populated by hairspray bands, where the living envied the dead. W.A.S.P., Twisted Sister, Def Leppard, Styx, Motley Crue. Star jumps. Sweatbands. Pyrotechnics. Blow-jobs during drum solos. Poodle perms. Spandex. Something was rotten in the state of rock music.

Following the suicide of his artist mother, and in a sly reference to peripheral, New York-born Perry Bernstein changed his surname to Farrell and trekked to the west coast. Crashing in his car and living hand to mouth in a succession of dead-end jobs, he formed his first band the goth-punk Psi-Com, thrashing out a handful of demos and an auspicious limited edition album, the most notable aspect of which was the track ‘Xiola’, Perry’s first tribute to his teenage muse. When Psi-Com disintegrated, the singer Carla Bozulich introduced Perry to the bass guitarist Eric Avery. Jamming together under the name the Illuminotics, they soon added the drummer Stephen Perkins and the guitarist Dave Navarro, the latter sharing a similarly tragic upbringing to Farrell (when Navarro was 15, his actress mother and aunt were murdered by an ex-boyfriend, only escaping with his life by a last minute change of plans that he has attributed to an act of god).

Whether the chemistry was in the shared hardships or musical interests or their fondness for decadence and substance (ab)use the four clicked, writing the Native American war-dance that is the ‘Mountain Song’ in their first practise session. Christening themselves Jane’s Addiction after Jane Bainter, a one-time heroin-addled housemate, they took to playing the downtown dives and strip-clubs. Farrell attributed their success to their trash collecting instincts which oddly makes sense: they took disparate elements from their predecessors, what they could salvage from the musical scrapyard of the previous forty years and made something new from it all. There’s the grandiosity of Led Zeppelin, the eerie sense of space in Joy Division, the punk braggadocio of The Stooges, the backstreets glam of New York Dolls, the art-grit of the Velvet Underground, the petits mort of The Doors, a touch of gothic via Bauhaus and The Cure. Added to the influences are Perkin’s unique tribal rhythms, the hypnotism of Avery’s basslines, Farrell’s swooping peerless falsetto and Navarro’s layers of guitar winding together to give a psychedelic edge all their own. It was punk without the Luddite quality, unconstrained music that wasn’t afraid to be intelligent or arty, music that sounded dangerous because it was. The puritans condemned them and succeeded, as they always do, in publicising them more than the band ever could themselves. And if rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t have the old folks screaming at their televisions in disgust, what’s the point of it?

Recorded live their self-titled indie-label debut is a propitious but somewhat understated introduction. There’s no doubt it contains standout moments: the twilight anthem ‘Whores’, the delicate ‘I Would For You’, the resurgent cover of the Velvet’s ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’, the winsome ‘My Time’.

On a dark day for free-spirited music, Tipper Gore (wife of Democrat politician Al) eavesdropped on her teenage daughter playing ‘Darling Nikki’ by Prince with its charming opening lines, “I knew a girl named Nikki / I guess you could say she was a sex friend.” Outraged, she formed the Parents Music Resource Centre, an woefully influential committee that hounded artists McCarthy-style over sex, violence or drug references on their records, against their right to free expression enshrined in the American Constitution. In response to the mandatory Parental Advisory stickers on albums, Frank Zappa questioned whether Jewish artists, like himself, should place yellow stars on their records. Figures as disparate as Dee Snyder and John Denver were called forward to give evidence. Into this battle of the culture wars came Nothing’s Shocking. The title would be supremely ironic.

Many bands had faced the wrath of the US establishment in the past. The CIA and FBI kept tabs on everyone from John Lennon to James Brown. The manager of MC5, John Sinclair was sent down for ten years for having two joints, a sentence more designed to castrate his band’s radical stance than anything to do with the rule of law. The Dead Kennedy‘s were driven to the point of ruin, prosecuted under grounds of perverting the minds of minors for including H.R. Giger‘s Penis Landscape painting on the sleeve-art of Frankenchrist. Fail to toe the line, sing anything but inane pop confections and the weight of the state could be brought down upon you. This group of drug-users, once managed by a prostitute, who espoused a liberated attitude to sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll (“All my brain and body need,” Perry would later sing, with a tip of the hat to the late great Ian Dury) were sitting targets before they’d even started. Knowing so, they came out fighting with a cover that featured Farrell’s artwork: a naked pair of siamese twins, complete with flaming heads. Trouble was imminent.

The important thing about Nothing’s Shocking is not the controversy surrounding it but that it is musically and lyrically the most astonishing album in a decade of diminishing returns. It’s a Revolver for the fuck-ups of Generation X. Some may assert that, the admittedly brilliant, Nevermind revitalised alternative rock music but Nirvana, as Cobain freely admitted, walked the line Daydream Nation, Surfer Rosa and Nothing’s Shocking had already laid. The highlights of the album are plenty: the impressionist wall of sound washes of ‘Up The Beach’, the shuddering punk of ‘Had A Dad’, even the supermarket jazz-muzak of ‘Thank You Boys’ stands as a charming interlude. Aided on horns by the finest talents of the close-knit L.A. music scene (Flea of the Chili Peppers, Angelo Moore and Chris Dowd of Fishbone), ‘Idiots Rule’ is a simultaneous tribute and demolition of funk music. There’s the savante lyrics of the bristling ‘Standing In The Shower’ (“I was standing in the shower thinking / about what makes a man / an outlaw or a leader / I’m thinking about power”), the ferocious god-swoon of ‘Ocean Size’ (“I wanna be more like the ocean / no talkin man, all action”) and then ‘Jane Says’. You can hear the latter a thousand times and still get the same shiver of recognition with the opening notes. A pulp novel condensed into song (“Jane says / I’m done with Sergio”), its depiction of life on the periphery stands as some of the finest streetwise lyrics since that rueful day when Lou Reed ditched the eyeliner.

The most innovative work of the band comes when they broaden out into the epic and it’s no coincidence the two finest tracks are also the longest. A winding snake of a tune, ‘Ted Just Admit It’ dissects the media and the public’s disgust/morbid fascination with murder. Sampling the soon-to-be-frazzled serial killer Ted Bundy, it’s less a study of the dark side of modern life than an experience of it, all the more chilling because it avoids clear judgement or opinion (“And then he came / now sister’s not a virgin anymore…well it’s just like the show before / the news is just another show / with sex and violence”). Rarely has rock music sounded more intelligent and dangerous than in the the white heat of the ending (“Because of this thing / that’s in me / is it not in you? / is it not your problem? / baby to a mother”). When Trent Reznor compiled the soundtrack for Oliver Stone‘s Natural Born Killers he placed ‘Ted Just Admit It’ at its centre. Jane’s Addiction had captured in seven minutes what it would take Stone several hours and the resources of Hollywood to do.

The light to ‘Ted Just Admit It”s darkness is ‘Summertime Rolls’. Beginning as a brittle, spectral hymn, it builds, all wistful swirls and lullabies, until a final overwhelming crescendo (“Well… she sings a song / and I listen to what it says”). It’s the highpoint of the album and a prime example of the remarkably evocative quality of Jane’s Addiction’s music. These are songs that latch onto events and people and experiences and stay with you, evoking memories, conjuring up the sweet melancholy of lost friendships and places that are no more and things that could have been, an indecipherable feeling at once elevating and heart-rending. It’s in the “it aint easy living” refrain of ‘Ocean Size’, the “if you see my dad” of ‘Had A Dad’, the “here we go now” of ‘Up The Beach’, the middle eight of ‘Idiots Rule’, the climax of ‘Summertime Rolls’.

With their ascent to critical acclaim and popularity, dark forces began gathering around Jane’s Addiction. They may have been genuine artists, gifted musicians and have in Farrell an intellectual, poetic spokesman (whose statements were much healthier than the “I hate myself and want to die” sentiments that would come later with grunge), but they were also libertines, sexual deviants, junkies. Despite going platinum and being nominated for a Grammy, the album received little airplay, their videos were heavily censored and the album was banned by seven major retailers including the omnipotent Wal-Mart. Sober miserabilists in high places were gunning for them.

Matters would come to a head with the release of Ritual de lo Habitual. Born from the same burst of activity, Ritual is a much more ambitious affair, an exploratory epic based around free and deeply personal concepts of sex, drugs and death. The first half is deceptively brash and laconic, a manic gallop from the riotous ‘Stop’ and ‘Ain’t Nobody Leaving’ (the most aggressive defences of the environment and racial harmony you]ll ever hear) to the ghost dance of ‘Obvious’. It was with the hit single, and ode to the delights of petty theft, ‘Been Caught Stealing’ that the band burst into the public consciousness. Aided by a John Waters-esque video (directed by Perry’s girlfriend, the artist Casey Niccoli), the lively funk track gained extensive MTV rotation, unit sales and propelled the band to massive “crossover” success in corporate cock-speak.

It was with side two and again its twin epics that Jane’s Addiction struck their greatest claim to immortality. The common thread to both is the presence and absence of Xiola Blue, Farrell’s young artist muse. ‘Three Days’ is centred on a real-life occasion when, on the occasion of her father’s funeral, Xiola visited Perry and Casey and spent three blessed, debauched days lost in drugs and sex together. Close analysis would rob the work of its magic but it takes in a multitude of things; sex and death, night and day, the sacred and the blasphemous (“erotic Jesus lays with his Mary’s / loves his Mary’s / bits of puzzle / fitting each other / all now with wings”), fitted to the soundtrack of the heavens cracking open and framed in elegiac verse (“my head it landed to the sound of cricket bows…”). When Farrell roars “1, 2, 3, 4” towards the end, there comes with it a feeling that music contains something the written word or celluloid can never capture, that no other form of art can move us like it because they are all of the head and music is of the soul. Take all your Madame Bovarys and your Citizen Kanes. We’ve no need for them now.

On the same scale, ‘Then She Did’ is simply a high water mark of alternative rock, a soaring near-classical or ecclesiastical masterpiece, laden with glaciers of sound and epiphanies. There’s a strange turn into the doldrums halfways through like nothing else in modern music, a dissonant atmospheric pressure drop that makes the surging return of the orchestra all the more powerful. You listen to it and it’s as if all the ideas haven’t been used up and anything can still be done.

The soft-spoken poetry at the beginning of ‘Three Days’ deepens the impact of the two songs. To the musical accompaniment, Farrell intones “At this moment / You should be with us / Feeling like we do / Like you love to / But never will again / I miss you, my dear Xiola.” In ‘Then She Did’ he tastefully recounts her fate, never mentioning any details of her overdose and death at the age of 19 which makes it all the more devastating. She died alone in her apartment in the East Twenties, New York, her body being discovered by friends when she failed to turn up for school. Instead of directly focusing on the tragedy, he provides the forlorn ambiguous title ‘Then She Did’, the opening lines, “Now her paints are dry…hey ho where did you go? / I don’t know,” and the unbearably poignant ending directed to her ghost, “Will you say hello to my ma? / Will you pay a visit to her? / She was an artist just as you were / I’d have introduced you to her…she was unhappy just as you were.” It is grief as raw and celebratory as any captured on magnetic tape.

The album ends with ‘Of Course’, a gypsy-style Klezmer tune, circling a theme of self-destruction (‘When I was a boy / my big brother held on to my hand / and he made me slap my own face…he was trying to teach me something / and now I know what it was”) and ‘Classic Girl’, an unabashed love song unfairly overshadowed by what has come before. Free of any schmaltz, it begins with the sounds of a drive-by shooting in the distance and negates nostalgia with a resounding cry, “They may say / ‘Those were the days…,’ / but in a way / you know / for us these are the days.” The album finishes with a barely audible “goodnight.” It would be the last words of the original Jane’s Addiction.

If the odes to sex and junk and the suggestions that Jesus enjoyed threesomes weren’t enough to have Middle America frothing at the gums the cover of the album would. Having been burned by the reaction to Nothing’s Shocking, compromise was off the cards. Framed by an altarpiece adorned with semi-voodoo relics of the Santaria religion, Perry had constructed three papier-mache sculptures depicting him, Casey and Xiola naked in a menage a trois. A powerful heartfelt work of art, it nevertheless ensured the album was banned in thousands of stores nationwide. Disgusted, the band issued a version with a cover simply consisting of the text of the First Amendment of the Constitution promising ‘freedom of speech’ as a God-given right to all American citizens, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peacefully assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

On the album’s back cover was emblazoned, “Hitler’s syphilis-ridden dreams almost came true. How could it happen? By taking control of the media. And an entire country was led by a lunatic? We must protect our First Amendment, before sick dreams become law. Nobody made fun of Hitler??!”

Inside the record sleeve was a Xiola-adorned booklet entitled ‘Novena’ containing a Farrell-penned essay To The Mosquitoes that in customary fashion ranges from the devastatingly perceptive to the absurd, often in the same sentence. Addressing the parents of their youthful audience, it reassures and accuses them at the same time, “Oh, mother, father, your blindness to our most blessed gift, NATURE, leaves us with the overwhelming task of correcting your utter mess. It also proves that you are no judge of art, nor of beauty… Try to restrict our freedom and we will fight even harder to preserve them. Mothers and fathers…you are responsible for more destruction done to this planet in the last one hundred years than in all of mankind’s history combined…I am not sure what condition the world we are inheriting is really in. I just have a fear of smokestacks, and I don’t trust the men who feed their flames…”

Farrell’s recurring Kafka-esque metaphor of the reactionary, puritan forces in America as mosquitoes is a potent one, “A bug so old, it was known to Confucius as the ‘intellectual mosquito’ producing the faint buzz spreading to all of us the suggestion that the black man was not to be treated equally. For this I envied the black man because it gave him a passion for his living and a cause to die for” concluding that it is this same creature that blights his band and all artists, “The paper these words are written on also contains the music of Jane’s Addiction…It is a daydream of the music, made tangible. It will take effort to get, it is being sold, but we are having difficulties. There is an invisible force, the same one you have heard faintly buzzing all your life. This time it buzzes much louder.”

In the end outside forces couldn’t destroy them, they had to do that by themselves. Raked by personality clashes and deepening drug addictions, the band imploded long before their time, coming to onstage fistfights and acrimony. There was one final triumph as Farrell led the band through a tour and the first incarnation of his travelling festival Lollapalooza. Curated by the band, they assembled like-minded musicians who had inspired them and the resulting line-up of Jane’s Addiction, Nine Inch Nails, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Butthole Surfers, Living Colour, Ice T & Body Count and the Rollins Band was a roaring success, a real breakthrough moment of alt-rock. Following a final show in Hawaii, they parted ways. They’d barely survived into a new age they had helped create.

And that was it. They left behind three albums, the video collection Soul Kiss and a handful of rarities that would later surface in the compilation Kettle Whistle. There were other curios; Farrell and Niccoli’s morphine haze of a film The Gift and Farrell’s spoken word poem Letters To Xiola.

Their half-life has been a tantalizing series of what ifs? With the L.A. riots in full fury, Farrell and Perkins formed Porno for Pyros, their self-titled debut being an eclectic fusion of funk and elements of world music, containing highlights like the hit single ‘Pets’, ‘Black Girlfriend’ and ‘Cursed Female’. The follow-up Good Gods Urge was less commercially successful but had arguably more depth and atmosphere, looking to the South Pacific and Mexico in the serene Mariachi-infused ‘100 Ways’, the dark waltz of ‘Porpoise Head’, the stomping ‘Tahitian Moon’ and the cut-up funk of ‘Freeway’. Farrell delved further into the counterculture, masterminding Lollapalooza to the level of a national institution, championing culture jams and flash mobs, releasing electronic dance music under the pseudonym DJ Peretz and, at the head of the Jubilee campaign, helping to free over 2000 people, who were forced to live in slavery in Sudan.

Avery and Navarro briefly formed the band Deconstruction releasing one record, which has since become a treasured artifact amongst those in the know. Deconstruction never performed live but in their short existence they created an underground classic, a sort of protean beatnik-inspired collage of modern America, the highlights ‘L.A. Song’, ‘America’ and the shimmering instrumental ‘Iris’ sitting alongside Jane’s, or anybody’s, finest. It’s a fascinating series of snapshots that ceased to exist even before its music was publically heard and is now somehow out of print.

It is hard not to wonder what they’d have been capable of had they stayed together and capitalised on Lollapalooza. Having helped create the alternative 90s they fell apart at the turning point and were overshadowed by another disaffected youth from Aberdeen in Washington State, who combined The Pixies and ‘More Than A Feeling’ and got swallowed up by the tsunami that followed. You could say Jane’s offered an imagination and experimentalism that was missing in the often leaden power of grunge, but alas it’s all conjecture.

Years later, when they finally re-united, it was without Avery, meaning they weren’t quite the same band. The resultant Relapse and Jubilee tours were lavish affairs with circus atmospherics, burlesque dancers, strippers, fire-breathers and trapeze artists. By anyone else’s standards, the album Strays was an impressive cocksure return but it seemed a strangely conventional album for Jane’s Addiction, hampered by the safeness and sheen of Bob Ezrin’s production and his desire to iron out the arty pretensions, the interesting kinks and left-field moments. There are signs of the old fire: the firestorm lead-off single ‘Just Because’, ‘Price I Pay’, ‘True Nature’ and especially in the closer ‘To Match The Sun’, a potential epic which is extinguished just as it’s about to take off. For the first time they were riding out the zeitgeist rather than creating it. With the return of the egos and old tensions, the band predictably imploded again.

Each has moved onto other things: Farrell fronts the impressive Satellite Party, Navarro and Perkins have formed the heavier Panic Channel. While Farrell and Navarro covet the television appearances, A-list collaborations and the music mags, Eric Avery has continued recording with Polar Bear and now in a solo capacity with the forthcoming Help Wanted album. The others may fight over the pomp and glamour but arguably the artistic soul of Jane’s remains with its most mysterious former member as evidenced by quietly remarkable songs such as ‘Belly’ and ‘Flyer’.

For an instant, they existed together and then were gone. “Sometimes the best creative relationships are the most combustible and they aren’t meant to last forever,” the band said and they’re right. It wasn’t meant to be any other way.


Darran Anderson is co-editor of Dogmatika and editor of the Laika Poetry Review.

Posted in: Listening