25 Years On: The Debut Of Jane's Addiction Revisited
, September 25th, 2012 06:24
A quarter of a century after the release of Jane’s Addiction, John Freeman reflects on why the truly great live band’s debut album left him wanting more
I once swallowed a mouthful of Perry Farrell's sweat. As a depressingly unadventurous heterosexual, it's the only time I've ever exchanged bodily fluids with another man, so I've always basked in a halo of smug pride at ticking that particular feat off my bucket list with the head honcho of Jane's Addiction.
At least I'm assuming it was sweat. It happened in January 1989 while Jane's Addiction were playing a gig at The Warehouse in Leeds. During one of the songs, Farrell dived into the audience to partake in a spot of crowd-surfing. He was wearing elbow-length PVC gloves and as the singer was passed above my head – and with my mouth agape – a warm, salty liquid poured out of the end of one of his gloves and straight down my throat. It wasn't a hugely pleasant experience.
And I'd guess for Jane's Addiction that particular show in West Yorkshire wasn't amongst their greatest of experiences. Beset with sound problems, the opening track 'Whores' was aborted twice and bassist Eric Avery spent most of the evening scowling in the direction of an uninterested sound engineer. But I'd didn't care – it was an astounding gig. Perry Farrell, clad in a corset and sporting dreadlocks and a huge nose-ring, was enthralling. I didn't know whether he was going to fuck, kill or ignore his audience as the band delivered a set of pulsing, jagged funk-metal interspersed with gorgeous ballads (I practically swooned during 'Summertime Rolls'). They ended with an extraordinary track entitled 'Jane Says', which seemed to be about a heroin-addicted prostitute. Jane's Addiction had been exceptional – it was one of those milestone evenings that opened my 19-year-old mind to the fusion of experimental art to rock music.
Eighteen months later I saw them play another show, this time at Nottingham's Rock City. By then, Jane's Addiction were a big deal, having released their third album, Ritual De Lo Habitual. It was – and still is – one of the greatest gigs I've ever attended. That night Jane's Addiction were the embodiment of sex, drugs and rock & roll. Bare-chested and glistening with (more) sweat, they looked amazing, but it was the music that was scorched with brilliance. The songs seethed; 'Three Days' billowed and writhed under a barrage of tribal rhythm, while 'Ted, Just Admit It' morphed into a blackened anthem for a (de)generation. It was breathtaking.
I believe that original incarnation of Jane's Addiction was a truly great live band, so it was appropriate that their debut album should be a recording of a show. Jane's Addiction (it's also known as XXX or Triple-X) was released 25 years ago. It wasn't the first time a band had released a live album as their debut - MC5 unleashed the incendiary Kick Out The Jams in 1969 - but it was still a brave decision. As a debut album, Jane's Addiction is a perfectly good introduction to a band who would go on to release two stronger albums (1988's Nothing's Shocking and the aforementioned Ritual De Lo Habitual) before imploding under a torrent of drug addiction and infighting.
That's not to say Jane's Addiction is a bad album; the tracklist showcased Farrell, Avery, guitarist Dave Navarro and drummer Stephen Perkins as a very special group of musicians. The opening trio of songs ('Trip Away', 'Whores' and the mighty 'Pigs In Zen') perfectly synopsised the quartet's sonic brew. Each track encompasses the very metal – almost cock rock – axis created by Navarro's growling guitar work and Perkins' high-energy percussion. However, Jane's Addiction were never a classic heavy rock band; Avery's pummelling, grooving bass ensured the rhythm section was front and centre in almost every song they wrote. In 1987, compared to their other Los Angeles peers, Jane's Addiction were funkier than Guns N' Roses and edgier than Red Hot Chili Peppers. But, critically, they also possessed an extra dimension - the talismanic Perry Farrell.
Farrell defined Jane's Addiction. Born in Queens, New York to a mother who committed suicide when Farrell was three years old and a jeweller father who was "sharp, with a ton of style," according to his son. Farrell moved to California aged 17, taking with him "a surfboard, some art supplies, an ounce of weed, one phone number and no place to stay." He quickly began hanging out with "underground, subversive people" and befriended members of bands such as X, The Minutemen and Black Flag, who were central to LA's alternative rock scene in the early 80s. Farrell was sponge-like; absorbing ideas, experiences and exploring his own art via the use of a myriad of narcotics.
Farrell's first band proper band was Psi Com, a goth rock outfit that would enjoy some local infamy before disbanding in 1985. By that time, he'd already met bass player (and archetypal rebellious youth) Eric Avery; the pair had bonded over a mutual love of Joy Division and the San Franciscan punk band, Flipper. After a number of failed attempts to recruit a drummer and a guitarist, Avery's sister, Rebecca, suggested her boyfriend (Perkins) and ex-boyfriend (Navarro) as potential band members. Jane's Addiction had found their classic line-up.
Dave Navarro was a complex teenager. An extremely gifted guitarist, his childhood was decimated by the death of his mother – the actress Connie Navarro – who was murdered by her partner when Navarro was 15. Alcohol and heroin became an integral part of Navarro's coping strategy and the cycle of substance abuse – common amongst his band mates – would be the undoing of the initial chapter in the Jane's Addiction legend. Navarro would later comment that "heroin ruined my dreams."
Another person that made a significant impact on shaping the DNA of Jane's Addiction was Casey Niccoli. When the band first formed, the artist and film-maker was Perry's partner. When they met Farrell was living in a huge, rambling house on Wilton Place in West Hollywood, which acted as a squat-cum-commune-cum-rehearsal space. Niccoli's presence at the Wilton house would heavily influence the band's visual aesthetic, be it clothes, stage design or album artwork (she's the flaming Siamese twins on the astonishing cover of Nothing's Shocking).
By the beginning of 1987, Jane's Addiction were a big deal in their home city and would play to audiences of 3,000 at the legendary Scream nightclub in downtown LA. With major label A&R suits clamouring to sign the band, they decided to release a live debut album on their own Triple X imprint, in an attempt to capture their raw power. The album was recorded on January 26th 1987 at the Roxy Theatre at a cost of $4,000. The band actually played two sets on the night - an initial opening acoustic session, followed by a full electric version. Farrell spent most of the second set cussing the glut of industry-types in the audience. Jane's Addiction were never going to play it safe.
However, as a depiction of their live prowess, Jane's Addiction is somewhat of a disappointment. After the live recording, the songs were then corrected and overdubbed at The Edge studio (which, bizarrely, involved the inclusion of audience applause from a Los Lobos show). The result was a cleaned and primped mix that emasculated the intensity and exhilaration of a Jane's Addiction gig. The crowd reaction was virtually non-existent – I've had a better response after giving a death-by-slides PowerPoint presentation - as to render the 'live feel' distant and anaemic.
But that's not to say that the album doesn't contain a significant slug of alchemy. The centrepiece of Jane's Addiction - and arguably the band's greatest song – is 'Jane Says'. The track was written about Jane Bainter, "The First Lady Of Wilton House". Bainter was a drug addict (and the inspiration for the group's name) who was always promising, as the notorious lyric recites, to "kick tomorrow". It's a beautiful song (although I prefer the addition of steel drums on the version re-recorded for Nothing's Shocking) set to a heartbreaking narrative. From the opening couplets ("Jane says/ 'I'm done with Sergio /He treats me like a rag doll.'") the song is an unflinching homage to Bainter's struggles with heroin and the impact of her manipulative El Salvadorean dealer.
Elsewhere the agile, harmonica-led 'My Time' and the gentle love-ballad 'I Would For You', confirmed that Jane's Addiction wouldn't be neatly compartmentalised. This was a band with wings. The album also contains two covers – a full-blooded take on 'Rock & Roll' from The Velvet Underground's Loaded album and a deliciously subdued version of The Rolling Stones' staple 'Sympathy For The Devil'. The latter didn't sit well with Navarro who claimed they played it as a "joke" before complaining that one of his "least favourite bands" featured on his first ever record. What a bummer for the poor sap.
Soon after recording their debut, Jane's Addiction signed a huge deal with Warner Brothers (the advance alone was rumoured to be $250,000), released their two brilliant albums before self-destructing during a set at the very first Lollapalooza event, as huge tensions around Avery and Navarro's drug use and arguments about the split of royalties consumed the band. Indeed, Farrell already had become a central figure in the creation of the travelling Lollapalooza festival and, after the split, he and Perkins quickly formed Porno For Pyros. Navarro would eventually become the guitarist for the Chili Peppers (after earlier spurning the advances of Axl Rose to replace Izzy Stradlin in Guns N' Roses).
Jane's Addiction would periodically and partially reform (Avery eventually rejoined to complete the original line-up four years ago) and in late 2003, I saw them for a third time at Manchester's stately Apollo theatre. They were promoting a new album, Strays. It was a pretty decent comeback record and the show was good - but not great. I didn't get close to Perry Farrell that night, his stage-diving days seemingly long gone. But, as if stuck in a perspiration-obsessed Pavlovian nightmare, I could almost taste his sweat.