Jane’s Affliction: How the Music Biz Sucked the Life Out of Yet Another Great Band

I used to go to club shows with a friend of mine, and the band would come on and within the first minute of the first song he’d turn to me and say, “It’s not going happen for these poseurs. They’ve never been in a car wreck before.” That was his way of saying their angst was as manufactured and phony as their strategically torn jeans. They could never make anyone feel their pain and longing. He was always right too. I was standing with him when we first saw Jane’s Addiction with almost no one else there, and he turned to me and said, “These guys are going to change everything around here.” A few months later we were at a packed Jane’s show standing near Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Bob Forest of Thelonius Monster. They looked shaken, and Anthony says to Bob, “Why do we even bother?”

Yes, the “It” factor. Either you have it or you don’t. That intangible ingredient that you can’t hone, buy, beg, borrow or steal. I don’t know how to define it, but I know what it looks, sounds and feels like. In 1986 when Jane’s Addiction arrived on the L.A. music scene, you might have resented them, been jealous of them, hated them, or loved them, but you definitely knew something would never be the same again. And you definitely knew they had “It“.

Jane’s was dreamt up by a skinny, bug-eyed provocateur named Perry Farrell who’d fronted an art band called Psi Com. He and bassist Eric Avery started jamming together and went through a couple of incarnations with drummers and guitarists that didn’t fit. But when they hooked up with a couple of kids who played in a speed metal band (Dave Navarro and Steve Perkins), they began to stomp on all the competition.

At the time, the L.A. music scene was basically divided into two groups: the post-punk rockers and folkies coexisted more or less peacefully (that was the camp my band, Divine Weeks, and I ran with) while at the other end of the spectrum were your hard rock/glam bands like Guns ‘n’ Roses, L.A. Guns, Poison and Warrant, who played Sunset Strip clubs like Gazzarri’s, the Roxy and Whisky. The two scenes were completely separate and apart from each other and there was a good amount of disdain from both sides. We thought they were poseurs and shallow, and they thought we were dishonest because we wouldn’t admit we wanted to be just as big as they did.

The arrival of Jane’s Addiction blew everything up and crystallized the two extremes. Jane’s defied classification. Punks, metal heads, college rock geeks and rock-critic types all flocked to their shows.

Jane’s sound was tribal-like and Zeppelin-esque, but Led Zeppelin would have killed to have the fluidity and soaring funk grace of Jane’s. Most notably, Jane’s carried themselves with a post-punk aesthetic, name-checking bands like Joy Division, Bauhaus and Big Black. It was so funny. All those punkers who lied about burning their Zeppelin records could pull out Zep IV and rejoice again.

Where a lot of bands get lucky or take advantage of some incestuous relationship with a record label, Jane’s actually had the goods. Plus, they worked hard, wrote incessantly and practiced all the time. They refused to play the circuit of the same tired clubs. They put on their own gigs, playing lofts and parties. They played acoustic shows for a change of pace. And their sense of fashion sent new followers rushing to thrift shops to ape their style. By the end of ’86, everyone was wearing bicycle shorts or torn jeans over multi-colored long underwear. It didn’t matter how often they played, the crowds were getting bigger and bigger.

Soon, a huge bidding war began between every major label in town. Perry was ready with his fangs out for a fight to retain full creative control. It was Warner Brothers who finally promised them not only creative control but gave them the biggest advance to date of $300,000.

At the time, alternative bands that pondered signing to a major label spurred long debates about selling out, something you don’t hear anymore. To that point there had only been a few cases of indie bands jumping to a major label (Dream Syndicate, Husker Du, the Replacements, among them).

To assuage those concerns, Jane’s set out to release their own record they claimed was recorded live at the Roxy on January 26, 1987. I was there. It was a great show. I have a tape of it. Unfortunately when they finally put out the record many months later, about the only thing live from the Roxy was Stephen Perkins’ drums while the rest was heavily overdubbed sapping all the spontaneity and energy out of the performance. It’s a terrible record and a pale representation of how brilliant they were live. Something was changing.

In the Spring of 1988, I visited them while they were recording their Warner Brothers major label debut Nothing’s Shocking at El Dorado Studios. They were embroiled in a big dispute over publishing and songwriting credits. Perry wanted a bigger share than the others and the rest of the band called his bluff. During a recording break, Eric and Dave pulled me outside on a landing overlooking the old Palace on Vine Street and told me Rick Rubin would sign them without Perry. They asked me to be their singer. I was flattered, but politely declined. Divine Weeks was about to go on tour and I was loyal to my band. Plus, I knew they’d resolve their differences. There was too much money at stake.

When Nothing’s Shocking was finally released, it was a good record, but for those of us who’d seen the band’s early live shows or had heard their original five-song demo, it was a tremendous let down. Four of the five songs on the demo appear on Nothing’s Shocking and are so vastly superior it’s not even comparable. (The five song original demo can be found on Cabinet of Curiosities if you want to do a comparison test).

Something had been lost along the way. Where was the hunger? That menacing, insinuating feeling you got watching them live? It sounded like a band that had too much time and studio toys at their disposal. Seeing early Jane’s Addiction made you want to tear your clothes off and start screaming. Nothing’s Shocking sounded like a band already getting blowjobs in their limos.

In between the end of the Nothing’s Shocking tour and the release of Ritual de lo Habitual saw a litany of delays, battles over censorship and stints in rehab while managers were hired and fired, including one who demanded certain band members take mandatory drug tests.

Although Ritual de lo Habitual yielded a hit in “Been Caught Stealing”, the cupboards were bare. Only “Of Course” was a new song and Eric Avery hated it so much he refused to play on the track. By the time they hit the road to promote the record, band members were traveling separately and had stopped talking to each other.

When Perry came on the scene, he was electric, refreshing and running over with an endless stream of ideas. He was resolute, defiant, controversial, and supremely confident. Amidst the pomp and flab of corporate run major label ideology, he was committed to challenging the system and pushing the envelope at every turn. But the fight to retain control was exhausting and sapped their creativity. Few people realize that between the time they signed to Warner Brothers and their first break up in 1991, Jane’s basically wrote two songs that saw the light of day. All of their creative output came in their first year together before the pressures of dealing with Warner Brothers.

Check out this interview with Perry just before Ritual de lo Habitual was released. Pick it up at the 2:38 mark…

“I used to carry a book around with me, and I would write and sometimes I could write maybe three to four songs in a day. I haven’t written anything or thought of anything for months. When I got signed to Warner Brothers, and I thought ‘this is it.’ I did it. I’m the champ, you know? But actually what’s it’s done is I’ve lost my creativity. I’ve lost it. I’ve given everything I could give… I’ve been reduced now to where I don’t feel like I’m anything. I haven’t read a book. I haven’t written anything. I just don’t feel like a man. I feel like a ghost.”

If that doesn’t paint a picture of the perils of the fight to retain creative control and freedom, then this next quote will — pick it up at the 4:23 mark:

“I want to concentrate in my life to make great art… the only way to do that is to concentrate, concentrate, concentrate on it. And when you’re concentrating on it like that you can’t possibly turn around and start dealing with these men that are twice your age that have fucked people all the way up and have got you by the balls now.”

Just watch as Perry starts to break down explaining what he’s trying to do at the 5:59 mark:

“What I’m trying to do is put together a show that goes with the music… I want people to go there and celebrate and just get out of their minds with joy. Because there’s so much fucked up shit out there in the world… during the course of their day and when they get inside… I want them to just lose their minds and just go off and say fuck it.”

Within a year of that interview, Jane’s had finished headlining the inaugural Lolapalooza festival and called it quits in late 1991.

Over the years, Jane’s has reunited to tour, but other than a series of shows in 2008, all have been without original bassist and the woefully under appreciated Eric Avery who was the real musical soul and conscience of the band.

A new Jane’s Addiction record is about to be released, their first record since 2003’s “Strays” which was little more than product as far as I’m concerned. From what I’ve heard of the new record, it’s much of the same. But that’s fine. No one with any historical perspective could expect much from a band 20 years after its heyday. Not me anyway. Especially not without Eric Avery.

Still, give credit where credit’s due. Perry helped create Lolapalooza, which, it can be argued, was the template for not only the modern music festival but probably modern alternative culture itself.

I’d even go so far as to say that Jane’s Addiction paved the way and was the very precursor for alternative rock and grunge to become the pop phenomenon of the early ’90s, sending pop metal into the scrap heap for a decade.

Everyone I know who saw Jane’s back in the day basically considers 1991 the end of the real Jane’s Addiction. But for me, they were over a long time before that. I admired what they were trying to do, but once they got signed, that spark, that intensity, that us against the world gauntlet they’d lay down every time onstage was over.

Maybe I’m being unreasonable, but when I think of Jane’s Addiction, I’m cursed by knowing too much. I wish everyone could have been at Club Lingerie October 1, 1986, when they played in front of a crowd filled with impassive industry weasels all leaning against the bar far away from the stage. Probably the greatest gig I’ve ever seen. During “Oceansize”, Perry became enraged and started screaming at them, “You’re all dead. You’re gonna die. Tomorrow. Get up you lazy motherfuckers!” He then climbs on the bar and runs across the length of it kicking over all their drinks before returning to the stage. Jane’s was barred from Club Lingerie after that, but they didn’t care. They owned L.A. There were good gigs after that where you’d see that desire to prove nobody could touch them, but those performances became fewer and far between.

Maybe it would have been easier to appreciate their records and later live shows had I not been there when they first arrived on the scene, hungry and defiant. What a sight it was to see all the punks, folkies, metal heads, Goths and college geeks all looking at each other thinking the same thing: damn, this is the shit. Because those early gigs were as good as anything that’s ever come down the pike.

Props to Jane’s for trying to change a crooked music industry run by fools who had no clue at all. Label heads, lawyers, managers, critics and parents’ groups fought them every step of the way. It was a fight they fought alone before alternative rock was retroactively termed to describe basically anything that wasn’t packaged and categorized for easy consumption. Jane’s deserves a lot of credit for what they tried to do, but it just goes to show you how soul-sucking and backwards-looking major labels have always been. Is there anyone besides the major labels themselves crying about the music industry’s demise now? I’m not. I doubt that Perry Ferrell is either.

Bill See is a longtime indie musician who toured extensively with his band, Divine Weeks. He is the author of 33 Days: Touring in a Van. Sleeping on Floors. Chasing a Dream.