Jane’s Addiction blasted out of the Los Angeles underground in 1985 as a fully formed rock n’ roll hydra: pieced together from bits of punk, glam, hard rock, junkie culture, pulp fiction, heavy metal, goth, beat poetry and a heavy, dark dose of hippie hangover. Audaciously debuting with a self-titled live album that introduced singer Perry Farrell’s helium squall, whiz kid guitarist Dave Navarro’s Zeppelin-on-a-bender solos and the thundering rhythm section of drummer Stephen Perkins and bassist Eric Avery, the band introduced the rest of the nation (and the world) to the seedy underbelly of their town while proving that the Velvet Underground didn’t just spawn 1,000 sons and daughters, but that those pin-eyed stepchildren were ready to dig even deeper into the muck.
Now, 30 years after helping birth the alternative nation with the double-barrel shotgun blast of 1988’s Nothing’s Shocking and 1990’s breakthrough Ritual de lo Habitual (not to mention Lollapalooza), Jane’s is on the short list of bands nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Billboard spoke to singer Farrell, the band’s ageless carnival barker, about the group’s origins, their rise to fame and the intense internal strife that has kept them battling and hugging it out for three decades.
And, Farrell being Farrell, the conversation started with a simple question about his childhood dreams that evolved into a 20-minute detour into his failed foray into male modeling and David Bowie impersonation, playing the Tin Man at his upstate New York childhood summer camp, the time he crushed it chanting at his bar mitzvah, his dreams of being a jewelry designer, the male photographer who tried (and failed) to get into his pants and why it crushed him when his childhood music teacher made him return his trumpet and told little Perry that he’d never make it as a musician.
In other words, a Jane’s Addiction song he hasn’t written yet… but might someday.
Here are edited excerpts from that conversation:
You’re a visual artist, festival producer, raconteur and true renaissance man, but when did you realize that being the lead singer of a band was your destiny?
It was in 1973 when I was looking in the mirror. It started for me in a private night club in Newport Beach [California]… I was a liquor delivery boy to regional nightclubs and liquor stores and I was waiting at the bar and watching television and this lady comes up to me and says, ‘you haven’t modeled before have you?’ Something clicked off in my head I said, ‘oh yeah… modeling, acting…’ She was doing this modeling show on Saturday nights and she said she’d get me into the show. I went that weekend — I’d never modeled before and never sang anything, but I knew that there was something in my DNA — and that year I started modeling on Saturday nights at this club, but it was boring. So I went to the woman and said, ‘why not switch up your show? I can do songs, Frank Sinatra and David Bowie, and I’ll come out and impersonate them.’
So, getting back to the beginning, I was looking at myself in the mirror and studying myself acting it all out, playing the part of Mick Jagger and I looked at myself and said to myself, ‘You probably could really do this man, because you’ve got a natural gift!’
Describe the genesis of the band and the first time you played with Dave. What was that moment like?
Dave was guitar player #3. We had a great Filipino kid who was a junkie, Ed, who didn’t make it because he loved heroin more than playing. But he was cool as hell, he had a motorcycle and a girlfriend. I remember going to rehearsal and I was going one way and I saw Ed going the other way with that chick on the back, flying by, so I knew Ed was not gonna last. Then I found another guitarist who was better than Ed and knew about the British goth scene. He had a cool electric blue Jaguar guitar, two different-colored eyes, and he teased his hair up like Daniel Ash. His name was Mark. He didn’t work out because my desire was to create a great group and I thought it was obtainable, but I had to have great players.
Eric and I decided to work together and we were starting to do shows and parties where I would show up with my effects rack and Eric would come up with different grooves and I would improvise over them. Then we got a drummer, again a junkie, who looked like a woman… he was so beautiful, but was so full of himself that he was hard to manage. He didn’t make it either. He started playing with us, but he was just into heroin by a nose and we replaced him with Stephen Perkins. Eric’s sister was going out with Stephen and when he joined he said we should try his friend Dave.
He’s the best guitar player I know. Dave was the most incredible player from the get-go, as soon as he plugged in he was playing licks. I would call it a bit of a miracle, when I first heard him and how great he was at that age. He was still a teenager, and he had to sit in the back alley of the clubs we played where we’d drink [before shows]. I’m a good 10-12 years older than him, but what he went through with the death of his mother had given him a curse that turns into a blessing. [Navarro’s mother was murdered in front of him by a former boyfriend]. Losing your mom in a hellacious way had given him depth beyond his years. He was very quiet when I first met him, but when he played guitar it was loud and it sounded like he just sat all day ripping and riffing on guitar. He could play Zeppelin note-for-note and when I hear it now I hate to say it, but I feel Dave plays it better than Zeppelin.
How was Jane’s received on the L.A. scene when you first started playing out?
L.A. was very open-minded back in those days. It came from great groups like X, The Germs, Fear, Black Flag, who had opened things up. Music was exploding then and people were coming from all over the world to Los Angeles to make it as musicians. It was the end of the music industry but also the height of the music industry.
Not many bands have the cojones to debut with a live album before people even know who they are. Whey did you decide to make your self-titled album on Triple X your first foray into the market?
If you can believe it, we were just about to be signed by Warner Bros, but I wanted the group to be heard in their raw state. There’s nothing more raw and fierce than a live recording if you can do it. I knew we had the goods to do it and I booked a show at the Roxy, where I was watching a lot of great groups coming over from London in those days. It was the premiere place to see a breaking group and we would go there every night for shows by groups that weren’t even signed yet. We didn’t want to miss a wink of sleep and we wanted to go out every night and hear what we could. We were ravenous.
Songs like “Nothing’s Shocking” and “Pigs in Zen” have such frank, street poetry vibe that you don’t find in much of rock outside of the Velvet Underground, Bowie and Iggy Pop.
I had hope because there were the Rolling Stones and Velvets and Iggy and Bowie and with those guys I saw there could be light. You could sing about your own life and it could be severe. It’s an odd life you could sing about and people would love if it was authentic and genuine. You were welcome. How far it would go I found out.
Were you worried that singing about junkies and prostitutes might narrow your career options? Especially on a major label?
No. We didn’t think we’d be next X or U2 because of the lyrical content and we didn’t have the lifestyle to be them, but I wanted to be just as wonderful. I thought we could do it our own way. I found we could, but it would only take us a lot longer. You have to sick to your guns and you have to take a beating. It’s like getting in the ring, if you want to be champion you know you will take some pounding.
What was the conversation like with Warner Bros. when they signed you? Did they have any concerns about content?
No, that’s what was great about Warner Bros. They had the Talking Heads and they were dealing with punk rock [through Sire Records]. They knew exactly what they were getting and they were cool with it. Everyone was rabid to sign groups. People couldn’t fill up their rosters fast enough. I remember our first Rolling Stone interview was not about us entirely but they put us next to some guy… Tommy something, Tommy Sideburns, I don’t know and it was, ‘who’s gonna break first and who’s gonna make it?’
When you listen back to Nothing’s Shocking now what do you hear?
What I like about the music is that I feel I could play it for my boys now, who are teenagers. My son is 14 and my younger boy is 12 and they’re very proud of my music and they have great taste. I never shamed those guys, I never sold out, I never dummied it down. I stuck my chin out and put my fists up and went for it. We had no choice and no parental guidance. Which is funny because they slapped a parental guidance sticker on our records and we had no parental guidance. That [warning sticker] had no business on our album, but Tipper Gore slapped it on there. The genius of our greatness was going out and experiencing life as a runaway and coming back with great stories, great love affairs, drugs, sex, sexual deviance and it’s all there and all recorded and it was as heavy as Lou Reed and Iggy.
Ritual became your commercial breakthrough with the hits “Stop” and “Been Caught Stealing,” which is probably the most pop thing you’ve ever done. Was the goal to smash through to the mainstream with that song and video?
All I know is I thought to myself, ‘If we do something really majestic with our talent and the way the world is in a constant state of evolution, with an arc we ought to be able to leave earth and orbit into space if we just put our minds to it.’ I wanted to be in league with the greats, so that absolutely was the goal. If we shoot an arrow into space… I wanted to pierce into the heavens with our group.
And here you are, on the precipice of possibly joining the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Does that surprise you? Especially since it’s pretty much predicated on the work you did on those first two studio albums?
You have two albums that probably have 14 songs, but back in those days the way to do it was to make an album and every one of those songs must be great from beginning to end. It was not like today where there’s a track with five producers lined up and lyricists in the booth and a guy who makes drum machine sounds. We were doing everything, we were writing everything and producing it. Those albums are two works of art. I did the artwork myself and it’s in league with some of the greatest album covers of all time.
Does the honor surprise you? Like a lot of HOF bands, your relationship issues have had a huge impact on your output and career arc, but could this be a moment to come together?
The honor doesn’t surprise me. I know in my heart… maybe I’m a boaster, but I have a lot of confidence in what we are. We are going on 25 years… we fight. It’s unfortunate. We resist each other, so we’re not bonded like we should be. People grew up and we grew away, but we’re not done by any means. This would absolutely do a lot to heal our hearts.