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[whitespace] Relapsing into Oblivion

A measured appreciation of Jane's Addiction, the band that gave us tattooed masses and vapid theme tours

By Gina Arnold

ALTHOUGH MANY would say that Nirvana was the most important band of the '90s, Jane's Addiction surpasses the grunge avatars in terms of culture in general, both in the number of bands it influenced and in the way it shaped fashion, music and the touring industry, Jane's Addiction wins the influence battle.

Without Jane's Addiction, the whole modern primitive aesthetic--tattoos, piercings and body art--would probably not be as prevalent as it is. And without band leader Perry Farrell, we wouldn't have Lollapalooza, the semieclectic multiact tour which not only made going to see live rock music in the summertime a must-do for hip teens from here to Peoria, but spawned a host of imitators--from current "theme" tours like Family Values, Warped and Ozzfest to an episode of the Simpsons entitled "Homerpalooza."

The question remains whether those are really good things to have brought to Planet Earth--but it's important to remember that they sure seemed like it at the time. Bracelet tattoos and pierced eyebrows may appear to be a high price to pay, but pre-Jane's Addiction, high rock fashion was about spandex, tacky pleather and silver eyeshadow, while live concerts invariably included a sequence where the singer pointed at the audience and said, "What time is it? It's time to rock & roll!" Also, prior to the arrival of Jane's Addiction, the opposite of pop was hairband-style heavy metal: corny, loud stuff that only dumb people took seriously. Jane's Addiction was the first band to make metal music that mattered, and the reason it mattered was that it elevated that particular sound into high art.

Those were monumental achievements, certainly. But now I worry that Jane's Addiction, which is reuniting (or, as the members themselves put it, "relapsing") for a tour that reaches Shoreline on Friday--has outlived its usefulness. The world Farrell sang about and described is different--and not just because Jane's Addiction changed it--although their influence certainly factors in.

I once had a conversation with Farrell wherein he defined his music as being the logical conclusion of a childhood spent in an American suburban environment of gray asphalt freeways, beige L-shaped shopping malls and ugly chain restaurants. (Farrell grew up in Florida, and relocated to San Diego, where he was, for a time, a busboy at one of those restaurants like TGI Fridays or Black Angus that kind of define a whole food aesthetic.)

There's no doubt that Jane's Addiction speaks to the denizens of that America in a rhythm and a timbre that illuminates an otherwise artless landscape--but as a matter of fact, Jane's Addiction music wasn't only a product of that world, but an antidote. Songs like "Been Caught Stealing" and "Had a Dad" are a fantastic translation of suburban teenage angst-made-fun; while "Jane Said" stands as the loveliest and yet least sentimental paean to drug addiction ever written. "Jane says, 'have you seen my wig around? I feel naked without it,'" is a far less romantic view of the problem than Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side," and it's far truer too. The songs stand alone among '90s grunge ballads, at the apex of the genre.

Jane's Addiction's sound has now been imitated by so many bands that its basic characteristics--hard drums, rap-like rhythms, high pitched vocals and so on--sounds stale and dated. But that's OK, because they are really a live band, musically magnificent, and yet full of virtues you don't expect to see and hear on stage. In addition to being a visually stunning, even frightening, band, they are adroit, dynamic, feminist, kind ... and yet so bloody powerful that openers Live (one of the more pretentious bands on the planet) actually decided to go acoustic rather than compete--a decision they took after the first night of the tour, in Worcester, Mass.

According to reports, Jane's Addiction is still a sonic tornado, and their stage show includes naked dancing girls, some kind of S&M carousel, and a parachute trick that's worth the price of admission.

Of course reunions can often be depressing, however good the band, and Jane's Addiction, who always spoke so eloquently about the sybaritic excesses of the '90s, could easily seem like a nostalgia act at this point in time, when hedonism is the last thing on everyone's mind and emotions in America are so very different from before. But one of the things I've always admired most about Jane's Addiction is their positivity. They wrote about the decline of Western Civilization as if it were a good thing, not because it was, but because (obviously) there is something better round the bend. That's what's lost, I think, in the translated version of its sound--in all the rages against the machines out there, in all the Incubi and Stainds and Systems of a Down, which take life so seriously and have no sense of humor. Jane's Addiction's humanity might be the ultimate answer to this season's sadness, it may be why their show is so good, and their music, despite its narrow frame of reference, so timeless.

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From the October 25-31, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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