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Addictive Behavior

In reading Whores: An Oral Biography of Perry Farrell and Jane's Addiction, musician James Hall sees a band that heralded the bridge between independent- and major-label success.

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Jane's Addiction formed in Los Angeles in 1986 and disbanded in late 1991, but in the band's short five-year career, its unique blend of metal, goth, reggae and funk gave many musicians who embraced these styles a voice. Until Jane's Addiction, bands had to either choose independent-label obscurity to keep their vision intact or subject themselves to major-label commercial scrutiny -- which often went against the reason they chose to play music in the first place. Brendan Mullen paints a portrait of this groundbreaking band through interviews in his unauthorized biography, Whores: An Oral Biography of Perry Farrell and Jane's Addiction.

When the band started, there was no Radiohead, Nirvana or Pearl Jam on the radio, while Whitney Houston and hair metal got airplay instead. Clubs were full of people alienated from the mainstream, and this disaffection was typified by Jane's Addiction's spirit of trying anything song-wise and onstage in hopes of finding something that resonated with the souls performing it and those surrounding it.

I became aware of Jane's Addiction in the winter of '88. While the music did little for me at the time, I was enamored of the band's commitment to individuality. The next time I heard about the group, in 1988, singer Perry Farrell was doing an interview on MTV in advance of the groundbreaking Nothing's Shocking album. The interview brought up conflicting feelings in me because, barely 20 years old, I was jealous of the attention Jane's Addiction was getting, but secretly glad people were breaking out of the jangly '60s pop mold that R.E.M. helped popularize.

My first band, Mary My Hope, was signed that year, and six or so months later we opened for Jane's Addiction on its Nothing's Shocking tour. Our first show was in Tampa, Fla., and Perry said hello before going out onstage in a bolero hat with tassels. Before the following show in Jacksonville, Fla., Perry saw the velvet pants I was wearing and said in his whiny, lispy voice, "You got those in Camden, didn't you," drawing out the "s." I had heard him sing, but his speaking voice was even more startling.

Perry's voice can be heard throughout Whores delivering often-humorous commentary on his own life and the scenes surrounding his bands. On advocating sex: "Ask around. I'm not a prude." On drugs: "The whole point about drugs is to wake up and tell the story. It's just like surfing -- the whole point is to get out of the tube. Nature put 'em here and, as many claim, God is in control of Nature. If he wants them here, who am I to argue?"

He was often painted as a clown by the press for such gems. During the tour, he seemed flighty and childlike, but I saw little of the voracious drug use that Whores chronicles. If anything, my band's taste for meth, alcohol and weed seemed to dwarf whatever I was seeing in the way of Jane's decadence.

Whores shows how driven and focused an artist Perry was. With the help of Casey Niccoli, his then-girlfriend, he conceived of and carried out the artwork on the first three album covers. He is also a master planner who helped put together some of the most exciting shows around L.A., never mind his involvement with Lollapalooza.

Whores is reminiscent of Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain's Please Kill Me, an oral history of Northeastern punk rock. Mullen lets the people involved tell their accounts of the comedic and at times tragic events surrounding Jane's Addiction. With each story, the four lives that made up this band become clearer.

Most of the members suffered huge emotional losses early on. Dave Navarro's mother was murdered. Perry's mom committed suicide. Eric Avery's biological father left when he was 6. These events might explain why some of the controlled substances were first used and consequently abused by each member. It may also explain why, by the time the lineup was stable, they were unable to support one another. A certain amount of inner turmoil can contribute to good art, but the band seemed to eventually buy into the myth that one has to live on the edge to make edgy music.

The commentary gets weighed down in the end of the book as drug use becomes the story. It's hard to tell whether the drugs or Perry's skewed business ideas are to blame for the souring of the band's relationships, but his Porno for Pyros-era antics border on pathetic (Perry going on a looting spree, Glock in hand, during the L.A. riots) and contribute to a certain loss of respect for such a maverick talent. Where Whores succeeds is in Mullen's ability to capture the era when Jane's Addiction helped kick the door to the mainstream open for so many other bands to enter.

James Hall was in the Atlanta-based Mary My Hope in the late 1980s. He later moved to New Orleans, where he has performed as a solo artist and most recently as a member of Pleasure Club.

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