Perry Farrell's Mystical Musical Tour
Once a fiddler played so sweetly that all who heard him began to dance, and whoever came near enough to hear joined in the dance. Then a deaf man who knew nothing of music happened along, and to him all he saw seemed the action of madmen -- senseless and in bad taste.
--a story from Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, as told in Tales of the Hasidim: The Early Masters by Martin Buber
PERRY FARRELL HAS SIZED UP THE SITUATION.
"Does that door slide open? Have you tried yet? Come on!"
I glance at the glass panel behind me and ponder whether a mere restaurant customer has the right to open it. I look back at Farrell: He flashes a mad smile -- the face of a charismatic mischief maker/ringleader capable of persuading less imaginative minds to do something they wouldn't normally consider. Everything is riding on my decision.
I slide open the door. A cool breeze enters.
"Yeahhh . . ." grins Farrell.
Sitting here at this modest Venice beachside restaurant populated by sunburned tourists and straight-to-video deal makers, watching him scan the drinks menu, I realize that Farrell -- the notorious Dionysian, the once and future singer for the genre-bending Jane's Addiction, prime mover behind the Lollapalooza festivals that injected bohemian music and ideas into the mainstream, the newly solo artist with an ambitious new album out -- has spent his whole career, maybe his whole life, doing this: cajoling people into doing things they might not otherwise do -- healthy stuff, ridiculous stuff, consciousness-deepening stuff -- to get some fresh air in.
Perry Farrell looks good for a 42-year-old who's done a lot to his brain and body. Yes, below his crown of brown hair lurk what might be signs of past habits: a pair of darting, intent hazel eyes whose slightly outsize bulge could be those of an excoke fiend; the cheeks that have the pinned-and-stretched look of many an ex-junkie. But Farrell has the radiant aura of someone who's exchanged nasty habits for a tug on the inner-peace pipe -- and come out ahead in the deal. He's sinewy, trim, with a lean surfer's body dressed in tight pinstriped white flares and a button-down blue-collar shirt. A tanned dandy, with a turquoise bracelet around his wrist and a golden Lion of Zion around his neck.
Farrell speaks evenly and expansively, with the ease of a born talker. His conversation is full of cosmic longhand: extended metaphors and parables plucked from his reading or his own febrile imagination. He clicks sometimes, his eyes suddenly whirring, re-training, as if this plane of existence is only one of many currently demanding his attention. He seems humbled, almost penitent, but you get the sense that these are learned behaviors rather than natural ones.
He seems a bit impatient, too. There's a lot to do after finishing this late lunch of bruschetta and red peppers. Like organizing this autumn's "Jubilee," a multi-artist festival spotlighting various socioeconomic campaigns that Farrell has become involved with during the past four years. But instead of bringing his new solo music to this festival, Farrell is planning to reunite Jane's Addiction, the band he lead-manned until its demise in 1991.
Re-launching Jane's seems a strange admission of sellout from artists who had the integrity to split when they were spent -- and who made the reunion cash-grab once before, when they toured in '97 minus a crucial founding member.
Perry initially seems surprised -- even hurt -- that his intentions could be questioned. After a moment, he has an answer. Actually, a set of answers.
"Could I be doing this because I need money?" he asks. "I do need money. I need a lot of money, man. I am penniless. And the reason I'm penniless is because I have put my faith and trust into this cause. And as a result, ironically, or coincidentally, I've run dry monetarily. But my heart is extremely rich. And I don't fear.
"If what you love is money, which is smelly cold paper that's got the same picture on it over and over, then become a banker. To me, rarity -- limited editions -- that's where I'm coming from. Because I would trade a lot of material things to have seen Jimi Hendrix . . . The value is in the art. A person's creativity and their inspiration, that's what you're left with when they die.
"You know, a terrible, horrible thing happened," he says, now almost in tears. "Joey Ramone died. The first tour Jane's Addiction ever did was with the Ramones. We opened up for 'em. And I know that if you're a Ramone, you can't replace Joey Ramone. You have to honor that situation. There's a gang of songs and a group of guys and a whole crowd of people. They were witness to the Ramones, and it was a wonderful feeling for them. It's very powerful to consider the loss of the person. The loss of Jimi Hendrix, of Jim Morrison, of Judy Garland, of Louis Armstrong. So when these people are around, and they're healthy, and they're ready to play, and we can add newness to it, and we can do charity . . .?
"I'll grant you, I have a business mind. Bringing Jane's Addiction to the table makes good business sense, sure. But if I was only concerned with business, I'd have a million dollars in the bank right now. You have to realize I work in the industry. The first thing they look at is how many people show up to see your show. If a lot of people show up, they'll work with you. If nobody shows up, they won't. I've prepared myself, and I have waited for this time for five years. I look at Jubilee as pure music, 12 months. And Jane's Addiction, will that be a good thing for it? That'd be a great thing for it . . ."
IN THE SPACE OF JUST THREE ALBUMS, Jane's Addiction became a landmark band. A landmark Los Angeles band, in the same way that X and the Doors were great Los Angeles bands. What made Jane's special was that their songs seemed to have been lived first, written second. And they were lived in L.A.: Their lyrics were the stories of the poor, beautiful and bohemian, the people who spent their nights and days scoring drugs, surfing in Point Dume, hiking in the canyons, shoplifting for fruit and razor blades, making art from gathered rubbish, getting hassled by cops, figuring out their families, watching daytime TV, writing songs. Their music -- especially on their pair of studio albums, 1988's Nothing's Shocking and 1990's Ritual de lo Habitual -- was utterly unique, a rippling art-rock admixture of rarely combined sounds present in contemporary L.A.: Jane's had the majesty and weight of heavy metal, the naked aggression of punk, the ass-shake of funk, the wide-eyed ambition of psychedelia, the dark drama of goth, the home-country folk music of the city's many ethnic enclaves. Dandy Lion of Zion
In lesser hands, that would have been a formula for a fusion fiasco. But for the eerily child-voiced Farrell, sublimely restrained bassist Eric Avery, oceanic guitarist Dave Navarro and six-limbed drummer Stephen Perkins, the music's borderlessness -- incubated not at hair-metal HQ Gazzarri's but at the Scream and Lhasa clubs alongside bands like the Minutemen, Savage Republic and Fishbone -- was an absolute strength. (Yes, two guys in the band -- Navarro and Perkins -- did have a Sunset Strip metal background, but, as Avery told me recently, chuckling, "We didn't get together over a shared love of Warrant.") And at a time when conservative California was trying to perma-seal its southern border, at a time when hard rock's reigning king asshole Axl Rose was mewling about his problems with "immigrants and faggots," Jane's wore black nails and garters, kissed each other on their lipsticked mouths onstage, and gave their breakout album (Ritual de lo Habitual) a Spanish title and botanica décor. As Perry chanted on "No One's Leaving," "Wish I knew everyone's nickname/all their slang and all their sayings/every way to show affection/how to dress to fit the occasion."
Time has only been kind to these records, probably because at the core of Jane's lies a deep sadness, and sadness always endures. You could sense it was there, even if you didn't know that Navarro had witnessed his mother's murder at age 15, or that Farrell's mother had committed suicide when he was a toddler. It's there in the way Navarro's guitar does gorgeous spirals around the verses in "Summertime Rolls" in the as-yet-unreleased '97 tour doc Three Days. It's in the desperation for life in Jane's' "rock" songs, too, but most of all it's in the band's ballads -- beautifully shaped character studies about friends, lovers and mothers, laden with empathy and an ineffable sense of loss. It's manifest in the band's fliers, stage decorations, album artwork and videos fashioned from papier-mâché sculptures, flowers, golden cherubs, pregnancy tests and Super-8 home films, sumptuous handmade folk art that glories in its transience, anticipating its own eventual decay and disappearance.
In the flesh, the band could swan-dive or belly-flop. Actually, the band was almost always good -- it was Perry who could make or break the show. On some nights he was graceless, loaded, pointlessly ribald. On others he was the master party-giver/dramaturge, a spangled marionette, the most magnificently shamanic lead man since Morrison or Iggy Pop. Live, on a good night, Jane's Addiction were a Van Halen for the freaks of the world: a way to rock & roll without feeling your intelligence being insulted.
Jane's split up in September 1991, at their commercial height, after more than a year of intramural acrimony and a few battles with the record label. "Grunge" and "alternative rock" arrived -- midwifed by Perry, flashbirthed by Kurt Cobain -- and dead-ended within a few years, as no band was able to sustain both commercial success and creative power. And then, slowly, everything that Jane's -- and by extension, the Perry-conceived Lollapalooza, which single-handedly hurtled bands from the "college rock" cult bin into the mainstream -- had pioneered was reduced and cloned at the most superficial level possible. The sculptures of naked figures on Jane's' album covers became the porn models of rap-rock videos; the nose rings and paleface dreads became de rigueur bodywear for the thousands of suburban angsty-guy bands polluting the airwaves and the annual Ozzfest, Family Values and Warped testostoramas that grew in the wake of Lollapalooza. You can't hold a band responsible for its unintended legacy -- but why did Jane's have to exit in the first place, leaving us at the mercy of this shitblitz?
"I didn't want it to become what it was becoming," says Perry. "You're here to live a life. You're on a journey, and your journey is always for truth. And you can get put into a situation where you are no longer even giving the truth. You can be a musician in a band, making records purely to make a buck, at everybody's insistence. You don't even want to play with the people anymore, you don't want to play that style anymore, and yet you're doing it. So that's not truth. And to me, the only time you're gonna be healthy is when you're at least looking to find the truth.
"I felt that it wasn't a good position. We weren't friends. I was working very hard, and not being appreciated. I said, Why would I want to continue to write songs and the people that I'm writing with don't even want to play 'em? Okay, that's fair. But I like 'em. I want to be able to express myself, and I want to be able to say 'goodbye.' I want to have a door that opens and closes."
By 1991, Farrell had also tired of fielding the record label's demands that Jane's stick to a familiar, commercially viable sound.
"Being pigeonholed squashes your creativity. Even being pigeonholed as a massive giant rock star, everyone becomes very, very afraid lest you should do anything in your enthusiasm to piss people off and lose your fan base or whatever. That's not real life! That's fantasy. Your life is testing, going out and saying, I want to be able to create this kind of music, regardless of what this big corporation wants from me. If they want that, there's plenty of people who'll give it to them. I'm not in this world to make somebody else money. I'm in this world to express myself, seek out the truth and leave the place better than when I found it."
FOR YEARS, FARRELL'S DRUG USE WAS ALmost a point of pride for him; with a cackle, he'd hint at his intake, at shows, on records, in interviews and on the Jane's short-form video, Soul Kiss. It was assumed that Farrell, Avery and Navarro all had more than a passing interest in heroin, and that drug use must have played some role in the band's bust-up. The demise of the band and Farrell's split with longtime girlfriend/collaborator Casey Niccoli -- whom he had "married" in Mexico in a Santería wedding ceremony of dubious legal standing -- didn't exactly say "stability." Farrell's arrest at a Santa Monica Holiday Inn on drug charges just three weeks after the band's final show was hardly surprising. (No charges were ever brought.) The continuing non-appearance of the Farrell-Niccoli feature film Gift, originally planned to accompany the release of Ritual, also fit the pattern of a downward spiral. (Gift eventually surfaced in August '93, exactly three years after Ritual's release.) And when Farrell's eagerly anticipated new band, Porno for Pyros (featuring ex-Jane's drummer Perkins), made a headlining debut at Castaic Lake in July '92 with an embarrassingly anemic sound and an artless stage show populated by cheap circus attractions (exotic dancers, jugglers, etc.), it seemed just another bit of evidence that Farrell was losing a public-private war with drugs.
Porno for Pyros released their self-titled debut album the next spring -- and they still sounded like an untogether band doing their best to cover half-finished Jane's songs. (The other Jane's leftovers would show up in '94 on Avery and Navarro's undeservedly neglected Deconstruction album.) Perhaps guitarist Peter DiStefano and bassist Martyn Le Noble were intimidated by their singer's lofty pedigree and audience expectations; they certainly weren't helped much by Farrell's newer songs, especially stuff like "Black Girlfriend," with its shockingly banal, patronizing lyrics ("Ever since the riots/All I really wanted was a black girlfriend"). Perry had initially promised a whole new sound for Porno for Pyros, but only the slightly daffy, far-too-simple-for-Jane's hit single "Pets" sounded like something other than an underwhelming version of Perry's former band.
Farrell still believes Porno for Pyros was never heard in a proper context.
"It took us two weeks to record that album. It was during the riots, and I was flying around town. I was in the mood to make music. All I wanted to do was punk-rock it. I went into a studio and recorded some songs, and that's what it sounds like. And it's cool by me. I wasn't looking to be bigger than Jane's Addiction. I think people wanted to slam me personally, so they weren't going to let the band grow. And also, I was out of my mind, so . . ."
But it's the second Porno for Pyros album -- released to little critical or commercial interest in May '96 -- that didn't get a fair hearing. Much of Good God's Urge showed a genuinely new Perry vision emerging: brighter, more positive lyrics, gently lilting ancient melodies, layers of sound, a psychedelic-folk-funk band playing on a tropical beach with the island's native musicians.
"There are beautiful songs on there," says Perry. ä "That period had probably the greatest effect of my life. The most bizarre things were happening at that time, and I felt that it was reflected in the music. Everybody at Warner Bros. was leaving, and I became nothing other than splatter on a wall there. But I was a very difficult person to deal with in those days. You probably couldn't get me in a room, unless" -- chuckling -- "you were alone with me in a room for a couple of days. So I would be the first to put the blame on me."
Meanwhile, partly inspired by the online ventures of Timothy Leary, whose home he had often visited during Leary's struggle with terminal cancer, Perry established Teeth.net, one of the first technologically progressive artist-directed Web sites. Next, inspired by a book titled Cancer Planet Mission: An Introduction to Cosmophilosophy, Perry organized ENIT, a new festival that would take up where the steadily mainstreaming Lollapalooza -- at this point featuring Metallica as its headliner -- left off. ENIT was massively idealistic: Not only was its stated purpose to communicate with supercivilized extraterrestrials from planets less "cancerous" than ours, but it was sponsor-free and Perry-financed, and featured ceremonial tree plantings, free Hare Krishnacooked vegetarian dinners, and music from Porno for Pyros, the Sun Ra Arkestra, Deee-Lite's Lady Miss Kier, Meat Beat Manifesto, the ReBirth Brass Band and, for the L.A.-area date, Love and Rockets. But although the individual ENIT shows in August '96 were well-attended, there were only four of them, far below the number necessary to recoup the tour's enormous costs.
Porno for Pyros, with Mike Watt now on bass, had become a formidable live ensemble, moving toward a spiritual, cotton-robes-'n'-bindhis group-mind thing. But then DiStefano became seriously ill, and the band's post-ENIT tours were canceled. Before long, Perry's Web venture was gone, too.
"I've lost millions of dollars going purely for the music I love," says Farrell. "I don't miss the money. It doesn't sting. All added up, good things happened . . . You know, Magic Johnson lost championships, but he's a champion. And is he doing great things now? Is he a champion in his community? Looks like it to me."
By summer '97, Farrell was back in the Lollapalooza fold. And late that fall, Jane's Addiction "relapsed" for a posthumous valedictory tour of North America's sports arenas, with Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea replacing original bassist Eric Avery, who declined to reunite with his former bandmates. The shows were generally well-received, especially by the fans who hadn't seen the band in its heyday, but on their second of two evenings at the Universal Amphitheater a repellent, not-right vibe emanated from the stage. As a hyper, ill-at-ease Navarro roamed the stage in a topless black dress and garters, Perry's barely coherent lectures went on for small eternities. Flea and Perkins appeared embarrassed. Some epic hard-drug use -- later acknowledged by both Perry and Navarro -- was definitely going on, and it wasn't pretty.
A few months later, in the wake of the Tommy LeePamela Anderson boat-sex video sensation, a Web site began selling a Perry Farrell home video that purported to feature explicit sex, drugs and nutjob blather. It was inevitable: Porno From Perry. Farrell eventually won a court injunction against the sale of the tape in July '98, and though the video is impossible to find today, its existence has obviously shaken him. He won't mention it this afternoon in Venice, but in June 1998 he told the San Francisco Metropolitan, "The tape is a shame to me. If there's anything in this world I wouldn't want you to see, it's that tape . . . It wasn't even the drugs, although I don't do the drugs anymore. It's more the stupidity of my words. I'm speaking as an idiot. I say, 'Coke is the devil' and 'I can play the devil' . . . I might one day come to say I'm really glad that tape is there, because you can see how far a person can go, and you can see how a person can come back from going away that far."
THE ROUTE BACK FOR FARRELL -- BIRTH name: Perry Bernstein -- was through his roots. A full-blooded New York Jew who had been bar mitzvahed ("My first gig," he giggles), Farrell abandoned Judaism in his adult life to become an especially adventurous eso-tourist, investigating all manner of heterodox religious practices, rites and systems. His interest in the subject ranged wide, including serious flings with Santería and Hinduism, the Tarot and the I Ching, ritual scarification and Aleister Crowleystyle black magic.
"I was reading about black magic as anybody would read fiction," Farrell explains. "I appreciated its sense of mystery. I loved what it looked like. I was in a period as a young man when all that darkness is really enticing. I could get my hands on the books, and I wanted to know what they had to say. And did I try to actuate or perform any rituals on people? Not on people. But eventually I abandoned it, because in my mind, just playing with darkness, that's like half an idea. I need to know more. I want to know about lightness."
In 1996, Farrell was introduced by a filmmaker friend to the Kabbalah, a set of Jewish mystical teachings that purport to descend from a hidden oral tradition stretching all the way back to Abraham. Kabbalistic texts -- which are regarded by many Jews as incomprehensible, irrelevant or illegitimate -- range from legends of golems, demons and magically powered rabbis to discussions of numerology and palmistry to a 10-sphered map called the Tree of Life that represents both the structure of the universe and the individual. Farrell was intrigued by this mystical aspect to his family's religion that he had never known existed.
"When I started studying the Kabbalah, it was as an adult man reading something cold and saying, 'Fascinating. Unbelievable. I want another book.' Before, I could sit down with you on any drunken night and say, '[The Bible] is baloney, I can't believe you buy that, you actually follow that stuff?' With reading additional mysticism, you realize that the Torah's not really as simple as you thought. It's like, you have a little kid, and you can say to him, Do you want ba-ba? Or you can say, Are you hungry? Something really beautiful happens to my son when I speak to him as if he's got some sense to him. The Kabbalah is almost like the 'inside scoop.' It's not the baby talk. And it spoke to me. But it also gave me additional respect for the 'simple.'"
Still, Farrell openly flouts many laws of the Torah. This leaves the impression that, like other recent celebrity Kabbalah dabblers (Roseanne, Madonna, Tool, etc.), he's cherry-picking bits of wisdom that he's probably misunderstanding. On the other hand, Farrell studies with a legitimate Hasidic rabbi, Rabbi Yosef Langer of San Francisco, a flamboyant former hippie and rising star in the Chabad movement. Chabad encourages the dissemination of certain formerly forbidden Kabbalistic concepts and practices.
"From what I understand, this is the time to let people know," says Farrell. "You can look at the world as a body and say, Is the world really mature enough to receive the concepts of the Kabbalah? I think we're at that age now when we could maybe start to understand these things and use them. This is knowledge that comes at no cost. I only say, Go out, find reputable people that understand it, ask questions. Be very gentle with it. It's a nice structure for putting yourself in balance. And then you can look out to the world, and even help balance the world."
FARRELL'S SOLO RECORD AND THIS FALL'S Jubilee tour represent his attempts to put some of these ideas in motion. The word jubilee is derived from the Hebrew word yobel, "ram's horn," which is sounded at the beginning of each year. According to Leviticus, every 50 years is to be a "jubilee" year, in which slaves are freed, debts are forgiven, land reverts to its original owners. A yearlong celebration of freedom, renewal and redemption occurs. Conventional Jewish teaching holds that the practice of Jubilee applies only to Jews, and that it takes place only when the majority of Jews are gathered in Israel.
Farrell wants to take the biblical concept of Jubilee and extend it to encompass the entire world. He's worked for three and a half years on songs about it. He named his 3-year-old son Yobel. His activism for Third World debt relief is Jubilee-inspired. And now he's organizing the Jane's-headlined multiband Jubilee festival, which will partly benefit the American Anti-Slavery Group (www.iabolish.com), an organization that literally buys freedom for people enslaved in nations like the Sudan and Thailand. With luck, his Jubilee festival will tour the world next year, with a stop in Israel. Pretty ambitious for a drug addict . . .
"Sometimes you run out of options," Farrell says. "I'm letting you know the deep recesses of my mind now: I have absolutely no urges to be smoking crack or shooting up heroin. Where did they go? You get older. I can be 30, completely strung out and building Lollapalooza, but I can't be a 42-year-old, strung out and building Jubilee. So I made my choice. I said, Let's see something out there -- not in my room, not in my head, not in my 'future.' Let's see something tangible."
Farrell's recently released Song Yet To Be Sung is designed to be a soundtrack for the 12-month celebration that marks a Jubilee year. It's shimmering, energetic dance music, a spiritually loaded bacchanal given pop-song structures and lyrics couched in Kabbalistic concepts. The sound itself takes its inspiration from the electronic music Farrell has immersed himself in for the last four years. This makes sense: rave music, especially the trance and tribal genres, has always combined celebration and spirituality, the same one-two Farrell is now going for. (That the best raves usually occur in that most biblical of settings -- the desert -- probably didn't hurt, either.)
Although Song is a decidedly Roland MC-505/ProToolsbased album, there's plenty of live playing from a host of guest musicians, including Perkins, Navarro, dub scientist Mad Professor, War keyboardist Lonnie Jordan and the ubiquitous Jon Brion. Farrell's vocals are the best of his career, varying from devotional chants and reggae dancehall-style toasts to deeply melodic, honey-layered singing to a beautiful sigh-wail that sails high above the music. Song may be sonically closer to Björk's sunnier dance-floor moments and Madonna's William Orbitproduced work than to Jane's or Porno, but it's not without precedents in Farrell's work: The first Jane's recordings Farrell made with bassist Eric Avery used a drum machine, and Farrell always put an echo-filter on his voice, giving his vocals a manipulated, almost posthuman feel. And of course there were the electronica-tinged Jane's Addiction songs that made it onto Kettle Whistle, the odds-'n'-sods album released in '97 to coincide with the Jane's Relapse tour.
Curiously, the one member of Jane's Addiction who has remained estranged from Farrell -- Avery -- is the one other ex-Jane who has released records in the last decade swimming in electronic elements. Since his band Polar Bear shut down last year, Avery has been working on several new self-described "tech nerd" projects.
"Eric Avery," muses Perry. "I wanna record with Eric Avery again. He's a great musician. One of the greatest I've ever played with. I wanna make up with him. I'm sure we can do it. There are things that are deep in his heart, deep in my heart. I bet we can get to the bottom of it."
But Avery told me two weeks later that he's still not interested in a Jane's reunion: "The fundamental answer is just that my heart wouldn't be in it. But at the same time, I don't mind going down in history as the original bass player of Jane's Addiction. 'Cuz it was a fucking cool thing to be a part of."
With Avery or not, Perry has plans to make this Jane's reunion something more substantive than the last one.
"I wanna rehearse all-new material. I wanna write new material, too. We'll supplement the music with electronics and I think a keyboardist who can take care of some of the subsonic sounds. Steve's adding electronic drums he's been working on for about two years now. We'll see how we sound, going a little deeper . . . I want to come into town bringing music and a twist."
"It's funny, but why would Moses tell us that attached to this whole idea of liberty is celebration? Because that's what you do to declare your freedom -- you celebrate. And that's sacred. That should be honored, that should be protected and guarded.
"And is that worth dedicating a life to? As far as I'm concerned, it is."