The Great Albums

Jane's Addiction, Ritual de lo Habitual


September 8, 2002


          Of the many mysteries that linger from the alternative-rock heyday of the early ’90s, near the top of the list is this one: Who was the “Jane” of Jane’s Addiction? I finally had the chance to pose that question to bandleader Perry Farrell in 1997, when he reunited the influential group for its first “relapse” tour.

“First of all, the answer to what is in a name has got no bounds,” Farrell said in his typically elliptical fashion. “It’s eternally deep. I can tell you my name is Perry, or I can tell you my name is Porno, or I can tell you my name is Jane. What is in a name? But at the same time, it also declares that I’m not Jack or Jerry. What is in a name? The answer is boundless, and as I say, profoundly deep.”

Uh, sure Perry. That clears it [ital] all [ital] up.

Born Perry Bernstein, the spacey but visionary artist moved to Los Angeles from New York in the early ’80 and adopted his new stage name as a play on the word “peripheral.” He started making music at seedy Hollywood clubs in a goth band called Psi Com (he issued one indie E.P. in 1985) before hooking up with guitarist Dave Navarro, bassist Eric Avery, and drummer Stephen Perkins and changing the name of the band to Jane’s Addiction.

The group debuted with a self-titled album in 1997. Recorded live at the Roxy, “Jane’s Addiction” introduced the signature mix of glam-rock gender-bending, Led Zeppelin riff-pilfering, funky/psychedelic wanking, and heroin-chic posing, all delivered by a singer who brought to mind Jon Anderson of Yes, with stranger New Age ideas and a bit less of a vocal range. It was a rough, intoxicating sound, but the band honed it on two subsequent and much more ambitious offerings.

Hardcore Jane’s fans remain divided over whether 1988’s “Nothing’s Shocking” or 1990’s “Ritual de Lo Habitual” stands as the band’s ultimate masterpiece. Both helped define an era that would soon be called “alternative.” Arriving just before the movement’s commercial cooptation (which followed the breakthrough success of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” in 1991), my vote goes to “Ritual,” which remains as inspiring for its genre-defying soundscapes as its overall vibe of wanton hedonism.

As a defiant celebration of individuality, the album basks in the joys of unrestrained freakdom. What Jane’s Addiction did better than any of its peers was to illustrate that, in the end, alternative was an [ital] attitude [ital] more than it was ever a [ital] sound [ital]or a [ital] marketing plan. [ital]

“To the mosquitoes: We have more influence over your children than you do, but we love your children,” Farrell writes in a long essay included in the CD liner notes. “You want what’s best for them. Consider them when planning the future, right? Oh mother, father, your blindness to our most blessed gift, NATURE, leaves us with the overwhelming task of correcting your utter mess. It also proves that you are no judge of art, or of beauty.” The diatribe concludes: “The world looks at America because we are the beautiful!”

You’re forgiven for thinking that the preceding is a vintage hippieish rant because… well, the musicians were always a bunch of hippies at heart. They took what was worth taking from the fabled ’60s youth movement, but they lived in the present, mixing psychedelic idealism and punkish realism in equal measures. There was as always much Velvet Underground as Grateful Dead in their sound, along with a complex stew of a thousand other ingredients. And they were mercifully free of irony, that dreaded, distancing stance that would plague the majority of their Gen X peers.

On “Ritual,” Jane’s meant what it said and said what it meant, whether the song was a naďve but otherwise right-on attack on anti-environmentalism (“Stop!”), a plea for community (“No One’s Leaving”), a flaunting of society’s conventions (“Ain’t’ No Right” and the kleptomaniac’s anthem, “Been Caught Stealing”), a lauding of individualism (“Obvious”), or a warning against the evils of nostalgia and living in the past (“Classic Girl”).

“They may say, ‘Those were the days…’/But in a way, you know for us/These are the days!” Farrell sings in the key line in the latter tune. And they certainly were.

Musically, critics tend to focus on Farrell’s oh-so-distinctive voice and Navarro’s guitar (which could dish out metal shred with the best of them, but generally favored imaginative washes of color, drawing on elements of punk, funk, and psychedelia). Yet just as key to the group’s unique attack were loping bassist Avery (who brought an element of dub reggae to the party) and the group’s real M.V.P., drummer Stephen Perkins, whose ability to move fluidly from a Bonhamesque rock stomp to complicated worldbeat polyrhythms stands out not only in alternative rock, but in rock history, period.

Listen especially to Perkins’ work on the 11-minute “Three Days,” which, like marathon lovemaking, builds slowly and gently  through three-quarters of its epic length before exploding in a climactic frenzy.

Cudos are also due here to Dave Jerden, who co-produced the album with Farrell. Yes, there are the unforgettable sonic novelties. (Who can forget those barking dogs at the beginning of “Been Caught Stealing”? While the song was played to death on MTV and radio, it still packs an undeniable wallop every time you hear it.) But above and beyond those slicks and tricks, there is a truly one-of-a-kind mood that permeates the disc, an otherworldly mix that would motivate countless bands to follow.

To this day, rare is the recording studio that does not have a copy of this album handy in the short stack by the CD player, next to the Zep and the Soundgarden, where engineers go for inspiration when they want to kick a recording to the [ital] next [ital] level.

Although it would become the swan song by the first incarnation of the group (before Farrell introduced a new version of Jane’s in ’97), “Ritual” was enough of a success that it allowed Farrell to launch the diverse, multi-band Lollapalooza festival in 1991, before disbanding the group and moving on with Perkins in Porno for Pyro. Twelve years on, it is still a powerful work with the ability to surprise on every listen—a mind-blowing accomplishment, and a true alternative to much of mainstream rock music.