Aaron Gilbreath | Longreads | November 2017 | 26 minutes (6,465 words)
On a sunny day in 1989 when I was just 14, I heard Jane’s Addiction for the first time.
I was at my friend Nate’s house. As I sat on his bedroom’s itchy tan carpet, near the waterbed with the imitation leather rim, we watched their debut record spin. It was a live recording, and like many teenagers whose musical awakening came before the internet, we’d inherited it from a cooler elder — Nate’s sister’s boyfriend.
The album was recorded at a club called The Roxy, on the Sunset Strip. As a concert recording, some fans called it “the live album.” We called it “Triple X,” after the indie label that released it. Unlike other live records where applause fades in before the music starts, Triple X launched right in with no introduction: fast drums, soloing guitar, and a high-pitched banshee singer howling cryptic lyrics that went way over my 14-year-old head: “Oh, mama lick on me / I’m as tasty as a red plum / Baby thumb / Wanna make you love.” The song was called “Trip Away.” I had no idea what tripping was, but the music slayed me.
After a blazing crescendo, the audience clapped, seconds passed, and a slow bass line played a new rumbling melody. The drummer pounded a single beat over it: boom. Then two more ─ boom boom ─ building tension. The guitarist slid his pick down the guitar strings, smearing a wicked echo across the rhythm, then the banshee yelled “Goddamn!” and broke into “Whores.” “I don’t want much man, give a little / I’m gonna take my chances if I get ’em. Yeah!”
To a middle class kid in Phoenix, Arizona, this music had a primal abandon that I hadn’t yet encountered, but whose wildness attracted me.
On November 13, 1986, two months before recording Triple X, Jane’s Addiction recorded themselves through the soundboard at The Pyramid Club in Hollywood. Located at 1743 N. Cahuenga, east of the famous Mann’s Chinese Theater, The Pyramid was one of many small venues where L.A.’s underground bands performed in the 1980s. Goth, post-punk, and art rock thrived at little holes in the wall like Raji’s, Club Lingerie, and Black Radio Club, and Jane’s Addiction taped themselves playing at many of them. It took a a few years for copies of their other 1986 soundboard recordings to stray far from the band’s personal collection. Once copies of the Pyramid show leaked, bootleggers released it in the early 1990s on unauthorized CDs like Live and Profane and Addicted, where it circulated widely and remained, for a while, the earliest live recording that most Jane’s fans had. For people like me, who hadn’t experienced the band in all their pre-fame glory, the bootlegs were a windfall.
The Pyramid show is searing. It’s the kind of unhinged rock and roll that built Jane’s Addiction’s reputation as one of Los Angeles’ best bands, and whose fame helped Nirvana and Pearl Jam make alternative music mainstream in the early 1990s. Now that Jane’s Addiction plays arenas and everyone from your surgeon to your grandma has tattoos, it’s hard to imagine these familiar things being limited to the subculture. But back in the late 1980s, before singer Perry Farrell embraced the true dark side of Los Angeles ─ namely, reality television and cosmetic surgery ─ and guitarist Dave Navarro leveraged his musical fame for that comfortable TV show money, the band was revolutionary.
Designing their own album covers and sharing clothes, generating buzz without generating much profit, shooting heroin and fighting on stage, Jane’s Addiction’s spooky mix of dark art and forceful deviance was enthralling, and the sense of its inevitable implosion only heightened the appeal. Back when the band handed a blank tape to The Pyramid’s soundman, Jane’s Addiction was L.A.’s own Iggy and The Stooges, and their recording of “Whores” that night is one the grittiest rock songs ever captured on tape.
In high school, Jane’s Addiction was one of my favorite bands, and “Whores,” one of the band’s most iconic songs, was my anthem. Written in 1985 and officially released on their 1987 debut, the band played “Whores” at most shows from then until their breakup in 1991. They considered putting a studio version on their second album, 1988’s Nothing’s Shocking, but only in 2008 did they record it in-studio. They shouldn’t have bothered. Nothing could top the early live versions’ gutter spirit. Like the one on their first record, The Pyramid version is raw and propulsive, which is why the band eventually released it on a 1997 miscellany. By then many fans like me already had the full Pyramid recording from bootlegs, and I listened to it more than the band’s studio albums.
Like many teenagers whose musical awakening came before the internet, my friend and I inherited Jane’s Addiction’s debut recording from a cooler elder — Nate’s sister’s boyfriend.
Back when I first heard Jane’s Addiction at 14, I was already listening to bands like Violent Femmes and The Cult, but Jane’s Addiction became everything I loved about guitar music and hadn’t imagined it could be. Of all the music I eventually listened to on repeat in the early ’90s ─ Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish, Bad Brains’ Rock for Light ─ Jane’s Addiction’s hit me the deepest, partly because of the sound, partly because it spoke to aspects of my nature that I was only beginning to recognize. Specifically, its darkness, sense of adventure, stubborn independence, and disdain for societal expectations — an angry, gender-bending, anti-authoritarianism that I, as a smartass little rebel, was all about.
Jane’s Addiction’s heavy guitar riffs and tribal rhythms drew me in. So did their bodies. The way Perry bounced on his tiptoes with his fist tucked against his ribs. The way drummer Stephen Perkins twirled his hair around like a metronome so you only saw his face between songs. They were animals. I felt like an animal, full of energy and vinegar, skating for miles through the Arizona heat, mouthing off to test strangers’ reactions and climbing high cliffs on desert hikes with friends just to see if I could conquer my fear. I was intense. The other side of me was brooding and sensitive. I felt things deeply, cried at the happy parts in movies. I loved contemplating scenery outside car windows on long drives, spent hours quietly drawing and reading in my bedroom; I carried this sense that I was searching for something, a revelation maybe, or working towards something artistic. I couldn’t tell. I just knew that, as a creative-type person afraid of how I’d make my way in the world when I applied to college, no lines spoke to me more than those in “Whores” where Perry sings: “I’m tired of living the boss’ dream / They’ll scrape you dry, man, if you let ’em. You better take take take your chances if you get ’em.”
The band had been referred to as “feeling’ man’s metal.” That seemed to fit. Astrology-minded friends called my two distinct sides a classic Gemini trait. It was Jane’s Addiction’s dualities that captured my mixed-up essence: of joy and rage, creation and self-destruction, femininity and bravado. It was Jane’s Addiction’s cover songs that introduced me to the music of The Velvet Underground, Stooges, and X before I knew these were covers. And like an older sibling who lends you his favorite records and winks, You’re not a virgin anymore, it was Jane’s Addiction who showed me what L.A. bands like Dream Syndicate and Suburban Lawns already knew: that no matter how many of us Arizonans treated L.A. as one big beach and discounted its interior as a cultureless silicone implant sewed onto the movie industry’s chest, this city had a fertile musical underbelly that many of us had been missing, and it was thriving just six hours west of my Phoenix home. “Whores” changed me permanently.
Like most great rock songs, “Whores” isn’t complicated. It’s a simple metal guitar riff chugging over a dirty baseline in the key of B. Between guitar solos, Perry howls about a marginalized existence, “way down low where the streets are littered.” The popular rock songs from 1986, like Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name,” build themselves around clichés and sappy sing-alongs that encourage mindlessness and nostalgia. “Whores” has no glitter, no pretense. Instead of numbing you, it shocks you awake, taking listeners where few straight-laced, tax-paying citizens ever visit: the places you go to cop dope, and where prostitutes ply their trade. Places I, like Perry, eventually frequented when my friends and I started trying all sorts of drugs.
You can sing the song’s chorus if you want. It isn’t hard: “Hear me go off! Give me some more! / Motherfucker! / Need a little more / Goddamn you! / Give me some more!” But it’s easier to rhyme Bon Jovi’s lyrics, “Shot through the heart / And you’re to blame / You give love a bad name.”
Although “Whores” isn’t sui generis, with no predecessor and no equal, it’s a unique artistic vision that resulted when a group of young musicians with different styles and ideas first started jamming together, and their recreational drugs were still working.
“Our first manager was a prostitute,” Perry told one interviewer. “That’s where the song ‘Whores’ came from. She would get the money up for us to do shows. She loved the band and we loved her.”
Eric clarified: “Bianca. I don’t know if she qualifies as a manager. She did that  show with Tex and the Horseheads and a bunch of people and it was really successful.” She did more than that. Bianca had already given Psi Com the money to record their first album in 1985, and now she gave Perry money to rent venues where his new band could perform. Eric and Bianca were also sleeping together.
“It wasn’t hard to fall down with her,” Perry remembered in the band’s biography, Whores: an Oral Biography of Perry Farrell and Jane’s Addiction. “She was a very persuasive woman. Bianca was very sweet, if a little nutty. Nutty enough to want to manage us.”
As the band’s namesake, Jane Bainter, remembered in the band’s oral history, “Her clients were toupeed Hollywood B-listers, like these wholesome married game-show hosts with awesome tans and big grinnin’ teeth.” She had a lot of money. As Eric remembered, they wasted a lot of it.
On November 13, 1986, the year before recording Triple X, Jane’s Addiction recorded themselves through the soundboard at The Pyramid Club in Hollywood.
The term “whores” sounds derogatory to many people now, but Perry didn’t mean it as a slight. His lyrics don’t judge sex workers. They simply describe life on the street where some people lived it, celebrating modes of existence outside the mainstream. If anything, his lyrics express his admiration for the risks sex workers take to survive, risks that partly encouraged him to take his own as a working musician. “Whores” wasn’t only inspired by Bianca’s job and Perry’s appreciation. He was drawing from the lives of friends who had substance problems, like Jane, his roommate, whose habit inspired his band name, and Carla Bozulich, who’d met Eric in rehab in her teens, and had helped Perry choose his stage name (a play on ‘peripheral’ vision).
And he was talking about himself. “I never really liked my last name, Bernstein,” Perry, aka Peretz Bernstein, told Details magazine. “I wanted nothing to do with my family. I didn’t want them to know what I was doing because I knew they wouldn’t approve. I was a runaway. I lived for the dirty side. I had to stay near bad activity.”
Although I loved my family, I knew the feeling. My high school friends and I liked to party. Initially, we believed we were behaving like most adolescents. We went to weekend keg parties and sometimes smoked weed. It was all very playful. But our appetites grew as our hair did, and we became recklessly indulgent. Some of us were naturally adventurous and liked to push boundaries. Others had childhood wounds they would rather not feel, so we kept partying until that festive term no longer applied and we found ourselves using drugs alone in our rooms before classes or after our shift at work.
I was too curious for my own good. I wanted to experience everything, so by college I did: acid, PCP, coke, mescaline, heroin. It was heroin that felt the best, so it was heroin I realized I had to avoid. I couldn’t deny that it felt incredible. It made sense why so many musicians ended up abusing it. For those of us who fancied ourselves artists, heroin induced visions that seemed to enhance creativity. I wish I’d never believed this.
Unfortunately, the more I read about the band, the clearer the role drugs played in the rise and fall of their creative output became. All the songs they wrote during their first few months resulted from a unique combination of talent, vision and drugs ─ heroin specifically. And during the second half of their life as a band, heroin was the reason they wrote nothing new.
When Eric and Perry first met, Perry didn’t do much more than smoke weed and take psychedelics. Ethan James, who recorded Perry in Psi Com and Jane’s Addiction’s first demos at his home studio in Venice, said, “At this point [in Psi Com] I don’t think Perry was using any drugs particularly, but he was fascinated by it, so he surrounded himself with junkies all the time. It’s like being a fag hag, only he was a junk hag.”
The Pyramid show is searing, the kind of unhinged rock and roll that built Jane’s Addiction’s reputation as one of Los Angeles’ best bands.
Eric had already gone to rehab in high school. Now he was shooting speed and using heroin on and off with Jane. As Perry spent more time with Eric and Jane and hung out more with underground musicians, he started trying hard drugs himself; they eventually became part of his artistic routine. “Perry definitely believed that drugs fueled creativity,” the band’s booking agent Marc Geiger said.
Perry started trying hard drugs in what Jane Bainter called “a very exploratory way.” “He was pro-drugs,” Jane said in Whores, “pro-exploration, pro-experience, pro-experimentation . . . pro any drug. . . . ” Besides the band members’ youth and instrumental abilities, heroin was one of their most important muses. In Perry’s words, he took “those kinda drugs and put them to good use.” And measured by output, you can’t deny that he did. “I’m just dreaming it all up,” Perry said in Whores. “I mean, did Dylan really go riding in on a horse on the fifth day of May in the drizzle and the rain? I don’t think it’s anybody’s business if I choose to sit there and bang myself on the head with a board . . . if you don’t get anything extra for being healthy, why should you be penalized for being a little sick?”
That’s how Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote his famous poem “Kubla Khan.” One night after smoking opium, he woke up, head filled with vivid imagery and lines already written, and quickly wrote them down. In my 20s, this fascinated me. Now in my 40s, it disgusts and disappoints me. Yes, their name was Jane’s Addiction, but still. People seek insight with psychedelic mushrooms. No one explores with crack, but the difficult fact is that one of the most widely anthologized English poems resulted from an opioid, just like heroin lubricated three of the band members’ minds, inducing dreams that birthed lyrics and melodies that became Jane’s Addiction songs. As Red Hot Chili Peppers’ guitarist John Frusciante said in Whores, there would be no Jane’s Addiction without heroin.
But everyone knows the fever dream wears off. At first, you smoke or snort heroin intermittently without getting addicted, and you go about your life. People call this phase “chipping.” Jane’s Addiction even wrote a song called “Chip Away.” “Chip away!” sings Perry, “Because I’m not okay.” As well as chipping worked, the tipping point came quickly, and the drugs soon hijack experience instead of enhancing it, and the creative dynamic shifts from enabling art to destroying life. It’s a rare breed that can put drugs to so-called good use, and it’s worth debating whether drugs have any “good” uses when the risk of self-destruction is so high that it seems imminent. Unlike most of us, Perry controlled his intake for a while by going on brief binges and quitting. His is a horrible model to aspire to, especially now that opioids kill 91 Americans every day, but it’s also the truth. It’s also true that, as in all drug relationships, the drugs eventually consumed their users, and the band literally wrote almost nothing new for years. Trading creativity for drug habits is the ultimate sad rock cliché.
When MTV first reported that the band was breaking up in 1991, I was just 16 and too naive to recognize how stories like theirs were shaping my own thinking about art and life. Instead, as I read more about them, their story gave me a sense that I might benefit from experimentation too: the underground music world had whispered its dirty artistic secret, and lucky me to have heard. What the music eventually showed me were my own addictive tendencies and dangerous errors in thinking.
I grew up drawing. As the stereotypical drawing kid, I was frequently hunched over a piece of paper, engrossed in some vision. I drew in my notebook during class. I drew alone in my bedroom at night. I drew on the paper placemats at restaurants while the adults talked. Lack of proper materials never stopped me; I just found a napkin and a cheap Bic pen. My parents bought me watercolors, sketchbooks, and graphite pencils, but the black and red pens my mother stole from work did the trick too. In fact, I liked them better. They had harder edges and were easy to control. The images mattered more than the materials, as did my family’s support.
I was too curious for my own good. I wanted to experience everything, so by college I did: acid, PCP, coke, mescaline, heroin. It was heroin that felt the best, so it was heroin I realized I had to avoid.
After years of practice, I could draw nearly anything I tried to. I explored all sorts of styles, from black and white portraits to landscapes in colored pencil, and I wanted to keep evolving. I enjoyed challenging myself to try new techniques. When I started smoking weed late in high school, it altered my senses enough that I drew things I never had sober. Strange geometric patterns; hazy forest interiors using shading and negative space, no lines; even my portraiture became psychedelic, with facial features fading around their edges, and faces framed by swirling unrelated geometries. The more I smoked, the more I wanted to believe that drugs could enhance creativity. I couldn’t write school papers stoned ─ THC ruined my organizational abilities ─ but weed did make me think in novel ways. When I tried heroin, the verse I wrote and images I drew seemed to come from another plane, as if something was speaking through me and I just had to channel the messages onto paper. What I wrote was complete gibberish, fragments of things that didn’t fit together, but I kept trying. I didn’t yet fully understand the law of diminishing returns, what is known clinically as developing “tolerance.” I was ambitious and liked experimenting. I was also young and lazy. I wanted creativity to be easier. I wanted, in that very American way, a way to buy it, a pill to take. Jane’s Addiction’s origin story confirmed that it could be done.
Instead of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” or one song as good as “Whores,” my notebooks filled with half-finished ethereal images, notes for school projects that I struggled to complete, and bad derivative poetry.
* * *
Jane’s Addiction’s early iterations performed “Whores” and songs like “Ain’t No Right” in 1985 and ’86 with a different guitarist named Ed Dobrydnio, and Matt Chaikin on drums. Their versions established many songs’ basic structures. When Dave Navarro and Stephen Perkins joined in early ’86, Dave wrote stronger, more imaginative guitar parts and the band turned “Whores” into what it is today.
The new lineup fleshed out their songs at the Wilton House, the beautiful, run-down, 1910s Craftsman that Perry rented from two cops at 369 N. Wilton. Many artists lived there, including Eric, photographer Karyn Cantor, and the band’s namesake. “It was one of those houses where everyone in the music scene in the mid-80s seems to have done a lot of time,” Eric said, “where every single closet was rented out.”
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“I remember showing up when everyone got off work,” Stephen said, “going into the garage, and writing all those songs ─ ‘Whores,’ ‘Pigs In Zen.’ It’s like that moment when you fall in love.” Residents kept guitars in the living room and beat bongos on the wraparound porch. People like Angelo Moore from Fishbone and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers came over to jam and hang out. “The first song Perry, Eric and I ever played with Dave together as a four-piece was ‘Whores,'” Stephen said, “and at that moment, for me, the sound of Jane’s Addiction was born. And it hasn’t changed since.”
After that, Jane’s Addiction wrote most of their first three albums before they even released their first one. Bootleg recordings reveal the truth about the band in ways that all the early magazine interviews and TV spots did not: That they experienced an extremely fertile period of creativity during the first few months of collaborating on that porch and in that living room.
As Jane’s Addiction started tearing up Los Angeles, hair metal ruled the radio, and it had built a special stronghold in Hollywood near record companies’ headquarters. Musicians with cowboy hats and teased bangs poured in from across the country, plastering the streets with concert flyers and posing on stages in their stretch jeans and scarves, fishing for the lucrative record deal that would make their careers. Musicians gave themselves gimmicky names like Brian “Beast” East and Daz Bash. Listings for shows filled the L.A. papers: Pair-A-Dice playing The Waters Club in San Pedro; Crystal Pistol playing Gazzarri’s on The Strip.
The year Eric and Perry first sketched “Whores,” a newly formed Guns N’ Roses was living on cheap wine in their dirty Sunset Boulevard rental house and writing their classics, “It’s So Easy” and “Welcome to the Jungle.” Jane’s Addiction had metal elements, but they blended them with Bauhaus, funky baselines, and cultish hippie psychedelia into their own heavy hybrid. Listen to “Kettle Whistle,” to “Three Days,” to “Then She Did.” It’s hard to believe Jane’s Addiction wrote this creepy tribal art-rock while surrounded by stores like Rockstar on Melrose Avenue promising one-day alterations of “clothing and accessories for present or future stars.” Even though Jane’s Addiction and many metal bands played the same big clubs like The Roxy and Whisky A Go-Go, Jane’s Addiction fit more in the basement of the downtown Embassy Hotel, “the kind of place,” as Dave put it, “where the freaks came out,” and no one bothered you for wearing nylons with nothing underneath.
The more I read about the band, the clearer the role drugs played in the rise and fall of their creative output became. All the songs they wrote during their first few months resulted from a unique combination of talent, vision and drugs ─ heroin specifically.
The Wilton House stood a stone’s throw from an older, scruffier Melrose Avenue, where record shops and vintage clothing stores influenced underground musicians’ style and ideas. As photographer John Eder put it, “If you didn’t live through the Reagan years, it’s hard to imagine how weird Perry Farrell & Jane’s Addiction looked relative to the mainstream in 1988.” Eder said. “I had never seen anything like Perry.” Neither had I.
The radio constantly blared Queensrÿche’s “Hush now don’t you cry / Wipe away the teardrop from your eye,” but I listened to Nothing’s Shocking, or, more often, Triple X. The live performance had a power that most studio recordings lacked, which is why it came as a revelation when I found more live Jane’s Addiction recordings.
My friends and I spent our weekends seeing shows and shopping record stores. We weren’t nearly as cool as those early Melrose people, but we saw The Cramps, Butthole Surfers, and Fishbone play. In 1991, we saw Jane’s Addiction play their final tour, and when they broke up, I struggled to accept that their three albums were all the Jane’s Addiction music I’d ever hear. Then, digging through CD racks in 1991, we found a Jane’s Addiction double bootleg called Live and Profane. One disc contained a full 1987 show from an underground L.A. venue called The Scream. The other contained part of that 1986 Pyramid Club show, spliced together with part of another show. All three sets were crystal-clear soundboard recordings, made semi-professionally through the clubs’ mixing desk and PA system, rather than some dude holding a mono tape recorder in the crowd. Fans call these “board tapes.”
A soundboard is the mixing console at a venue, where an engineer can adjust the volume and effects on all the instruments so the music sounds good when it plays through the PA. Many boards were equipped with tape decks. When bands recorded their performances for official releases, they usually did so on multiple tracks to provide separation between instruments, greater depth and clarity, and to allow engineers to mix everything later. Bands who casually recorded shows for themselves used cassettes or digital audio tapes, and when fans got hold of copies, they traded them. When shady business people got a hold of tapes, they released them on unsanctioned bootleg LPs and CDs. Bootleggers started doing this after 1969, the year rock’s first commercial bootleg, the Great White Wonder LP, made tons of money off of Bob Dylan’s unreleased tapes. Since then, thousands of bootlegs have flooded the black market, pleasing fans while pissing off record companies; diverting profits; embarrassing musicians with bad performances, unfinished outtakes, and unpolished demos; and creating a cat-and-mouse game with international authorities worthy of its own docudrama.
Live and Profane surprised me. Its fidelity was excellent, and the band played with unbelievable fire. To me, this was rock and roll. No second thoughts. No overdubs to correct mistakes and make improvements. They played each song in one take, feeling their way through with their guts with the energy of a local band free to experiment with their sound before anyone expected anything from them.
After finding that double CD, I hunted for more Jane’s Addiction recordings. Before the internet let fans trade digital files from the comfort of their bedrooms, you had to search for hardcopy bootlegs. Because they’re illegal, not every store stocked bootlegs, but I gradually found more soundboard shows mixed in with the legitimate releases: from L.A.’s Variety Arts Theatre in 1987, and the John Anson Ford Theater in 1989. I loved the then-unreleased song “Kettle Whistle” from the Variety Arts show. That and another vinyl bootleg I had were the only recordings on which that song was available. Perry had conceived it with his previous band in 1985 and didn’t release a version until 1997. By then it had hypnotized me for seven years, and the bootleg performances were better than the official. I still questioned these dates. And how did they get these board tapes anyway?
In some interview somewhere, I vaguely remember reading that Stephen Perkins had a box of cassettes in his closet containing many board tapes. Dave had a bunch, too, maybe duplicates of Stephen’s. Somehow, through the sketchy bucket brigade of underworld commerce, the tapes leaked from the band’s archives and ended up playing in my apartment. One theory is that the band gave friends copies of shows at some point, and when those friends made copies, some recognized their value enough to press them onto CDs. That seemed plausible. The band didn’t sanction the releases, but my ears did. Whoever this bootleg company named Totonka was, I felt indebted to them.
At first, you smoke or snort heroin intermittently without getting addicted, and you go about your life. People call this phase ‘chipping.’ Jane’s Addiction even wrote a song called ‘Chip Away.’
To me, live recordings frequently has immediacy that studio albums do not. Although soundboard cassette recordings lack the lush dimensions caught on a multi-track studio console and good microphones, live performances often have more fire. There’s power in a first take, and over-thinking can diminish it.
Before Jane’s Addiction played their songs enough for them to become rote, the band was still exploring their sound. On stage, Stephen experimented with different drums and rhythms. Dave soloed wildly and tried different guitar effects. Live, Perry experimented the most. He put more echo on his vocals, adding layers of lysergic reverberations to his already psychedelic lyrics. Lots of bands add reverb to their guitars and voices. Few singers used as much as Perry did in the early days.
At shows like The Pyramid, Perry went crazy with the echoes, turning knobs on his electronic processor to warp their frequency high and low and cranking the volume so high that he sometimes drowned out Dave’s solo. These hypnotic, pulsing frequencies drifted through the club, filling the space between verses and laying an eerie texture underneath the instruments that started loud and trailed away. “Pigs in zen, zen, zen, zen,” Perry sang, “Talking ’bout the pigs, pigs, pigs, pigs. Ooow!” Back when I took acid, I loved this effect. Even after I quit tripping, the effect enchanted me. It’s a defining part of Jane’s Addiction’s sound. You hear it on the best board tapes.
Even though Ritual de lo Habitual is widely considered a perfect album, to me it sounds over-produced. In Jane’s Addiction’s early years they seemed to have fun; on Ritual, tension became a fifth member. The album’s co-producer Dave Jerden explained that there were too many tensions between members, too many heroin habits and internecine battles, that most of the band members recorded their parts separately. Perry stayed loaded. Dave did stints in rehab and doesn’t remember recording the album. Eric and Stephen were clean, but when they showed up, Perry and Dave often flaked or came late. “We were supposed to start recording the Ritual record in June or July, but because of this rift with Eric, Perry just didn’t show up for weeks.” Jerden said in the oral history. “Eventually Eric and Perry talked and decided they would just come in at different times to do their stuff,” Jerden said. In fact, “Three Days” is the only song on Ritual that the band recorded in the studio together in one take, and it shows. For a band this intoxicated, the rest of the record sounded too clean, a more routine version of the songs they’d performed over the previous three years.
Like Perry finding his fun with the freaks on the streets, I like my music messier, with rough edges and thorny imperfections. The bootlegs let us hear Jane’s Addiction at the peak of their power, a band not yet locked into their musical or destructive habits, a band unafraid to take chances. And if some weasel black market capitalists hadn’t leaked these performances, fans would never have been able to enjoy them. Which is to say: sometimes bootlegs perform a cultural service. As one classical music bootlegger told Stereo Review in 1970, “We ‘pirates’ ─ if you must call us that ─ are the custodians of vocal history and we’re doing a damn good job of it ─ a job you can’t expect record companies to do because they’re not in business for that.”
Board tapes made me a lifelong fan of live recordings. When you hear the crowd yell, you feel the electricity between band and audience. To this day, I still prowl stores for bootleg albums and still trade shows with fans online.
Of all the early recordings I’ve collected, The Pyramid show, thirty-one years after Jane’s Addiction made it, still sounds fresh and strange.
Located in a nondescript building between Yucca Street and Hollywood Boulevard, the owners called the venue The Pyramid Club on some nights and The Continental Club on others, presumably to draw different musical crowds.
In 1991, my friends and I saw Jane’s Addiction play their final tour, and when they broke up, I struggled to accept that their three albums were all the Jane’s Addiction music I’d ever hear.
Stephen Perkins remembered playing there in 1986. “At the time,” Stephen said, “Dave and I weren’t twenty-one, so we weren’t allowed into the club until the band was announced. Perry went and got us a six-pack of beer, and we went and drank it in a car outside the club, waiting to get on stage. Then the guy said ‘Jane’s Addiction!’, and the back door opened and we came running onstage. We had to vacate the premises right after the show.”
Thankfully the band decided to roll tape.
For reasons that remain unclear, Jane’s Addiction constantly taped shows. Maybe they treated live recordings as demos to circulate to labels. Maybe they wanted to capture their best takes for possible releases, or capture new ideas as they generated them: a bass line Eric came up with on stage, a melody they spontaneously jammed between songs.
The Pyramid show’s sound quality isn’t as three-dimensional as Triple X, but it’s equally inspired. As Jane’s Addiction often did in those days, they opened with acoustic songs, with bassist Eric playing rhythm guitar on “Slow Divers,” “Jane Says” and “My Time.” Before “Jane Says” Perry tells the crowd, “Here’s one we haven’t done in a long time.” Although they’d played it before, this is the earliest known live recording of what became their “Stairway to Heaven.” Perry delivers it with feeling, drenched in effects. Afterwards he says, “Alright, let’s get down into it now.” Meaning: play electric. Dave tunes his guitar. Someone burps near a microphone, and Stephen rolls his sticks across his drum heads, sending a cascade of trippy echoes through the air. Then they tear into “Whores,” “Ain’t No Right,” “Idiots Rule,” “Mountain Song,” and “Summertime Rolls.”
Still excited by these new songs, probably loosened by beer, Dave solos with a spirit you don’t expect from a 19-year-old. Perry screams “Owooo!” and grunts whenever it feels right, punctuating the space between verses the way his idol Iggy did in Stooges songs like “Down on the Street,” letting his voice trail into the distance.
Like me, Stephen Perkins recognized the magic of their early sets. This explains why, when the band reunited in 1997, they released this version of “Whores” on their miscellany, Kettle Whistle. And to think that teenagers chugging beer in a parking lot delivered such a furious performance.
Perry liked the place but bashed the owner. “Thank you all,” Perry says between songs. “Except for the owner. The owner’s a bald-headed dick. But we love the Pyramid people. But if you see a bald-headed fucker walking around here with a bad attitude, you’ll know who I’m talking about.” Jane’s Addiction only played there once.
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After a few productive years of determined abstinence, I ended up abusing heroin daily. After snorting it for a year during college, my grades suffered and creativity ended, and I got arrested for possession. In order to avoid prison time and expunge my felony, I completed a diversion program. When Jane’s Addiction put a tiny methadone bottle on the cover of their Live and Rare CD, I knew what that was. I stayed on a low dose of methadone for six years to help me stay clean after diversion ended. I’m proud to say that small dose helped during a time when I needed help staying straight, just like I’m grateful that loud rock and roll helped me discover a heat-seeking reckless side of myself that could either be constructive or destructive if I let it.
Now in my 40s, I haven’t done drugs in nearly twenty years. I don’t even smoke weed. It doesn’t interest me, but music does, and that subversive independence and wildness that drew me to Jane’s Addiction as a teen still remains a part of my essence. I still climb high cliffs on hikes. I still skate when I can, am curious about everything and worry about earning a living as a creative type, but my Gemini-self now leans more toward creation than self-destruction, and the darkness no longer overcomes the light. Like Perry said, “Just playing with darkness, that’s like half an idea. I need to know more.”
I still own all of those Jane’s Addiction bootlegs. Instead of being shelved alongside Beastie Boys and Nirvana, the CDs now sit near the John Coltrane, Nina Simone, and Howlin’ Wolf albums that replaced my ’90s favorites.
The people who stole and released Jimmy Page’s live recordings from his collection are scum. But from the long view of history, other leaked performances have proven invaluable. Only from bootlegs did we get to hear The Velvet Underground rehearsing at Andy Warhol’s factory in 1966, or The Stooges playing “I Got a Right” at Olympic Studio in London in 1972 from their pre-Raw Power rehearsals. Thanks to bootlegs, Bob Dylan seems to have acquiesced and released complete official versions of his widely traded Basement Tapes, as part of his official Bootleg Series, which is great because I prefer giving musicians my money directly.
After a few productive years of determined abstinence, I ended up abusing heroin daily. When Jane’s Addiction put a tiny methadone bottle on the cover of their Live and Rare CD, I knew what that was.
To combat piracy and give fans what they want, bands like Fugazi, Pixies, and Pearl Jam started recording their shows professionally and selling copies, often immediately after the gig. It seems concert recording customs have reached their evolutionary peak.
It makes me wonder if Navarro’s original cassette of The Pyramid show is stored in a closet. Did it get lost in a move? While those old tapes sat around decaying, the old L.A. clubs Jane’s Addiction played kept getting replaced and demolished.
1743 N. Cahuenga became many different clubs after The Pyramid. Last time I checked, the building sat deserted, as vacant as my youthful attempts at poetry. Fronted by a lone palm tree, cigarette butts collected below its white walls where the landscaping had gone feral. Cars pass on nearby Hollywood Boulevard 24 hours a day. Some transport their drivers to work. Others are filled with tourists going to photograph themselves on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2013, Jane’s Addiction finally got a star on the Walk. It’s number 2,509, located three blocks from The Pyramid.
In Hollywood, people will always take their chances if they get ’em. Back when young Peretz Bernstein took his, he was young enough to just play without over-thinking, to howl when it felt right, to leap off of monitors and jot down the words as they came in a daydream. He was too young to know exactly where risks would take him ─ nominated for five Grammy Awards; arrested on a drug charge; sounding pretty spacey in recent interviews. Before he became a 58-year-old millionaire father of three living in a house near the beach, he was young enough to believe in his talent, but too young to know that after he bought beer for his young drummer and guitarist that November night in 1986, those brilliant fortunate misfits would survive their dangerous habits and make something wicked and pure inside this nothing club that would influence a generation and outlive us all.
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Aaron Gilbreath has written for Harper’s, Kenyon Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Tin House and Brick. He’s the author of the books This Is: Essays on Jazz and Everything We Don’t Know: Essays. He’s working on books about California’s rural San Joaquin Valley and about Japan.
Editor: Sari Botton