You Had To Be There: The Weirdo Alternative Of Ritual De Lo Habitual 30 Years Later
Jane’s Addiction might be the ultimate “you had to be there” band. If you weren’t somewhere between 16 and 20 in 1988-90, their music is likely either totally foreign to you or a somewhat baffling memory, a misty relic of the pre-Nirvana age. But if you were there, as I was, they sunk a hook into you that will never come loose — and gestured toward a much wider world of possibilities than “punk” or “metal” or what was still called “college rock.”
Jane’s Addiction were unique, but they weren’t alone. There was a whole movement bubbling up on the West Coast in the mid to late ’80s. Between roughly 1987 and 1991, LA bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fishbone, and even Suicidal Tendencies — plus Bay Area peers like Primus and Faith No More — combined punk, funk, ska, thrash, prog, art-rock, and more into genre-shattering records and volcanic live performances. (On the East Coast, Living Colour and 24-7 Spyz were arguably doing something similar/related.) Metal and heavy rock were displaying a sonic broad-mindedness that really hasn’t been equaled since. Indeed, looking at what’s become of some of these bands since, it’s hard to believe it was ever that way.
I wasn’t a fan of Jane’s Addiction at first. Their independent 1987 live album — which they only released that way to buy themselves credibility; their major label deal was already in place — and their Warner Bros. debut, 1988’s Nothing’s Shocking, passed me by. But then Ritual de lo Habitual came out August 21, 1990 — 30 years ago today and two months after I’d graduated high school. I was fully onboard. I’d seen the video for “Stop” and loved both the high-energy psychedelic metal of the music and the band’s patchwork image. With their mismatched clothes, their manically/joyously headbanging drummer, their thrashing guitarist and head-down bassist, and their singer’s weird serpentine dancing and hoarse, crowlike vocals, they seemed like three different bands in one. I bought the cassette the day it came out and listened to it obsessively all summer.
Ritual de lo Habitual was divided neatly into halves. The album kicked off with a friend of the band’s, Cindy Lair, giving an introduction in Spanish: “Ladies and gentlemen, we have more influence with your children than you do, but we love them. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Jane’s Addiction.” That launched “Stop,” the first of five fast, aggressive punk-funk-metal songs. The music was less thuddingly heavy than it had been on Nothing’s Shocking. Dave Navarro’s guitar was thinner and sharper; Eric Avery’s rumbling post-punk bass, always the heart of their sound, was louder and more physically present; Stephen Perkins’ drumming was wilder and looser. Perry Farrell, meanwhile, was more or less the same guy he’d been thus far — a scrawny, dreadlocked wannabe prophet, preaching indulgent amorality (“There ain’t no wrong now, ain’t no right/ Only pleasure and pain”). On “Obvious,” jazz pianist Geoff Stradling gave what could have been a crunching art-metal song extra swing and lurch.
The side ended with the nihilistically joyous “Been Caught Stealing,” which featured uncredited guest vocals from Farrell’s dog Annie. “I’d got her from a dog shelter and she was quite needy, so I brought her down to the studio that day rather than leave her at home,” he told Classic Rock magazine in 2001. “I’m singing in the booth with the headphones on and Annie gets all excited and starts going, ‘Ruff! Ruff! Ruff!’… The fact that she ended up on the track was just pure coincidence.” The song, accompanied by a low-budget but brilliant video, was the band’s biggest hit, landing at #1 on Billboard’s Modern Rock charts, and can still be heard in TV shows, movies, and video games.
The second side of Ritual de lo Habitual was completely different from the first. In contrast to the five fast songs that had come before, they offered four slowly unfurling tracks, including a nearly 11-minute art-rock epic that would become one of the band’s signature pieces. “Three Days,” “Then She Did…,” “Of Course,” and “Classic Girl” fit together as a half-hour suite, building and crashing like waves with the dreamlike “Classic Girl” serving as a comedown. The string arrangements and thundering percussion on “Then She Did…” recalled Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” and Farrell’s lyrics were deeply personal throughout, dealing with his mother’s suicide, his relationships with his older brother and his girlfriend/art partner Casey Niccoli (who directed the “Been Caught Stealing” video), and, on “Three Days,” a long weekend of drugs and three-way sex with Niccoli and a girl named Xiola Blue, to whom the album was dedicated.
The Ritual cover is a visual interpretation of “Three Days.” It features a massive sculpture created by Farrell that frames three naked bodies — himself, Niccoli, and Blue — on a bedspring. Surrounding them is a collection of tarot cards, musical instruments, religious iconography, photographs, candles, and more, turning the whole thing into a kind of folk-art altarpiece. It’s wild to look at, but also gives the impression that if you asked Farrell about it you’d run the risk of hearing him babble about “sex magick” until you were able to break eye contact and shuffle away.
Here’s the thing, though: There’s a whole lot of darkness in the band’s story. Yes, their name alone was a giant tipoff. There were magazine stories on the band that discussed how, on their final tour, Navarro and Avery isolated themselves from Farrell and Perkins in order to avoid getting sucked back into drug habits.
Let’s go back to Ritual’s album cover again for a minute. Xiola Blue, whose real name was Lisa Chester, was a bohemian teenager who was burning through an inheritance from her late father, spending most of it on heroin. She was born in 1968, and died of an overdose in June 1987. Farrell’s talked about how she was actually his cousin, but claims he found out years later; the chronology has also spurred speculation that the two would’ve been dating when she was around 14 and he was in his mid-twenties.
Farrell is significantly older than the other members of Jane’s Addiction as well. Born in 1959, he was 31 when Ritual came out. By contrast, Avery, his primary creative partner in the band, was 25, while Navarro and Perkins were each 23. They’d been literal teenagers when the band started. In a 2003 oral history of the band, Casey Niccoli said, “When you’re 27 in rock ’n’ roll [like Perry was] with nothing really happening, you think you’re old. That’s why Steve, Dave, and Eric were seven or eight years younger than Perry. He felt like he could mold them and they would forever do what he wanted. Eventually, they’d grow up, but by then he’d have gotten what he needed out of them.”
Farrell’s manipulation of the others extended to the band’s finances. In the same story, Avery revealed that they “had a meeting to figure out the publishing. I wanted it to be split equally between everyone, but Perry wanted 50 percent for writing the lyrics, plus another portion of the remaining 50 percent for the music. Dave, Stephen, and I wound up getting 12.5 percent apiece.” Reading things like this, he comes across like a wannabe cult leader as much as a rock singer, which makes it understandable why he’d create the Lollapalooza festival — which was always intended to be as much a traveling cultural carnival with Farrell as ringmaster/barker as it was a day-long concert — and why the tour also marked the initial end of the line for Jane’s.
But when I was 18, I didn’t understand just how fucked up they really were. In the fall of 1990, I found myself in Los Angeles, crashing on a relative’s couch. I had basically no money, so I didn’t go out much. But when it was announced that Jane’s Addiction would be playing for three nights at the Hollywood Palladium just before Christmas, my cousin and a friend of hers and I lined up outside a local record store to buy tickets, because that was how things worked in the dark ages.
We attended the second night of the run. The show was professionally recorded and filmed; the audio was released as the third disc of the Cabinet Of Curiosities boxed set, and the video for “Ain’t No Right” was captured that night. In it you can see the moment when someone throws a Birkenstock sandal on stage, hitting Farrell in his chest, provoking a bemused if snobby response (“This guy’s a real moron — he doesn’t even understand fashion!”). That’s not my strongest memory of the show, though. I don’t have memories of specific songs or frozen moments. What I took away from it was more of an overall sensation of being swallowed up and drawn into an entirely different world. It really did feel like a ritual — you perform these actions and recite these words in the right sequence, and your life will change.
I know everybody thinks the music they loved when they were 18 changed the world, but it really did feel like something different was happening in those years. But by the end of 1991, this era was swept away by the tsunami that was Nirvana’s Nevermind. It’s received wisdom that Nirvana killed hair metal, but they also pushed aside a particular version of the alternative rock scene — the hedonistic, exuberant, progressive version — replacing it with dour, noisy punk-derived groaning. Jane’s Addiction vacated the stage just a month before Nevermind was released, breaking up at the end of the inaugural Lollapalooza tour. The so-called “Alternative Nation” they helped to establish changed radically in their absence. And if I’m being honest, I really miss pre-Nirvana “alternative rock.” Grunge absolutely had its moments, but it should have stayed just one underground option among many. By utterly dominating the landscape the way it did from 1991 on, it crowded out too many other, equally awesome things.