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People Pleaser

Peripheral vision: Perry Farrell.

Perry Farrell is either the youngest 44-year-old in the pop-music game or (with apologies to Captain Beefheart) an old fart at play.

On occasion, Farrell is prone to nostalgia. How else to explain his decision last year to simultaneously revive Jane's Addiction -- the group he'd officially disbanded over a decade earlier -- and the Lollapalooza Festival, a traveling musical bacchanal whose relevance had seemingly come and gone? At other times, he seems positively obsessed with what's new, what's hot, what's hip. For the most part, though, these apparently contradictory impulses peacefully co-exist within him. He's an inveterate enthusiast who cares less about whether he's looking back or looking forward and more about injecting joy into each girl and boy in his immediate vicinity.

Consider his approach to deejaying, a sideline to which he's grown increasingly devoted. "A DJ provides something, and then he gets out of the way," Farrell says in mid-January, shortly before he's scheduled to spin at a Liz Phair show taking place amid Utah's Sundance Film Festival. "It's a little different from being the front guy of Jane's Addiction. For a DJ, the party is a lot more important, and what you're trying to do is provide background for a great party -- and to make people happy.

"Party music is like putting a compilation together," he goes on, his words racing like lemmings in sight of a cliff. "That's a very easy way to proceed, a very easy premise to go on -- that you're putting together a special compilation for the evening. You look at the crowd, and you select what you think will make them feel good, and sometimes you can use familiarity to do that. But sometimes you also want to educate, to make them smile, to make them think, ''ve never heard that before!' Maybe they'll even ask, 'What's that number?'"

Questions like these let Farrell know he's touched his listeners -- and as anyone who's seen him cavorting with gyrating dancers at a Jane's concert can attest, he likes to be touched in return. That's why he chooses his deejaying gigs carefully. "As a DJ, you take on the party," he allows. "Some people say, 'I'll take on any party, as long as they pay me,' and God bless them, because maybe they really need the money. But I don't need the money. I look for a good party, a party where I can have a good time. I'm up here at Sundance, and do you know why I came? Because it's a great party! I can come up here and enjoy myself and have people enjoy themselves because I'm playing music I think is suited for them."

This philosophy has fueled Farrell since, as a fifth-grader, he discovered that he could rouse the neighborhood girls by inviting them to his house and spinning James Brown sides. A New Yorker by birth, he eventually wound up in Los Angeles, where, in 1983, he joined a band called Psi Com that earned some local notoriety before fracturing over the usual interpersonal turmoil. Shortly thereafter, Farrell met bassist Eric Avery. They were soon joined in the original lineup of Jane's Addiction by drummer Stephen Perkins and guitarist Dave Navarro, the current squeeze of Carmen Electra, with whom he stars in a new MTV "reality" series, 'Til Death Do Us Part: Carmen and Dave. Farrell and Perkins, the best man at the Navarro-Electra wedding last year, figured prominently in the first episode.

The Addiction quartet's combination of metallic rock, visual splendor and flat-out hedonism quickly attracted the attention of Triple X, an indie imprint that introduced Jane's via a live platter in 1987. By then, however, majors were already stalking the combo, with Warner Bros. eventually winning the right to release the 1988 benchmark Nothing's Shocking.

Today, Shocking is best known for introducing "Jane Says," Farrell's hard-eyed tale of a future-free junkie, but this first-rate, chronically overplayed modern-rock staple was supplemented by a collection of great ditties ("Ocean Size," "Had a Dad," "Mountain Song" and more) distinguished by glamour, ambition and a widescreen sound that was at once classic and innovative. Ritual de lo Habitual, which followed two years later, was just as strong, with the shoplifting anthem "Been Caught Stealing," the propulsive "Stop!" and "Three Days," a ten-minutes-plus epic, leading the pack. The material furnished just the right climax for Lollapalooza, which Farrell founded in 1991. The inaugural lineup, which ranged from Nine Inch Nails to Ice-T's Body Count, was diverse and exciting, and the carnival atmosphere that extended to a second stage and a concession-packed midway celebrated the youth movement of the day without seeming to exploit it unduly (that would come later). The result was a cultural milestone that inspired countless imitations, most of which were tepid variations on the original.

 

The success of Lollapalooza may have helped tear Jane's apart, but substance abuse run amok is a more likely culprit. The band's members pushed pharmacology to its limits throughout their time together, as was made clear in an interview Navarro gave to Westword in late 1990. When Navarro wasn't slurring his words, nodding off or riding a train of thought into one embankment after another, he engaged in exchanges that required a little decoding.

"I had to go into the hospital a couple times," he said at one point.

Why did you have to go to the hospital?

"I just had to go into the hospital, man."

Why? What was wrong?

After a pause, Navarro replied, "Well, I wasn't injured, if that's what you mean."

Farrell suffered from some of the same ailments as Navarro did, but he was more than functional, even after Jane's figuratively succumbed to its addiction. He generally kept a hand in Lollapalooza, which continued -- to diminishing returns -- until 1997. Then he launched another touring event, the ENIT Festival, that tanked big-time; he told one interviewer that he personally lost a million dollars on the fiasco. In addition, he assembled a new band, Porno for Pyros, that failed to arouse the public imagination despite a couple of decent discs (1993's Porno for Pyros and 1996's Good God's Urge). The same fate befell Song Yet to Be Sung, a 2001 Farrell solo album that mated rock and electronics to sometimes intriguing but only intermittently compelling effect.

No wonder Farrell eventually began looking for ways to make Jane's Addiction viable again. In 1994, a reportedly sober Navarro joined the Red Hot Chili Peppers, filling the six-string role once occupied by John Frusciante, another musician familiar with the needle and the damage done (as Peppers fans know, Frusciante is currently back in the fold). Three years later, Navarro agreed to participate in a Jane's reunion tour, bringing along Flea, the Peppers' rubbery bassist, to fill in for Avery, who declined to participate. Kettle Whistle, an odds-and-sods collection featuring some live songs by the reconfigured act, was issued to commemorate that jaunt, but Navarro wasn't ready to make a full-time commitment just yet. He changed his mind after another series of live dates in 2001, signing on to record the new tunes that made up 2003's Strays, the first entirely new Jane's offering in thirteen years. Joining him were Farrell, Perkins and another new bassist, Chris Chaney.

Strays was a better effort than might have been expected after such a long layoff, but that didn't stop many a scribe from accurately stating that it wasn't on par with the combo's first two full-lengths. Although this reaction was predictable, Farrell says he gave nary a thought to the weight of expectations when he formally re-established the band.

"I started to think about hitting those high notes again," he maintains, "and if I want to hit high notes, Jane's Addiction is the place to do it. There's a lot of music made in this world, and I love listening to lots of different genres, and I enjoy singing in different genres. But when I think about hitting those notes and laying my life on the line -- that kind of music -- Jane's Addiction is the best arena for me. I have guys where, when we get on the stage together, well, you talk about familiarity. You bring people back to a certain time and place in their life to start with, and then you come up with some new tunes, and the party's fresh. I love that!"

He has the same view of Lollapalooza, which did only so-so business in 2003 despite a decent roster highlighted by Jane's, Queens of the Stone Age and Audioslave. Instead of simply visiting the same outdoor amphitheaters again, Farrell envisions "locations where we can create alternative-energy cities. Make it a camping event completely off the grid, bring in hydrogen fuel cells, and have a beautiful, massive party -- and bring it to television, so we can show the whole country how good of a time they can have on renewable fuel." He envisions environment-friendly titillation round the clock: "I salivate thinking about it. We won't have to think, 'I wish this party wouldn't stop at 11 or midnight because of curfews.' I want to make a party where, if you're still up and happening, you can say, 'Let's go watch Jazzanova or somebody. It's only three.'"

At present, Farrell has offers out to proposed fest headliners, and he's soliciting recommendations for other groups from anyone and everyone -- including interviewers. When Basement Jaxx is suggested, he switches into customer-service mode. "Yeah, I love Basement Jaxx. What a video they came up with. That was sensational! We'll see if we can get Basement Jaxx for you."

 

Deejaying is already on Lollapalooza's bill, to Farrell's delight. He's a gearhead who waxes poetic about FinalScratch, a computer application championed by pioneering Detroit jock Richie Hawtin. "With FinalScratch, you take your Mac to the show as opposed to your record box -- so you have 10,000 songs to choose from instead of maybe a hundred. You plug FinalScratch into the Mac and the mixer, and you have two records that don't have grooves; they're time-code discs. So where, in the past, the needle used to read the grooves, it's now reading the time code off your computer.

"And to make it an even dreamier situation," he continues, "let's say you're writing new songs on things like ProTools and Ableton Live. Because of the computer, you can say, 'I'm going to put that in the set tonight and see how it goes.' And since I have a microphone up there, too, I can sing over anything I want at any time, which I do. If you get a couple of vodkas in you, it really starts you up. So, man, the world of deejaying is a brand-new frontier."

Still, Farrell the DJ sees technology as merely a means to an end -- thrilling the masses. For Liz Phair's crowd, he envisions a multifaceted menu: loops made from beats found on Dusty Fingers comps, ambient drop-off pieces, spoken snippets from the Internet, the occasional mash-up of a past fave (although not Billy Idol's "Hot in the City," which he thought of and then rejected while snowboarding that afternoon), and maybe even a Shirley Brown oldie designed to jolt aficionados of the female voice.

"You want each selection to give people a light in their heart," he says, his blissful tone sounding as old as the stars but younger than yesterday.


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