Jane's Addiction Ushered in the Alternative-Rock Era — and Continues at Riot Fest

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When Jane's Addiction released its debut studio album, Nothing's Shocking, in 1988, it was a watershed moment in what came to be called alternative rock, though at the time, there wasn't such a clumsy genre tag for it. Still, Jane's Addiction didn't really fit in with any popular trends of the day. In a promo video for the album, singer Perry Farrell says the music sounds like a cross between "the Bad Brains and Count Basie." Indeed, the sound was raw like punk but with the sophistication of jazz. Jane's Addiction blurred the line between hard rock, metal, punk and the artier end of post-punk. Its often darkly electrifying songs discussed subjects like spiritual crises, the ugly reality of serial killers, regret and everyday philosophy with an uncommon thoughtfulness and intelligence.

“Jane's Addiction is a song and a poem, and that's what we do best,” says drummer Stephen Perkins.

Fast-forward a couple of years, and Jane's Addiction was at the forefront of what was recognized as a force in youth culture, though the genre still didn't have an umbrella name — certainly the most exciting time of any movement. When Ritual de lo Habitual was released on August 21, 1990, it was a leap forward for the development of the band and so-called alternative rock. The combination of jazz and punk, brought together with the best qualities of progressive-rock bands like Yes, Rush and Genesis, expanded the group's musical palette and pushed it to write the sprawling, dreamlike epic "Three Days." That prog-rock willingness to go beyond the established rock format allowed Jane's Addiction to make Ritual, which became one of the most memorable and era-defining albums of 1990s alternative rock.

According to Perkins, "'Then She Did...' was the best moment for the band, and the poem and the music became one.... [How do you put] the emotion of the lyrics [about] losing a mom and a girlfriend [to] music? I think we did. We heard the poem, and we related to the sadness. There's quiet moments, and a split-second later, there's a big crescendo. Our challenge as musicians is to relate to the lyrics, be sensitive to the lyrics and then take into consideration everyone in the audience. How do you get them involved in it and then hit them over the head with the crescendo? We're feeling it. We're not actors, but I think music is the highest form of art in the sense that you can get 10,000 people to jump up and down to a Rage Against the Machine tune. That's power, and that's energy."

Perkins says that as a drummer, "I take that power seriously. If you do the music right, I think of that Venice drum circle as a kid, and I think it can heal you. I think music is a ritual on stage.”

In 1991, Farrell put together the first Lollapalooza, a traveling tour of alternative music that included, of course, Jane's Addiction, but also Siouxsie & the Banshees (then certainly not a “legacy” band), Living Colour, Nine Inch Nails, Fishbone, Ice T & Body Count, Butthole Surfers, Rollins Band and EBN. Before the release of Nevermind, it truly ushered in the era of alternative rock as something critically and commercially viable without the imprimatur of mainstream culture. It crashed the gates of the mainstream hard enough that, for a short time, more adventurous music could be accessed by wider audiences, and this included weirdo rock, hip-hop, Americana, punk, industrial, Goth and whatever else had previously been shunted to the side.

The '90s wore on, however, and the music industry found a way to co-opt the spirit of alternative rock and turn the mainstream more artistically conservative. Yet what survived on the edges and in the underground was the memory that informs Riot Fest, which was founded in 2005. That Jane's Addiction, the band that gave underground music the push into wider pastures, is performing the groundbreaking Ritual de lo Habitual in its entirety at this year's festival seems entirely appropriate.

Jane's Addiction performs at Riot Fest on Friday, September 2, at 7 p.m., National Western Complex, all ages.

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