Eric Avery, unsung hero.
Anyway, I found all of Jane's Addiction's albums pretty quickly; my Google skills are strong where concerns locating mp3 downloads. They had all been uploaded to Megaupload and the links had been posted on a message board. When people do this kind of thing, they sometimes just include links to the album, but at other times include all sorts of random information about the album. The person who had done these posts had chosen to include track listings for each album, complete with track times and songwriting credits. It was those songwriting credits that inspired this entry, because what I learned from the credits is that Perry Farrell, all by himself, is credited for having written almost all of Jane's Addiction's songs.
It's this kind of thing, this egotistical self-aggrandizing bullshit, that makes me hate Perry Farrell as a person no matter how much I love his art. See, I happen to know that Farrell has pretty much no musical talent, and that, furthermore, the lion's share of the music for Jane's Addiction was written by Eric Avery. Somewhere or other, I have a copy of the issue of Spin magazine that contains a 16 page oral history of Jane's Addiction. It was a cover story at the time of their reformation in the earlier part of this decade, right before they released "Strays" (the one Jane's Addiction album I not only don't own but consider ersatz, by which I mean it's not a real Jane's Addiction album). I didn't dig it up to write this blog entry, and I probably should have, because instead of quoting extensively from it, I'm now just going to paraphrase and hope that my memory has preserved it accurately. But whatever; this is a blog entry, not a scholarly treatise. If I ever publish it anywhere, I'll edit the exact quotes in.
Here's the thing I remember from the article, the thing that really helped me understand where the best elements of Jane's Addiction's songs come from (and further helped me understand why I was so underwhelmed by "Strays" when it came out shortly after I read the article): several people, including Dave Navarro, discussed the fact that a lot of the songs from Jane's Addiction's first incarnation came from Eric Avery. Avery would apparently come up with complex, melodic basslines and play them incessantly, repeating them over and over and not changing at all. I don't remember who said it, but the article explained that the first song he ever brought in to the band was "Mountain Song", and that when he brought it in, it was just that repeating bassline that starts the song, played over and over with no changes. Navarro and Stephen Perkins built a song around that repeating bassline, one with verses and choruses and other changes, but the foundation, the heartbeat of the song continued to be Avery's bassline, even after the song was completely finished. Elsewhere in the article, when confronted with this fact, Farrell responded dismissively, saying that without his own drive to succeed, Avery would have been a kid sitting in his garage with tapes full of really good basslines that no one ever heard. And this might very well be true; after all, since the breakup of the original incarnation of Jane's Addiction, Avery has stayed out of the public eye, releasing one album with Navarro as Deconstruction, a few EPs under the name Polar Bear, and now finally, this year, a solo album called "Help Wanted". Meanwhile, Jane's Addiction has reformed several times to progressively greater accolades (and money), Dave Navarro has become a megastar through his time in the Red Hot Chili Peppers and his marriage to Carmen Electra, and Stephen Perkins has stayed in the background but always had steady work as a drummer for several Jane's Addiction-related bands.
You get the idea, from reading about him, that the reason Eric Avery never participated in later Jane's Addiction incarnations, the reason each of his musical projects has had a lower profile than the one before, is because Avery doesn't care to be rich or famous. He wants a simple life, he wants to be left alone, and he wants to play music for its own sake and not because there's commercial demand for it. The fact that he performed with the other three original members of Jane's Addiction earlier this year at an NME Awards presentation, and that there's been tentative talk of further collaborations between he and the rest of the Jane's crew, does not, at this point, make me think that Avery's finally bowed to the siren song of money. He's had plenty of opportunity for that in the intervening years. Instead, it gives me hope that the Jane's Addiction guys have finally realized that they're crappy without him, and have finally decided to focus on existing as a creative unit rather than a band that reforms every five years when the members start running out of money.
OK, that's a bit too much "human interest" coverage for my tastes. Let's spend the rest of this entry focusing on the music. After all, that's what really matters. I mentioned "Mountain Song" already, and it's one of the songs people know best by Jane's Addiction--primarily because of Avery's hypnotic, repetitive bassline. But what about some other songs of Jane's Addiction's that only existed because of Eric Avery? Well, here's another story I remember from that Spin article: one night, early in Jane's Addiction's career, they were setting up their equipment onstage at some tiny club. The soundman had been playing a funk record over the PA system, and when Eric Avery got his equipment set up first of the four members, he started playing bass along with it. After a few minutes, the rest of the band were ready, and the soundman cut off the funk record. But Avery kept playing the bassline he'd come up with for it, and after a moment, Navarro and Perkins joined in, jamming with him for a few minutes on the riff he'd inadvertently found. This jam eventually evolved into "Pigs In Zen".
Then there's the song that starts "Nothing's Shocking", a simple yet beautiful piece called "Up The Beach". Avery starts the song, alternating between two harmonic bass notes and playing them in a rhythm that speeds up and slows down but always comes back to the beginning in the same place. After a few seconds, the rest of the band begins crashing in on the beginning of each bassline, with Farrell's wordless cries and Navarro's echoing guitar sounding like the crashing of waves on a shoreline. As the song continues, the band builds up to a slow, swirling jam that emphasizes this oceanic atmosphere, making it a perfect intro to the album and specifically to its second song, "Ocean Size". Perry Farrell's high, keening falsetto, generally not resolving into words, adds extra layers to the echoes provided by Navarro's guitar, and underneath it all, Avery's bassline stays the same, grounding the entire song in a hypnotic pulse. (By the way, Farrell is solely credited for this song. And, for that matter, for "Mountain Song" and "Pigs In Zen".)
There are a lot of other Jane's Addiction songs that are obviously constructed around Eric Avery's basslines. You can hear it when you listen to them. This is true for everything from "I Would For You" to "Ted, Just Admit It" to the first half of "Three Days". "Summertime Rolls", long one of my favorite Jane's Addiction songs, takes the slow, hazy atmosphere of "Up The Beach" and expands it, stretching out the bassline to include a much more melodic, rising pattern, and stretching out the song itself to give much more room for Perry Farrell's gorgeously impressionistic lyrics. I've always felt that the part at the end of the song, where Farrell says about his girlfriend, "I love her, I mean, it's as serious as serious can be", is impressive in its sincerity. It rings true even in the midst of lyrics about buttercups helicoptering and crazy bees, mad about somebody. This kind of thing is why I can't hate the guy's music, even if I think he can be a totally lame person. He's written his share of brilliant lyrics: "Ocean Size"'s "I was made with a heart of stone, to be broken with one hard blow. I've seen the ocean break on the shore and come together with no harm done"; "Had A Dad"'s song-length metaphor about the absence of god in our modern world; the heartbreaking final verse of "Then She Did", in which he discusses his mother's suicide; and the simple yet amazing declaration in "Classic Girl": "They may say those were the days, but anyway, you know, for us these are the days."
Don't get me wrong, Dave Navarro and Stephen Perkins deserve plenty of credit too. Perkins's drumming, with a much more tribal, tom-based style than that of your standard rock drummer, is also an important part of what made Jane's Addiction sound like they did. He has a few songs of his own that seem like they'd never have existed without his drumming; "Chip Away", which ends the band's self-titled debut, is the most obvious, and it's incredibly catchy despite being almost entirely percussion and vocals. Dave Navarro's guitar playing is another really important element of Jane's Addiction's sound--it's his fiery, sure-handed playing that drew most of the comparisons to Led Zeppelin that this band ever got. Well, that and Perry Farrell's falsetto. Anyway, Navarro is capable of creating the perfect guitar textures for many different moods, from the contemplative acoustic jams of "My Time" to the blazing noise fury of "Stop" to the swirling chimes of "Kettle Whistle". There are even times in Jane's Addiction's catalog that demand all three of these styles at different points in the same song; "Ocean Size" and "Three Days" are prime examples. Navarro never falters, no matter what demands are placed on him by the needs of the song, and in fact often pushes things to a higher and more intense level than they'd ever have reached without him.
But in the end, it all comes back to Eric Avery. I'm not going to say that he's the only thing that makes Jane's Addiction good, because if nothing else, I love the song "Kettle Whistle", which was written and recorded with Flea on bass. However, without Eric Avery in the band, Jane's Addiction lost quite a bit of overall quality, and their consistency went right out the window. It's the reason why "Strays" is mediocre and forgettable, and it's the reason why I wouldn't bother to go see one of their reunion tours--no matter how much I'd undoubtedly love the songs they'd play--unless Eric Avery was on board. Maybe the guy isn't focused or determined, and maybe he doesn't have Perry Farrell's drive to be more famous than Jesus, but he's got an idiosyncratic and outstanding musical talent, and for Jane's Addiction to ever think that they are even a shadow of their prime era without him in the band is pure foolishness.