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Jane’s Addiction at the Lyric

August 15, 2012

When I was 16, my middle-aged uncle and his younger wife came to stay with us one night because the Rolling Stones Steel Wheels tour was in town. This was the late 1980s, 20 years after the Stones’ heyday. It seemed so strange that these old people (as they seemed to me at the time) would go see a rock and roll show. I had a similar feeling looking at the bags under the eyes of the founding fathers and mothers of alt nation in long beer lines at the Lyric, waiting to see Jane’s Addiction.

The setting made it even stranger. David Byrne, of the Talking Heads, has a book coming out next month in which he argues that music is made for a particular context. African drumming sounds the way it does because of the outdoor context it is played in, and organ music was developed for European cathedrals. Rock music was made for the crappy little club. As Jane’s Addiction’s drummer Steve Perkins told me a couple weeks ago, that band turned the Los Angeles of 1986 into song.

So it was uncanny to see Jane’s Addiction play at the Lyric, a venue created to highlight the voices of opera singers. It was not only the sonic fact that the amplified rock and roll fury often became more of a slurry, where so many notes blended together, but it was also something cultural. When I first became a Jane’s Addiction fan in the late 1980s, I was living in South Carolina and they were something strange and dangerous from L.A.

Aside from the few whiffs of vaporized weed and a crowded smokers’ balcony, there is nothing dangerous about the Lyric, and, alas, there is nothing dangerous about Jane’s Addiction. They played a solid show. When the sound worked out right, Navarro and Steve Perkins pretty much killed it not only on the old favorites but on new numbers as well. But there are different demands on a singer like Ferrell, known as much for his presence as his voice.

When I saw Jane’s Addiction at the first Lollapalooza in Atlanta, he was full of charisma—singing Sly and the Family Stone’s “Don’t Call me Nigger, Whitey,” with Ice T to break up a fight between skinheads and African Americans. But in Baltimore, a drinking-age later, he not only seemed incapable of hitting some of the old notes, but he only seemed half there. Sure, he was brilliant on a few songs, but he seemed to phone others in. He kept drinking from a bottle onstage, but one suspects it was as much to advertise the tequila company with which he is partnered as to get drunk.  He introduced “Been Caught Stealing” by telling the crowd how good he was feeling. He said he had a tailor in Baltimore making his pants (which he, strangely, wore pulled up above the navel). When he said “I used to have to steal them,” I couldn’t help but think of what Steven Perkins told City Paper about Mick Jagger: “You want to grab that urgency, that desperation that rock music needs, or it’s just a fraud. If you’re not urgent, if you’re not desperate . . .It’s tough to hear Mick Jagger sing, ‘I can’t get no satisfaction’—that’s crazy. He’s got it. You really have to live it.”