Jane’s Addiction – Ritual de lo Habitual (1990)
This album breaks my heart now; it feels so much like a path not taken. The popular nineties narrative is that Nirvana changed everything, but for those of us who were there, we know that Nirvana merely walked through the cultural door Jane’s kicked open with this album (and Nothing’s Shocking and Lollapalooza). Yet alt-culture ultimately took a decidedly different turn, and if anything, the titanic Jane’s Addiction seem almost weirdly forgotten today.
Their third album and the last to feature original bassist Eric Avery, the sprawling Ritual De Lo Habitual feels a little akin to Paul’s Boutique; it’s a kitchen-sink, everything-all-the-time kind of album. It’s widescreen technicolorful, instead of so much of grunge and alt/nu-metal’s dourness*, an enthusiastic “Yes – yes – YES!”, coming right at the end of a decade of “Just Say No”, not to mention punk’s reflexive spirit of subtraction and negation.
The dualistic nature of this album is half goth darkness and gutter-punk nihilism, and half flower-child utopianism. Listening to it gives the sense that the world may be going to hell in a handbasket, but we are all in that handbasket TOGETHER, and we still have a chance to work together and turn it around.
It’s an album haunted by the ghosts of three women (singer Perry Farrell’s mother, an artist who killed herself when Farrell was a child; guitarist Dave Navarro’s murdered mother, whose body a teen Navarro discovered in a grisly, horrific scene; and Farrell’s artist girlfriend/muse Xiola Blue, dead of a heroin overdose).
Influences include The Doors, Bauhaus/Banshees/Cure, PIL/Dub reggae, Velvets and Stooges, Sly Stone, Zep/Sabbath/Stones, and Van Halen (even the occasional foray into jazz or Sinatra), while not really sounding much like any of them; in a way, Jane’s seemingly predicted the post-internet thieving-magpie approach we frequently see today, mixing and matching disparate genres and time periods with abandon.
We start with a woman’s voice introducing the band in Spanish:
“Ladies and gentlemen: we have more influence over your children than you do…
…but we LOVE them.
Born and raised (or “Bred and spread”) in Los Angeles: Jane’s Addiction!”
This intro does two things. It impishly, openly announces the band’s intention to be a bad influence on the nation’s children; that it does so in Spanish, is evocative of both JA’s polyglot hometown, as well as guitarist Dave Navarro’s background as the grandson of Mexican immigrants. It thus immediately positions the band as on the side of society’s outsiders (in 1990, nationalistic anti-Mexican sentiment was perhaps not what it is today, but neither was it unheard-of).
And with a raunchy, trashy Chuck Berry-ish riff from Navarro and a wide-eyed howl of “Here we GO!” from Farrell, we’re off – on a rollercoaster ride through light and darkness, beauty and seediness, joy and sadness.
We’re gonna get dirty. We’re gonna get bloody. But we’re gonna LIVE, before we die.
Notes on Farrell’s singing: He has an unusual mosquito-whine of a voice, and says “go!” a lot.
Punctuation is important – exclamation points, ellipses. At its best, there’s a diaristic nature to his writing.
Save the complaints,
For party conversation
The world is loaded,
It’s lit to pop and nobody ain’t gonna stop!
Farm people –
They’re lit to pop and nobody ain’t gonna stop!
“Stop” depicts a world careening toward social disarray and environmental destruction; but the song’s triumphant delivery leaves us unsure if we’re supposed to be concerned about that, or to RELISH it as a necessary step – things have to get worse, before they can get better.
That leads us into the best bit of the song – the band downshifts into a powerful, grinding half-time churn, over which Farrell intones an apocalyptic prophecy that evokes Travis Bickle’s “real rain” monologue, as well as calls back to the Biblical overtones contained therein. Not for nothing do I frequently change the “has” here, to the more King James Version-sounding “hath”:
One come-a day, the water will run
No man will stand for the things that he has done
And the water will run…
Maybe there’s something there for us today too, as our ice caps melt and our seas rise.
But again there’s that celebratory, spiritual side: Hurrah!
The water will run, and our souls won’t be thirsty anymore!
“No One’s Leaving”
A utopian song of inclusiveness, taken from Farrell’s own real-life experiences and immediate family. It’s so earnest and open and optimistic that from the vantage point of 2020, it hurts my heart a little to hear it.
Today, the narrator – an unapologetic “white dread” – would be a foolish figure, mocked at best; at worst, a cultural appropriator, to be reviled and condemned. But cultures and peoples were meant to mix. That’s where beauty, where life happens. To insist on keeping a culture pure is ultimately to make it sterile; a mausoleum, a dead-end.
My sister and her boyfriend slept in a park,
Had to leave home because he was dark
Now they parade around in New York with a baby boy,
Ain’t nobody leaving!
Blacks call each other “brother” and “sis”,
Count me in, ‘cos I been missed
I’ve seen color changed by a kiss,
Well, ask my brother
And my sister!
Farrell then goes on to sweetly wish to be more than JUST a “white dread”, if only he could:
I wish I knew everyone’s nickname,
All their slang, and all their sayings
Every way to show affection,
How to dress to fit the occasion
I wish we all waved…
“Ain’t No Right”
Starts with a dubbed-out, profane homage to Ian Dury’s “Sex, Drugs, and Rock ’n’ Roll”. In 1990 I weighed 140 lbs. dripping wet, and though I’ve put on substantial weight since then, my nose remains, if not “pointy” exactly, certainly “prodigious” – so the song’s defiant opening cry, “I am skin and bones, I am pointy-nosed / But it motherfuckin’ makes me TRY!” spoke to me.
Lyrically, call it a sermon from The Gospel of Iggy – the idea that whatever meaning there is in this world may be found in pure physical sensation, because only sensation definitively tells us we’re still alive.
Bumped my head, I’m a battering ram
I goddamn took the pain
I cut myself, I said, “So what?”
Motherfuckin’ took the pain!
The thing here is not the words: it’s that constantly-surging mutant-funk monster of a groove formed by one of the best rock rhythm sections of their day or most others: the rumbling bass of Eric Avery (many of Jane’s signature songs are built upon and led by his melodic, spacious, Peter Hook-influenced riffs) and Stephen Perkins’ tumbling tribal toms, over which Navarro lays searing, slashing riffs and solos.
A straightforward “haters gonna hate” kind of song (though I do like the turn of phrase in the boast, “Fools don’t fit in, the boots that I tread in”). But there is some wonderfully joyous, jazzy, wild barrelhouse piano plinking, and engineer Dave Jerden creates neat cascading choruses of tartly-harmonizing Farrells.
“Been Caught Stealing”
Perhaps the song I was least excited to revisit. This cheerfully-amoral boogie was a huge hit and as such was inescapable, and the barking-dog sample seemed a simple novelty at the time. But I was surprised to find I liked it better than I recalled. It’s just fun, and the dog (Farrell’s, who happened to start barking in the booth right as they started recording; the band decided on a whim to keep it and work with it) is a whimsical, playful element that most bands of Jane’s ambition and ability would not have kept.
Farrell’s jiving, sing-song vocals here are also utterly unique; they have a playground-boast quality, or the addled rhythms of a wino regaling you with their exploits while you uncomfortably hope your bus arrives soon. For what it’s worth, Farrell has stated that he stopped stealing when he came to believe in karma – that other people would only stop stealing HIS shit, once he stopped stealing other people’s.
Side A ended on cassette with ten minutes of silence.
Had Jane’s never recorded another piece of music, this would be enough. “Three Days” is simply a towering achievement, purportedly mostly laid down in a single take in the studio during a hazy session the band claim to not clearly recall. It chronicles the drug-fueled three-way of Farrell’s folk-art-inspired album cover (a second, “clean cover” solely containing the text of the First Amendment was also released for sale in stores that would not stock albums depicting nudity, a situation that had negatively impacted their previous album Nothing’s Shocking – its cover sculpture caused nine of the eleven leading record chains to refuse to carry it) as a metaphor for death and rebirth.
If some of the evo- and social-psych of the song’s lyrics has been subsequently undermined (viewed on a long graph, a human is less likely to die of violent causes now than at any prior time in recorded history, and we know that blood-based tribalism has its own dangerous social effects), there’s still a general, near-mythical resonance in the idea that the more alienated we’ve become from the natural world – the more artificial barriers we’ve created between ourselves, and the planet’s ecological systems that birthed and sustain us – the more damage and destruction we’ve accrued to our very beings. We’re out of tune and we feel that in our bones, even if we can’t put our finger on why.
True hunting’s over
No herds to follow
Without game, men prey on each other
The family weakens by the bites we swallow…
True leaders gone, of land and people
We choose no kin but adopted strangers
The family weakens by the lengths we travel…
If he were to write these lyrics now, they might be something along the lines of “The family weakens by the Facebook ‘likes’ we bestow”.
But if that part’s questionable when taken literally (not to mention depressing), the ecstatic, repeated interjections of “All of us with wings!” exhort the listener to instead view each and every one of us as one small piece of the divine.
Here I am talking about the words again. But that’s not what’s REALLY important here (it better not be, since Farrell also reaches the apex of his sometimes Jim Morrison-like excess, hollering about Erotic Jesuses in one of the song’s several peaks) – what’s important is the music, which effortlessly takes us on a journey through every imaginable emotional color – “Shadows of the morning light, shadows of the evening sun / ’Til the shadows and the lights were one”. Navarro drops multiple killer solos, and at one point the whole song scales down to a simple-yet-volcanic chugging riff, then falls briefly into a pensive ambient drifting reverie; then back again to that chug-chug-chug-chug-chug, just before the whole thing breaks loose and spirals up to the heavens. It’s a masterful example of rock tension/release. It makes me want to ride into battle.
“Then She Did”
Originally titled “Then She Died”, this stately, ghostly song imagines a meeting between Farrell’s mother and Xiola. It has an unsettling-yet-beautiful chord progression that alternately patiently floats then crushes, some dramatic Zeppelin-style orchestral strings, and some nicely apocalyptic imagery (I like how you can read “we will beat them all to dust” as a destructive urge to demolish buildings, or as acknowledging the relative permanence of stone, when compared to flesh).
Scorched by the sun,
The buildings remain…
We will beat them all to dust, I’ll bet…
Pulled from a headless shell,
That blinked on and off, “Hotel” –
Now the nameless dwell…
A sort of raga, with violin and some more half-baked philosophizing. TBH, this track drones on a bit too long for my taste. Someone else can make a case for this one.
OTOH, this is absolutely lovely. Not just the warm, dreamy guitars, but the scene-setting details – “a ‘POP’ and a reply ‘POP’ and no reply” ; “dinosaurs on a quilt”.
They may say, “Those were the days…”
But in a way, you know, for us, THESE are the days!
Here’s the part where I’m supposed to wrap it all up.
But I can’t seem to find the right words, because the most important things are always hard to say clearly.
I certainly don’t advocate saying “yes” to addictive hard drugs, and no one should consent to experiences that they don’t want.
But if there’s not a good reason to say “no” – maybe at least consider saying “yes”.
*That childlike, happy “good night!” at the album’s end – reminds me of maybe the one band that somewhat carried Ritual’s torch into the nineties and beyond: the Flaming Lips. Contemporaries of Jane’s, similarly musically-omnivorous, and in fact Coyne’s and Farrell’s helium-voiced singing styles were somewhat similar.
This post written in conjunction with Avocado Music Club; each week a new album will be discussed based on a massive pile of suggestions made by ourselves. Listen to new music or revisit an old favorite and discuss anything you wish related to the album with other lovers of music. So:
Come talk about this album. Is it great/good/bad? Does it mean anything? Favorite parts/lyrics? How does it hold up? What are its influences? Has it influenced anything? How does it compare with the rest of the year’s music? Talk about anything, even if it’s (politely) negative, have fun!