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Excess Baggage

Two decades ago, Iggy Pop made a rare TV talk-show appearance and was asked to explain his performance approach. Why did he go to such extremes onstage? What was the deal behind all the self-flagellation and drop-your-drawers exhibitionism?To Iggy, it all came down to Dionysus vs. Apollo. Iggy saw himself...
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Two decades ago, Iggy Pop made a rare TV talk-show appearance and was asked to explain his performance approach. Why did he go to such extremes onstage? What was the deal behind all the self-flagellation and drop-your-drawers exhibitionism?

To Iggy, it all came down to Dionysus vs. Apollo. Iggy saw himself as a committed Dionysian, an artist who reveled in excess, who made his greatest statements when chaos and confusion were in the air.

It may have been a highfalutin rationale for cutting your own chest with broken glass or lobbing chunks of peanut butter at your audience, but Iggy had a point. Some artists make well-considered, genteel judgments from their ivory towers (Sting, Jackson Browne) and some throw themselves headlong into the muck. The first kind tends to get all the mainstream respect and industry awards, but the second kind gets a much more scenic ride.

Iggy's biggest inspiration was Jim Morrison, a calculating rock 'n' roll Dionysus if ever there was one. Morrison had the requisite sex-god appeal and love of outrage for its own sake, but his band's music was so cocktail-lounge wimpy that it tended to make him seem ridiculous in ways he never intended. It took Iggy's Stooges to really drive home Morrison's ethos with the sledgehammer force it deserved.

One problem with the Dionysian path is that it doesn't generally lead to great career longevity. Morrison was a spent force at 27, and only his premature death saved him from the inevitable pathetic decline. Iggy has maintained a certain elder-statesman credibility through an erratic solo career, but he long ago ran out of anything new to say. After all -- as filmmaker John Waters has learned in recent years -- outrage doesn't go too well with middle age.

All of this explains the peculiar dilemma of Jane's Addiction front man Perry Farrell. A decade ago, Farrell could lay claim to being the most influential figure in rock. His band had fused Zeppelinesque hard rock with Chili Pepper funk and put it across with a sense of showmanship that bordered on mayhem. He'd helped to organize the groundbreaking 1991 Lollapalooza -- which basically set the stage for the underground rock revolution that followed -- and, after only two major-label releases, broke up Jane's Addiction at the peak of its popularity. When Spin magazine named him "Artist of the Year" for 1991, it was a hard decision to dispute.

But Farrell has spent the last decade spinning his creative wheels for a public that's steadily lost interest. After Jane's Addiction's split, he formed a glorified solo project called Porno for Pyros, but where Jane's visceral force could conceal Farrell's trite attempts at profundity, with the blandness of Porno, he was thoroughly exposed.

Particularly strange, since he was the one who pulled the plug on Jane's Addiction the first time, Farrell has willingly reformed his seminal band for what amount to nostalgic reunion tours. The first, in 1997 (with the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea replacing the departed Eric Avery) was easier to justify, because the band had tons of loyalists who'd despaired over the fact that they've never gotten to see a Jane's gig. Also, Farrell and company lent that tour the patina of relevance by releasing a "new" record to accompany it.

That record, Kettle Whistle, was an odds-and-sods compilation that managed to fail on two counts: With only two genuinely new songs (although the band tried to pass off two '80s artifacts, polished up with some 1997 overdubs, as "new tracks"), it was certainly no one's idea of a follow-up to 1990's Ritual De Lo Habitual; as a best-of collection, it also fell way short. Though many of the group's best-known tunes were here ("Mountain Song," "Been Caught Stealing"), these versions were inferior early demos or live recordings.

Watching Farrell haul his dreadlocks onto the stage of Saturday Night Live that year for the billionth performance of "Jane Says" (the "Freebird" of '90s alt-rock radio) was a bit like seeing Modern English slogging its revamped version of "Melt With You" around the video shows in the early '90s, or catching the reformed Bangles ushering in 2001 with "Hazy Shade of Winter" on Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve. It wasn't unpleasant, per se, but it felt like a bit of a time warp, a celebration of a moment that had passed.

It's the band's current tour, though, that really has the scent of desperation on its ticket stubs. The band is again playing decade-old material with nothing new to offer. And since both Farrell and guitarist Dave Navarro have released roundly ignored solo albums in recent months (Farrell's Song Yet to Be Sung couldn't be more aptly titled), it's easy to see this tour as an attempt to use the waning -- but still considerable -- power of the Jane's Addiction name to light a fire under the record buyers' butts for solo music. But hey, even the most dedicated foot soldier in the KISS Army had to think twice about purchasing those Gene Simmons and Peter Criss solo records.

While Farrell was never the creative genius that his most ardent admirers mistook him for, he did have a special gift. Although he was born in the late '50s and weaned on classic-rock staples like Led Zeppelin and The Beatles, he maintained an openness to new ideas. The melding of rock and hip-hop is so prevalent on the airwaves these days that it seems like it's been around forever. But in 1991,when Farrell dueted with rapper Ice-T on a hard-rock cover of Sly Stone's "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey," the fusion was groundbreaking. And, for better or worse, much of the metal-funk that's come down the pike in the last decade (Rage Against the Machine, Korn) can be traced directly back to Jane's.

Decked out in black-leather bustiers and flowing skirts, and bounding around the stage with a drug-fuelled antsiness, Farrell treated decadence and self-destructiveness as though they were art forms in their own right. You can see it in the 1991 film Gift, which he co-directed with then-paramour Casey Niccoli. Playing a slightly fictionalized version of themselves, he and Niccoli drop in on an irresponsible Dr. Feelgood, a Hollywood quack who prescribes whatever drugs his addict patients ask for. Such scenes have a snickering, ain't-it-fun-to-be-fucked-up vibe that also popped up in such Jane's Addiction songs as "Been Caught Stealing": "I enjoy stealing/It's just as simple as that/Well, it's just a simple fact/When I want something, I don't want to pay for it."

Whereas '60s rock had been self-consciously moralistic, and much of '70s rock had slipped into cartoonish apathy, Farrell was offering something different: aggressive, engaged amorality -- transcendence through bad taste. As he sang in "Ain't No Right": "Ain't no wrong now/Ain't no right/Only pleasure and pain." It was almost a Beat-generation type of commitment to unfettered experience, even if that experience meant sticking a needle in your arm.

It's an amorality that's even more in step with the rock scene in 2001 than it was 10 years ago. When Farrell said, "Good taste stifles creativity," he could have been speaking for Fred Durst, Kid Rock and a host of other 21st-century rock stars who revel in being misogynistic pigs. But kids don't generally like to get their debauchery from guys who are in their 40s. And Farrell himself, while still as committed as ever to his old cross-dressing teases, isn't quite the same wild dude who acted out a necrophilia shower scene with his OD'd wife in Gift.

In recent years, the man born Perry Bernstein has also become more obsessed with his Jewish roots, avidly studying the Kabbalah, and even naming this year's Jane's tour, Jubilee 2001, after a traditional Jewish celebration of renewal that takes place every 50 years. He's also become more politically conscious, taking an active part (along with Bono and Bob Geldof) in the effort to convince world leaders to forgive past debts from Third World countries.

As ever, he's remained open to fresh musical influences. He's taken an interest in electronic and world music, and has performed as a DJ under his Hebrew name Peretz.

But one senses on this tour that he's ready to restart Jane's as an ongoing creative ensemble. Both he and Perkins have recently talked about the band's need to create new material if they want to be a viable proposition.

"I wouldn't want to do [Jane's] again without recording," Farrell told the San Diego Union-Tribune last month. "Because, in my mind, it's pretty ridiculous that you play with people for a few months, when you could take that few months and make some new music."

The big stumbling block appears to be Navarro. While he's shown a willingness to tour with the group, he's hedged his bets on whether he's willing to take it further. He and Farrell came to blows onstage during the band's turbulent 1991 Lollapalooza stint, and Perkins has suggested that the old resentments are only beginning to heal.

Legend has it that Farrell chose his last name many years ago because he liked the idea of "Perry Farrell" being a play on the word "peripheral." Whatever his intent at the time, it's become a strangely self-fulfilling prophecy. Ten years after coming close to shaping the rock world in his own image, Perry Farrell is stuck on the periphery of contemporary music.

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