3. Jane’s Addiction, Nothing’s Shocking
In the fall of 1988, prevailing opinion held that Perry Farrell was the next great artist emerging from the realm of off-center rock ‘n’ roll. His band Jane’s Addiction was just out with just its first proper studio album (their self-titled debut was recorded at a live show), on the major label Warner Bros., but Farrell was quickly establishing himself as a master provocateur, creating an album cover image that got it banned from most major music retailers and a music video (for “Mountain Song”) that brought out the skittishness in MTV. This was the era of Robert Mapplethorpe and Piss Christ, so nothing established credibility quite like riling tender sensibilities with confrontational artwork. That stridency combined with the raw, hypnotic hard rock on Nothing’s Shocking to make it seem like a new sage of the blazingly alternative had arrived.
Turns out Farrell didn’t exactly have the longevity that many expected. Certainly he cemented his place in the extended story of both rock ‘n’ roll and nineteen-nineties culture with the creation of the Lollapalooza festival, which first delivered angry music in blazing summer sunshine as nearby freaks drove roofing nails through their septa in 1991. On the music side of the ledger, though, the tally was a little iffier, with one more Jane’s Addiction album before breaking up (though there were reunion tours and albums aplenty in the decades that followed) and a series of bands and solo efforts that were met with rapidly dwindling interest. There’s always a little huckster in every visionary. In Farrell’s case, the two personae were more like a reversible suit that he inverted at will. By now, the huckster side has been in permanent use long enough that it’s looking a little frayed. Still, at least the emperor has some clothes on.
No matter what followed, Nothing’s Shocking was still seismic. Parts of it sound dated now, as is going to be the the case with almost any music that drifts towards agitated outsider performance art. Elements that once felt like roundhouse swings at the tepid establishment now come across as coy little slaps. It’s hard to imagine any but the most conservative record sellers giving more than a second of worry to that album cover these days, for example. When Farrell levels his banshee wail vocals at the repeated lyric “Sex is violent” on “Ted, Just Admit It…” the clear objective of stirring stuffed shirt outrage is downright quaint. Putting that aside, the track is one of the clearer examples as to why Nothing’s Shocking had an impact that deserves to endure. The music is intriguing and complex, swirling around melodies rather than embracing them. It hits hard but is also strangely wistful. It sounds like musical reinvention undertaken on the spot.
“Mountain Song” still hits hard, and “Standing in the Shower…Thinking” has an exuberant looseness that cuts against the surprisingly vivid juxtaposition of idle mind deep thoughts (“I’m thinking about power/ The ways a man could use it/ Or be destroyed by it”) and tactile impressions of time under the blasting shower head (“The water is piping hot/ It beats upon my neck/ And I’m pissing on myself”). For those who like such things, “Ocean Size” has interludes of guitar work by Dave Navarro that flirt with hyper-nimble Satriani excess. Really, though, the album is nearly a classic solely for the version of “Jane Says” it includes. A song that first appeared on the band’s 1987 debut, “Jane Says” is fleshed out with a fuller sound, a subdued but distinctive steel drum backing, and a tremendous, keening vocal by Farrell. The lyrics perfectly, evocatively capture a life in stasis (“Jane says/ She’s goin’ away to spain/ When she gets my money saved/ I’m gonna start tomorrow”). A songwriter and a band couldn’t ask for a better signature track.
Whether or not Nothing’s Shocking was truly a transformational release almost doesn’t matter. At the time, when the horrors of “Kokomo” and “Bad Medicine” were topping the Billboard charts, something that clawed at the eyes of convention was welcome. And Jane’s Addiction was just bold enough as they threw curled up hands with sharpened nails. So what if it wasn’t the sound of the future. For those of us in college radio, it was a deeply vital part of our shared present, when we believed we could reshape the airwaves for the better, one song at a time.
–19: End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues
–16: Ghost Stories
–15: 2 Steps from the Middle Ages
–13: Short Sharp Shocked
–11: Rattle and Hum
–10: Nothing Wrong
–9: Big Time
–8: Invisible Lantern
–7: Every Dog Has His Day
–6: Truth and Soul
–5: Workers Playtime