Longreads has a story up right now about Jane’s Addiction, the LA alternative rock scene, and heroin. It’s good enough to remind me that I haven’t lost my weakness for these stories, however archetypal they have become:
On a sunny day in 1989 when I was just 14, I heard Jane’s Addiction for the first time.
I was at my friend Nate’s house. As I sat on his bedroom’s itchy tan carpet, near the waterbed with the imitation leather rim, we watched their debut record spin. It was a live recording, and like many teenagers whose musical awakening came before the internet, we’d inherited it from a cooler elder — Nate’s sister’s boyfriend.
From the author’s carpeted suburban adolescence, we move to the history of the band itself, their creative burst in the late eighties, and their inevitable drug-accelerated decline. We know this story by now and nothing in it can surprise us, whether we are fans of the music whose origin is hereby limned or not. I didn’t know about any of this before, but the story unspooled smoothly once the basic terms were set, right down to the fabled address where it–the heady confluence of ambition, talent, social clustering, and, yes, drugs–all came together:
The new lineup fleshed out their songs at the Wilton House, the beautiful, run-down, 1910s Craftsman that Perry rented from two cops at 369 N. Wilton. Many artists lived there, including Eric, photographer Karyn Cantor, and the band’s namesake. “It was one of those houses where everyone in the music scene in the mid-80s seems to have done a lot of time,” Eric said, “where every single closet was rented out.”
“I remember showing up when everyone got off work,” Stephen said, “going into the garage, and writing all those songs ─ ‘Whores,’ ‘Pigs In Zen.’ It’s like that moment when you fall in love.” Residents kept guitars in the living room and beat bongos on the wraparound porch. People like Angelo Moore from Fishbone and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers came over to jam and hang out.
We have been here before, too, the great Dirtbag Cenobium where the young and artistic, seeking to escape the conventions of both their art and their society, huddle with their demimondaine muses in a gorgeous squalor suspended between fame and the gutter. It’s an image at least as old as the Stones in their hideous London flat or maybe the Beatles in Hamburg. More important and unexpected, to me at least, was the writer’s description of his own attempts to mimic this compound of drugs and creativity in his own life, and the abuse and addiction that followed. Twenty years on, he’s clean, but the romance that nudged him toward the dark side lives on in this nostalgia.
It’s more interesting to me because I, too, can remember the first time I heard Jane’s Addiction in my own suburban Anywhere at roughly the author’s age, a few years later. I was part of a “work-learn” summer labor program in Madison that put middle school kids to good use spreading wood chips on forest preserve trails, digging things, and learning about algae or something. It was a lot of fun and it helped introduce me to the burnouts who knew about bands like Jane’s Addiction. Before that summer was out I was wearing army surplus and horrifying my parents, for probably the first time, with the album art for Nothing’s Shocking.
And I trust that I need go no further down this particular memory lane. Jane’s Addiction never turned into the catalyst for me that it did for the author, but that’s not even the point. It was other sounds, other friends, and other curiosities that ended up pushing my adolescence along, but all of them pointing toward some version of that idealized LA compound and the clutch of dark, smoky, howling nightclubs around it. There the creative, lawless Everylad beckoned back to us, from just the other side of his own suburban childhood, promising…something. Something we could have for ourselves.
Once upon a time addiction and squalor were things to be hidden from the listening public. Then they became elements of a brand identity. In avant-garde and bohemian circles this was perhaps always the case, but hardly in a way that could reach guys like me and the author of this story in our early teens, sitting on our suburban carpets. I loved the music of Keith Richards, Lou Reed, and later Thelonius Monk, Billie Holliday, and Charlie Parker, before I knew about heroin. But there’s no doubt that the mystique and danger and even the misery of addiction amplified that adoration in an entirely harmful way. It’s certainly possible to make great music and literature by chasing the visions that come from psychedelics, and it’s true that a stretch of daily hangovers can put you in a position to write something like “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down.” W.H. Auden was not wrong to cite nicotine, caffeine, and benzedrine as useful aids to writing. But the correlation of artistic brilliance with heroin dependence or alcoholism is emphatically not causation. There is at best a period of overlap between the burst of genre-shaping creativity and the full onset of addiction, after which the true muse can do nothing more than struggle to break out, momentarily, from its bank of fog.
It’s a tragedy, really. The members of Jane’s Addiction survived it, as, apparently, did the eponymous Jane herself. The author did. But there’s no need for it. We are invited to replay these scripts over and over as if discovering something for the first time. But there is no new ending to discover. The real muse, if she visits us, is free. The rest is work and practice and good luck. And marketing, which creates the same dreams in ever-new crops of young people who want something outside of the cul-de-sac so badly that they will find a new one.