Perry Farrell: The Saga of a Hypester

Perry Farrell: The Saga of a Hypester

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by Dave Thompson

Dave Thompson's biography of Perry Farrell traces the performer's life from his childhood in Flushing, Queens to becoming front man for the band Jane's Addiction to his founding of the touring festival, Lollapalooza. Perry Farrell: The Saga of a Hypester sheds light on a man who remains a mystery to all but a few.

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Dave Thompson's biography of Perry Farrell traces the performer's life from his childhood in Flushing, Queens to becoming front man for the band Jane's Addiction to his founding of the touring festival, Lollapalooza. Perry Farrell: The Saga of a Hypester sheds light on a man who remains a mystery to all but a few.

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St. Martin's Press
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Perry Farrell
1The Monsters Take Off Their MasksIt was hell, Passchendaele with a PA system; and above the mud-drenched trenches of miserable, huddled moshers, the music echoed like mortar fire."Where's Perry?" howls the kid outside the artists' enclosure."Where the fuck's Perry?"A few people look round, but nobody pays much attention. A quarter of a century ago, it was the brown acid that did everyone's head in. Today it's anything and everything.Doug Coupland would be proud of him. Lank hair, flannel shirt, a stained Nirvana T-shirt, the kid is Generation X, or at least a very twisted approximation thereof. A tousled dirty goatee gives him a look of disheveled mischief. His eyes: a burned-out television set.He starts spinning, arms outstretched like a helicopter, and he's still hollering, "Where's Perry?" The weird thing is, Perry's on the North Stage right now, and if the kid would just stop whirling long enough to look in that direction, he'd see him, cavorting topless in mud-spattered denims through a carnival gathering of fishnet-clad fire-eaters.There's not much chance of that, though. Losing his balance, the kid cartwheels into the small knot of kids who stand watching him, sending them flying as he lurches into the mud, and now he's lying on his back with the slime squelched in his hair, and his lips are still moving in dumb dismay. "Where's Perry?" And, maybe more important, "What the fuck's he doing here anyway?"Before it even began, Woodstock 1994 was a contradiction in terms. Perry Farrell at Woodstock '94--well), now you're being ridiculous. In the quarter century that had elapsed since Woodstock's mud-spattered shroud first rose from the grave of an official upstate disaster area, Perry Farrell did more to exorcise the lingering ghosts of the festival than anyone else in recent rock history.Lollapalooza, the traveling circus Perry inaugurated four years before, which was rampaging through the American South during Woodstock weekend itself, was nothing if not the final proof that the age of the corporate festival was over.No giant Pepsi banners draped the Lollapalooza stage, nobody could claim that theirs was the official sneaker/ sandwich/condom of the Lollapalooza Generation, and when somebody did try to leap aboard the festival bandwagon, slipping its name into a television commercial, Perry was on to them like a shot."You're standing on the stage at the Lollapalooza," ran the proposed Ford Escort commercial, "plugging in on your Marshall amps, the fans are going wild ... and that's just second gear."Perry's lawyer, Eric Greenspan, told Q magazine that while not disparaging Ford, "Lollapalooza had no intention of looking for a commercial tie-in with anybody, and if wewere, I don't think the Escort would be the right car to associate Lollapalooza with."It wasn't only the conflict of naked commerce and alternative altruism that Lollapalooza resolved. It ended the age of the static festival, too. Nobody needed to haul their cookies halfway across the country any longer. Now the show came to them, and the welter of mini-paloozas that blossomed in the footsteps of the original festival only confirmed the demise of the old ways. Lollapalooza '94 sold 90 percent of its available tickets, most of them weeks in advance. Even as Woodstock '94 got under way, it had yet to pass 60 percent; even as the gates opened on the first morning, Woodstock augered forebodingly.Michael Lang, John Roberts, and Joel Rosenman, three of the original festival's organizers, spent five years and $30 million on putting the thing together, calling on the cream of modern rock and Woodstock survivors alike to perform.But still everyone said that it couldn't be done, that trying to rekindle the twenty-five-year-old flames of a sensation that wasn't that sensational to begin with was a pipe dream at best, a perversion at worst, a disaster area waiting to happen. The show's own participants acknowledged that the only thing Woodstock '94 had in common with its historical counterpart was the fact that neither show was actually held in Woodstock. That, and an absolutely stellar lineup.The team pulled off some sensational coups. They persuaded Bob Dylan to perform at the festival he had so famously snubbed twenty-five years earlier. Peter Gabriel, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Blind Melon, Primus, Green Day, the Rollins Band--the list of attractions encompassed the musical spectrum. Joe Cocker, Country Joe McDonald, Aero-smith, the Band ... and Perry Farrell's Porno for Pyros.Roberts, the Block Drugs pharmaceutical heir who bankrolled the 1969 Woodstock, had worked with Perry in the past, promoting a few Jane's Addiction shows. "He's a nice guy," Perry affirmed. "So we did it."The first day, Friday, August 12, continued uneventful, unexciting. All across the campsite, there was a stilted sense of overachievement, and in the press tent, you could hear the first murmurings of that most ghastly question, born of sluggish ticket sales but reinforced by the rigors of actually reaching the festival site ... . What if they threw a Woodstock and nobody came? It wouldn't be the first time, after all. Five years earlier, the twentieth anniversary of this venerable granddaddy of American festivals also passed off unnoticed, unremembered.Would 1994 suffer the same sorry fate, memorialized only in a landfill full of undrunk commemorative Pepsi cans, unsold $135 tickets, unwanted concert recordings and video souvenirs? With Live and James the best-known bands on the first day's bill, and Blues Traveler eclipsing even the Spin Doctors' challenge for the luckless role of the new order's Sha Na Na, what loss would it have been?Saturday brought the rain, and with it the crowds. Around 190,000 paying customers witnessed the first out-sized droplets of rain which fell, just as Ireland's Cranberries came out onstage. Almost twice that many, most of whom cheerfully bucked the exorbitant ticket prices and simply crashed their way in to the festival grounds, remained to witness Sunday's incandescent conclusion. Throughout it all, wallowing in a mire that clung to hair and clothes with the urgency of a virus, they put their entire lives on hold, as though simply being there, amidst the muck, mud, and music, was enough.Suddenly Woodstock took on a new meaning for them all, soaring out of the dust of a tired, ancient touchstone, shaking off the shackles of its disreputable hippie past, and dancing anew, celebrating afresh. As the slime caked their bodies, it obscured the memories, too, of the twelve-hour queues and deep-sixed bathrooms, the blanket ban on bringing even the bare essentials of life into the campground, all the petty rules and regulations that were foisted upon the weekend, until all that remained was the music.The music, the mayhem, and the appalling odor of several hundred thousand very wet, largely unwashed people crammed together into one seething mass.Woodstock'94 worked for the same reasons Woodstock '69 worked. Because the people who were there made sure it did, and for one weekend spent rolling in mud, they would have a lifetime of memories to keep in their trunk.Sunday began much as Saturday ended, with the sheets of rain that transformed the air itself into a shimmering haze, barely even breathable without an Aqua-Lung to hand. Saugerties was on the verge of being redefined as a lake. If the audience--already rechristened a bunch of "miserable muddy fuckheads" by a miserable, muddy Trent Reznor--even noticed, only a handful of early departures appeared to show it. They were only leaving because they needed to get to work the next morning, "and it's a helluva long way home, to ..." Texas, Florida, Washington State.Nineteen ninety-four may not have built upon the same peace and love tenets as its forebear, but it fulfilled them better. In the preshow haze that greeted the omnipresent MTV cameras, Perry Farrell leaned back and played his part to the hilt. "I just got to meet Carlos Santana," he said, grinning. "That was pretty heavy."Porno for Pyros played a great show, an explosion of vivid activity, a carnival whose brilliance was only accentuated by the leaden skies above it, the muddy seas in front. A clutch of new songs ricocheted from the stage, interrupting the steady slow of now-familiar first-album favorites, and Perry, always animated, but today positively radiant, ricocheted with them. "Porno for Pyros," the self-mythologizing epic that would eventually appear on the Woodstock II soundtrack album, was one highlight; "Pets," pulled from the band's year-old debut album as their biggest hit single yet, was another. A tale of aliens coming to earth and making domestic playthings of the human race, Perry prefaced it with a preamble about crop circles, the mysterious markings that superstition insists were not made by earthly hand.Even Perry's opponents acknowledge that "Pets" is a great song, and live, it transcended every accolade. Porno for Pyros had never really received their due as a live band, but at Woodstock, even the pay-per-view television audience agreed--they wadded up every past disappointment, and dumped them in the trash.In the post-Woodstock aftermath, as the reviews rolled in from around the globe, Porno for Pyros appeared barely to have been a bit player. The band was ranked fourth on the final day's billing, before the closing triumvirate of Gabriel, Dylan, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but their performance was completely ignored by what were arguably the most important reviews of all, Rolling Stone in America, Vox in the U.K. The ground seemed doomed to mortality, a mere footnote in the annals of the greatest show on earth.Perhaps it was simply an oversight, Porno for Pyros lost in the scramble to fit every name in without the page turning into a simple superstar shopping list. Other fine names, too, were omitted. Considering the fuss with which Perry's very name was once synonymous, the fuss and the media's baying overkill, was that really all it was?Or was it, as the vultures who gather over every superstar's media demise now asserted, a sign that archprankster Perry had been rumbled at last, had his mask stripped away after one nightmare too many, and been revealed not as the bogeyman of rock's post-eighties hangover, which we'd always thought he could be, but as just another cosmic buffoon who'd sold us down the river?It wouldn't be the first time. 
Alice Cooper was not the first band to use horror as a pop prop. Screamin' Jay Hawkins did much the same ten years before him, Arthur Brown even more recently than that. Both of them were good as well. But Alice was better, and certainly the most realistic.Everything about Alice Cooper was calculated to outrage, beginning with that name. What was disturbing about Alice, though, was not the fact that he was a man--which was, in any case, only evident when you wiped away the makeup from that hook-nosed birdlike face--but the fact that Alice Cooper was originally five men, and all of them, on first hearing, certifiable Grade A psychos and fruitcakes.Then there was the stage act. Live snakes and dead babies, gang war and street fights, straitjackets and electric chairs. Today, two decades on from Alice Cooper's 1974 breakup, it all resembles so much hammy theater; entertainment has grown so much more sophisticated since Cooper's heyday, and no one would be fooled by the fake blood today.How did it become so sophisticated in the first place? Because of Alice Cooper. At a time when "rock choreography" still meant simply knowing which foot to put in front of the other, and costuming meant changing your trousers before the first encore, Alice Cooper orchestrated extravaganzas that would put Busby Berkeley to shame, were Busby Berkeley to have choreographed snuff movies: vast, sprawling epics that didn't so much reflect, as drive a stake through the heart of, the nighttime neuroses of Middle America.Alice Cooper ruled America through fear: fear of schizophrenia and lunacy ("The Ballad of Dwight Frye"); fear of child abuse and suicide ("Dead Babies"); fear of rebellion, and the threat of wild youth ("Eighteen," "School's Out," "Elected," monster hits one and all); but most of all, fear of the darkness that lurks in every man's soul."The only performance that really counts," Mick Jagger told James Fox in the 1970 movie Performance, "is the one that achieves madness." Alice came close to that, closer than anyone before or since. Believable and believed, showmen and shamans, Alice Cooper liberated American rock not only from the earnest shackles of the multi-instrumentalist supergroups that still overflowed from the recently interred 1960s, they paved the way for so much more: Kiss, later in theseventies; punk, toward the decade's end; goth and death rock in the early 1980s.Even more than that, though, Alice Cooper confirmed what is most unique about rock 'n' roll--its ability to demolish the barriers between what is real and what is make-believe. In other media, the audience suspends its belief, accepting that the people onstage are simply playing a part, then accepting the ensuing characters under those terms. But what a rock star does, a rock star is, which meant that Mick Jagger could never stop being Mick Jagger, even when he was acting Ned Kelly or Turner; David Bowie was always David Bowie, no matter which mask he sang behind this time; and Alice Cooper--now personified by singer Vince Furnier--was always Alice Cooper, which meant that the things he did ... were the things people believed he really did.Alice Cooper backed down in the end, from the potential of holding office (in 1972, he sang of being "Elected," and probably could have been, too), and from the next stage of his cabaret of the grotesque. He'd taken his trip to its logical extreme, raising specters that America simply wasn't ready for; he didn't need to take it to its illogical one, and really unleash the madness. The next thing anyone knew, he was an all-around entertainer, playing golf with Bob Hope and finally confessing, "I Never Wrote Those Songs." The dream was over, but more important, so was the nightmare.No one ever came close to recapturing either the intensity or the intensity of belief that Alice Cooper conjured from the disease of early-seventies America. There were pretenders to his throne, of course, and a handful of performers who even eclipsed Alice Cooper's embodiment of the all-American psycho-nut lunatic. None of them ever crossed over, not one could straddle the divide between the suspension of belief (which is what such smacked-out regional cults as the Germs' Darby Crash, and the infamous G.G. Allin, achieved) and the suspension of disbelief, which is what Alice Cooper traded upon.Comparing Perry Farrell to Alice Cooper is a fascinating if fraught exercise. No less than Alice, Perry's reality is utterly indistinguishable from his fantasy. The success of the video movie Gift, which he produced and performed with his then girlfriend, filmmaker Casey Niccoli, proves that. Staged, at least in part, as a documentary, the Santerian marriage ceremony the couple celebrate in the movie's centerpiece was still believed by many people to be real; many people believe, too, in the narcotic-soaked world through which the celluloid Perry so easily moves.But it is Casey who carries the bruises on her arms and thighs, not Perry; it is Casey who is shown tying off with a telephone cord (while talking to a friend of her mother's--that's cool!), Casey who shoots up, and Casey who spends most of the movie lying overdosed and dead in the apartment. Perry only fucks her corpse in the shower, then drapes it with flowers on the bed, and now there are people running around convinced that he's a necrophile as well.Perry knows this, but he carries on regardless. "Name something degrading and I've done it," he once boasted, and though he refused to proffer details, the mere suggestion was more than enough. Whether by raising topics of conversation that society has tried so hard to bury, or by flying in the face of censorship and "Just Say No," Perry Farrell confronts taboo, and in so doing, he appeals to precisely the same public mind-set as Alice Cooper did--the need not to defy authority, which is, after all, what rock 'n' roll has always strived to accomplish, but to defy society itself.The difference is, whereas Alice eventually kicked his mythology away, revealing himself as a simple, beer-drinking all-American boy, Perry has not afforded his public that relief. Through Jane's Addiction, through Lollapalooza, through Porno for Pyros, through everything, it seems, that he does, his legend remains immense, certainly larger than the body of work he has produced--larger, possibly, than life itself. While he hasn't always told the truth to the media, the media hasn't always told the truth about him.It has often been said, of sportsmen and spokesmen, politicians and, of course, pop stars, that if they had not existed, then society would have invented them. So it is with Perry Farrell.The world is smaller today than it has ever been in the past. We invent our own monsters, write our own myths, dream our own dreams, and out of that comes the alternate reality within which the icons of the modern age are at their most powerful. It is no coincidence that among the earliest press notices Jane's Addiction attracted, the terms that were most frequently applied to Perry were those that conjured up an otherworldliness, a sense that witnesses to his performance were witnesses to something primal, primitive, striking, stark: the flailing medicine man, the whirling dervish, the canting shaman. He tapped energies that rock 'n' roll had forgotten how to tap, and in so doing, reminded it of all it had lost ... reminded it, and helped restore it.Though for every acolyte there was another disbeliever, who heard the howls and dismissed them as hype, who wiped the writing from the wall the moment it appeared, the spell remained unbroken, the dreamers did not waken.Like Johnny Rotten a decade before, Bob Dylan ten years before him, Elvis a decade earlier still, and Alice Cooper over them all, Perry lifted himself above the mundane not by virtue of his own merits, considerable though they were, but on the virtues of the people around him, the fans who stretched out their arms and gave him their hands, who laid down their souls and gave him their hearts. They suspended their disbelief. Perry is just taking it from there.PERRY FARRELL. Copyright ©1995 by Dave Thompson. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

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