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Feeding Addiction to 'Jane Says'

Music: The pre-grunge band behind the song broke up a decade ago, but it still gets a lot of airplay across the country.

August 22, 2001|DAVID SEGAL | WASHINGTON POST

Clocking in at roughly five minutes, it's indulgently long by the standards of radio. Most of it is a mere two chords, played with merry-go-round monotony. It was never released as a single, nor did it get a promotional push courtesy of an MTV-ready video.

But somehow, "Jane Says" just won't die. The song, by California's pre-grunge pioneers Jane's Addiction, pops up incessantly on radio stations nationwide. It's a regular on modern-rock stations, which means it has the youth cachet to hang with the latest in alternative music, like Staind or Tool. It's spun more than 100 times weekly on the nation's album-rock stations, mixing and mingling with elder-statesmen acts such as Eric Clapton and ZZ Top. It was broadcast more than 12,000 times in the first half of 2001, according to Mediabase, a company that monitors radio airplay.

"We play it to death," says Oedipus, the singly named program director of Boston's WBCN. "It's in the pantheon of great rock songs. It has that intangible, undefinable magic about it that continues to make it compelling, which is what all great songs have."

How did "Jane Says" wedge its way into the "Stairway to Heaven" hall of fame? It's a mystery that many have contemplated. Dozens of great songs have since been loosed upon the airwaves, so why are we stuck on a little melody about a woman, her drug habit and an abusive boyfriend named Sergio?

Nobody is wishy-washy about "Jane Says." Especially not Perry Farrell, lead singer of the now-defunct Jane's Addiction, who penned the lyrics.

"I hear it occasionally on KROQ, and it's like a friend saying hello," Farrell says. "It really makes me smile. I feel like the song touches people, and it's nice to know you've accomplished something like that."

Farrell explains that there was an actual Jane--with an actual heroin habit and an abusive boyfriend named Sergio--who lived with Farrell and nearly a dozen others in a group house in Hollywood in the early '80s. Yes, she talked endlessly about scrimping for a jaunt to Europe ("Jane says, 'I'm going away to Spain / When I get my money saved"'), and yes, this tempestuous muse took an occasional swipe at a housemate, but she never seemed to connect ("She gets mad and starts to cry / Takes a swing but she can't hit").

Farrell has lost touch with Jane, but it turns out finding her isn't all that hard. It took only a few phone calls to determine that she's still living in California, and though she's quoted in the song predicting she was "going to kick tomorrow," it took a little longer. Today, however, she's proud to say she's clean.

"The story of Jane has a happy ending," says Jane Bainter.

In 1987, Jane's Addiction released a self-titled debut album, recorded at L.A.'s Roxy club, on the Triple X label. It contained a version of "Jane Says" that provoked a major-label bidding war, eventually won by Warner Bros. "Nothing's Shocking" was released the following year. The album's studio version of "Jane Says" was instantly ubiquitous.

The band broke up in 1991, though it reunites for the occasional tour and has produced yet another live version of "Jane Says," this time adding steel drums. Today, the tune is associated with grunge, a genre that has faded in sales but contributed a handful of radio staples. Alternative-rock stations love "classic grunge" songs because they lure older listeners who heard them the first time around, without losing teenagers eager for the new single by Tool.

Bainter, now 38, appreciates how beloved her namesake melody has become.

A Mercurial Presence

"I've heard about students getting writing assignments in class to write about 'Jane Says,"' Bainter says. "Generally, I haven't told many people that I'm that Jane. It's a little awkward. It's a hard life being an addict, and it feels now like the song is about another person. It's not something I've really spoken about much."

Bainter didn't plan on becoming one of pop's most sung-about women when she moved to L.A. in the mid-1980s. The Arizona native graduated from Smith College and moved into a house, crammed with nearly a dozen musicians, on Wilton Place, among them Farrell and bassist Eric Avery, who would form their band with guitarist Dave Navarro and drummer Stephen Perkins.

Bainter was the house's most mercurial presence; her habit brought some unsavory characters around, and a former boyfriend of hers was living under the same roof, which made the situation more volatile.

When things went wrong at the house, the mayhem was often blamed on "Jane's addiction," so when Farrell needed a name for his band, there was a phrase ready-made. "They jumped into my room one day and said, 'We're going to name it Jane's Addiction!"' Bainter recalls. "I thought it was sort of a lackluster name. I didn't take it as a tribute at all."

Nor did her parents. Bainter's photo appeared on the insert of the vinyl version of the first album, and on thousands of posters that appeared worldwide.

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