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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

He cleans up good

How Dave Navarro went from freaky alt-rocker to mainstream pop-culture player.

August 08, 2006|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

DAVE NAVARRO sits on a throne during "Rock Star: Supernova," CBS' summer school of Reality Rock, entertaining those in "American Idol" withdrawal on Tuesdays and Wednesdays through September. Directing the interactions between the show's contestants and the hard rock supergroup they're vying to front, he's as relaxed on network TV as a half-clothed man with multiple piercings and tattoos could possibly be. He apparently feels just as secure off camera: The show shares a soundstage with "Idol," and Navarro recently mentioned on his blog that he's been using Simon Cowell's temporarily vacant dressing room as his own.

Something must be radiating from the vanity lights, because on recent "Rock Star" episodes Navarro, who co-hosts with model Brooke Burke, is hitting a balance of sarcasm and seriousness that's turning him into the Cowell of the heavy metal set. It's an unlikely fate for a musician who played a key role in the West Coast underground scene that challenged rock norms in the 1980s and led to the invention of rock's "alternative" style -- a term that's now as dated as designer flannel. Navarro's early role in helping reimagine rock glamour as guitarist for Jane's Addiction and, briefly, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, is more than a decade past. But this once resolutely exotic creature's ability to establish himself at the center of the rock universe still raises interesting questions about what makes a rock star these days, and how the mainstream and the underground have merged.

"Rock Star" is just one of the projects filling out Navarro's portfolio. The guitarist has been on an upward arc since 2000, when he cleaned up nasty heroin and cocaine habits and traded membership in a single band for frantic multi-tasking. Now, on the verge of launching the Panic Channel, a new group with ex-Jane's Addiction members Stephen Perkins and Chris Chaney and singer-songwriter Steve Isaacs, Navarro's living more like a mogul than a guitar-slinging road rat. The Panic Channel's quintessentially modern-rock debut album, "(ONe)," has a couple of songs -- the ballad "Why Cry," the rave-up "Teahouse of the Spirits" -- that could reestablish Navarro as an artist as well as a celebrity. But it's hard to figure how he's going to fit its likely success into his schedule.

Rocker of all trades

The past half-decade has seen Navarro venture into every likely pop field except acting and (this one has to be coming) fashion design. He published "Don't Try This at Home," a disturbingly frank account of his drug struggles, co-written with Neil Strauss, and released a moody solo album, "Trust No One," chronicling the same period; he's played "Jingle Bells" Hendrix-style in a Gap ad and performed with artists as disparate as Christina Aguilera, Jay Z, Michael Jackson and his "Supernova" buddy Tommy Lee. Like all Hollywood entrepreneurs, Navarro's also invested in a nightspot -- Rokbar, in partnership with Lee -- and played celebrity poker. His all-star cover band, Camp Freddy, still draws a crowd, and plenty of famous guest vocalists after five years.

On those few nights he spends at home, Navarro hosts an Internet radio broadcast, Spread Radio Live, linked to 6767.com, his friendly, smart and frequently updated blog. And most famously, his (currently dissolving) marriage to fellow pop star-of-all-trades Carmen Electra was chronicled in the cuddly 2003 MTV reality show "Til Death Do Us Part," which showed America that a guy who wears fishnet shirts and digs porn can write his own vows and cry when saying them, helped him cultivate the accessible aura he projects on "Rock Star."

Sobriety often makes its lucky recipients very energetic, so Navarro's spurt of activity isn't that surprising. It's his all-around success that speaks volumes about the current rock zeitgeist. When he first gained national fame with Jane's Addiction in the late 1980s, the Santa Monica native was a shaggy-haired half-goth, half-hippie kid whose style bridged Led Zeppelin and the Cure. In those days, such differences mattered: Jane's Addiction posed a major challenge to the genre-bound ideas that had overtaken rock, filtering heavy metal through post-punk experimentalism, all in service of a sensibility that was pure Southern California freak. Perry Farrell, the band's singer and self-taught prophet, surrounded the band's gutter anthems in a swirl of lyrical references that connected it to the most exciting undergrounds of the time: the neo-psychedelia that would result in the desert happening Burning Man, the surf-and-skateboard culture of Venice Beach and beyond, and the proudly kinky eroticism of the "techno-shamanistic" subculture known as "Modern Primitive."

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