In Their Own Words
Rambling Man: Perry Farrell On His Halcyon Youth
John Doran , August 4th, 2011 07:47
As Jane's Addiction unleash new track 'Irresistible Force' John Doran digs out an interview with Perry Farrell, who discusses his wilderness years spent making jewellery, impersonating David Bowie and domestic spats with his girlfriend while living in a car
About eight years ago I went to the Metropolitan Hotel on Hyde Park in London to interview Perry Farrell who had just got Jane's Addiction back together. I'd heard that the singer had destroyed his mind with drugs and had heard a particularly chilling story about adult diapers and baby food. And while part of him had clearly not returned under the influence of the Earth's gravity for many years (he had an assistant who sat in the bathroom during our afternoon together who would occasionally make her presence felt by roaring, 'Focus Perry, focus!' during some of his madder digressions), he proved to be a smart, funny and personable interviewee. He came across like a mix of Rickie Lee Jones from The Orb's 'Little Fluffy Clouds' and Woody Allen. My news interview brief was completed within five minutes and we kicked back chatting over a pot of tea. I asked him about his teenage years and he started in on one of the longest anecdotes I've ever heard. After our hour was up, he went to do a TV interview and told me to wait in his room. When he got back he carried on again. I found the tape recently during a house move and his story about being a David Bowie impersonator and male escort living in a car with his bad tempered girlfriend made me laugh so much I had to transcribe it for the Quietus...
In the 1970s in America it was a great time to be a sports fan. In New York we had the NY Knicks, we had Joe Namath, we had Muhammad Ali. Joe Namath was the sexy quarter back for the NY Jets who predicted that he would win the Super Bowl and he did. He had a club called The Bachelors III and he would wear a mink stole; he was a real ladies man with big old sideburns. He was a cool athlete. This was the glory days of the NFL. It was just at the beginning of things. Also in basketball there was the NY Knicks who had this guy Walt 'Clyde' Frasier and he also had big old sideburns. He could dribble behind his back. We used to call him Clyde because of the film Bonnie And Clyde. You know, he wore wore gangster stuff. Those were the people I emulated when I was young.
Muhammad Ali was my hero. My step Grandfather worked for Everlast, so I got to meet Muhammad when he was training for the Thriller in Manila. I painted zebra stripes on my training shoes and had my picture taken with him. I remember his fist being as big as a loaf of bread. It was big and square like that, I could see how when he hit you with that square... I could see how you'd go down. Imagine that...
The first concert I went to was Blue Oyster Cult. [Laughter] Yeah, with lasers! That was the most incredible thing. Imagine that you're a young kid, nice and high, and all of a sudden there's lasers coming out of the guy's guitar and squares and shapes right above your head. It was so cool. That was when my family moved from New York down to Florida. Florida was actually a pretty cool place for a young guy. That was around the time of Scarface and disco was happening. But also hesher rock and really hardcore Southern rock was happening as well. There were a lot of drugs floating around in high school and girls were loose and the weather was warm. I started going to concerts every weekend. We knew how to sneak our way in to the concerts, unless we had a date, and then obviously we had to pay our way in. But we knew ways in. We knew how to climb up the drains and get in through the windows on the second floor window.
My early concerts? Well, the first couple of ones were Blue Oyster Cult and The Cars, I remember seeing them very early on. Then it was like Marshall Tucker, The Beach Boys and I got to see Led Zeppelin. You wanna hear this story? It kind of sucks actually. I had to go from South Beach where I lived to Tampa. And of course Led Zeppelin were our heroes so we didn't mind driving; which was just as well because we drove probably a good four to six hours to get to there. And I remember 'The Song Remains The Same'. [Starts singing 'The Song Remains The Same'] They ripped in to it, their very first song. Oh my god we were loosing it! They actually carried Jimmy Page onstage and sat him in a chair! I didn't understand why then but now I do. I was like, "Wow! That's pretty weird, Jimmy Page has a guy carry him out and sit him in a chair?!" You know what I mean?! "How eccentric!" [laughter] So they played like three songs and it started raining and I remember Robert Plant going, "Hey, we're gonna take a break, are you cool?" and we all go, "Yeaaaah! Okay! Cool!" 'cause it was pouring all over, and I guess nobody had thought of putting a cover over the venue back in those days. This was the early days. We waited around for like 20-minutes but nothing happened. Then we saw this helicopter take off and that was that. So I saw Led Zeppelin for like 20 minutes, but I'll never forget it.
So I saw all that kind of rock when I was growing up but then I decided that I had to get outta there. And on my 17th birthday I bailed out of South Florida and I took the Greyhound bus and headed for California with a surfboard, art supplies, a bag of weed and 90 bucks.
I had no ambitions to be a rock & roll star, I was going to California just to get away from my family. I knew I had talent as an artist because I'd done that all the way through school. I'd always drawn and I knew how to do lost wax impressions, that's how you make jewellery. I learned that from my father. So I went out to California and initially what I did was I was designing jewellery for people... Oh no wait, let me start again...
My original job when I came out to California was working in construction. I lived in the high desert in a place not that far from where Coachella is held today. I'd gone to stay with my friend Jimmy, a big Samoan kid who was my surfing buddy. This guy was a hesher... an ass kicker... He got himself a scholarship playing football in junior college and he said, 'Come out, I've got a place for you to stay.' I went out there not knowing how close it was to the beach. It looked pretty close on the map... you know how maps are... but it ended up being about three hours away from the beach.
I went there and they were putting up homes and building banks and I said to the foreman, 'Look if you need a guy to carry lumber, I got a good strong back.' And I got into drinking 12 packs of beer after work, like you do when you're a construction worker. And I thought that's what I was going to do, I was going to get my contractor's license. But eventually I came to my senses and realised that it was not for me.
I actually escaped by the skin of my chinny chin chin man. Because when I left, the construction crew actually wanted to kick my ass. They had taken away all of my art drawings - I was kind of known for these drawings by then. It was a way of saying, 'If you want to leave you can't take these drawings... or if you want them you'll have to fight us for them.' And to my rescue came Jimmy's football team. It was the construction workers versus the football team. So that was my final night there in a hammock worrying about what was going to happen. They were really big guys and they'd got themselves really drunk. They surrounded me and I think they really wanted to kill me but they didn't want to fight the football team so I was able to leave.
I went home for a bit and took my SATs and I got very good scores even though I'd been out of school for a year. So I thought I would go to junior college but I wanted to be by the coast this time. First I went to art college in this place called Cardiff which is by the sea in San Diego. It is a very beautiful, low-key kind of spot but it's a place where I saw the real California surfing lifestyle for the first time. You know... they wore open-toed sandals, they wore shorts, they drank smoothies... they ate avocado, tomato and sprout sandwiches... there were health food stores... I had never seen a health food store before... I had never even tasted an avocado before. I got so infatuated I just wanted to live there, so I began to design jewellery for a store down there. Jewellery and surfing was my life. I tried to do all that and go to school at the same time. But I couldn't because when you surf, you live to surf. If you get up early enough, you can surf twice a day. But it was too much. You can't surf and learn.
And then I met this girl Shelly. She was a hesher, pot smoking, drinking girl with long shiny hair. I told her that I was going to be moving up to Orange County because my dad had set me up with a job up there, as a travelling jewellery salesman. I figured if I was going to do that I'd need to move out of San Diego because it was too kicked back. Like I said man, open toed shoes. There weren't any jewellery stores... well, maybe one or two. But up in Orange County? There were a lot of jewellery stores. It's a very republican place. I asked her if she wanted to move up there. She had nothing better to do. But I didn't realise that I was causing a nightmare for myself. This girl was crazy.
I went driving around this place, Orange County. This white, republican place. Not somewhere I really fitted in but if you're crafty and foxy sometimes you can get in these places. I looked at these apartments. You probably don't have them here but in America we have them. They have tennis courts, swimming pools, an artificial creek running through the middle of them. Maybe a basketball court and laundromat as well. So to a young guy, it's kinda... sexy. You've got trickling water with rocks and plants and a pool area. So I posted a note there, 'Young guy looking for room mate'. Someone answered it. A guy who was recently divorced. He was this 'roided out muscle guy with a broken heart who needed a room mate. So like a fool I moved in with him and so did Shelly.
She was Brazilian with a really hot temper. We used to have these screaming rows. She used to throw plates at my head. You know, right? You've ended up with a girl like that I'm sure. It usually happens to you when you're young right?! I don't know why! Maybe you get wiser as you get older and you're less likely to end up with a woman like that, throwing plates at your head. So this girl got me kicked out of the apartment. The landlord said I couldn't stay there with all these insane fights going on. I had nowhere to go and honestly, I wasn't really making any money. It was my bad luck. When I became a jewellery salesman the price of gold had gone up to over $800 an ounce. It usually stays around $350 but something crazy happened around that time so no-one would buy my jewellery. I ended up having to give my line of jewellery back. I had nowhere to go so I had to go and live in my car. Of course she told me she had nowhere to go, so she moved into my car with me. So we were living in my Buick on the Californian coast. We moved slightly further towards LA. I figured, if you're going to be homeless, you might as well be homeless near the beach. You can wash up in the morning and it's not that unhealthy. So I lived in my car with her for a while. Have you ever had a row with your girlfriend when you both live in the same car? It's not very cool.
Around the time I'd been living with the steroid monkey, I was invited to do some modelling. There was a private club in Newport. This woman asked if I had ever modelled before so I said, 'Of course I have!' even though I hadn't. The work was for a "modelling agency", which was actually really an escort agency as well. I said to them, 'You do these modelling events but I can make them a lot better. Let me work some things out. I can do impersonations of Mick Jagger, David Bowie and Frank Sinatra. It would add some light to these events.' It went over really well. That's how I got into the stream of entertainment really. I really didn't have any ambitions to be a real musician though. I thought you trained as a musician when you were a kid and then became one when you grew up.
One of the kids who was modelling with me had a brother who was a manager and this guy wanted to manage me. So I moved up to LA to live with him for a short time. It wasn't a situation that I was too keen to continue, so I ended up homeless again, living as one of those street kids with these punk rock dudes, while doing impersonations. And I thought, if I was an actor, the equivalent to doing Frank Sinatra impersonations was probably selling toothpaste on TV commercials, which would not be good. So as a singer I thought I should be writing about my own life instead of singing about other people's lives but to do that I also had to create my own life and to make it exciting and interesting. This was the late 70s and punk rock made me think, 'You know, I could do this...' Even though I hadn't received any training to be a singer as a child. I thought that maybe you didn't need that. You could just learn a few barre chords and have an attitude and have a character and then you would be... free.
Punk rock kids didn't expect to become big rock stars. They were just happy to have their friends come down and watch them play in the clubs. My first group was Psi/Com and it was a great, great experience. I learned from these guys. It was an art rock group influenced by Joy Division. They taught me about Siouxsie and the Banshees, Psychedelic Furs and The Cure. They were very clever in putting together flyers and stickers, which again came from an art school and DIY background. If people liked your flyer they would come to your gig. Back then there was a gig every night and it was like a music community. We all went to each others gigs.
One of the guys from Psi/Com was a devout Hare Krishna and he believed that if you had sex you shouldn't do it for pleasure, that all the pleasure should go to Krishna and he just used to chant and count his beads all day. I felt I should compensate for this in the group and that's why I started practising black magic. I think in my pursuit of the dark arts, I may have over compensated to be honest. [laughs]
In those days in the Los Angeles underground, people put on their own shows. What was happening on the Sunset Strip was pay to play - they had found they could make money by making kids from the Valley buy a stack of tickets so their band could play. They could lose up to $500 just to play a concert. It was a scam. It's such a wrong thing to do to young musicians. The Strip was just cheesy hair metal groups - it had nothing to do with the real Los Angeles anyway. We would find venues downtown. In the art community. In the gay community. We worked together. Like an odd group of outcasts. And we would have these great parties. That was where I met Flea from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, at these parties called 'Theoreticals' that we were having back then. My first gig with Psi/Com however was at a hot dog stand just off Hollywood Blvd. This guy said he would lend us the parking lot. We plugged into the electricity for the hot dog stand. And there was really only about five people there. But still I gave it my all. It's such a weird sensation, singing your heart out when there's only five people there just looking at you and a guy selling hot dogs. I thought to myself, 'Oh my God! What the Hell are you doing?' But these people went home and said, 'Actually this group is crazy, you should go and see them.' And the next time there were 12 people. We started to get a reputation. This is really where I cut my teeth for Lollapalooza. It's where I got the whole concept of DIY and creating your own environment from.
We would put on these parties in the desert and we had people like Einsturzende Neubauten, Sonic Youth, The Minutemen and The Meat Puppets playing. We'd make it so you had to pay five bucks to find out the location and then we'd build a stage out there with some generators. Did you ever hear of this guy Mark Pauline? Of Desolation Center? Well, he used to build these giant robots that would explode and have fights. One day Mark Pauline blew his thumb off because he was into demolitions and stuff like that. Really, he blew his thumb off at our party. He was a guy out of San Francisco. Built great robots. These are the kind of people who came to our parties.
And that's where Jane's Addiction came from. It grew out of this scene. Psi/Com had this very dark sound, it was very gloomy you know. But I had this feeling that things were going to get really fun, really soon. So I thought I'd better start a new group and if things were going to get real good I didn't want to be locked into singing dreary songs. It felt like there was all this good fortune just marching my way. You know?