The first time I saw Dave Navarro playing with Jane’s Addiction, at the ’91 Lollapalooza Festival in Chicago, he looked like a drug-fueled lunatic—a character come to life from an R. Crumb comic. The band as a whole had an unhinged and unpredictable energy, but Navarro in particular, with his dark, mascara-smeared eyes and shirtless bravado, carried himself like somebody I’d keep my distance from. He played the guitar like he was throttling an ex-lover and somehow created epic oceans of noise that, if you’d smoked just enough weed (and at the ’91 Lollapalooza, I had), was downright Hendrixian.
But that was a long time ago. The last 10 years haven’t been quite so kind to the Navarro mythos. Whether he’s hosting the singing contest Rock Star: INXS or co-starring (during his brief marriage to Carmen Electra) in the reality show ‘Til Death Do Us Part or oversharing on the Internet—as he did earlier this month, creating a minor stir after posting a photo on his Tumblr of his new “Surrender Dorothy” tattoo, quite possibly the least rock ’n’ roll tat of all time—it’s seemed as if he’s trying to erase any memory of how cool he used to be. Thankfully, Jane’s Addiction is still around, providing at least a few reasons to look at Navarro without cringing. The band is working on a new album, The Great Escape Artist, which comes out in late September. And this weekend, if you happen to be in the Bridgeport, Connecticut, area and like the idea of hanging out with a few thousand college students rolling on Ecstasy, you can check out Jane’s Addiction at the Gathering of the Vibes festival, where they’re headliners. I called Navarro to talk about his busy summer with the band he never should have left, even for a pee break, which is apparently a sentiment he entirely agrees with.
Eric Spitznagel: Jane’s Addiction is playing this year’s Gathering of the Vibes festival but not Lollapalooza. What’s that about?
Dave Navarro: Lollapalooza is [Jane’s Addiction lead singer] Perry Farrell’s baby. We did play the festival a few years ago and had a great time. And Perry launched the first Lollapalooza in Santiago, Chile, this year, so we went and played there. But here’s the way I look at it: If you’re a piano player and you host a party every week, you shouldn’t play at every party. You know what I mean? It starts to get a little old. Every year there’s a Lollapalooza, we can’t just cram ourselves on top of the bill.
The first Lollapalooza took place 20 years ago this summer. When you remember that the festival’s been around for almost two decades, give or take few years, does it make you feel nostalgic, or just old?
Neither. Ninety-one was literally a different landscape for me, both musically and personally. It was an exciting time, and we were super fresh and young. And don’t forget, we were very, very close to disintegrating as a band when that tour took off. Shortly after the first Lollapalooza, Jane’s Addiction wasn’t a band anymore.
I heard that during one of the original Lollapalooza shows, you and Perry Farrell got into a physical altercation onstage. Do you remember what that fight was about anymore?
No, we were kids and we were volatile. We had different forms of expression than we do now. I’m sure that some of those altercations were chemically induced in one way or another. I have very little recollection of what that was all about.
When you’re playing with the band today, do you ever feel like giving Perry an upper cut in the middle of a song?
I don’t know. For old times’ sake? You and Perry could be like alt rock’s Sunshine Boys. “Remember when I used to fucking hate you back in the day?”
Back in the good old days when we used to fistfight?
Even with all the punching and drug abuse, you must occasionally feel sentimental about that tour, right?
That is definitely not something I’m ever nostalgic about. We’re very much about living in the moment right now.
As you’re the first to admit, you haven’t had the best of luck with marriages. And yet Jane’s Addiction, despite a few bumps in the road, have stayed together. What’s the secret to that relationship?
One of the reasons is that we’ve created a family. And as with many families, there are certain members that you have problems with, and you disconnect with them for awhile, but they’re still your family. Ultimately there’s a Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner when you see them and patch things up. And Jane’s Addiction is a lot like that.
You have Thanksgiving dinners as a band?
We’re an extended family, and we’re going to be forever tied together because of the work we’ve done. We had lots of breakups over the years, but I choose to look at them as hiatuses. Because no matter what happens, I can’t undo what we’ve done together, nor do I want to. There’s no group of people that I spent more time with, that I’ve done more profound things with, that I’ve seen more of the planet with, and expressed myself with on such a public scale than with these guys in Jane’s Addiction.
I’m sure it helps to take the occasional break from each other. Jane’s Addiction is an open relationship, and can see other bands without the other guys getting all jealous and weird about it.
That’s right. Back in the early days, it was just Jane’s Addiction. Now we have other projects and creative outlets outside of Jane’s Addiction, which keeps it fun. What might not be right for Jane’s Addiction might be right for me. And what might not be right for Jane’s Addiction might be right for Perry. And we are all about one another spreading their wings. I think that makes for a comfortable environment.
That would literally never work in any other kind of relationship. You can’t say to your wife, “I need some projects and creative outlets outside of this marriage. I want to spread my wings.”
You bang the babysitter, it’s gonna lead to a divorce. But in Jane’s Addiction, you bang the babysitter, by way of starting a group like Camp Freddy or playing with Christina Aguilera, and it just seems to make the band stronger.
There have been times when I’ve said, “I’m quitting,” and other grandiose statements. But the older you get, the wiser you become. Your perception changes, and the way you look at experiences changes.
Back in the late 80s, Jane’s Addiction just had to be cooler than Ratt. Now you have to be cooler than Arcade Fire. Does it feel more challenging to stay relevant in 2011 than it did in 1988?
We never thought about that. The one constant in this band’s history is that we still don’t. One of the things that’s unifying about us is that we are completely un-unified. We all have different personalities. A lot of bands, I think, generally have similar tastes and a similar vision. If we tried to decide what kind of band we are, or where we fit in the musical landscape, all three of us would pick a different band to compare ourselves to.
You’re in your mid-40s now. Are there still carnal high jinks on tour? How many unfamiliar genitals do you see during a typical Jane’s Addiction show these days?
Well, here’s how I’m going to answer you. It’s a very diplomatic answer, and I get criticized for being diplomatic all the time. But a diplomat tries to keep the peace, right? I don’t know why that’d be something to criticize.
Just tell me about the genitals, Dave.
I’ll just say this. The other three members are married with kids. So I would say that the number of genitals they encounter has probably gone way down in their lives. Now, in my own personal life, I’m going to take the Fifth on this one. [Laughs.]
Let’s just say that for a single guy in this environment, it’s not a bad thing when everybody in your band is married and has kids. Let’s say somebody’s favorite member is [drummer] Stephen [Perkins]. Well, he’s unavailable. Who else are you going to go to?
Pearl Jam is celebrating the 20-year anniversary of Ten this summer with four different reissues and a big anniversary concert over Labor Day weekend. The 20-year anniversaries of Jane’s Addiction’s first two albums came and went without much fanfare. Are you just not interested in dwelling on the past?
We very much embrace and love and are conscious of our past. We celebrate it in our set during every show. We put out a greatest-hits record. There’s an outtakes and live-recordings record. But at a certain point, you have to get in the fucking studio and make a record and stop re-releasing different versions of things that have already been released.
So the Nothing’s Shocking CD I bought back in the 80s is fine the way it is?
It probably is. People are too smart for these re-releases. “Hey, how’d you like to buy the record you already have a copy of? It sounds a little, tiny bit crisper, even though you’ll be listening to it on a computer and it doesn’t make much of a difference.” We never wanted to be that band.
A big part of your rock-star image is the costume, the feather boa and the eyeliner and the revealing pants. That’s a lot of work to do night after night. Do you ever show up for a gig and think, Fuck it? I’m going onstage with a comfy T-shirt and sweatpants.
First of all, those particular ensembles haven’t seen the light of day since 2003. And it wasn’t a boa; it was a long evening gown that I got at Trashy Lingerie (in West Hollywood). The feathers were just a collar. I don’t want you selling it short.
I stand corrected. You really don’t wear eyeliner anymore? It sure looks like it. Or is it just broken blood vessels?
No, no, I never gave up the eyeliner. Here’s how I think you’re confused, and I’m just guessing. I did five years in the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The Jane’s Addiction guy isn’t the Chili Peppers guy. That’s a total different sensibility. I still stayed true to myself, but the Chili Peppers are less theatrical and more visceral. Jane’s Addiction is a very theatrical band. We love the drama of live performance. And the other thing is, there’s no band uniform. We’re not all up there wearing the same leather jacket. We’re not all up there wearing the same pair of jeans. Perry’s got his trip, I’ve got my trip, Stephen’s got his trip, and it somehow works because it’s bizarre. It’s almost as though you’ve got characters from different Shakespearean plays spilled out onto one page.
Do you share your makeup supplies with the boys, or is that just asking for pink eye?
We’re more than happy to share, but I think everybody is pretty much covered. Makeup isn’t really a big part of our story that we’re focusing on here.
Can we focus on it a little bit? Because I find this stuff fascinating. I could spend all day talking about rock costumes.
Here’s the thing, a guy can’t just put on a costume and be a character. It’s about amplifying a portion of one’s personality. We tap into something that’s true and real in ourselves, and we amplify it for a performance, but it’s still coming from an honest place. Anybody can see through a kid that just throws on an outfit and doesn’t know why he’s wearing it. That’s not going to work.
Fucking feather-boa posers.
We were all very much influenced by David Bowie and Lou Reed and the New York Dolls and Iggy Pop. There’s a lot of androgyny going on there. You know what I mean? We’re certainly not the first to do that. You want to go back even further? The first concert I ever went to, when I was just 10 years old, was a Kiss concert. You want to talk about theatrics. That was the most theatrical thing I’d ever seen. A few months ago I saw Roger Waters in concert, and it was the most amazing production I’ve ever seen onstage. The music is so powerful and so emotive that you’d think all the theatrics were unnecessary. And it was unnecessary. But that pageantry is overwhelming.
Let’s talk about your new tattoo, “Surrender Dorothy.”
I assume there’s some kind of backstory there. Is that the title of an upcoming album or do you just dig witches or The Wizard of Oz?
There are a multitude of reasons, not all of them I can share with you. But I can tell you this. The word “surrender” speaks for itself. Certainly The Wizard of Oz is a pivotal film in my life. I think it’s a rite-of-passage film. It’s something that should be shown to children when they’re still at an age for it to terrify and horrify them. Because when I saw it for the first time, it was the scariest thing I’d ever seen. Anytime I talk to somebody in my age range about that film, they had a similar experience. It looked like this shiny, happy movie for kids, but at the end of the day, it’s no joke.
I notice you got the tattoo on your right side. Was that intentional?
Not really. My left side had some scarification that I didn’t want to cover up. Why?
Well, you know how there’s that thing in gay-bar culture, the handkerchief code, where which side you wear a bandana says something about your preferences. Left side is for tops and right side for bottoms. I wasn’t sure if there was something similar with tattoos.
Not that I’m aware of.
Sorry if I’m being presumptuous.
Put it this way, it’s not for public consumption. You’re entitled to ask the question, but I don’t have to answer it. It’s a funny thing, in this day and age with the Internet and everything else, fans have total access to their favorite musicians. I’ve seen journalists get outraged because somebody won’t answer a very personal question. And the reality is: Wait a minute, just because you asked a question doesn’t mean that you’re entitled to the answer. I’m not saying that to you, I’m just saying that, overall, because of this modern age, people demand to know what they want to know and they want to know it right now. You know what I mean?
I do. Just because I ask a jokey question about whether you’re a top or a bottom doesn’t mean you have to tell me.
When I was growing up and I was buying records, all I knew was the picture on the album and the music contained on the inside. Maybe something from the liner notes. But that’s it. That was the access I had. It was enough.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com.)