Been caught selling

Is Perry Farrell really a genius? Don't believe the hype.

Rock critics have always harbored a soft spot for Jane's Addiction, and it's not hard to see why. On its bookend watermarks, 1988's Nothing's Shocking and 1990's Ritual de lo Habitual, the California quartet blended an art-school aesthetic with glam-punk presentation, crunchy hard-rock chords and funky progressive-rock structures, often in the service of lyrics full of impassioned introspection and an affinity for the downtrodden. But in the early '90s, around the time that frontman Perry Farrell conceived the alterna-rock Lollapalooza festival, the group acrimoniously disbanded. And that, it seemed, was that.

Except that the mainstream rock-critic cognoscenti can't seem to kick the Jane's addiction. Last week, the group released its third full-length studio effort, Strays — its first since Ritual — to a tsunami of gushing praise by the adoring traditional music media. In fact, both Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone recast the band as the true heir to the majestic legacy of Led Zeppelin.

Huh? Such comparisons are a stretch, to put it kindly, but squarely in keeping with the Cult of Perry, which has always held that Farrell is an ahead-of-his-time visionary who can do no wrong. Even the fairly proletarian All Music Guide hails Farrell as "quite simply, one of the most important and original musical figures of the '90s." (It also describes Jane's as "one of the greatest rock bands of all time.")

None of this takes into consideration the obvious fact that the man born Perry Bernstein, for all his heartfelt lyricism, apparently never met a creative impulse he didn't like. His very nom du rock is a pun on "peripheral," proof enough that he lacks a good internal editor. And as a lyricist, he could be a tad precious. "We'll make great pets," he sang on "Pets," a hit for his post-Jane's project Porno for Pyros (Remember it? Anyone?) in which he envisioned humankind domesticated by more advanced beings. Dylan, he ain't.

Smart, however, he certainly is. Enough to have disbanded Jane's Addiction at the top of its game, having recorded one certifiably great album (Nothing's Shocking) and one strong follow-up (Ritual), thereby fulfilling the punk-rock credo: Live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse. Or more to the point, Farrell simply adhered to that sturdy showbiz mantra: Always leave 'em wanting more.

Would that he'd stuck to that advice. Both of Farrell's 2003 comeback projects — Strays and the resuscitation of the long-dormant Lollapalooza festival — prove him to be more a savvy marketer than a creative genius. Strays certainly starts out strong, roaring out of the gate with a head-rush wall of sound that nicely approximates the aural swoop of Nothing's Shocking. But devoid of the intellectual passion that fueled that album's searing set pieces, approximation is all it amounts to. Jane's Addiction in 2003 proves just another alt-rock band, swathed in studio polish and powered solely by the bottomless riff well of guitarist Dave Navarro.

This year's Lollapalooza, the first since 1996, neatly mimics the band's drift away from meaning and toward marketing. Whereas the tour's 1991 outing stretched musical boundaries, all the tours since have merely been exercises in brand extension. 2003 is no exception. Audioslave's monument to untapped potential; the Donnas' one-note, girl-school shtick; Queens of the Stone Age's proudly simplistic riff-rock — all of these main-stage heavy-hitters rely more on imagery and self-aggrandizing than on the heart and questing spirit that Farrell and his band once embodied so quintessentially.

Both Strays and Lollapalooza's studied bid for the 99X audiences of the world — which have slowly gravitated toward the Summer Sanitarium set of Metallica and Linkin Park — prove once and for all that Farrell's true talents lie not in art, but in the details of showmanship. The trouble is, Farrell once instinctively knew that substance, as much as style, could be a potent draw. Hopefully, it's a lesson he'll relearn before Lollapalooza 2004.