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Cover Story: Perry Farrell

| July 1, 2019 | 1 Comment

It took Brazilian author Paulo Coelho just two weeks to write back in ’87, but the compact little novel The Alchemist is one of those metaphysical, feel-good reads that not only deserves to be on every literate bookshelf alongside The Little Prince, but demands to be revisited every couple of years lest its wisdom be lost to passing trends. And you don’t often get a work of art that transcends time in such an effortless fashion. To the uninitiated, the book’s plot might seem featherweight, disarmingly simple. It’s not.

The parable’s basic schematic (spoiler alert): An Andalusian shepherd boy named Santiago is informed by a local mystic that there is a glorious unclaimed treasure out there, somewhere around Egypt, just waiting for him to set out to discover it. Swell! The kid thinks, but along the way winds up having so many tangential adventures as the year’s pass — including meeting the love of his life — he nearly forgets his original quest. But when he finally arrives back home, he’s shocked to learn that the elusive riches he’d been seeking were there, hidden in his back yard all along. Naturally, Santiago is fuming. Why wasn’t he informed of this crucial fact before he left? He asks. The mystic’s reply is one for the ages: Essentially, Son, if you didn’t dare to venture out from your safe homebody existence, you never would have experienced all these swashbuckling sprees that made you the man that you are today. You would never have lived your life to its full extent. Or, as Coelho succinctly put it, “Remember that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure.” Pretty deep, as far as neighborly advice goes.

Into this rarefied air now soars Jane’s Addiction/Porno for Pyros instigator Perry Farrell, who just turned 60 and is most assuredly feeling his metaphysical oats these heady days. Not in a brazen, doomed to fail Icarus fashion, where he’ just begging for a wax-winged comeuppance. But with a genuine curiosity, a deep-rooted desire to explore the confines of his own artistic universe. “In my older years, I’ve mellowed,” he sighs. “And I’ve definitely made a conscious decision to be participating in the world. I’m a public figure now, I’m not as, uh, INJURED as I used to be, and I have children and a wife and a dog. I have a life. And I want to experience the entire world and all of its people.”

To wit, he has just issued his second solo set, Kind Messiah, which considers the potential return of a Jesus-benevolent figure by starting at ground zero with the self-analyzing, cat-scratch feral “Pirate Punk Politician.” He ratchets up the tension with the military march “Snakes Have Many Hips,” a classic metal exercise “Machine Girl” (aided by his wife Etty Lau Farrell), the Far East-hued piano ballad “More Than I Could Bear,” and a closing anthem dubbed “Let’s All Pray for the World.” Initially, the coda feels sneeringly cynical, the type of bratty “Been Caught Stealing” that first got Jane’s Addiction noticed in the mid-‘80s. But it’s no joke. Farrell, born in Queens as Peretz Bernstein — in song and interview — is unusually, almost disconcertingly reverent and sincere.

“What have I learned since those early days?” He asks rhetorically. He ponders this for a moment. “That you have to be much more patient with people. If you really want to do it right, if you really want to get through life and look back and say that it was a happy life, you have to be patient. You have to sometimes wait in a long line, or just slow down. You have to give a person another chance, or maybe you can inform them, or put your arm around them or give them a pat on the back. There are all kinds of ways to do it.” He pauses. We’re approaching The Alchemist stratosphere here, but he boldly continues. He’s not sure when, exactly, it was, but he made a decision many years ago that’s carried him on his often difficult journey: He would never, ever commit suicide and take the easy way out, no matter what troubles clouded his horizon.

“I always wanted to hang in there, because my mom took her own life,” says the Lollapalooza founder, who currently oversees several annual incarnations of the groundbreaking festival around the world. “I made a commitment with myself to not bug out of this place. Since then, I’ve had children, and within this slow process going on 17, 18 years now, you can either be a miserable fuck, or you can say, ‘The times may be dark, but I’m gonna enjoy them.’ Or, ‘This person may be a Conservative, but they’re here at my show, so that shows me that they’re open-minded. I’ve become more of a…a…” He’s not even sure what moral treasure he’s stumbled across. There may not even be a name for it yet.

The vocalist has a term for his former irascible self, circa Jane’s breakthrough album, 1988’s Nothing’s Shocking and ’90’s Ritual de lo Habitual, and he returns to it time and time again in casual conversation: injured. When his scruffy group made its official Warner Brothers-sponsored debut at the Kennel Club in 1985, every major and minor rock critic in The City was in attendance, lured by the label-fanned aroma of Next Big Thing. But no sooner had the weasel-wiry, squiddly-diddly haired Farrell taken the stage than he stopped to address the crowd. Well, er, not the crowd exactly, but a certain portion of it. “I hear there are a bunch of rock journalists out there,” he growled, disparagingly. “Well, you all have huge brains and tiny dicks! Why don’t you get the fuck out of here!” It wasn’t said in jest — he meant it. Full disclosure? This scribe and several others simply shrugged and left, as he’d requested. Words are that powerful And many of us didn’t listen to the band — or write about it — for more than a decade. Life was too short. Too many other bands needed assistance.

But over time — and an edgier new mid-90s outfit, Porno for Pyros — attitudes changed. Most importantly, Farrell himself changed. He wishes he could laugh at his era of being an instigator, like Woody Woodpecker. It isn’t easy to see the humor in retrospect, though, Farrell confesses. “I did enjoy being the enfant terrible in those days,” he says. “I use the word ‘rock’ to mean the status quo because I really consider what we were doing to be more punk or alternative. But in 1985, I didn’t know where I was going. I had no idea where I was headed. And you journalists represented rock. So when I was told that there were some rock journalists there, I was just a fresh-mouthed punk kid, and I just wanted to bring it, right there and then, and let everybody know that I wasn’t down with the status quo.”

There follows a discussion of a summit meeting on one of the final episodes of the late chef Anthony Bourdain’s TV travelogue between the host and proto-punk Iggy Pop, wherein they were trying to pigeonhole the one force that kept them going over the years. They finally settled on one solution: Curiosity. Something you’re born with, or you’re not. This turns into a chat about a recent HBO art documentary, which featured one woman’s astute observation that there are three types of people — those who see, those who only see when they are shown, and those who will never see. Farrell always thought of himself as a sensitive seer, even when his mind was a drug-addled haze. But he disagrees with the curiosity pronouncement. “I don’t think that’s the answer,” he counters. “I think it’s PART of the answer. But I was going to say, love. Here’s what I think. I think we are all just transmigrating souls, and I’m a big believer in the afterlife and reincarnation. I have no doubts about it. And I started to really dig in and study that topic specifically in the early ‘90s. I studied all aspects of the soul, every day, like things you cannot see and energies that are intelligent — I’m a huge studier, and I love to learn. But when that energy gets into a body, it’s earned the right to be a human being, and I am certain of reincarnation because we are not on any normal time constraint. And I’ll tell you about my most important experience, and how I learned about all of this.”

You can almost hear the anticipatory drum roll. This, then, is A Big Deal. This, then, is The Event, around which over half of this interview revolves. Granted, it was roughly ’93, and the man was doing a lot of drugs at the time, he cedes. But that in no way implies that it didn’t actually happen. Like Etty, his girlfriend back then was Chinese and well-versed in Eastern philosophy. But to this day, he still can’t explain what occurred between them one night. “I had direct communication with my late mother, and the person she spoke through was my girlfriend, who sat up and started to talk to me as an older Jewish woman from Brooklyn,” swears Farrell, who was wide awake, not drowsy or vividly dreaming. “But before my mother had to leave, she told me to call my sister and ask her for her mah-jong set back. Of all things to say to me, that’s what she asked. And I hadn’t spoken to my sister in years —I was living in Los Angeles, she was in New York — but the next day I called her and asked for the set, although I had no idea she even played mah-jong.” But his sibling was skeptical. She wouldn’t part with the family keepsake for several frustrating years, Farrell says. “My sister knew I was really debauched and doing a lot of drugs, so of course she was going to question my sanity. But I stayed on her over the last few years, even invited her out to L.A. to see how I was doing. So now I finally have the mah-jong set, and it’s my most prized possession.”

One thing about the ghostly conversation puzzled Farrell. His mother, a talented artist in life, had informed her corporeal kid that she was “very proud” of him, and — even after he’d successfully launched his Lollapalooza traveling-festival concept in ’91, at first as a farewell tour for Jane’s Addiction — he had no idea why. The more he thought about it, the more he decided that it could only mean one thing — “Wherever she was, she knew where I was going in life, that I was eventually going to become a good person because I was very brash, edgy, and altogether unappealing. And over the years, I’ve met people who’ve spoken to angels, or experienced what I did during near-death experiences. And I often look at the world and wonder; Have we gone too far? Can we undo even a little bit of what we’ve done in the name of progress? Because we see people who are living on the street, and we just walk right by them, and that doesn’t feel natural to me.”

Perry would go on to form a third spinoff band, Satellite Party. But for the Tony Visconti-produced Kind Heaven, he imagined an uplifting, feel-good exercise, starting with the ‘60s-positive opening cut “(red, white and blue) Cheerfulness,” which foresees a new generation of activist hippie-minded millennials, and ending with “Pray,” something he believes has devolved into an empty gesture, as in ‘Our thoughts and prayers are with the survivor’ when they most likely aren’t. To augment the disc’s delivery, it was the first album recorded in Dolby’s new Atmos surround sound, setting the stage for Farrell’s upcoming **Kind Heaven immersive experience opening at Las Vegas’ LINQ Promenade next year. Maybe his mother’s spirit was right about that pride thing, after all.

But Farrell gleans wisdom wherever he can, often in simple everyday interactions with his missus. She reminds him that humanity wasn’t always so kind at all, and in fact remarkably cruel to itself. “I love studying history, and Etty said that in China back in the day, the empress would be passing through a town and she’d see another girl who was pretty, and she would say, ‘Chop her arm off. She is too pretty.’ So we are improving as a society.” And the information exchange goes both ways. “One of Etty’s friends kept inviting this one girl to dinner, but she just wouldn’t show up —- she would cancel, but then would never call her back. And I told her, ‘You don’t really know the real reasons she treats you the way she does. She could, as an example, have bills to pay that she just can’t handle.’ You really have no idea what other people are quietly going through.”

The Alchemist also posits that “When you want something, all the world conspires in helping you to achieve it.” Farrell swears by it. And if your guides along your treasure trail aren’t necessarily human, who’s to judge? Farrell has never had a past-life regression. “But I can tell you all about this life that I’m living NOW,” he concludes. “I’ve had visitations, vast visitations of energy coming to me in my sleep, where they show me and make sure I’m on the right path at the end of the day…”

Perry Farrell’s Kind Heaven Orchestra appears at Lollapalooza in Chicago’s Grant Park on Sunday, August 4.

– Tom Lanham

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Category: Cover Story, Featured, Features, Monthly

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  1. Philip A Curtis says:

    A Legend!

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