The ‘guitar hero’ from the ‘alternative nation’

By Sergio Ariza

Dave Navarro and Jane's Addiction were the curious link between the Los Angeles 'hair metal' scene and the 'alternative nation', the term Perry Farrell would use to call the whole 'underground' and indie scene that would explode with Nirvana, but which had its particular prologue in Ritual de lo Habitual. Navarro is the curious case of a guitarist who liked Van Halen as much as Robert Smith, Steve Vai and Daniel Ash. He is one of the few guitarists that is liked by 'metalheads', 'punks' or ‘goths’, an old-fashioned 'guitar hero' who may have been a 'shredder' but became the Jimmy Page of alternative music.  

Navarro was born in Santa Monica, California, on June 7, 1967, at the gates of 'Summer of Love'. At the tender age of seven he heard Jimi Hendrix for the first time and knew he wanted to be a guitarist. His cousin Dan Navarro, singer-songwriter, taught him a few chords, he would always remember it as one of the greatest gifts he has ever received in life, with those few chords which opened a world that changed his life forever.


In addition to Hendrix, he was soaked in the sound of
Led Zeppelin and the Doors, until at the age of 11 he heard an album with which he had the same revelation he had had a few years earlier with Hendrix, it was Van Halen's debut and that got him fully into the metal. He formed his first band with his high school classmate Stephen Perkins on drums, doing mostly covers. By then he had discovered Bauhaus and the Cure, and their influence was beginning to be felt. But in the Los Angeles of 1985 what was in was speed and technical dexterity and the young Navarro, he had more than enough of it.

His band had separated but Perkins had joined Jane's Addiction, the new band of Perry Farrell, a veteran of the post-punk L.A. scene who was one of the main leaders of the 'underground' scene of L.A., where there were bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers,
X or Fishbone. Through Perkins Navarro did an audition for Jane's Addiction and Farrell knew he had found the right guitarist (they had already gone through four for the job). Logic would have led Navarro to join one of the many 'hair metal' bands that populated the Angelina scene, but chance put him in a band where everyone had their own tastes. Farrell loved santería, reggae and Velvet Underground, bassist Eric Avery was a fan of punk and Joy Division, in addition to a taste for classical music, Perkins had the Grateful Dead as a guide, while Navarro put the classic rock sound with a black Les Paul. From this clash of styles an unstoppable cocktail will emerge together with Farrell's lyrics on heroin, depressions and 'menage a trois'. Even more important is the role of women in his lyrics, removing the role of simple sexual object from 'hair metal' and giving them a personality of their own.


After his first rehearsals Farrell realizes that with Navarro on board they are going to become something big. Their first performance in the Scream is quite the event and the band becomes regulars at the mythical local, playing once or twice a month and becoming the talk of the town. A scene in which they rub shoulders with groups like Red Hot Chili Peppers or
Guns N' Roses. After the success of the latter, Warner Bros decides to sign them for the biggest advance ever given by the company. On January 26th 1987, a concert of theirs was recorded in the Roxy Theatre of the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles and it was released in May as their debut. The company decides to go live due to its enormous reputation as a live band. Nonetheless, the band sounds like something new and refreshing, with a funk touch and the distinctive voice of Farrell opening Trip Away, then there is a 'hippie' and psychedelic stopper, and then enters his final weapon, a guy able to rub elbows with the best 'shredders' of the moment releasing an incredible solo. Dave Navarro had not yet turned 20. Whores was built on a Zeppelian riff while Jane Says was a beautiful acoustic number showing the many faces of the band. It also gave them time to do covers of the Stones and the Velvets. It was an orgy of styles that some qualified as Alternative Metal that would serve as a breeding ground for bands like Rage Against The Machine, Tool or Korn.

Shortly afterwards they began to record their first studio album. Their label allowed them to choose from a long list of producers for this, and they chose David Jerden. When they went to show him the songs Ferrell did something quite unusual, he saved several of the best for his next job. In these years the band had accumulated a good amount of songs and the singer decided not to burn his best bridges in case the inspiration did not return, and so some of the best songs of his repertoire, such as Ain't No Right, Stop!, No One's Leaving or
Three Days are not shown to Jerden . Even so, the band's creative fever was such that Jerden was impressed with the quality of the songs he was shown.


Released on August 23, 1988, Nothing's Shocking
is one of the most important albums of the decade, opening the door for other alternative bands such as Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails or Faith No More. It was a heavy album but sensitive at the same time, combining Led Zeppelin and the Cure, with an incredible instrumental mastery but, at the same time, a punk attitude. It was an incendiary album that sounded as unpredictable as their performances. The album opened, like many of their songs, with a riff on Avery's bass, halfway between Peter Hook and funk, then Navarro's powerful guitar comes in, an Ibanez RG at that time, then Perkins' drums joined and Farrell's voice said only one word during the whole song, "Home". This is where a whole generation of outcasts, children without their own space, felt at home. Then came Ocean Size, in which Navarro demonstrated his 'guitar hero' qualities. It was, once again, Farrell who brought out the best in the guitarist. Navarro was playing and the singer approached him to tell him to think of a girl with whom he had had a turbulent relationship. The guitarist's first reaction was "fuck her!" but before he knew it, all that resentment and fury moved onto his guitar. Pigs In Zen and Jane Says were rescued from their debut album. The latter became their anthem, with the inclusion of a steel drum set taken from calypso music. But the song that served to present the album was Mountain Song with Navarro riffs that Jimmy Page could be proud of.


The group went on tour to introduce it, having opportunities to open up for
Iggy Pop or the Ramones. Although MTV refused to put their videos on the air, word of mouth was working and by the end of the tour they were filling theaters all over the United States. Something was moving in the US music scene and Jane's Addiction was ready for it.

On the other hand, the band had fallen prey to heroin and all four members became hooked. But their enormous experience on the road helped them not to let their skill drop. Also by the time they entered the studio to record their next album, Ritual de lo Habitual, they were so familiar with those songs that they could play them with their eyes closed. With this album, the group plunged more into their own style, producing a very personal album, with two well-differentiated parts. The first one, with its characteristic direct hard rock sound, and the second in which there is a strong presence of progressive rock, passed, of course, through their own musical sieve. The first part has the best songs, like
Stop and Been Caught Stealing (with an excellent use of wah), but it is in the second part, with songs like Three Days in which Dave Navarro confirms himself as the authentic 'guitar hero' of the independent scene, his solo being chosen as one of the 100 best in history by Guitar World. But even so, his style had changed, less worried about showing off and much more about helping the song, focusing on textures and moods, closer to Bauhaus' Daniel Ash than Steve Vai.


The album became a hit after the unexpected success of the Been Caught Stealing video and entered the Top 20 on Billboard. Jane's Addiction had broken the barriers for independent music and provided the springboard on which Nirvana would jump with Nevermind, but the band would not get to live the explosion of alternative music. In 1991 Farrell created the Lollapalooza
festival and Jane's Addiction acted as headliners, sharing the stage with bands like Nine Inch Nails, Living Colour, Ice T and Siouxsie & The Banshees. This was where the singer came up with the term "alternative nation" and where Navarro saw punks and 'heavies' rocking together for the first time in the same audience, people who, until then, had been easier to see beating each other with sticks. It was also there where he premiered his famous PRS guitars, of which he now has a signature model.


However, Lollapalooza
was also the end of the band. Navarro and Avery had quit heroin while Farrell and Perkins were still using it, so when the bass player told the guitarist that he was planning to leave the band, he didn't think twice and he also took off. His enormous reputation among his colleagues can be understood by seeing how when Izzy Stradlin left Guns N' Roses Navarro was Axl Rose’s dream substitute. The band invited him four times to play with them but Navarro never showed. However, in 1993 he would not miss the opportunity to join another famous band, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. His first performance with them was at Woodstock 1994 but he only managed to record one album with the band, One Hot Minute. Released in 1995, it did not please either the band’s followers or the public critics, but left a couple of classics like the delicate My Friends and Aeroplane, with an excellent use of wah in a Stratocaster.


In the end, the adventure with the Chili Peppers did not last and the expected reunion of the band arrived, first in 1997, with
Flea as bassist, and then in 2003 with a new album. But their moment had passed, there were still great songs, like Just Because, and good concerts, but their legacy was already etched in those first  Jane's Addiction albums where he confirmed that alternative music could also have an authentic 'guitar hero' in their ranks.