'Jane Says,' and We Still Listen
The Pre-Grunge Band's Dubious Anthem Has A Long-Lasting Grip

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 19, 2001; Page G01

Clocking in at roughly five minutes, it's indulgently long by the standards of radio. Most of it is a mere two chords, played with merry-go-round monotony. It was never released as a single, nor did it get a promotional push courtesy of an MTV-ready video.

But somehow "Jane Says" just won't die. The song, by California's pre-grunge pioneers Jane's Addiction, pops up incessantly on radio stations all across the country. It's a regular on modern-rock stations, which means it has the youth cachet to hang with the latest in alternative music, like Staind or Tool. And it's spun more than 100 times a week on the nation's album-rock stations, so it mixes and mingles with elder-statesmen acts like Eric Clapton and ZZ Top.

For program directors panicking that listeners are going to touch that dial, "Jane Says" is apparently irresistible. In the first six months of this year, it was broadcast more than 12,000 times, according to Mediabase, a company that monitors radio airplay.

"We play it to death," says Oedipus, the singly named program director of Boston's WBCN. "It's in the pantheon of great rock songs. It has that intangible, undefinable magic about it that continues to make it compelling, which is what all great songs have."

How did "Jane Says" wedge its way into the Stairway to Heaven Hall of Fame? It's a mystery that anyone with a radio and some spare time has contemplated. Dozens of great songs have been loosed upon the airwaves since this one arrived. So why are we stuck on a little melody about a woman, her drug habit and an abusive boyfriend named Sergio?

The song's detractors -- and they are legion -- ask another question: When will the reign of "Jane" finally end? "I think the song is crap," said Rene Alvir, a 37-year-old accountant who lives in Sterling. "It just doesn't have the gravitas to stand the test of time. The live version of the song sounds like Jimmy Buffett, and Jimmy Buffett sucks."

But for each "Jane" hater, it seems, there's at least one fan. "I love it," says Jenny Folsom, who works for the Virginia brokerage Friedman Billings & Ramsey. She and her husband claim to have heard it at least once every Saturday or Sunday for the past five years. "If we're apart for the weekend, we call the other to play it, leaving just the song on the voice mail as a clear signal that the weekend is here."

Nobody is wishy-washy about "Jane Says." Especially not Perry Farrell, the lead singer of the now-defunct Jane's Addiction and the man who penned the song's lyrics. "I hear it occasionally on KROQ [a California station] and it's like a friend saying hello," Farrell said in a recent phone interview. "It really makes me smile. I feel like the song touches people, and it's nice to know you've accomplished something like that."

Farrell, now a solo artist, has just released a new album, "Song Yet to Be Sung," a work that reflects his new passion for studying the Torah. (His name at birth: Perry Bernstein.) It's made him more spiritual, more sunny, and it has pointed him in musical directions that seem a world away from the wistful tone of his deathless number. "I try to stay away from downers or complaining," he says. "I just want to uplift. I'm counting on a world party breaking out soon and I want my music to be something you can play during the festivities."

As for "Jane Says," it's a character study based on a real person, Farrell explains. There was an actual Jane -- with an actual heroin habit and an abusive boyfriend named Sergio -- who lived with Farrell and nearly a dozen others in a group house in Hollywood as the band was forming in the early '80s. Yes, she talked endlessly about scrimping for a jaunt to Europe ("Jane says, 'I'm going away to Spain / When I get my money saved' "), and yes, this tempestuous muse took an occasional swipe at a housemate, but she never seemed to connect. ("She gets mad and starts to cry / Takes a swing but she can't hit.")

Farrell has lost touch with Jane, but it turns out that finding her isn't all that hard. It took only a few phone calls to determine that she's still living in California, and though she's quoted in the song predicting she was "going to kick tomorrow," it took a little longer. Today, however, she's proud to say she's clean.

"The story of Jane has a happy ending," says Jane Bainter on the phone from Los Angeles.

The uncanny durability of "Jane Says" can be explained, in part, with some historical context. In the late '80s, rock was dominated by metal bands like Bon Jovi, Whitesnake and Guns N' Roses, which printed cash courtesy of overwrought power ballads like "Livin' on a Prayer." The look of choice was hair teased to the cheap seats and leather pants cinched tight. The alternative-rock world, meanwhile, was a relatively mellow scene; this was the heyday of bands like 10,000 Maniacs and Depeche Mode.

Jane's Addiction -- Farrell on vocals, Eric Avery on bass, Dave Navarro on guitar and Stephen Perkins on drums -- didn't neatly fit either mold. The band rocked harder than R.E.M. and clearly loved Led Zeppelin, but it had a psychedelic street-urchin vibe that stood apart from the machismo of metal, a truth underscored by a name that seemed hopelessly fey in the era of Poison. (It was a trend-setting choice, given the later emergence of Alice in Chains and Mary's Danish.) Farrell wore dreadlocks, gobs of mascara and in concert would stare bug-eyed at his audience, pounding his microphone stand on the floor.

In 1987, the band released a self-titled debut album, a recording of a show at L.A.'s Roxy club, on the independent Triple X label. It contained a version of "Jane Says," which provoked a major-label bidding war, eventually won by Warner. "Nothing's Shocking" was released the following year; the cover featured a mannequin of Siamese twins, their scalps aflame. The album's studio version of "Jane Says" was instantly ubiquitous.

"It was a watershed for the format," says Sean Ross, an editor at Airplay Monitor magazine. "Though 'Jane Says' is not a particularly harsh record or even typical of its output, Jane's Addiction proved that modern rock could really rock again. Nirvana was after them by a year or two, and to that extent they sort of helped open the door for Nirvana. Pearl Jam, too."

Jane's Addiction lasted for only one more album, "Ritual de lo Habitual," which charted for 35 weeks. The band broke up in 1991, though it reunited for the occasional tour and to produce yet another live version of "Jane Says," this time adding steel drums -- and multiplying the song's airplay. Today, the tune is associated with grunge, a genre that has faded in sales but gave birth to a handful of radio staples. Alternative-rock stations love "classic grunge" songs because they lure older listeners who heard them the first time around, without losing teenagers eager for the new single by Tool.

For some people, it's the portrait of Jane that makes the song repeatably listenable. "Everybody's been in a relationship with a guy who doesn't treat them right," says Kiersten Johnson, a 28-year-old demographer in Silver Spring. "And there's that line about how she doesn't know what love is, but she can always tell if a guy wants her. A lot of women understand that. It's easy to tell if a guy is interested, but a lot harder to know if it has anything to do with love."

Jane Bainter, now 38, appreciates how beloved her namesake melody has become. More than a few people have gushed to her about the song, not realizing that she'd inspired it.

"I've heard about students getting writing assignments in class to write about 'Jane Says,' " Bainter says. "Generally, I haven't told many people that I'm that Jane. It's a little awkward. It's a hard life being an addict, and it feels now like the song is about another person. It's not something I've really spoken about much."

Bainter didn't plan on becoming one of pop's most sung-about women when she moved to L.A. in the mid-'80s. A native of Arizona, she'd graduated from Smith College and moved into a group house on Wilton Street, a Victorian crammed with nearly a dozen musicians. Farrell was one of them; together with Eric Avery, another Wilton house resident, a band emerged. Bainter was the house's most mercurial presence; her habit brought some unsavory characters around, and a former boyfriend of hers was living under the same roof, which only made the situation more volatile.

"She's really intelligent and full of drama, and everybody on this planet who's met her loves her," says Casey Niccoli, a former Wilton roommate. "But she was bringing around bad people, drug dealers. People who stole."

When things went wrong at the house, the mayhem was often blamed on "Jane's addiction," so when Farrell needed a name for his band, there was a ready-made phrase in his head. "They jumped into my room one day and said, 'We're going to name it Jane's Addiction! ' " Bainter recalls. "I thought it was sort of a lackluster name. I didn't take it as a tribute at all."

Nor did her parents. Bainter's photo appeared on the insert of the vinyl version of the first Jane's album, and on thousands of posters that appeared all over the world. "It was very hard for my family," she says. At the time, she was leading a double life of sorts. By day, she'd put on a sensible suit and work at a management consulting firm in Century City. At night she'd put on a wig and wade into L.A.'s music subculture. And she was nearly always high.

"No one at work knew," she says. "Once you've developed a good tolerance, it's not hard to work while you're on heroin." Contrary to popular belief, she says, she never sold her body for sex. "A lot of people hear the song and assume it's about a prostitute. It's not. If you could clear that, I'd appreciate it."

Soon after Jane's Addiction caught on, Bainter and the band drifted apart. She worked for a while at Atlantic Records, then got a job as a student adviser for entertainment courses taught in an extension program at the University of California at Los Angeles. She's been off drugs for eight years, she says, and is grateful to her mom and dad for sticking by her through some harrowing ordeals. Today, she's divorced and looking for a new job.

"Oh, and I did get to Spain, by the way," she says.

Farrell, meanwhile, is heading out on a reunion tour with Jane's Addiction this fall. The band will be playing "Jane Says," which oddly enough is a number Jane's Addiction seldom offered up live at the peak of its popularity. "I had a hard time giving away things that I thought were precious to me, and that's why we never turned it into a single, or made a video," he says. "We'd only play it at shows that felt really intimate and really memorable. I almost keep that one, like a jewel."