Friday, August 12, 2011

Thoughts on Jani Lane

Tragic news this morning out of LA, as former Warrant frontman Jani Lane was found dead in a hotel room. ("Being found dead in a hotel room" is required as per rock star death regulation 14.2, subsection B.") I'm fiercely defensive of Jani Lane and Warrant; as an unabashed hair metal fan, I think they're one of the bands that got short shrift because they were part of the scene.

In 1989, my dad bought our family's first CD player, an open-top five-disc turntable changer. He brought us to the record store and said my sister and I could buy one disc each; it took me no time at all to select "Dirty Rotten Filthy Stinking Rich" as the first CD for my collection. "Heaven" was an enormous hit single, and rightfully so; it's everything you want a rock ballad to be. Many a long night was spent on the floor in our den, playing Super Mario Brothers 3 on the Nintendo the following year while that disc spun on repeat over and over. (I still firmly associate "Down Boys" with that castle where you can keep looping through, hitting the P block and loading up on coins and extra lives.)

"Cherry Pie" came next in 1990, spawning the title track and video, but also songs like "I Saw Red" and "Uncle Tom's Cabin," as well as "Blind Faith," one of my favorite Warrant songs:

At the end of that disc, Warrant hid a little nugget called "Ode To Tipper Gore," a 54-second clip of live Jani Lane profanity that served as a response to the PMRC attacks on heavy metal. (Of course, my parents wouldn't buy me the explicit version; my CD has only eleven tracks and doesn't include "Ode," but I should probably go see if it's on iTunes.)

Then grunge happened, and the hair metal scene largely died. On the same day in 1992, Warrant and Slaughter released new records; "Dog Eat Dog" and "The Wild Life," respectively. I loved both of those discs; Warrant, like many hair metal bands at the time, tried to get dark and heavy in response to the changing musical landscape. Yet somehow, songs like "Machine Gun" and "Hole In My Wall" totally fit their oeuvre; they're still WARRANT songs, even as some of their contemporaries changed their sound much more dramatically. Beyond that, "April 2031" is a gloriously textured fatalistic view of the future, "Let It Rain" is a worthy successor to "Heaven", filling my confused 16-year-old head's need for a song to express my heartbreak over a failed relationship, and "Sad Theresa" is just great.

When "Dog Eat Dog" didn't sell, Warrant fell off the map... and just playing armchair psychologist, I don't think Jani Lane ever got over that. Their record company dropped them, and they got picked up by CMC, who tried releasing their 1995 record "Ultraphobic" to radio with no artist name on the disc, in hopes that programmers would look beyond the Warrant name and just judge it on the music. The disc was heavier and darker than "Dog Eat Dog," and unfortunately, nobody bought that either.

It's too bad "Ultraphobic" failed, because the last song on that disc is one that Jani called "my favorite song I've ever written" -- a gorgeous ballad called "Stronger Now."

Think about this: If, say, Taylor Swift recorded "Stronger Now" and released it today, it would be an enormous hit single. I wonder if Jani Lane couldn't have fashioned himself a career hiring himself out to write pop songs; he had an incredible knack for writing melody.

1996 brought a largely revamped Warrant behind Jani and the "Belly To Belly, Volume 1" disc, which sadly was largely forgettable despite a few gems ("AYM," "Feels Good"). They tried to reinvent themselves as a college band; in spring 1997, they played the NACA National Conference in Philadelphia. As president of the programming board, I strongarmed our advisor into allowing me to attend the conference that year; meeting the band and listening to Jani at the piano in the hotel bar late into the night playing tunes while drunken student activities professionals sang along will always be one of my fondest memories.

Jani did lots of other things in the last fifteen years, recording a live album and cover album with Warrant and re-recording some of Warrant's hits for a new record company, and appearing on a few tribute albums. He joined a few other hair metal refugees and released a record called "Saints Of The Underground," and wrote a song for Alice Cooper. He made the reality TV rounds, appearing on "Celebrity Fit Club," and bounced in and out of rehab; he even replaced Great White singer Jack Russell on tour, even awkwardly opening for Warrant a few times, who had moved on with other singers as well.

I have a great bootleg recording of Jani live (I think somewhere in Brazil) playing "Stronger Now," alone on an acoustic guitar. It captures Jani in all his confusion; he gets through the tune, which he admits is very difficult to play, brilliantly; yet one of the first things that the crowd yells after he finished is "CHERRY PIE!" Jani shouts them down, saying that he's going to play all night and wants to get through some newer tunes before playing "Cherry Pie."

Jani apparently hated "Cherry Pie" and what it meant for his musical legacy. He wanted to be productive, wanted to move past it, wanted to create more music; and I can't blame him... it's a throwaway tune, with a video featuring his ex-wife, from a band who kicked him out.

Many of the hair metal veterans want to forget that time frame ever happened, and that sucks, because there was some great music there. Sure, there was dreck; every genre has its fair share of that. It's too bad that Jani Lane's personal demons kept him from getting over that.

He had posted recently about finally releasing some of the solo stuff he'd been working on for years, some of which has floated around the internet in demo form. I hope some of it sees the light of day; his 2006 "Back Down To One" wasn't perfect, but probably would have found life if anyone had given it a chance, or Jani had been on top of his game enough to find creative ways to get it out there in a music scene that had largely passed him by.

RIP Jani; hopefully in death you find the peace you never seemed to find in life.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting this, Chris. I'm glad to know a lot more about Jani Lane and what happened in the years between stardom and now, but saddened to learn that a great creative potential has also been lost. That conference memory is a great one to hold onto.