Retro review: Jani Lane, Warrant and the tribute that wasn’t

RETRO REVIEW: JANI LANE, WARRANT, AND THE TRIBUTE THAT WASN’T

Show Date: August 12, 2011
Location: Grand Forks, North Dakota, USA
Venue: The Betty Engelstad Sioux Center
Reviewer: Anthony Bryant – twitter.com/abryant34 – anthony.a.bryant@hotmail.com

I AM HAUNTED

Jani Lane photo 3Haunted by a YouTube clip of Jani Lane speaking in an interview about his absolute disdain for the song “Cherry Pie.” In this video, Lane holds a plastic cup in his hand, and is obviously wasted, but the seriousness in his voice is all too real. He closes the clip by saying:

“I could shoot myself in the fucking head for writing that song.”

When I heard Thursday night that Jani was dead, I was absolutely convinced the police would find him lying in a pool of blood with a firearm somewhere nearby.

You may be wondering what any of this has to do with my review of the Warrant show in Grand Forks the day after Jani died — trust me, it’s coming — but before I get there, I have to tell you my Warrant story. If you want to skip this feel free to scroll down to ‘The Concert Review.’

I MAY BE THE BIGGEST WARRANT FAN ALIVE

Anthony photoOk, ok, there might be some who worship at the altar of the “Down Boys” more than I, and yes, it’s true that these days, I rarely listen to Warrant — or any hair metal for that matter (aside from Dirty Looks, Cats In Boots, Hanoi Rocks or Sleeze Beez) — at all. But, in my lifetime, I don’t know if there’s a band I’ve loved or defended more against unwarranted (pun intended) abuse than Jani Lane and his cronies. I even have two Warrant songs tattooed on my right arm, and one of them didn’t even come off the ‘Sacred Two’ — Cherry Pie and Dirty Rotten Filthy Stinking Rich. Hell, it didn’t even come off Dog Eat Dog. I got my “I Saw Red” tattoo on my right forearm in 1993 after getting out of a heartbreaking relationship, and “Stronger Now” off of Ultraphobic on my right shoulder came later as I was trying to convince myself that everything was ok in my life (which it wasn’t).

I’m not the only fan with an obscure Warrant song tattoo. Jeff Fox — my brother in Warrant blood — has the title cut of the aforementioned Ultraphobic tattooed on his shoulder and, by his count, has seen Warrant or Jani live 31 times. Try finding two bigger fans than us. I dare you. Try me, and I may have to tell you that I bought TWO copies of Jani‘s Back Down To One album, which, for the record, wasn’t even that good in my opinion.

Dog Eat Dog happens to be my favorite Warrant album. You can always identify a diehard because a diehard Warrant fan will NEVER claim that one of the first two records is his or her fave. Diehards love to explain how Dog Eat Dog, Ultraphobic or, to a lesser extent, Belly To Belly is, “no shit, my favorite Warrant album.”

It was during the Ultraphobic and Belly To Belly years — of which many would say the darker leanings of these releases accelerated Warrant‘s fall from glam grace — that I really got my Warrant groove on. It seemed like every couple months, they were playing around Fargo or Minneapolis during that time, and Jeff and I, along with our buddies Dave and Chris, attempted to hit as many of those shows as possible. With me in Fargo and Jeff in Minneapolis, it’s not as if we hit every show together, but generally, if you saw one guy shouting for “Family Picnic,” the other wasn’t too far away.

With our Warrant tattoos garnering us favor from the band, we ended up in places two fans that grew up in small town North Dakota could’ve never imagined — backstage drinking beers with the boys or on the bus having shots with Jani. Hell, I got pulled on stage once so Jani could announce to everybody how much it meant to him that I had a “Stronger Now” tattoo. For two young fans such as us, these acts of kindness meant everything.

While everyone knew that Cherry Pie and DRFSR paid the bills, it was obvious to the diehards that Jani really loved the other records more, even calling “Stronger Now” the best song he’d ever written at one point. During the Ultraphobic tours, Jani would plead with fans — practically begging them to listen to his new stuff. While the casual fans were shouting for “Cherry Pie” in between every song (as if there was a frickin’ chance it wouldn’t be played), the diehards were hollering for “Chameleon.” Partially because we loved the song and partially because we knew that Jani wanted us to love him for now — not just for then.

Sadly, Jani never got over his hatred of “Cherry Pie” and the good fortune it brought him. Now, I’m not suggesting that he would’ve lived a long, successful musical life if he could’ve turned back the clock and not written “Cherry Pie.” I’m not saying he’d be a wealthy and healthy songwriter if his second release had been titled “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” On the contrary.

Jani Lane had his demons, and they were visible to the world long before he and the boys sprayed down Bobbie Brown with a fire hose.

I think Jani Lane was going to be an alcoholic with or without the song “Cherry Pie.” However, I truly believe that the depression and shame he felt towards being the ‘Cherry Pie Guy’ only made his demons even more of a bitter pill (I know, I know) to swallow.

I got sober July 4th, 2004, about two months after I returned home from the war in Iraq, where I’d been deployed as a member of the North Dakota Army National Guard. Believe it or not, as my sobriety took hold, I began to care less about Jani the musician and more about Jani the person.

With sobriety, I began to look back at Jani‘s songs, and for the first time I truly began to see how depressed he was and how it was so readily apparent with each Warrant release post Cherry Pie. Some people claim that Warrant was jumping on the grunge bandwagon with Ultraphobic and Belly To Belly because the music wasn’t upbeat. Songs like “Feels Good (Feeling This Bad),” “Room With A View,” “Andy Warhol Was Right,” “Quicksand,” and “All My Bridges Are Burning,” definitely shared a level of darkness with grunge bands like Alice In Chains and Nirvana. I don’t think Jani wrote those songs because he thought it would bring him popularity.

I THINK HE WROTE THOSE SONGS BECAUSE HE WAS MISERABLE

Jani Lane photo 5Over the years, there would be prolific periods of sobriety and success. However, just as the diehards would begin to feel hopeful, another drunken setback would derail Jani. Many thought the renewed interest from his reality career on VH1 would jumpstart his songwriting career. I wrote a review for Sleaze Roxx for the second Warrant reunion show in 2008, which finished with this paragraph: “Who knows what will happen over the course of this summer’s tour with Cinderella? Will Lane fall off the wagon? Will the old battles between band mates resume? I have no clue. But, on this night, they reminded us who the Down Boys really are.”

We all know what happened. In Las Vegas, Jani stumbled and mumbled through a show and the rest of the band trudged on, barely able to contain their absolute disgust. I don’t know why Jani fell apart so quickly, but now, looking back at that review and that show, I remember quite vividly, something that he said, and I’ll paraphrase: “Don’t worry; we’re not going to throw a bunch of new songs at you. We’re here to play the songs you know and love.”

Jani made it five shows as an oldies act. I’m sure between every song of those five shows all he heard was, “Play Cherry Pie!”

I’m not saying that made it okay to fall off the wagon and ruin the tour. My personal feeling is that he had an obligation and he should’ve honored it by staying sober, going onstage and blowing away the fans with the songs he and the band agreed to play. The thing is that, with addiction, it’s easier to stay clean if one is happy with his place in life. Jani obviously wasn’t happy with what he was doing, and that gave him the excuse he needed to get loaded. Looking at clips of that Vegas show, I don’t think anyone can blame the rest of the band for moving on.

And they did. First came Jamie St. James. Let me explain that I am a huge St. James fan — I think Black ‘N’ Blue put out some amazing songs — but his voice NEVER worked with Warrant. Every St. James show I saw, I cringed when he would go for those high notes, praying that somehow he’d make it without blowing his voice. To his credit, Jamie was a good front man and did the best he could, but going back to his previous band was a necessity.

Next was current frontman Robert Mason. He can hit the notes, is a helluva showman, and has the best abs in rock this side of the ’88 version of Bret Michaels. While the St. James/Warrant release Born Again was, for me, a huge disappointment, I have to give the new disc Rockaholic, propelled by Mason‘s powerful pipes, some credit. “Life’s A Song” is a bonafide ‘hit’, if such a thing exists for a band of Warrant‘s ilk, and there are several other songs that I genuinely like. Warrant, MK Mason, seems to be doing fairly well.

While Warrant has been rolling along, the man who — let’s be honest — gave them their career, was weaving through the highs and lows. He sounded great singing “Cold Blood” with Kix in California and, from what is being said, filled in admirably for Jack Russell in Great White. Reports have been coming out that he was recording, and there was a possibility of the long sought after Jabberwocky project seeing a proper release (hopefully that will happen). However, there have also been the canceled shows, the rumors of falling off the wagon, and the newfound reports that he’d recently been thrown out of hotels in California for trashing his rooms.

And then, Thursday night, August 11th, I get a text from a buddy: “You online?” I wasn’t. “Why?”

“LANE’S DEAD”

Jani Lane photo 4A quick search of Twitter confirmed it. All the music sites were talking about how Jani had been found dead in a hotel. Word came back later that there was a bottle of vodka and prescription drugs in the room.

My 4 year-old son was crawling all over me while watching Spiderman cartoons as I sat there in shock, thinking about how my first musical hero, whose words were scrolled up and down my arm, had died. Alone. In a hotel room. Like some junkie.

My buddy Jeff, with the Ultraphobic tattoo, wrote me. This is a 38 year old, successful family man. We haven’t talked to each other in years, but as soon as I heard about Jani, I knew I’d hear from Jeff. Remember, this is my Warrant brother. “I just wonder how alone he must have been in that hotel room that he couldn’t reach out to anybody.”

Unless he called someone, or unless he left a note, no one will know what Jani Lane was thinking before he died. No one will know if, as he picked up his room keys at the front desk that day, he was planning to take his life, or if he merely wanted a secluded place to get hammered without anyone there to bother him. Without anyone shouting, “Play Cherry Pie!”

I hope it wasn’t suicide. I haven’t talked to Jani Lane in years, and chances are he wouldn’t have known me from Adam unless he saw my tattoos, but it pains me to think he was in a place so dark he felt his only option was to go to sleep… forever.

As I type this, I’m getting ready for my third year teaching high school English. Since I quit drinking upon my return from Iraq, my life has really started to move. I quit smoking in 2005, became an Army officer in 2006, and finished my Masters in Leadership in 2011. I don’t tell you that to brag, because Lord knows, I still have problems. I just wonder why I was able to put down the bottle and achieve some sort of stability, while my musical hero, in the end, let his demons take him down.

Then the storm broke
And the rain fell
Then the flood came
Made the river swell
Then the dam broke
I just let it go
I was pulled down
By the undertow
— lyrics from “Undertow”

I remember walking into the bar at which I worked back in 1996, clutching my newly purchased copy of Belly To Belly. When I told a co-worker I was looking forward to finishing my shift so I could listen to the new Warrant CD, she laughed, “Isn’t that the Cherry Pie band?” I explained to her that after all the things Warrant had done for me, after all the awesome concerts with my friends, after the songs I’d found so amazing I had to tattoo their titles on my arm, after the nights hanging on the tour bus — after all of that, I would always buy every new release the day it came out, whether they were popular or not. I told her that after everything they’d done for me, there was no way I was going to abandon them.

I hope Jani knows that we didn’t abandon him. I hope he knows that he was so much more than “Cherry Pie.”

Since he died, I’ve listened to “Stronger Now” about ten times. He once said this was the best song he’d ever written, and I think the lyrics, in his death, probably hit home more than anything he ever wrote.

I held you for a moment in my hands
The moment with you slipped away like sand
Through my fingers now
In front of me a choice I have to make
To carry on or simply fade away
I lose you either way
I’d like to say that it was easy, it was hard
To say goodbye, I thought that I would die
Letting go of you, was so hard to do
And I thought that it would kill me but I made
It through somehow, and I’m so much stronger now

Like a bird that’s trapped
Inside a gilded cage
It’s right to set it free
Hurts to watch it
Fly away

When I finished telling my co-worker why I was clutching a copy of Belly To Belly, she said, “You’d think you were talking about a family member.”

Well… I guess I was.

THE CONCERT REVIEW

Concert photo 1I hadn’t originally planned to make the 65 mile trek on August 12th from Fargo to Grand Forks to see Warrant and Skid Row at ‘The Betty’ on the campus of the University of North Dakota. I’d just seen Warrant a month prior in Fargo and, even as a huge fan of Skid Row, wasn’t sure I wanted to spend the cash on the drive and ticket. Jani dying August 11th changed that, and my buddy, Lee Alfson, and I rolled out of Fargo at 4:30pm for the 7:30 show.

It’s weird that, as we left a beautiful day in Fargo, the clouds turned dark and the weather threatening the closer we got to Grand Forks. I did some reflecting on the trip. Thought about all of the Warrant concerts I’d seen throughout the years. How, back in the day, I thought it was the coolest thing in the world to get wasted with the ‘Down Boys’ and now, seven years sober, I was going to see the band pay tribute to the fallen Lane, taken down by his own addictions. A report had surfaced during the day that before the song “Heaven,” Warrant would pay tribute to their former leader. Warrant was second on the bill, which would be headlined by Skid Row, and opened by Downtread.

Lee and I walked into The Betty Engelstad Sioux Center about halfway through the set of Downtread. I’d never heard of them before, but I have to say they pretty much rocked the house. Featuring four guitars, an insane drummer and a howling lead vocalist, I was surprised to see Downtread pretty much owning the crowd that was there. Call me intrigued, and I regret not picking up the CD they had available at the merch booth (support these bands, people), but will absolutely see their next show that comes around. I don’t want to pigeonhole these guys by describing their sound as modern metal, because anytime someone uses that description I immediately think of Disturbed or something to that effect, but also don’t want to say that they sound like an ’80s band, either. Their vocalist was definitely hitting some high notes, and the guitars were wailing. This was a fresh version of classic metal, and these guys are bringing it. Keep an eye on them.

Even though Skid Row closed, I’m going to talk about them here. Skid Row has also dealt with their own lead singer issues over the years, but they came out ready to dispel any notion that they couldn’t rock without Sebastian Bach. And, for the most part, they succeeded — but let’s face it, try as he might, and sound as good as he does, Johnny Solinger can never replace Bach the FRONTMAN. Vocally he can hang in there, but as far as working a crowd, Bach was in a league of his own. Does that mean I think Skid Row should patch things up with Sebastian? I’ll discuss that later, but even without Bach, Skid Row rocked Grand Forks.

The national anthem served as the band’s intro song, which was awesome, and they hit the stage running. Rachel Bolan is a rockstar on bass. Snake Sabo can shred on the guitar, and Solinger, who could pass for Kid Rock‘s less-in-shape cousin, can hit all the notes. What really amazed me about the show was Scotti Hill. That dude was storming the stage, wagging his tongue like Gene Simmons, flipping his hair like… well, Sebastian Bach, and in general decimating Grand Forks. If anyone wants to learn how to keep the rock’n’roll fire burning after over 20 years in the business, just watch Scotti Hill. My personal highlights of the Skid Row set were the more obscure songs such as “Ghost,” off the tragically underrated Thick Skin album, “Mudkicker” and Rachel‘s version of “Psycho Therapy.” Their outro song was a punk version of “Amazing Grace”, and I love cool stuff like that. Overall, they put on a great show, and Snake took some time to thank Warrant and remember Jani LaneSnake Sabo is a class act. But, at least for tonight, the main attraction wasn’t the headline band.

As we waited for Warrant to come out, I scanned the crowd, and at first glance I was disappointed with the turnout, but I think the size of ‘The Betty’ had something to do with that. It looks like the place would sit around 3,000 and the venue was maybe half-full. That disparity, however, made the sound for anyone sitting close the stage (we were 5th row) pretty awful, though it got better as the night progressed.

Concert photo 2Judas Priest was blasting through the speakers, the lights dimmed, and the Warrant guys made their way to the stage. As the opening notes of “Sure Feels Good To Me” flowed through the crowd, I was curious as to how the band would look. Angry? Sad? Relieved? The answer was probably… normal. I mean, what were they going to do, cry?

Let me interject here. Many of these old bands we love, including the two I was watching Friday night, are touring without their original members. Hell, there are two versions of L.A. Guns out there. This has many fans up in arms and calling for the original groups to get back together, usually under the guise of ‘they should do it for the fans.’ However, after living in a tent in Iraq for 13 months at the beginning of the war in 2003 with the same group of people, I can now say I truly understand why these bands split up and cannot reconcile. We can talk all we want about how these bands should be ‘all for one, one for all,’ and all of that crap, but imagine being on a bus for six months with a co-worker you cannot stand. Now, add to that the egos and the substance issues that often go into the rock’n’roll lifestyle, and I’m never surprised that these bands eventually call it a day. My point here is that even though the guys in Warrant owe their career to the songs Lane crafted, it would not surprise me one bit if they hated his guts. I mean, if you look at the history, he left the band in the early ’90s, has caused them to cancel tours, and had led them through numerous embarrassing shows, and that’s just the stuff we KNOW happened. I can only imagine what went down on some of those bus trips when Jani was imbibing. That’s not to say that the other guys are perfect and Lane was a wreck, but it’s hard to argue that the other guys in the band weren’t at least professionals who showed up every night prepared to play their instruments. As a fan I love Jani Lane for giving me some amazing songs, and I can honestly say that, having seen over 300 concerts in my lifetime, there is NO ONE who, when on their game, was a better frontman than Jani Lane. But, having had a drinking problem in the past, and knowing many who struggle with substances, I can safely say that living on a bus with a raging alcoholic would be a frickin’ nightmare. Enough bridges may have been burned (last one I think…) to the point that the other ‘Down Boys’ didn’t feel the need to shed tears. Now, back to the show…

I’m not going to go into much detail about the songs. “Sure Feels Good” led into “Big Talk,” and then “Down Boys,” without any mention of Jani. However, as Robert Mason pulled out his acoustic guitar, the audience seemed to sense that this was the moment we’d been waiting for. The crowd hushed, and we readied ourselves for the Jani Tribute. And, it was…

A joke.

Not a funny joke. If you’re a fan of the band, I’m assuming you’ve seen the YouTube clips out there. No video. No audio. Nothing more than Robert Mason talking about how Jani wrote some great songs, and how much he loved singing them. Mason said he wanted the crowd to sing the song, and then, when they played it, he preceded to sing the whole damn thing.

First tribute of Heaven to Jani Lane by Warrant in Grand Forks, ND.

Uploaded by mike mcwilliams on 2011-08-13.

None of the original band members said a word.

Okay, I’ll try to give the band the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the logistics of a video tribute were too hard to coordinate on short notice. Maybe they really were having a hard time processing what happened. Maybe they did miss Jani. Maybe talking about him would’ve been too difficult. Maybe what I wrote above does not apply to them, and they were genuinely sad for their lost rock’n’roll brother. I really don’t know.

Concert photo 3All I do know is that the ‘tribute’ was one of the biggest musical letdowns I’ve ever experienced. Without Jani, there is no Warrant. I’m not trying to take away from the abilities of Jerry Dixon, Erik Turner, Joey Allen or Steven Sweet, or even Robert Mason. They are talented guys, but the reality of the situation is that Warrant was playing to over a thousand people in Grand Forks, ND, 20 years after the release of Cherry Pie because Jani Lane was the song and dance man.

Even if they do hate him, he deserved better than what he got.

“Heaven” ended with the crowd chanting, “Jani! Jani! Jani!” And, with that, the moment passed.

“Heaven” led into a new song, “Sex Ain’t Love,”, to be followed by “So Damn Pretty (Should Be Against The Law)”, “Dirty Rotten Filthy Stinking Rich,” “Sometimes She Cries,” “Life’s A Song,” “Machine Gun,” and finally, into the most difficult song of the set for myself, “I Saw Red.” I remember driving around with a friend in Bismarck, ND, in 1991, just after picking up the Cherry Pie cassette (remember those?) at the local music store (remember THOSE?), and being anxious to hear this song Jani had been pumping up in Metal Edge magazine. I was 18 years old and was still suffering from a broken heart, and as I sat there listening to this song it was as if Jani was describing exactly what I’d been through, and exactly how I felt. 18 years old, middle of the day, hangin’ with my buddy, and there I sat… tears streaming down my eyes. Two years later, I got “I Saw Red” tattooed on my right forearm.

“Mr. Rainmaker” was next, followed by “The Last Straw,” “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and that’s when Erik said it was time for dessert. The crowd went wild for “Cherry Pie,” and that’s fine. I left my seat and walked around. After everything that had happened, I just could not listen to that song again… at least on that night.

Personally, I think the best tribute would’ve been not playing it, but I understand why they have to.

I don’t want to sound jaded towards the guys in Warrant. They put on a great show. I may talk about Jani a lot, but the other guys in the band have been great to me over the years as well. I interviewed both Erik and Joey for my college newspaper, and back in the ’90s, I drank and chatted with every member of the band (a special shout out to former drummer Bobby Borg, who was easily the kindest and most accommodating Warrant member of all-time), and they were always cool. I hope they continue making music and touring as Warrant for years to come. Regardless of who is in the band, I’m telling you, I’ll still buy the new releases the day they come out.

But, at this time, I can’t think of Warrant without thinking about Jani. Go back and listen to all of the Warrant records. Listen to “High,” “Andy Warhol Was Right,” “I Saw Red,” “Mr. Rainmaker,” “Letter To A Friend,” and the rest. Listen closely to “Stronger Now,” and tell me that Jani Lane wasn’t an amazing songwriter.

His legacy may be “Cherry Pie”; his talent anything but. Here’s to you, brother. Thanks for the songs, and thanks for the memories. I won’t forget…