I’ve been trying to write something about Jani Lane for over a week now, but words keep failing me. I think I’ve finally figured out why though. I feel the need to justify Jani’s music to the world. I know that most people just think of him as that blonde-haired singer from Warrant, the “Cherry Pie” band. Some might recall Warrant’s other hits from their first two albums, such as “Heaven” or “Down Boys,” but most people can’t seem to recall anything Warrant or Jani ever did aside from “Cherry Pie.” This is very unfortunate because “Cherry Pie” is probably the worst song that Jani Lane ever wrote. And I’m certain that it’s the last song he’d want to be remembered for.
Oddly enough, Warrant’s Cherry Pie album – their second – almost didn’t have “Cherry Pie.” I’m not sure what the tentative title was, but the band had considered the album all but done when their record label said it needed another, stronger hit. So, Jani brought a song he’d recently written for the band’s next album – yes, he was thinking that far ahead – to the table. And that song was “Cherry Pie.” It became the title track and first single of the band’s new album and one of the band’s biggest hits yet. I remember Boston’s WAAF playing it once an hour the day it arrived at the station. People were calling it the best heavy metal song ever, heavy metal being what they called “hair bands” at the time. Even people who preferred thrash – what they called Metallica, Slayer and other heavier bands at the time – had to admit that “Cherry Pie” was pretty darn catchy. Then the band released one of their most serious songs yet as a follow up. That song was “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a fictional story from the perspective of a man who sees a sheriff murder someone, presumably an innocent man. The song was heavier than anything Warrant had ever released and it was the first time they’d released a song that really told a story, not an anthem or ballad. It was supposedly “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” that landed Warrant the opening slot on Motley Crue’s Dr. Feelgood tour. Speaking of which, he seems to forget it now, but at the time Nikki Sixx gave Jani Lane a notebook and told him that he was a great songwriter. Unless Jani was lying about that when he mentioned it in interviews during the years that followed. But that’s unlikely because anyone who ever knew Jani Lane could attest that he was brutally honest. He’d even tell you that he only wrote the final bridge of Cherry Pie’s third single, “I Saw Red,” because the record company thought it needed another hook. Jani preferred his original version of the song, which didn’t have the “I’ve been hurt and I’ve been blind, I’m not sure that I’ll be fine, I never thought it would end this way” part. Which is probably why Jani would grow to hate performing the song live almost as much as he’d grow to loathe performing “Cherry Pie.” He’d grow to hate performing “Heaven,” too. And if you followed Jani’s entire career, it’s not difficult to understand why. He was a complicated guy, a whirlwind of conflicting emotions, and this resulted in albums full of songs that were superior to anything on Warrant’s first two albums. Unfortunately, once grunge captured everyone’s attention, and heavy metal bands became known as “hair bands,” Warrant became something of a novelty act. People would still turn up to their club shows, which would often sell out, but they only seemed interested in hearing songs from Warrant’s first two albums. This didn’t sit well with Jani, who’d often stop performing “Heaven” halfway through the song and play something new instead. When he did do all of Warrant’s hits, he’d usually promise the audience that he’d do them but only if they listened to some of the band’s new stuff first. And those newer songs would always be my favorite part of Warrant’s set, as a longtime fan who appreciated Warrant’s later, more mature and eclectic work, which is what I really want to tell people about.
In 1992, just as grunge was starting to take over, Warrant was releasing their third album, Dog Eat Dog. While the band hadn’t anticipated the grunge takeover, they had matured considerably since Cherry Pie. Or at least Jani had, and he was still their sole songwriter at the time. Dog Eat Dog generally had a darker sound and the lyrics were dark as well. I remember buying the album and immediately being disturbed by the song titles. “April 2031,” “Andy Warhol Was Right,” “The Bitter Pill.” “What the hell is this shit?” I thought. I honestly wanted another Cherry Pie at the time, having really loved that album. Even the photo on the back album cover of Dog Eat Dog bugged me. The guys were dressed solely in black and they all looked so serious.
I remember listening to Dog Eat Dog for the first time like it was just yesterday. I was convinced that I was going to hate it, just from looking at it, and I kind of did. The first two songs – “Machine Gun” and “Hole In My Wall” – were sex-related and catchy, like darker cousins of “Cherry Pie,” and I appreciated that, but “April 2031” was as strange as its title. It included the following lyrics: “they say the sky used to be blue, I don’t quite believe it, it’s probably always been the color that it is” and “no more hate and no more bombs, no god left to blame it on.” It was a dark slice of sci-fi heavy metal, even more serious than Motley Crue’s songs, and I didn’t like it. I wanted Warrant to stick to party rock and love songs. Then the next song, “Andy Warhol Was Right,” actually began with a child singing the first verse. “Why did god make you so famous when he only spit on me,” Jani eventually sings. “If I take your life, it’s nothing personal, I’m just a boy and his toy gun, dying for attention.”
I could continue to walk you through my initial reaction to Dog Eat Dog, but it’s far more important to tell you how it grew on me. And it didn’t take long to do that. The truth is, it actually came out at a time when I needed something darker. The recession was going on and I’d just gone through a long period of unemployment and had just started a job working the graveyard shift at a convenience store. I’d spend that summer up all night, working, and sleeping all day. I bought an air conditioner for the first time, since it was too hot to sleep during the day without one, and I proceeded to spend what time awake I had at home listening to Dog Eat Dog repeatedly. When I wasn’t listening to Dog Eat Dog, I was watching Twin Peaks obsessively, having just discovered it that summer. I was definitely in a dark, strange place and Dog Eat Dog was ultimately the perfect soundtrack for this. Once my initial shock was gone, I loved it more and more with each listen. “The Bitter Pill,” a ballad so epic it even had a verse in German, became my favorite song of all-time. “I’m often silent when I’m screaming inside,” Jani sang. “We never quite appreciate how much the other person cares or tries.” These were the lyrics of someone who knew pain. Perhaps it’s ironic, then, that Jani wrote the album when he had every reason to believe that audiences were going to love Warrant’s metamorphosis into a darker animal. He’d just come off of the band’s hugely successful Blood, Sweat and Beers tour and had no reason to doubt that Warrant’s next album would be any less successful than Cherry Pie. Not until after the album was already written and he walked into Columbia Records’ office to find that the platinum Warrant album that adorned the lobby had been replaced by an Alice In Chains poster. That moment was, by some accounts, the beginning of the end for Warrant, but it should be noted that Dog Eat Dog actually did manage to become a gold record, even in the face of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, and it became the favorite Warrant album of most fans who bought it. Besides, Jani wasn’t going to let Warrant go down without a fight. Well, unless you count the fact that he quit the band during the Dog Eat Dog tour. Certainly not the smartest thing Jani ever did, but one could argue that he was the only one in the band with the sensibility to realize that Warrant needed to take a break during the peak of grunge.
Jani was back in Warrant by 1995 when they released the album Ultraphobic. Lead guitarist Joey Allen and drummer Steven Sweet quit when Jani came back, but guitarist Erik Turner and bassist Jerry Dixon soldiered on with Jani and former Kingdom Come members Rick Steir and James Kottak on lead guitar and drums.
My initial reaction to Ultraphobic was as strong and negative as my initial reaction to Dog Eat Dog. Jani’s vocals were buried in the mix of the first few songs and that sure bugged me. But what bothered me most was just how grunge those first few songs sounded. I grew to love Warrant’s darker side on Dog Eat Dog, but that ultimately felt like a natural growth for the band, to me, but Ultraphobic kind of seemed like a sell out. The title track even started off with a guitar riff that sounded an awful lot like the beginning of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Still, Ultraphobic wasn’t quite grunge. Not exactly. Jani’s sense of melody was intact in the songwriting, even if the other members of the band were finally co-writing the songs with him. “Family Picnic,” a tale of child abuse, could easily have been an Alice In Chains song, but Jani’s voice never really sounded like that even if it was surrounded by a song that did. Also, Ultraphobic had three fantastic ballads, “Sum Of One,” “High” and “Stronger Now,” and Jani’s voice was thankfully louder in the mix on those tracks.
Warrant did a successful club tour in support of Ultraphobic but wasted no time before getting back into the studio to record a new album. Belly To Belly: Volume One would be released just one year later, “96” appearing on the cover under the band’s name to emphasize that this wasn’t the Warrant of the Cherry Pie days. Belly To Belly didn’t sound quite as grunge as Ultraphobic did though. Jani’s voice wasn’t buried in the mix at all and new drummer Bobby Borg brought a whole slew of new influences to the band. I’m talking about everything but the kitchen sink. Belly To Belly even had African percussion, that’s how eclectic it was. And I immediately loved this one. While Ultraphobic had kind of felt like a collection of songs that didn’t always quite fit well together, Belly To Belly was a cohesive album from start to finish, even though it was a diverse body of work, much like Dog Eat Dog. It was very diverse lyrically, too. “Indian Giver” was an angry song about being stabbed in the back, but “Letter To A Friend” was a power ballad about letting go. “There’s a place in the sun for everyone, you’ve just got to find it,” Jani sang. “I wish you luck with yours, I have to go and find mine.” “A.Y.M.” might have been a slightly grunge-flavored dig on Scott Weiland and Courtney Love – “it hurts so bad, I have to fix, apology read by some chick, another million in the bank” – but the creativity flowed. Warrant didn’t sound like they were trying to be grunge or to re-make any of their previous albums on Belly To Belly. Much like when they made Dog Eat Dog, the band ignored expectations and trends and just made the album that was in their hearts. I would quickly grow to love it almost as much as Dog Eat Dog. In fact, there are days when I would probably even tell you that Belly To Belly is my favorite Warrant album. And the band seemed to have a great time touring for it. They’d play the hits, but they’d also play a half dozen new songs, and the audience seemed to receive them well, even if that didn’t translate into a huge number of record sales.
Unfortunately, Jani never did a proper follow up to Belly To Belly with Warrant. Instead, the band released a live album, a collection of re-recorded hits with a few new songs called Latest And Greatest, and an album of covers dubbed Under The Influence. The new songs on Latest And Greatest sounded like Warrant was trying to sound like Cherry Pie Warrant again, which I wasn’t hugely impressed with, but the two new songs on Under The Influence, “Subhuman” and “Face,” were fantastic. They didn’t sound as mature as much of the material on Dog Eat Dog and Belly To Belly, but they were catchy and had a power pop influence that I’d never really heard in Warrant’s music before, so they didn’t sound like the band just going through the motions and trying to re-write Cherry Pie.
Sadly, Under The Influence would be the last album Jani did with Warrant, but it wasn’t the last album Jani would record. In 2003 he released a solo album called Back Down To One, co-written with Keri Kelli, who once did a stint with Warrant and also served time in Pretty Boy Floyd, and it was pure power pop, even more so than the new tracks on Warrant’s Under The Influence. Songs like “Funny” and “Back Down To One” were damn catchy. The whole album was truly infectious and the lyrics were mostly upbeat. Mostly. On “How A Girl” Jani sang “I’m all used up like Ally McBeal, my clothes won’t fit, can’t keep down meals,” which surely was reflecting on his struggles with his weight. Meanwhile, “6 Feet Under” was downright prophetic, Jani singing, “why does everybody want to be my friend now when I’m six feet underground.” If the songs weren’t so undeniably fun, I might have been bothered that none of them were quite so dark as my favorite songs on Belly To Belly and Dog Eat Dog. But they were all great and it was impossible not to love the album.
In 2008 Jani recorded his last (known) album, again working with guitarist Keri Kelli, under the moniker Saints Of The Underground. The band was something of a supergroup with Bobby Blotzer of Ratt on drums and Robbie Crane, most known for Vince Neil’s solo band, on bass. The album was a mix of many things, all of the guys bringing their own influences to the band. To that end, the album featured a pair of covers, Tom Petty’s “American Girl” and The Rolling Stones’ “Moonlight Mile.” Even the original songs on the album had a classic rock vibe though. While the songs sounded upbeat, the lyrics were darker than Back Down To One. Jani again was prophetic, singing “too much headache, too much booze, hard to run wearing dead man’s shoes.” In a way, the album kind of brought things full circle for Jani because if one were to compare it to Warrant’s catalog it would have to be considered most like the first two Warrant albums. It was like Jani was saying, fine, I’ll give you the sound you want, but you’re going to hear what I have to say. Not a bad way to end a career, but it’s such a shame that Jani never managed to rise back to the top. He briefly reunited with Warrant’s original line up several years ago, which had me hoping for another Dog Eat Dog, but the reunion was short-lived. I believe they did a few festival dates then Jani was flying solo again. I have no idea if he quit Warrant or if they kicked him out, but the band has since done a couple of albums that very much sound like they’re trying to replicate the sound of the first two Warrant albums and I know Jani wouldn’t have been happy doing that.
There’s no easy way to end this except to say that I consider Jani’s recent passing an untimely tragedy. Nobody seems to know what he died from, but it’s probably not a stretch to speculate that his demons finally caught up with him. Some might say that those demons were his addictions, and I understand that he had those, but I think trying to shed the stigma of the first two Warrant albums was Jani’s biggest problem. I’m not saying that he was wrong to grow as an artist, mind you. On the contrary, I think this tribute has made it abundantly clear that I liked the darker material he did later far more. But so many of his fans were just people who thrive on nostalgia, who just wanted to hear him sing “Heaven” and “Cherry Pie” again when they turned up at his shows. If you’ll just listen to songs like “The Bitter Pill” and “Letter To A Friend” you’ll realize that Jani was a truly gifted, brilliant songwriter. He was like a cross between Nikki Sixx and Elton John, honestly. It pains me to know that so many people who consider themselves his fans have never bothered to check out what I feel is his best work. If they’d done that, I think they would have loved it, and maybe then Jani would have loved himself more and he wouldn’t be dead right now.