I lived within walking distance of the famous Sunset Strip at the tail end of the Hair Metal Eighties. This should have been a huge thrill for me, but I wasn’t a hair metal guy. The Whisky A Go-Go was hallowed ground in my book — home of The Doors, X, and proto-hair metal gods Van Halen. But the current group of spandexed and Aqua Netted party boys? Couldn’t care less.
Roy Orbison died around that time. He was enjoying a second career with the Traveling Wilburys, which moved his death from a small notice just above the word jumble in the Los Angeles Times to the A section of the paper. We had a run at the record store on Roy Orbison, with three days of this conversation:
“Hey, can I help you find anything?”
“You got any Roy Orbison?”
“Yeah, bummer about his death.”
“Oh yeah. I’m a huge fan. You got like a greatest hits or something? One with ‘Pretty Woman’ on it?”
It became a joke around the store, the “huge fans” who didn’t even own a greatest hits package. That’s what happens, though. Even the legendary Roy Orbison is reduced to “the ‘Pretty Woman’ guy” in the end, but better that than the “Cherry Pie” guy, which was Warrant’s Jani Lane’s fate.
I remember when the Cherry Pie album came out. That damned title track was everywhere. You couldn’t turn on MTV without seeing the video. I knew I was supposed to be turned on by Bobby Brown pouting with a perfectly triangular piece of pie in her lap, but honestly I was just annoyed. The whole thing — song, video — was sexist, stupid, contrived and patronizing, which is to say that it was a top ten hit.
A few months later I flipped on MTV and caught the video for the album’s fourth single, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Now this was interesting. A hair metal song with banjo? A story song? Was Warrant trying to establish a little credibility after unleashing “Cherry Pie” on the world?
Granted it wasn’t “Kashmir,” but the song was several steps up from “Cherry Pie,” which is to say that it never got higher than number 78 on the charts.
Years later I learned that the album was actually supposed to be named Uncle Tom’s Cabin rather than Cherry Pie. The band was done with it when some studio executive decided that the album needed a big monster hit, so Jani Lane whipped out “Cherry Pie” allegedly in fifteen minutes. And to hear him tell it those fifteen minutes ruined his life. He was proud of his songwriting on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, proud of the album that the band delivered, but for the next twenty years he was the “Cherry Pie” guy.
When I heard him talking about this it reminded me of an athlete whose entire career was defined by a single error, like Bill Buckner in the ’86 World Series. Warrant’s lead singer was bitter, depressed — his greatest commercial triumph was the albatross around his neck.
Does any of this have anything to do with Jani Lane dying in a Comfort Inn in Woodland Hills? I don’t know, probably not — but it’s another reminder why music matters. For at least some of those blessed with the opportunity to make music it matters a lot, more than record sales or fame that comes at the cost of their artistic visions and their souls.