Ask Matt Labash

Ask Matt Labash: Requiem for Jani ‘Cherry Pie’ Lane, how Kurt Cobain killed rock’n’roll, and who will lead us now?

Matt Labash Columnist
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Can anybody really say the world would’ve been worse off if Kurt Cobain had killed himself three years earlier, before “Nevermind” was recorded? Not only would Courtney Love have continued to toil in much-deserved obscurity before ending up in a pauper’s grave, but Warrant would still be together and Jani Lane would be alive today. What sort of philistine actually prefers “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to the objectively superior — in every way — “Cherry Pie”? — Ed Turklor

Thanks for the thoughtful question Mr. Turklor, though I can’t help but notice if we put your name on the Soul Train Scramble Board, it serves as an anagram for “Kurt Loder,” the most trusted name in MTV News. With that kind of rock ’n roll authoritativeness infusing this space, maybe it’s time to finally break my silence on the Jani Lane tragedy.

Since the former Warrant lead singer’s untimely demise at the tender age of 47, no official cause of death has been given. Unofficially, some suspect it might have to do with the half-consumed bottle of vodka and prescription pills found in the Comfort Inn hotel room where he was discovered. Though I suspect Lane died of a broken heart. Because he had to watch rock ’n roll itself die, and because Kurt Cobain and his greasy-haired, dour, be-flannelled armies of the Seattle night killed it.

Mind you, though Warrant’s biggest single, “Cherry Pie,” was released in 1990, one year before Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” the song was recorded in 1989 — Warrant essentially being an ‘80s band. And I’m a child of the ‘80s. The ‘80s are where I cut my teeth, loved my first lady, killed my first man. No reason to lie — I enjoyed the whole Decade of Greed ethos. When other kids were cutting lawns for 15 bucks, I told the neighbors, “Make it 20, pops — 25 if you want me to edge and weed eat.” Life, then, was an all-you-can eat buffet, and I went through the line with two plates and a side-salad bowl. For a brief spell, I even wanted to be Alex P. Keaton, as played by Michael J. Fox on that most ‘80s of series, Family Ties.” Not because I, like Alex, wanted to wear knit ties or join the Young Republicans or worship Richard Nixon. But because I wanted to “accidentally” walk in on my sister Mallory while she was shaving her long, shapely legs.

All that said, I never cared for ’80s hair metal. Let’s face it — it blew. RATT? Skid Row? Dokken? Cinderella? Whitesnake, White Lion, Great White (any band with “white” in it)? Even now, it transports me back to the stoner’s table in high school, with their black Reeboks and acid-washed jeans, their bad skin and their worse attitudes. And yet, with my rearview mirror properly adjusted, I realize that I did not appreciate the songcraft all around me. It was a time when the Monsters of Rock all fed off each other and the music somehow congealed, creating a distinct moment in rockdom, one you can still smell and taste, such as in this clip from the seminal documentary, “Heavy Metal Parking Lot.” These were the last days before music became like a broken thermometer, with globules of mercury slithering diffusely all over the floor. Yes, on occasion, there were groups that brought us all together and gave us a common language for brief flashes in the years that followed — C&C Music Factory, Color Me Badd. But for the most part, we never again all listened to the same soundtrack.

Is Kurt Cobain, who killed hair metal before killing himself, responsible for that? Probably not. But let’s go ahead and blame him anyway. That droning, sad-sack smack-head, with all his bitching and bellyaching and worrying about his authenticity, got on my nerves. Rock ’n roll — it’s supposed to be fun. He turned it into a chore and a suicide cult. The question isn’t why did he blow his brains out? It’s why didn’t we do the same when listening to Nirvana’s “I Hate Myself and Want to Die”?

And while Cobain is forever preserved in amber as a critics’ darling, the naked truth is, he was no Lennon and McCartney. In fact, he was no Jani Lane:

Exhibit A, from Kurt Cobain’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”:

A mulatto
An albino
A mosquito
My libido

Congratulations, Mr. Voice of His Generation. You clearly owned a rhyming dictionary. Now take a look at Exhibit B, and have yourself a sliver of Jani Lane’s good-times anthem “Cherry Pie.” Most people know the chorus (She’s my cherry pie…), but the real guts of the thing are in the verses, making it one of the two or three best songs ever written about baking.

Huh, Swingin’ in the living room, swingin’ in the kitchen
Most folks don’t cause they’re too busy bitchin’
Swingin’ in there because she wanted me to feed her
So I mixed up the batter, and she licked the beater

Unless W.H. Auden has come back from the dead unbeknownst to me, they don’t make poetry like that anymore. Now the man who sang those words is gone, never to return. And so, as my close associate Jim Treacher asked the other day in our hair metal discussion group, “Who will lead us now?”

I don’t know, Jim. I’m a journalist, not a seer. I guess the pressure is on Kip Winger. Despite being a bit beefier and seeming a little extra creepy now that he’s 50 years old and still enthusiastically singing about what amounts to statutory rape (“She’s only seventeen”), Winger remains out there kicking, and in fine voice.

Is he ready to lead? There’s only one place to find that answer: in Kip Winger’s heart. Was Sammy Hagar ready to be David Lee Roth? Was Danny White ready to be Roger Staubach? Was Teddy Kennedy ready to be Bobby? No, in all cases. But sometimes, circumstance doesn’t ask you to guarantee future results. It just asks you to pick up the fallen baton, and to keep on running.

Matt Labash is a senior writer with the Weekly Standard magazine. His book, “Fly Fishing With Darth Vader: And Other Adventures with Evangelical Wrestlers, Political Hitmen, and Jewish Cowboys,” is now available in paperback from Simon and Schuster. Have a question for Matt Labash? Submit it here.