Tomorrow (December 20), in L.A., guitarists Dave Navarro (Jane’s Addiction) and Billy Morrison (Billy Idol), will host their third annual Above Ground benefit. As they have with the two previous shows, the longtime friends will help raise money and awareness for mental health by leading an all-star array of musicians through two iconic albums played from start to finish.
The show, at the Fonda in L.A., will find the musicians taking on Lou Reed’s Transformer and the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols. Navarro and Morrison will be joined by Perry and Etty Lau Farrell, Billy Idol, Corey Taylor, Taylor Hawkins, Mark McGrath, the Fever 333’s Jason Aalon Butler, the Talking Heads’ Jerry Harrison and a few big surprises, according to the two hosts.
As they explained in this remarkably candid interview, where Navarro talks about his own suicidal thoughts, their loss of friends like Scott Weiland, Chester Bennington and Chris Cornell, and much more, this event is so important to them because they are here by asking for help from MusiCares and friends. And they hope the event inspires others to never be ashamed to do the same.
Steve Baltin: Because I know both you guys so well, I honestly do not even know the albums you guys are doing at the event. I just know they will be good and it’s for a good cause. So what albums are you doing?
Dave Navarro: Oh, that’s a simple answer. We’re doing Lou Reed’s Transformer, and then we are doing Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols.
Baltin: How do you compromise on Sex Pistols and Lou Reed, which are both iconic?
Billy Morrison: Well, the process is, we’ve known each other so long, we don’t bash heads against it. We just suggest albums and yeah, there was a Pink Floyd album at one point we’re gonna do, and maybe we’ll do that. Maybe, next year we’ll do that, I don’t know. But we bashed a few albums between us, and the Transformer album has kind of a thread between what we’ve done before, because we’ve done The Velvet Underground With Nico, and we’ve also done Ziggy Stardust, and, obviously the [Mick] Ronson and Bowie connection with Transformer, so we’ve kind of got this New York thing going on.
Navarro: And we also did The Stooges. There’s the big tie-in with all of those iconic, legendary singers and albums that they’ve put out, so that was how we landed on Transformer. Also, as Billy has pointed out, when you listen to what’s going on on Transformer, and what you’re singing about and talking about in terms of lifestyle, he was so far ahead of his time. The world is now catching up to the lyrical content of Transformer in a lot of ways. And so it’s kind of a really nice celebration of how far we’ve come, but just what a genius Lou Reed was, in terms of taking chances lyrically. And also, Billy and I are both artists and we have been massively influenced by Andy Warhol and the Warhol Factory scene, because of the art and music that all came out of there at that same time. And Andy was a pivotal part of helping Lou come up with ideas for songs for Transformer. So there’s a huge, massive bag of reasons why we chose Transformer. And then if you go into the Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols, why don’t you take that one?
Morrison: I think clearly, anyone in a rock band these days would tell you that at some point in their life they’ve been influenced by Never Mind The Bollocks. Obviously, it’s my favorite album of all time, but I often enjoy this argument which is, “Name another band that changed the course of musical history with only 12 songs.” And it’s very difficult to do that because you’ve got your Led Zeppelin, your Beatles and your Pink Floyds, but they all had albums and a career trajectory to formulate sound, songwriting, chemistry, they had that. The Pistols were together for 16 months and released 12 songs, and it’s still blowing bands, young bands that come out now influenced by Never Mind The Bollocks. So it’s a very important album. Close to my heart, close to Dave’s. So, that was it. I think which one of us said, Never Mind The Bollocks, it was just, “Yeah, let’s do that.”
Navarro: And the other thing about all the records we tend to choose for the Above Ground event is that there’s a strong visual component that goes along with all of these movements. And if you think about Never Mind The Bollocks, and you think about Jamie Reid’s work, and Vivienne Westwood, and you think about just the style that emerged from that time, there’s a lot of imagery that we can pull, because we like to run video content that coincides with the songs that we’re doing. So we have an amazing array of archived footage that we can choose from to use, in terms of presenting more of an immersive experience we try to present an experiential event.
Navarro: An event, yeah. And same thing, if you look back at Adam And The Ants, obviously a very visual band. Think about Velvet Underground, started out of a factory. Ziggy Stardust, of course. Even The Stooges had a stripped down but glam, dirty, grungy look to it. And so, we really like to play with the look on the staging and in terms of the presentation, but we try to stay as true to the albums as they were recorded. Billy and I are in a cover band, as you know, Royal Machines, and sometimes we’ll pick a song to cover and we’ll all just play the bar chords and power through the song, and do the song with a singer. But these records, we really pick apart each specific instrument and what’s happening, and we do bring in horn sections, we do bring in string sections, we do bring in background singers, and the piano, and we try to really kind of emulate what’s on the recorded album.
Baltin: Have you guys started rehearsals yet or no?
Morrison: Well, that’s exactly where we are right now, is in the studio, and Dave and I have spent many days already. We’re very fortunate enough that this is actually in my house, and we’re fortunate enough that we don’t need to go into a rehearsal room to break down those songs, to pick apart the tones, and to be two guitarists who are playing off each other. So Dave comes over here and we pick them apart beyond what most people would expect, and we’ve been doing this for, what, a month or something. Eventually, in a couple of days, we’ll be stepping into a real rehearsal room with the full band. As Dave said, it’s horn section, strings, backing vocalist, and all the guests, and we will run this evening as a full rehearsal, yeah.
Baltin: There is not a more perfect song than “Perfect Day.” As you started rehearsing these and playing these, are there things that you’ve appreciated or picked up differently? And we’ll start with “Perfect Day” because, again, it’s one of my favorite songs of all time.
Navarro: Well, oddly enough, ’cause Billy and I have been, as he said, working together, picking these records apart, and that’s one song that has little to no guitar on it. So, Billy and I had been really kind of paying attention to the arrangements and what’s going on. So we’re actually very excited to get into the studio with the piano player and with the strings, and really get into the background vocals of that, ’cause the backgrounds on all that stuff is really important, especially “Satellite Of Love,” when you think about the backgrounds that David Bowie laid down. So, we have not really broken into that song apart from going over it between us.
Morrison: Let’s say a cover band were to play “Perfect Day,” you would have a guitar player playing the chords and I’m sure it would sound great. But one of the skills here is to know when not to play, especially on Transformer, because there is so much where there is no guitar. And this isn’t about Dave and I looking great and pulling a pose. This is about raising awareness and funds to try and stop people dying from mental health issues. So, we are not concerned about, “Is there any guitar in ‘Perfect Day’? No, there’s not, so f**k off.” And then we come back on. As it happens, I will tell you this, so I’m singing ‘Perfect Day,’ and because I love this guy, we have a nice jangly, clean tone just for certain parts, because I said to Dave, “I don’t want you to walk off the stage. I want you on there when I’m singing this song.” So, it’s a good example, because we have actually added guitar. But I’m pretty sure the people in the audience will hear what we hope is a great replication of what’s on the record.
Baltin: What’s interesting is doing this event five days before Christmas, when the holidays can be so tough for people. Talk about the timing of being able to do this again.
Navarro: I really think that the answer lies within the question itself. When we started this Above Ground organization, we were really trying to raise awareness and end stigmas around mental health and so forth. And now having gone through, essentially, two years of COVID and fear and isolation, I think that the entire planet has suffered tremendously in terms of feeling scared, feeling a sense of unknown, feeling isolated in their homes, afraid to connect with their loved ones, and it’s kept people very much apart, and there’s been a steep increase in mental health issues as a result of it. And as you said also, at the holiday times, whether there is family structure issues or lack of a family or whatever it is, depression can follow for so many people. So this time of year and this, especially now having an opportunity to do it at the stage of where we’re at, where we can at least have an event, I think it’s more important than ever, and it’s kind of a miracle that we started down this journey before this all happened.
Morrison: This kind of event has been in the planning for nine months, maybe more, and so I think we’ve been very fortunate with the timing, because we didn’t know when we pulled the trigger and said, “Okay, we’re gonna do this.” We didn’t know if events were gonna be happening or not. So, I think we’re fortunate, I think that being so close to Christmas is a blessing and a curse. A lot of the friends that would have loved to have been at this gig are in the Bahamas or with their families or whatever, but we have been extremely fortunate with the guests that we do have, and everyone has, without question, said “Of course, I’m in town, I’ll be there.” And as you say, the fortunate part of it is it lands five days before Christmas where quite frankly, I bet everyone in that audience has some kind of issue, whether it’s, “I don’t wanna go and see my family or my family are nuts or I don’t have any family.” So hopefully our event will give people something to think about and look forward to and be involved in.
Navarro: And family events like that for those who come from somewhat of a damaged family origin background, those events can be full of triggers that spin people out into all kinds of really dark, dark thoughts and dark feelings. And so we really feel that it’s important to tell everyone that vulnerability and asking for help is a great strength, especially at a time like this, and that’s really the message that we’ve come up with. Both Billy and I have suffered from everything, from mental illness to drug addiction and a myriad of traumas. But we wouldn’t be here if neither one of us had reached out for help at one point, and as a result, we’re able to have the lives that we have. And I think it’s just a really nice way to say, “Hey, look, guys, if you allow yourself to be vulnerable and allow yourself to say what’s going on with you emotionally and you allow yourself to reach out for help, that a great shift, a great change and hope can come from such an action.”
Baltin: We all of us have talked about this stuff so much, and when it comes to doing the benefit, the trick is you have to make it entertaining, but do it in a way that makes it really cool and fun, so they’re more receptive to it.
Morrison: That’s a great point. Dave and I have been friends for 20 plus years, and have done an awful lot of cool s**t together. Anything good that Dave and I have done has not come from us sitting down and brainstorming. I don’t know how people think it goes down, but our primary motivation has always been, “Is it fun for us?” This actually started with Dave going “Dude, I’d love to play Kings Of The Wild Frontier, the whole thing”. And at that time, we’d also recently lost Chris and Scott and Chester and a whole host, and we just said, “Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to raise some awareness and also have some fun.” So that’s as simple as the idea started, and now we do bring production. There’s a huge video wall, there’s dancers, there’s art installations. Our friend Risk is doing a huge installation in the lobby. There’s speeches, Dr. Drew.
Navarro: You talked about the educational aspect of things, so we come out, we’d do a record, and then in the intermission, we have Dr. Drew Pinsky, we have Bob Forrest and Shelley Sprague and they’re all gonna come up and say a few words about mental health. And these are professionals that know what they’re talking about. So there is an informational aspect of this and resources and ideas and suggestions of where to go to get help. So once that happens, we come back and close out the night with yet another album. So it’s kind of like the information is book-ended with entertainment.
Baltin: What does playing a Lou Reed album from start to finish mean to you guys?
Navarro: The beautiful thing is both Billy and I knew Lou Reed and we had an opportunity to play with him in New York. So, clearly, doing the Velvet Underground album or doing Transformer is extra special for us because Lou gave his time to us, and so to celebrate Lou’s life and Lou’s work in this area is a beautiful gift.
Morrison: Do you think he’d dig it? If he was alive? Or do you think he’d be like, “What are you guys doing?” [laughter]
Navarro: I did a cover of “Venus In Furs” on my solo record and I didn’t feel good about putting it out unless Lou signed off on it. So I sent it to Lou and he not only loved it, but we became friends and went to dinner and I went back to his apartment, we hung out and talked all night long. And he actually wanted to work together at one point on future music of his. That unfortunately never happened, but I think that he would like what we’re doing. But I also think knowing based on having played with him that if he was joining us on stage, he would have a problem because he never played a song the same way twice [laughter].
Morrison: My experience of being in a rehearsal room with Lou Reed is one of the most intense and fascinating and scary rehearsal scenarios I’ve ever been in. The guy was intense, but a lovely guy. And I hope that people understand what we’re doing is homage tribute, out of love.
Navarro: Absolutely. I mean, the amazing thing about Lou Reed is that he asked us to learn a song called “The Blue Mask.” That was one of the songs that he wanted to do. And so we all just woodsheded that song and learned it the way it was on the record and we were all prepared and we all felt good. It was a complicated song. And so we get the song down and he comes into rehearsal and he’s just completely skipping sections, extending lyrics. Just completely abandons the recorded version. I think that he would really be touched and honored that we’re doing this, but I also think that he would have a difficult time singing these songs with us because we’re doing it the same way [laughter] because his method is to never do it the same way.
Baltin: Tell me about the relationship with MusiCares.
Navarro: The goal is to raise awareness and funds for MusiCares. They partnered with us in helping put on this show. And MusiCares is a great resource for getting people the help they need right away when they are in desperate times. And I just wanted to thank them. MusiCares has really done a lot for a lot of people that we know and love. And they work tirelessly to help people with mental health issues and addiction. And a lot of addiction stems from people not knowing how to resolve earlier past trauma. So trauma is a huge part of the addiction cycle. And as we’ve learned more and as more has been revealed in studies that show that trauma is deeply tied to addiction, and I think especially having it be MusiCares where as Billy said, we’ve lost so many friends, certainly friends that everybody knows about, Chester, Scott, Chris, and so forth, but even over the past two years, I can tell you that I’ve lost about six people to suicides and drug overdoses. And also I’ll be very candid and vulnerable with you. I have been at that threshold many times within the past 10 years where I’ve contemplated such things myself. And if it wasn’t for reaching out, if it wasn’t for my friends, guys like this right here, people in the health field, I wouldn’t be alive today. And so I know deeply what it feels like to, on the outside, “Have everything and want to die.” And it was as simple as picking up the phone. The hard part is picking up the phone because a lot of times there’s shame in that. And shame is something that keeps people from picking up the phone. So what we like to say is that shame will not save anybody. It’s that letting go of the shame and allowing yourself to be vulnerable and pick up the phone and ask for help that can change your entire life.
Morrison: This is the exact reason that Dave and I formed Above Ground in the first place because if we can say we were there and by simply asking for help, we have potential life beyond our wildest dreams. And you can too.
Navarro: One of the most vulnerable moments of my life was two years ago at Above Ground show where I was doing vocals on an Iggy song. I addressed the audience and told a full house the exact story I just told you. That I had made plans and contemplated and I had a note written and a plan. And I just said it out loud and said, “But I’m here now.” And so I find that there’s a great strength to put things that, in all honesty, can really affect somebody who’s an audience member who might be struggling. If someone is standing in the audience looking up at the guy on stage and the guy on stage is saying that “I have been there and I had made plans,” maybe they don’t feel alone and perhaps they can gain some hope from that too. So it was a risky shot on my part. It was vulnerable and scary to do, but it was necessary. And so that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re just trying to give people hope.