He cleans up good

Times Staff Writer

DAVE NAVARRO sits on a throne during "Rock Star: Supernova," CBS' summer school of Reality Rock, entertaining those in "American Idol" withdrawal on Tuesdays and Wednesdays through September. Directing the interactions between the show's contestants and the hard rock supergroup they're vying to front, he's as relaxed on network TV as a half-clothed man with multiple piercings and tattoos could possibly be. He apparently feels just as secure off camera: The show shares a soundstage with "Idol," and Navarro recently mentioned on his blog that he's been using Simon Cowell's temporarily vacant dressing room as his own.

Something must be radiating from the vanity lights, because on recent "Rock Star" episodes Navarro, who co-hosts with model Brooke Burke, is hitting a balance of sarcasm and seriousness that's turning him into the Cowell of the heavy metal set. It's an unlikely fate for a musician who played a key role in the West Coast underground scene that challenged rock norms in the 1980s and led to the invention of rock's "alternative" style -- a term that's now as dated as designer flannel. Navarro's early role in helping reimagine rock glamour as guitarist for Jane's Addiction and, briefly, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, is more than a decade past. But this once resolutely exotic creature's ability to establish himself at the center of the rock universe still raises interesting questions about what makes a rock star these days, and how the mainstream and the underground have merged.

"Rock Star" is just one of the projects filling out Navarro's portfolio. The guitarist has been on an upward arc since 2000, when he cleaned up nasty heroin and cocaine habits and traded membership in a single band for frantic multi-tasking. Now, on the verge of launching the Panic Channel, a new group with ex-Jane's Addiction members Stephen Perkins and Chris Chaney and singer-songwriter Steve Isaacs, Navarro's living more like a mogul than a guitar-slinging road rat. The Panic Channel's quintessentially modern-rock debut album, "(ONe)," has a couple of songs -- the ballad "Why Cry," the rave-up "Teahouse of the Spirits" -- that could reestablish Navarro as an artist as well as a celebrity. But it's hard to figure how he's going to fit its likely success into his schedule.

Rocker of all trades

The past half-decade has seen Navarro venture into every likely pop field except acting and (this one has to be coming) fashion design. He published "Don't Try This at Home," a disturbingly frank account of his drug struggles, co-written with Neil Strauss, and released a moody solo album, "Trust No One," chronicling the same period; he's played "Jingle Bells" Hendrix-style in a Gap ad and performed with artists as disparate as Christina Aguilera, Jay Z, Michael Jackson and his "Supernova" buddy Tommy Lee. Like all Hollywood entrepreneurs, Navarro's also invested in a nightspot -- Rokbar, in partnership with Lee -- and played celebrity poker. His all-star cover band, Camp Freddy, still draws a crowd, and plenty of famous guest vocalists after five years.

On those few nights he spends at home, Navarro hosts an Internet radio broadcast, Spread Radio Live, linked to 6767.com, his friendly, smart and frequently updated blog. And most famously, his (currently dissolving) marriage to fellow pop star-of-all-trades Carmen Electra was chronicled in the cuddly 2003 MTV reality show "Til Death Do Us Part," which showed America that a guy who wears fishnet shirts and digs porn can write his own vows and cry when saying them, helped him cultivate the accessible aura he projects on "Rock Star."

Sobriety often makes its lucky recipients very energetic, so Navarro's spurt of activity isn't that surprising. It's his all-around success that speaks volumes about the current rock zeitgeist. When he first gained national fame with Jane's Addiction in the late 1980s, the Santa Monica native was a shaggy-haired half-goth, half-hippie kid whose style bridged Led Zeppelin and the Cure. In those days, such differences mattered: Jane's Addiction posed a major challenge to the genre-bound ideas that had overtaken rock, filtering heavy metal through post-punk experimentalism, all in service of a sensibility that was pure Southern California freak. Perry Farrell, the band's singer and self-taught prophet, surrounded the band's gutter anthems in a swirl of lyrical references that connected it to the most exciting undergrounds of the time: the neo-psychedelia that would result in the desert happening Burning Man, the surf-and-skateboard culture of Venice Beach and beyond, and the proudly kinky eroticism of the "techno-shamanistic" subculture known as "Modern Primitive."

Jane's Addiction, which Rhino Records will honor with a retrospective set in September, challenged the bimbos-and-beer conservatism that had crept into hard rock in the '80s and put forth a vision of what rock might be if it were artistically riskier, but still arena-level ambitious. Its speculations -- and the festival, Lollapalooza, that Farrell and the band founded 15 years ago -- helped turned punk into alternative and set the stage for 1990s titans Nirvana and Pearl Jam. And as Jane's Addiction developed, so did Navarro -- his guitar playing getting more adventurous, his personal style blossoming as he became a symbol of Modern Primitive sexiness.

In the 1990s, Navarro's path paralleled that of alternative rock, whose amorphousness made it a gateway for anything considered too weird for the mainstream. His brief stint in the Chili Peppers typified his midcareer persona. "One Hot Minute," the only Chili Peppers album upon which Navarro appears, marked a new sense of exploration for the band, featuring a dreamier, more pensive sound.

Though the album did well on the charts, many thought it a dangerous detour -- and that wariness was fed by the video for the single "Warped," in which Navarro and singer Anthony Kiedis shared a soul kiss that some fans found unsettling. He ultimately couldn't fit into this quintessentially frat-boy band and left because of "artistic differences" and his worsening drug habit. He sank into rock's background.

It's strange synchronicity that during Navarro's dark period, "alternative rock" also headed into crisis. Kurt Cobain was several years dead and the other bands that had shifted the mainstream began to fall into disarray. Soundgarden disbanded, then Rage Against the Machine, Hole and Smashing Pumpkins. Britney Spears and the boy bands took over the charts, and hip-hop became the new source of "weird" ideas for the mainstream. Lollapalooza took a six-year hiatus; Farrell's attempt to organize a new festival, Enit, failed; and the Jane's Addiction 2002 reunion tour felt like a really great nostalgia trip.

As rock moved from the center of the pop cosmos to a more balanced position as one of many galaxies, a new kind of rock star was needed -- one who wouldn't cling too heavily to any one set of artistic or even moral preferences, instead embodying a flexibility that suited the new, multi-platform musical marketplace. This rock star would need to display a strong personal style and sense of integrity -- rock still being the territory where people act out their fantasies of nonconformity and rebellion -- but he'd have to be cool with sharing, across musical genres and theoretical divides. The underground mantra "no sellout" gave way to the Internet's constant chances to "hook up" (not to mention hip-hop's mandate to be a money-making "baller"), and rock's surviving kingpins would need to frankly enjoy their encounters with the mainstream, while still retaining that freaky aura that has always infused the genre.

Star for a new galaxy

That's Navarro. A clean-living fitness nut who appreciates a lap dance but likes it even better when he can share it with his wife (or so we believed until a couple of weeks ago, when the two "best friends" split), he has turned the rock lifestyle into something sustainable and surprisingly healthy. Next to his fellow "Supernova" judges, he's the sexiest, with the most open-minded attitude. Tommy Lee is old-school, a panting puppy with a good heart but not a lot of savvy. Guitarist Gilby Clarke seems like the nice married dad that he is, while bassist Jason Newsted appears to be trying to engage in the therapy he avoided by quitting Metallica before the band famously hit the couch -- together.

Navarro, by comparison, comes off like a made-for-TV golden god: funny, reasoned, jovially lascivious toward the women and paternally tough on the men -- this is still rock, after all, and mostly a man's world -- but ultimately in control of his wagging tongue. Navarro has principles, fairly standard ones: be original, show passion, let go and get wild. But he knows that each of the contestants will realize these goals differently. He's not afraid to encourage them to be weird and commercial. And his advice resonates across the board.

Having jammed with many of hip-hop's biggest players and goth and punk's most illustrious pioneers -- not to mention the King of Pop -- Navarro gets that rock will not survive as the separate sphere its stalwarts pretended it was back when "alternative," that corrupting idea, challenged its solidifying traditions. He's even been showing a bit more of his Latino roots, which never fit in very well in his previous guises, by bonding ever so cautiously with "Rock Star's" most intriguing contestant, the Puerto Rican punk chanteuse Zayra Alvarez. (I hope he produces her record!)

Navarro's embodiment of the commercial rock aesthetic shows the kind of range and humility the genre needs right now. If he actually played in Supernova, the group would probably be able to consider a wider array of potential singers. And it would definitely be a better band.

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