‘Been Caught Stealing’ is the most joyous song about criminal activity ever recorded. It’s spectacularly insolent and almost cartoonishly misanthropic, and it became the biggest hit for a band that sounded the horn for what came to be called “alternative rock” a year before Nirvana was blasting out of every radio in America.
The song is pure swagger. It’s got every inch of the bravado that you could see in Scarface or hear in Biggie Smalls, and the fact that it’s small time has little to do with how far the narrator is going to puff his chest out. My friend Chris Romaguera points out to me that there are plenty songs and movies celebrating the criminal lifestyle. ‘Been Caught Stealing’ is different from those other songs and films in that it’s about love of the criminal act itself.
The song follows a guy who loves petty theft. Really, truly loves it. He only got caught once, he tells us, when he was five, but apparently that didn’t dissuade him, as he now steals all the time. His girlfriend does too, even grabbing things for him while she’s out picking the shelves. And it’s so cheerful about this fact that you might think it’s lovely to hear a song about a couple with a shared interest.
By the time the last verse arrives, they’re sitting around a table with everything they stole, waving it in the air and laughing, before descending into a kind of self-centered, Daffy Duck luncay:
It’s mine mine,
Mine mine mine
Mine mine mine
I start smiling when I listen to that last bit. I can’t help myself. My siblings used to run an independent bookstore, and I saw shoplifters hurt them enough that I can’t view it as a victimless crime. The closest I ever got to crime was accidentally walking out of a store with a bag of magic markers after my mom sent me in with five bucks, and I was so scared after realizing I’d mistakenly stole something that I ran back in, convinced I was going to be arrested.
But I don’t think about that sort of thing while I’m in the middle of ‘Been Caught Stealing’s’ rolling bass line any more than I think about the consequences of car crashes while watching Baby Driver or the side effects on the employees of a robbed casino while I watch Ocean’s 11. Jane’s Addiction takes a simple criminal act and makes it a gas to participate in.
And that’s part of what makes the song great—the sense of fun. You can hear it in the masterstroke of putting the dog barks on the intro right after Dave Navarro’s two-chord riff (still one of the most distinctive intros in rock). You can see it in the incredibly goofy video that aired constantly on MTV, featuring a supermarket dance party, a cross dressing pineapple thief, and frontman Perry Farrell singing with pantyhose over his head.
For a lot of kids my age, that track was the first we heard of Jane’s Addiction, and it wasn’t until later that many of us realized how important they were to the wild directions rock and roll was about to take. They were comets coming out of Los Angeles, releasing two brilliant albums in 1988 (Nothing’s Shocking) and 1990 (Ritual de Lo Habitual), before cleaving themselves apart with the twin axes of drug use and ego trips.
In the meantime, you could argue they were the most influential act in the country. They framed the sound that would come to be called “alternative” over those two albums, essentially setting the table that Nirvana would kick over a year later. They battled with the always backward, pearl-clutching forces of Moral Codes, putting naked artwork on each album cover and, when the record companies insisted they remove it, putting a blank cover up with a quote from the First Amendment. And in 1991, Perry Farrell was a driving force behind the first Lollapalooza Tour, which was a cultural touchstone for music in the early 90’s, and the first music festival I remember my contemporaries clamoring for tickets to.
And they were good. Really good. Technically proficient, decadent, and unafraid of confrontation. They could get your head banging and then turn around and rip you in half. Just two tracks after ‘Been Caught Stealing’ on the album Ritual de Lo Habitual comes the dreamlike, shattering ‘Then She Did…’, Farrell’s account of the suicides of his girlfriend and his mother. It’s not shocking that both songs are brilliant, but it is shocking that they could transition from one subject and song to the other that fast and still make it work.
But when you get to ‘Been Caught Stealing,’ you’re still on the wild side of the album, and everything is dangerous fun. With the possible exception of ‘Razzle in My Pocket’ by Ian Dury and the Blockheads, I can’t think of another song that’s as pleased with it’s own criminal instincts as this one. Yes, they are small time instincts, but they have the same seed of fuck-the-rules ambition of Tony Montana and Gordon Gekko.
What they share is a fiendish delight in getting away with something, that they got what everyone told them they shouldn’t have. And maybe that’s the real hook of the song—the ability to participate in that fantasy. To think that we might be capable of doing something so brash and ballsy, without consequences for ourselves or others, and to imagine the joy we might feel in getting away with it.