by Jenny Conn
Those of us who lived the Akron area’s hair metal glory days know Jani Lane’s story well. We followed him through his early bands at the Akron Agora, Ramone’s, Filthy McNasty’s in Kent and Peabody’s Down Under in the Flats. We were wild with pride when he went to L.A. and the rest of the world caught on to his talent. And when Lane’s star rocketed in the mid-80s with Warrant we all took the ride with him.
On June 18, the Akron Civic Theater hosts a tribute to this hometown boy, which benefits Lane’s two daughters and was put together by friends who loved and respected him from his childhood in Brimfield to his untimely death at 47 years old. The headliner is Cinderella’s Tom Keifer, with special guest Joey D of Liquid and former Warrant guitarist Billy Morris playing the band’s hits.
Lane, born John Oswald, died unexpectedly in California in August 2011. The details of his death are sketchy at best yet widely reported. But this isn’t a story about his tragic end. It’s about a local boy who made good; a boy who instinctively knew how to meld his natural talent and fierce dedication to make it to the rock ‘n roll big time.
Young rockers in Brimfield
Randy Arehart first met John Oswald at the age of 15. Oswald went to Field and Arehart, who is co-organizing the tribute, went to Mogadore. The boys met through youth football leagues and rival bands. In those days, young rockers had plenty of local talent shows to play.
“We were the kids wearing bandanas out of our back pockets and gigantic combs,” Arehart says. “We were wearing spandex with leg warmers back when we were 16 years old.”
Tall and athletic, Oswald was a talented quarterback, got excellent grades in school and was already dedicated to music. The youngest child in a large musical family, Oswald was turned onto the Beatles classics by his older brother, Eric, which fine-tuned his ear for melody. Oswald would often be found after school sitting on his bed, guitar in hand, picking out melodies with catchy hooks.
“When you walked into his room when he was just learning to play acoustic, you felt he had been playing for a long time,” Arehart says. “He also played piano and he was a most incredible drummer.”
The boys listened to the Babies, AC/DC and Bachman Turner Overdrive. Although music was the focus, they sometimes cut loose, scoring Canei wine, which they’d drink by the railroad tracks in Mogadore or out behind White’s Fish Farm. Sometimes they’d set up a card table in the yard and play poker, Monopoly or Life.
But beyond Oswald’s musical skill, there was something different about him.
“You just knew being around him—his aura, his presence— he was going to be the leader of the team, the driver of the car and he was going to be a superstar,” Arehart says. “He thought the whole thing through and he was going to do whatever it took to make his dreams come true.”
Quick rise to stardom
Graduating from high school in 1982, Oswald had a football scholarship to Kent State University but he chose music instead. His band Cyren was gaining prominence, opening for popular bands such as Risque at McNasty’s and the Agora. Cyren soon made way for the band Dorian Gray.
Oswald moved to Florida in 1983, still drumming in Dorian Gray until Risque front man Dave Brooks advised him to get out from behind the drums and sing. Oswald followed Brooks’ advice. He formed Plain Jane with future Warrant drummer Steven (Chamberlin) Sweet, adopted the stage name Jani Lane and the two moved to L.A. By 1986, Plain Jane was a well-known act on the Strip.
According to local legend, Lane and Sweet were considering moving back to Florida when they came back to their rehearsal studio to find a note on the door from Warrant founder Erik Turner, asking them to jam with his band. Warrant was already gaining notoriety and by 1987, Lane and Sweet had joined a band on the rise.
True to his roots, Lane always came home for holidays, making appearances at his old haunts, Ramone’s and heavy metal Sunday nights at McNasty’s. That’s where Morris first met Lane, when a soundman pointed Lane out telling Morris, “That guy’s going to be a superstar.”
Local musicians all knew Lane was on the move. “He used to come watch us at Ramone’s and play foosball with us,” said John Stevens, Autumn’s Ruin guitarist. “It was an exciting time for our scene. He got signed. It gave us all pride and hope….”
With videos playing a huge role in music, Lane’s good looks and songwriting prowess contributed significantly to Warrant’s success. Signed by Columbia in 1988, Warrant’s first album, “Dirty Rotten Filthy Stinking Rich,” had four hit singles. Among them, “Heaven,” a song Lane had written at 17, charted at 2 on the Billboard 200. Lane wrote most of the bands big hits, including “Cherry Pie,” “Down Boys” and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” co-written with his brother Eric.
Prior to the debut album, Warrant did a pre-release tour that brought the band to Peabody’s. At the time, Morris’s band Spoyld was the biggest glam metal band in Cleveland and a natural opening act for Warrant. On that tour, Lane and Morris, who was in Warrant from 1999 to 2006, began a friendship that lasted to the end of Lane’s life.
About the same time, Arehart got a surprise call from Lane asking a favor. The song “Down Boys” was in a competition on MTV and Lane wanted his old friends to call and vote for the song to make the countdown. “I said whatever you want brother, let’s make it happen,” he says. “Back then you were still flyering telephones poles and stores, doing whatever you could to get the word out.”
It worked. Arehart was starstruck when a few days later the video aired and there was his childhood buddy John on MTV.
Love of friends, family and sports
Friendship mattered to Lane and he was passionate about Ohio sports. A favorite memory for Morris is going with Lane in 1993 to a Browns game against the Redskins: “It was a driving ice storm and he said to me, ‘I would rather be here right now than at the Led Zeppelin reunion.’”
Lane also wanted his friends to be successful. In the early years, whenever Warrant was coming to town, Lane would give Morris the heads up to book a gig for his own band. Then Lane would announce from the stage of the Richfield Coliseum that after the show the band was going to the bar Morris’s band was playing.
“There would be like 2,000 people there,” Morris said. “The band would come up and destroy our equipment for an hour and we would love it.”
Even when the grunge scene moved in and metal began to lose momentum, Warrant continued recording and touring. But the lifestyle was taking a toll on Lane. He brought Morris into the fold in 1999, in part because he needed someone from home he could relate to.
“He loved L.A., he loved that superstar mentality, but he got me in the band so he could relate to someone,” Morris says. “He wanted me because I could relate to the Buckeyes, the Browns, the Indians and we could watch sports and room together and really live Ohio.”
Morris was able to help keep the partying down. “We did our customary Crown and Coke before we walked on stage but it wasn’t that binge drinking,” he says. “They wanted me to keep him straight, which I did.”
He remembers when a New Year’s Day show in New Jersey was cancelled because of a snow storm, closing the airports.
“He wanted to see his kids so badly, we rented a car and drove home,” Morris says. “We got lost in Philadelphia and at midnight we’re sitting in the car, it’s snowing and we’re eating cheesesteaks.”
The last time Morris saw Lane was in February 2011 when he looked fit and seemed clear. He and Morris had been planning a summer tour with an all-Cleveland band and had high hopes for the summer. But it never happened.
“I loved the guy like a brother,” Morris says. “I owe him everything because he made my rock-and-roll dreams come true.”
A few months before Lane’s death, Arehart was in L.A. He got a pass to be on set of “That Metal Show” the day Lane was to be there.
“I asked him to come home,” he remembers. “I was offering words like a father. But I could see the grasp of where we’d been some 30 years before was a gray area, a cloud in his memory.”
“It hit me that I lost a childhood buddy,” he says. “I only saw the things the guy ever did that were great. He was a hometown guy. He loved life and loved his children. He was the most magnetic guy.”
A few Lane tribute events on the West Coast have been held in bars. Arehart and Morris want this tribute show to honor Lane’s life in the right way.
“We’re doing this at the Civic,” Arehart says. “It’s theater, not a bar and it‘s seven miles from where the guy grew up.”
The Jani Lane Tribute show is Thursday, June 18 at 7:30 p.m. Buy tickets online at ticketmaster.com or call 330-253-2488.