Take Two: Inger Lorre returns from the edge and/or New Jersey with the finest album of her infamous career By Steve Appleford (from New Times Los Angeles)

Things fall apart. That's no surprise to Miss Inger Lorre -- the notorious Inger Lorre -- now sane and sober, closing this decade in a far different state of mind than she began it. The era of grunge has come and gone, as has metal, along with her unwelcome title as "the female Axl Rose." No one needs a label like that, not even as a convenient marketing scheme. But for a brief moment, she was headed for that kind of infamy as the glorious banshee of the Nymphs, a band of raw power and reckless swagger, of horror and hilarity. There are the legends, all true: the incendiary interviews, the onstage sex acts, the urine-soaked desk at Geffen Records. But it was also a time that saw the overdose of her fianc?, her own descent into addiction, and the public meltdown of her band before hardly anyone had heard the brutal roar of its music.

This is the reputation Lorre, just 29 despite it all, carries with her still -- a reputation for dangerous madness she's unlikely to shake this lifetime. But sit with her today, fresh from self-imposed exile to the suburbs of New Jersey, and those stories of ultimate rock-and-roll decadence seem like cartoonish exaggeration, hardly relevant to an artist making the most sophisticated, penetrating work of her career. She can still laugh, painfully, at the lingering tales from her past, but ask her about the present and see her come alive. Arriving here took the better part of seven years; after the Nymphs imploded in 1992, there had been the occasional appearance at some Manhattan nightclub, even a high-profile gig opening for the confounding Courtney Love. And yet it wasn't until she was actively encouraged by such friends as Henry Rollins and the late Jeff Buckley that Lorre began seriously recording the music that resulted in the release next month of Transcendental Medication, her first album since abandoning the Nymphs. She has also been drug-free for the last 18 months, an achievement largely inspired by the sudden deaths of Buckley and her father. The new songs chart her escape from the edge, set against music true to both her punk lineage and a raw post-punk energy. The lyrics are mostly autobiographical, struggling with loss ("You ain't gotta pray for me/I got too many friends on the other side") and grim tales of the drug life ("Angel dust every day..."). One could hardly expect less.

"It was an extremely intense period in my life," Lorre says. "I didn't even know if I should release this album, because it was so personal. It's a little bit intense. I'm singing about my fianc? who died. I'm singing a song to my father, and he's dead and not coming back. I'm singing about my dealer who got killed by the Mexican gang; got his eyes cut out. That's real. My best friend who hung herself in high school. These things happened to me.

"Chopin's preludes were all dedicated to different women he loved and knew. And these are dedications to my friends, so people know these people lived and existed. A lot of these people weren't even buried; they were just cremated, they don't have tombstones. Nobody even knows they existed. They deserve to be remembered. Not all of my friends were Jeff Buckleys."

Lorre has been living out of a suitcase, staying in the upstairs apartment of friend Brian Grillo, the former singer and guitarist of Extra Fancy. It's early March, and she only returned to Los Angeles a week ago. She's been spending her nights in a small corner room overlooking the Echo Park lake, where she keeps a framed picture of her father and the small box filled with his ashes. The skateboard she uses to crisscross movie lots leans against a wall. And hanging nearby is a vintage painting of a World War II G.I. -- a smiling jarhead with a black eye.

A neighborhood coffee shop is already a regular hangout. During one recent visit there, she met an old man named Bill, who appeared to be homeless, dressed in worn shoes and old clothes. His white beard reminded Lorre of both Abraham Lincoln and her grandfather. In a few days, Lorre would be tending to him like one of her stray animals back in Jersey, driving him to Kmart for a pair of sneakers, socks, and a new shirt.

Lorre seems drawn to such elder figures; it was her great-grandmother, a woman who lived to 100, who first recognized young Inger's musical interests as a toddler in Matawan, New Jersey. In elementary school, she learned saxophone and later viola, violin, and bass -- the latter because it meant her mother had to drive her and the huge instrument to school every day. Next door lived the nephew of jazzman Stan Getz, whom Lorre eventually met as a nine-year-old.

But much of her childhood was marked by bad scenes and endless distractions. As a teen, she hung out with older stoner kids, who fed her acid, pot, and beer around bonfires deep in the woods. (She later recounted those days in the Nymphs' "Wasting My Days.") At age 14, she was drugged and raped by the older brother of one of those friends.

"It made me hate men," she says. "I hated my grandfather! This sweet little 70-year-old! Even my dad, who was like, 'You're changing, you're really getting nasty.' "

An abbreviated stint studying art at the Pratt Institute ultimately led her to Los Angeles in the late '80s at the invitation of her boyfriend Tony Kinman (the Dils, Rank and File, Blackbird). Once on the Hollywood club scene, she was inspired to join a band; the result, the Nymphs, quickly found favor among critics and club crawlers. Back then, her dream was merely to make an album for notoriously independent labels like SST or Alternative Tentacles. Instead, the Nymphs somehow became the subject of a label frenzy that eventually landed the band a $900,000 contract from Geffen.

Unfortunately for its members, the band was made to wait two years before recording an album. It was during those two years that the Nymphs' luck began to change. Geffen A&R man Tom Zutaut, who signed the band, discouraged them from playing shows, shows that tended toward the outrageous and had built the band's following. Then, in the midst of recording their debut, the producer was abruptly taken off the project. The reason: Axl Rose needed him. Now. It was then that Lorre entered the darker history of rock by storming angrily into Zutaut's office, mounting his desk with a bouquet of flowers in her hand, and urinating on his desk.

"I would never do something like that for shock value," she says. "I don't want that kind of publicity. I was finally making something of myself. I was just a stupid girl from New Jersey. I had nothing. I had no hopes of ever becoming anything. I got kicked out of art school, I got kicked out of four high schools.

"My experience with a major label was so horrible that I just didn't want to do it. It left a disgusting taste, and it wasn't even fun at home to play music because I just kept thinking about all the shit I went through."

Given such antagonisms, it's no small wonder The Nymphs came out at all. But by the time it did, in late 1991, Lorre had bigger problems: her longtime boyfriend, Chris Schlosshardt (bassist in the Sea Hags), died of a heroin overdose. The two had met at a party in Hollywood; despite the warnings of then-Circle Jerk Chris Morris ("This guy's gonna do you wrong, he's gonna fuck you up, he's a heroin addict"), Lorre fell in love. She, too, had begun using; Schlosshardt's death and the travails surrounding The Nymphs put her over the edge. In 1992, she broke up the band and moved back to New Jersey, addicted and alone.

"When Chris died, that's when I left," she says. "I know some people can go on and exploit their music off of a death. We live in an Enquirer society where everyone wants to read about what really happened. But for me, I stayed in bed for two years and cried, because that was the love of my life."

Things are quieter now, if not exactly quiet. Lorre is still filled with nervous energy. A moment ago she rushed into a Silver Lake coffee house, fresh from the Sony Studios lot across town, where she's spent her first week in L.A. working as a wardrobe stylist for a jeans commercial. A turquoise bandanna is wrapped around her straight red hair, cut at the jaw, bangs trimmed precisely along her eyebrows. And when she finally sits down with a cup of tea, she takes a seat beside her new manager, Mary Guibert -- Jeff Buckley's mother. And so it's inevitably the subject of Buckley that often dominates the conversation.

Lorre first met Buckley about four years ago at a bar in New York. Buckley was already enjoying some early acclaim for the epic, emotional rock of his 1994 album Grace; Lorre was finally beginning to get over Schlosshardt's death and the Nymphs debacle. When Buckley recognized her, he actually dropped to the floor to kiss her feet, expressing infinite admiration for the Zutaut desk-pissing incident.

"Do you know how many people want to do that?" Lorre remembers Buckley saying. "That was so cool!"

Four weeks after their first meeting, the two collaborated on a track for Kerouac -- Kicks Joy Darkness, a tribute album to the Beat poet and road master released in 1997. Soon Buckley was encouraging Lorre to record her own solo album and spent a week with her in a New Jersey studio, playing guitar and singing background vocals. Many of those same recordings are on Transcendental Medication, though Buckley's label, Columbia Records, demanded -- incredibly -- that Lorre remove his parts from all but one track on the album. And it was only Guibert's intervention that allowed Buckley to appear at all.

Lorre wipes away a tear with a paper napkin. They had been close, she says, and Lorre was staying at his New York apartment when he left for Memphis to work on his next album. A week later he drowned in the Mississippi.

"I was really depressed on the way over here," she says. "I don't have my friend to share it with. That's why I choked up and was crying. I can't call and say, 'Oh my God, can you believe we did this thing together?' "

As Lorre speaks, Guibert watches with a smile edged with grief. Her brown hair is cut short and plastic blue stars dangle from her earlobes. She's not only acting as Lorre's manager (until a permanent manager is found), but Guibert has also assumed a parental role in Lorre's life, her career, her sobriety. It was her urging that brought Lorre back to Los Angeles. And the purple van Lorre is driving was rented by Guibert. Her only experience as a talent manager, as she readily admits, was once being married to the late Tim Buckley; Lorre and Guibert met at a New York memorial for Jeff.

"Inger requires some hand-holding," says Guibert, a pack of slender cigarettes and a cell phone on the table in front of her. "And she deserves to have some special attention right now."

"Mary and I got to be really really good friends," Lorre says. "I even said jokingly, 'You should do it.' When she offered, I jumped at the chance. She's my friend, too. It's not just about the money. If I'm going to pay someone, I want it to be someone who really loves and cares about me."

Things fall apart. Not 10 days after they sat together in the coffee shop, Lorre and Guibert had an ugly falling out. Lorre has also moved out of Grillo's apartment. She accepts all this, and even finds inspiration for new material. But she says she'll likely return to her cat and her rabbit back in New Jersey soon. Hollywood tension hasn't waned since her last visit. And tonight she's staying with another friend, strumming an acoustic guitar as Hollywood Freeway traffic roars past her window. She sings: "The sun will rise and the sun will fall/You will ask 'Is that all?'/Who's gonna sing my song when I'm gone?" The renewed commitment to her music hasn't changed. And she's inevitably more prepared for whatever strange challenges that appear.

"The guy I did an interview with today, he was telling his whole life story: His dad and how he beat him, and how he didn't know if he was gay or straight, and this or that," she says. "He actually said to me, 'I've been waiting seven years to talk to you again. I have all these questions I want to ask you.' That really put me in a weird spot, you know? I want to be honest, but this guy is looking to me for some answers. A dope like me?"

Transcendental Medication flies in the face of such self-deprecations. Lorre's music has matured immeasurably in the seven years since the Nymphs, and her solo album is mostly free from the sludgier arena-rock sound of that first album. Its songs are accomplished, and they're delivered crisply with finesse -- from the raging two-minute punk nugget "Beautiful Dead" to the epic torch and terror of "It Could Happen to You." The old gothic rage of the Nymphs can be heard on "She's Not Your Friend," a cautionary tale clearly based on Cobain's addictions. A potent four-piece (led by guitarist Keith Hartel) backs Lorre for most of it, though some of its finest moments -- the sad and wistful "Sweet Release" -- find her picking up her acoustic guitar. The most notable tie to the past is the label releasing it: Triple XXX, which was originally set to issue a Nymphs album before Geffen stepped in. But the songs portray Lorre as she is today: a songwriter and musician who has learned from her past but isn't a slave to it.

And now, tonight, she's been convinced to attend a reunion of sorts, to witness an impossible shadow from her past. Just after midnight on a recent Wednesday, she arrives at the home of Lonn Friend, founding editor of the now-defunct RIP magazine and later a frustrated A&R man for Arista. Back on the night of February 28, 1992, Friend was in the crowd of an otherwise forgotten club show in Orange County, where the Nymphs faced a crowd heavy with rednecks shouting at Lorre to remove her shirt. And Friend was there with a video camera.

The image on the TV is often blurred, but Lorre can be seen calling her boyfriend up to the stage. His back is to the camera as the singer calmly pulls his black jeans down. In a moment, she's on her knees giving him a blowjob. Live onstage. A moment that turned out to be too much even for the rednecks who had been demanding her breasts all night. Friend's camera is shoved, and he can be heard yelling, "I can't see!" When the camera is steadied again, mayhem. Fights are breaking out on the floor. The crowd has gone over the edge. But Lorre sings, as if nothing at all remarkable has just occurred.

Seeing it now, Lorre is laughing and cringing. The image on the screen is somehow distant from the woman watching it. She offers the only possible explanation for what happened that night: "I was on heroin!" Those were the drug days -- outrageous and memorable. But the woman sitting here and her music are the better for their passing.