From Hunter to Hunted

In his quest to free slaves around the world, Aaron Cohen thought hed seen it all. Then he went to Myanmar

"People were out of their minds on drugs, eating mushrooms and shooting heroin right in front of me," Cohen says. "I'd never seen anything like that before. One night, this band called Jane's Addiction came onstage. That's when I first saw Perry Farrell sing. He walked onstage wearing a corset and pantyhose and hypnotized the audience with his dancing. Then he stripped out of his costume, and at the break in the song, he emerged naked, with his arms outstretched like Jesus on the cross. All the girls began to go crazy. Perry began to sing. He took a few steps, and he walked right off the stage and onto the crowd like he was walking on the water. . . . People were screaming and crying as if they were witnessing something forbidden. It was straight out of Sodom and Gomorrah, and I had the sense that burning sulfur would rain down and destroy us all."

Two years later, Cohen was playing professional water polo in Argentina, surrounded by drugs and stunning women. "Temptation was everywhere," but Cohen says he chose the "straight and narrow," working out and remaining faithful to his college girlfriend—whom he planned to marry. Whenever he was home, Cohen would check out the scene at Scream, where he was on a nodding basis with Perry Farrell and his entourage.

One night, he got a call from Farrell's manager, Ted Gardner, who had seen a story in the Pepperdine student paper about a fiction award Cohen had won. Gardner introduced Cohen to Farrell, who was looking for a writer for an upcoming film project, and the two hit it off—seeing in each other, says Cohen, a kindred soul. At that point, Jane's Addiction's first album, Nothing's Shocking, had already brought the band international fame, and all of a sudden, Cohen found himself hired to brainstorm and contribute to the film, which would eventually become Gift, Farrell's semiautobiographical love-and-drug story.

Click photo to go to slideshow.
Click photo to go to slideshow.

Cohen spent half his time in Latin America, playing water polo, and the other months in LA, working for Farrell. For the band's second album, Ritual de lo Habitual, Cohen traveled to the Amazon to learn about Santería and Candomblé magical rituals: "I'd go into villages and document what I saw. Sometimes animals were sacrificed. I saw people drink blood. There was a lure to the dark side—it unsettled me. I would hear the voice of my mother: 'You are Aaron Cohen; you don't belong here.'"

But after his girlfriend left him for another man, Cohen decided that Farrell's tribe was the only place he did belong. He moved into an apartment down the block from the Jane's Addiction compound in Venice and was promoted to executive director of an enterprise that already included Lollapalooza, Porno for Pyros and the ENIT Festival. Cohen's job involved everything from answering phones to dreaming up lyrics. "Some mornings, Perry and I would swim and surf and talk about mysticism and magic," he says. "At night, we'd get high and work on ideas, music and art."

Soon Farrell was introducing Cohen as his best friend. "There I was," Cohen says, "this tall, lanky kid from Orange County living the rock-star life." He was partying with Kurt Cobain, Slash, Flea, Thom Yorke, Jello Biafra—but the drugs quickly started to take their toll. Farrell was strung out, too; he had dreamed up Lollapalooza as a farewell tour for his band.

Around that time, Cohen got a call from his estranged father, asking him to put their differences aside and come home. His mother's cancer had come back, and she was dying. Aaron returned to her side, enrolled in a master's program at nearby Vanguard University, a Christian-based school, and began studying Hebrew and the Bible—again. Trying to go "from a rock-star life to a monastic one" was not easy, particularly because he was by that time addicted to heroin.

Nonetheless, that year he managed to finish a thesis on the Jubilee, what he now calls the "life raft" that offered a larger purpose for his life. Jubilee was a biblical festival during which the wealthy freed their slaves and forgave debt, and it gave Cohen the idea that he might be able to launch a contemporary musical version. While reading the Torah, he also stumbled upon the story of Aaron and the golden calf, which he had read before without catching what he now saw as a personal allegory: "By running away with the Jane's Addiction circus, I'd gone away to worship the golden calf. Now, it was time to find my way back."

Cohen stops suddenly. "Are you hungry?" he asks.
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American schoolkids are taught that slavery was wiped out with the Confederacy in 1865. But today it is a mounting international menace—the dark side, many believe, of globalization and the Internet explosion. Not to be confused with smuggling (which is always transnational and includes those who consent to the process), human trafficking implies the use of force, fraud or coercion and often involves ongoing exploitation. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, it is tied with the illegal-arms industry as the second-largest illegal business in the world, after drug dealing.

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