1991 December SPIN

Thank you to Kathie Davis for the transcript.

IT’S 2:00 A.M. AT THE LISTENING PARTY FOR THE new Red Hot Chili Peppers album Blood Sugar Sex Magik, and I’m kneeling before Rick Rubin.  Perched on the Sphinx-like producer’s shoulder, in the Hollywood moonlight, is his latest client, Peppers bass player Flea, whose staring green eyes glow out of the shadows.  Suddenly, the bouncers dispatch a reveler headfirst down the mansion’s stone steps with unnecessary roughness.  Rubin and Flea don’t notice.  Unsmilingly, they wonder why I’ve come to the party but haven’t come to interview them.  I explain I’ll be getting to that later, but Flea keeps bitching about how it better be a cover story.

It was one of those times when I wished I had bigger balls and had said:  “Look Flea, you were on the cover a year ago, and you didn’t even deserve it then.  Why?  Because you and your band, more than any other band in rock, have failed to actualize your potential, that’s why.  And now Warner is paying you 5.7 million bones for three albums?  Give me a break.  All that dough spent, all that stink raised, and all that ink spilled, and you’ve come up with what, one gold album?  You’re just like your boy Agassi, who never wins the big ones, now does he?  In fact, you shouldn’t have pimped for Nike with him, you should have been in his ad for Canon, saying ‘Image Is Everything.’  ‘Cause that’s all you are: tube steaks in tube socks, flexed pecs and strained necks, punk ‘n’ funk ‘n’ junk.  So yo bro’, take all that crap and shove it up yer tattooed ass!”

A FEW WEEKS LATER SOME FRIENDS TAKE ME TO A QUIET barbecue at Anthony Kiedis’s white box Bau-house up near the Hollywood sign.  We’re asked to take off our shoes before entering.  When introduced, I don’t identify myself as a writer.  Kiedis’s mom is there, as is actress Ione Skye, Kiedis’s old girlfriend.  She’s with her new boyfriend, Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz, but this doesn’t appear to bother Kiedis.

The party is L.A., very ‘90s.  There are no drugs or drink, only Hansen’s Natural Soda and the American Spirit cigarettes Kiedis smokes which contain only “natural tobaccos.”  I talk to a gray-beard with leathery skin and tattoos who turns out to be “Dr. Detox,” rehab consultant to the stars.  In Keeping with this mood, Doug Feiger of the Knack shows up and, smiling beatifically, hugs Bob Forrest of Thelonious Monster.  “Have you gotten high today?”  Feiger asks with very L.A., very ‘90s concern.

Flea arrives, grumpy with tonsillitis.  He doesn’t remember me from the listening party but scowls nonetheless.

I finally face the Peppers some weeks later, over dinner at a Santa Monica Boulevard restaurant called Dan Tana’s.  The place is filled with 50-year-olds – it’s all mahogany walls, burgundy leather booths, and muted lighting.  The kind of place where comedian Richard Belzer feels at home.  (When we left, he leapt up and crowed, “Hey guys, remember me?  Alan Thicke Show, ’83.”)

Into this setting walks guitarist John Frusciante with a Mohawk.  Then in comes Flea with his crew cut augmented by a Matterhorn spiral that makes him look like Mr. Softee.  The maitre d’ frowns at his tank-top undershirt, and a mustard yellow busboy tunic is retrieved from the kitchen.  Flea grumbles but puts it on, and we squeeze into a booth, joined by drummer Chad Smith, who doesn’t take off his baseball cap.

Flea beats on the table like an infant.  Frusciante smells like Magic Johnson after the game, and I’m like, here we go again.  But no, as our conversation unfolds it becomes apparent that the Chili Peppers are neither as menacing as they appear nor as fit.

Smith:  Are you lifting weights?

Flea:  I was gonna bulk up for the tour and lifted for three days, but then…

SPIN: Do you guys actually tune up before a tour?

Kiedis: When we were younger we didn’t have to worry.

Flea: Only with this tour have I started jogging – something I swore I’d never do.

Smith: We just shot our video and after jumping around for three minutes, I was out of breath.

Kiedis: I was so happy when I saw you out of breath.

AND I WAS SO HAPPY TO SEE THE PEPPERS ADMIT TO BEING MERE MORTALS (the resulting video for “Give It Away” even reveals Kiedis’s slight spare tire).  Not all of the 17 tracks on their new album were sounding good yet.  (Indeed, for all the hoopla around Rick Rubin’s production and recording in the mansion, the first cut, “The Power of Equality,” sounds positively terrible.)  But at least I still had an appetite for interviewing them each in their own habitat, hopefully with their faces in repose – and not contorted into the goofy masques of a thousand photo ops.

Chad Smith’s house has the same kind of white wool Berber rug as Kiedis’s, but he doesn’t ask me to remove my shoes.  He’s just been working on his Harley and is now sipping a Corona.  His T-shirt says NEW KIDS ON THE COCK.  In the ‘70s, it would have said DISCO SUCKS.

“The Chili Peppers need someone to kick their ass,” he says with a laugh.  “The first time we jammed I was yelling at Flea: ‘Come on!  Fuck!  Piss! Doom!”  Even they were like, What the Fuck?!”  Nowadays, Smith goofs along with the Peppers antics and is careful to include himself in their harmonious new “fuckin’ vibe.”  Nonetheless, he has distinctly different roots from the others.

“I’m from the Midwest,” he points out.  “I have good morals.  I was a fuckin’ peanut-butter-and –jelly guy, really involved in sports.  More on the normal side.”  That normalcy is manifested in his loud, no-nonsense drumming.  “I think I bring a rock element to the band,” he admits.

For while Frusciante loved the Germs, Kiedis dug Grandmaster Flash, and Flea found the funk, Smith had… uh, Kiss.  “The picture on the back of Kiss Alive, taken at Cobo Hall?  I was there.  In the 12th row.  The picture is of the 16th row.  It was the coolest thing.”

In the same way that Smith loves meeting “youngsters” now that he’s a star, he still enjoys meeting his own heroes – or at least some of them.  “I met Peter Criss and he took me by the arm, he was really cool.  Then I met Ace [Frehley}, and it was really sad.  And another time, when we met Gene [Simmons] and Paul [Stanley], John accidentally spit gum into Gene’s hair.  He was like [imitationg Gene’s basso profundo], ‘Don’t touch it!’  I think he wears a wig or something.  They were such assholes.

“But the coolest thing I’ve done recently – wait, let me show you.”  He takes me into his living room and puts in a video of him playing the national anthem prior to a Pistons-Hawks game in his hometown Detroit.  The performance is simply Chad Smith banging away to an album version of the anthem.  Afterward, he stumbles over his kit, as Isiah Thomas and Dominique Wilkins crack up.

Smith:  Anthony, tell him about my first audition.

Kiedis:  Chad walks in, looking like the geek he is, and he starts playing like a pair of 200-pound gorilla testicles.  And we all just start laughing.

Flea:  It reminds me of when my stepdad, a jazz musician, had these jam sessions at our house.  My reaction was always to just laugh hysterically.

(Egged on by Flea, everyone but Frusciante orders the most expensive entre, a $36 lobster dish.  Frusciante opts for the manicotti.  We talk about punk, which prompts the band to open up about their childhoods.)

Kiedis:  I was a complete freak of nature as a kid.

SPIN:  This is a great place!

Kiedis:  I used to come here with my father.  He was the King of Hollywood.  I’d hang with Keith Moon, who’d put his arm around me.

MEANWHILE, KIEDIS CALLS CHAD SMITH’S PLACE WONDERING where I am.  “Flavor Flav’s up here, man.  You’re missing it!”  So Smith hops on his Harley to escort me to Kiedis’s, and sure enough Flavor Flav’s there with his new Buckwheat minidreads.  Kiedis excitedly tells of how Flav played the new Public Enemy, then asked to hear the new Peppers – and then went wild with his knock-kneed routine. “It was a really nice exchange,” Kiedis says.  “The mutual admiration society was in full effect.”

Like the previous barbecue, this is a low-key affair.  Sure, Kiedis plays Marco Polo in the pool with two topless British girls, but this is not your stereotypical Tinseltown bacchanalia.  Skye, sans Adam Horovitz, plays with her T-shirt on.  Finally we settle in Kiedis’s spare white bedroom under one of his many Robert Williams paintings – this one depicts a Visigoth vixen bitch straddling the unicorn she’s just killed and sawing off its horn.

Not surprisingly, Kiedis moved out to Hollywood, where he and his dad shared a small apartment that rocked every night with “fights, drugs, and lots of guys and girls getting crazy.”  Father and son would also hit the town, where they “got the red carpet treatment at all the clubs.  He was making a lot of money dealing and constantly paying people to take care of him.  We’d have these matching pinstripe suits and hang out with Moon or Alice Cooper.”

While Hollywood was a ‘magic kingdom” and his dad was both ‘his best friend” and a good parent (“each week he’d give me a new book and little vocabulary quizzes’), Kiedis realizes his unusual upbringing was a “double-edged sword.”  “It got me off to such an early start.  I was like decadence and debauchery.”

Was is the key word, because for three years now Kiedis has been clean.  The death by heroin overdose of the band’s original guitarist, Hillel Slovak, still haunts him and informs” My Lovely Man,” the one new cut, with its violent and sad grooves, that grows on you most.  “I was in my room, missing Hillel, and I just started crying uncontrollably for hours.  Even when I went outside, I couldn’t stop, so I wrote that song.”

As a result of his shock over Slovak’s death and his own experience kicking the habit, Kiedis has developed an almost vigilant feel-good philosophy.  Everything’s groovy.  Even death “can be a beautiful thing,” while smoking cigarettes is “a really wonderful part of life.”  And just as press accounts of his tiff with Faith No More’s Mike Patton were exaggerated, so were the reports of his breakup with lone Skye.

None of the three new acoustic love songs are for her, he insists. I believe him, but it’s weird.  Kiedis is at once open and oddly defensive.  When I express my belief that even with this solid new album, things have yet to dovetail for the Peppers, he deadpans, “There’s something beautiful about a dovetail with a few feathers missing.  It’s the imperfections in life that are really interesting.”

Maybe it’s just a personality quirk.  Like his taste for acupuncture (“it’s the generation of nerves, which is the generation of life”), and tattoos (“the ultimate beautification of the body”).  But it’s the tattoos, in fact, that brought Kiedis’s sometimes perplexing mix of new age philosophy and libertine bravado into better focus.  On the right shoulder is the warrior, Sitting Bull, and on the left is the pacifist, Chief Joseph.  In the middle, right near his heart, is where he gets this urge to fight like a brave – and be a prince of peace as well.

Flea: It’s great when a star takes you under his arm.  I played as a kid and went to see Dizzy Gillespie once.  He put his arm around me real tight for like fifteen minutes – right until he went onstage.  It was the most exciting fucking thing in my life.

Frusciante:  He felt the vibration – that one day you’d be a musical god.

Kiedis:  Not only that, but if you hold a little kid, it inspires them.

Smith:  It leaves a lasting impression on a youngster.  I love meeting little kids, man.

SPIN:  Sounds like you’re mellowing.  Is that true for you, John – you’re just a “youngster” yourself.

Frusciante:  I’m twenty-one, but my dick’s older and wrinklier than theirs.

Smith:  His dick looks like a pizza.

Kiedis:  Bear in mind John used to be a complete social outcast.  He was a character out of a John Waters film without a John Waters film to be in.

Smith:  Tell him about the cuddles.

SPIN:  John, what about the cuddles?

Smith:  Heh-heh.

Frusciante:  I had a friend, and if one of us had to pass gas, we’d say, “Cuddle!”  And the one guy would stick his nose against the other’s asshole.  You got the purest smell of gas undiluted by air molecules.

(On that note, dinner is served.)

JOHN FRUSCIANTE’S CARPET IS STAINED WITH PAINTS, AND HIS PRIMITIVist paintings litter the room.  He gives me a cup of coffee and tells me what life was like as a nine-year-old who “cuddled” and listened to Germs albums.   “When I was nine I had romantic dreams about what it would be like to be bisexual,” he says.  “The point is, I’m weird.  But I never felt weird.”

Like any other kid, Frusciante says, “I started out playing sports, but those people had taken all the fun out of it with their leagues.  I realized punk wasn’t a competitive thing.  It was your war against those fucking average white, suburban, bland idiots who were destroying the world.  That rage connected so fucking well with me.  During the last weeks I played baseball, I sat out in right field making up punk songs about how much I hated the pitcher – he was the stud, so handsome and everything, and I thought he should die.”

The young Frusciante subsequently locked himself in his room for 15 hours at a time and, legend has it, actually learned to play by listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers.  Nowadays Frusciante is still wary of normal folk.  He refuses to drive, and his few friends are mostly the guys in Thelonious Monster and Two Free Stooges.  Tempering his punk rage, however, is a hippy-dippy vibe (he’s the one who said “we hug each other a lot” in the band’s latest press release).  And while he insists that “I have no fucking ideas, man,” he is, in fact, one giant repository of modernisms like:  “I’m currently listening to something called Music Improvisation Company, which uses no actual keys or chord changes.”

Sometimes he takes this stuff too far.  “It’s a wordless state I’m in,” he says, [Soft Break]as if outer space were walking through a room outlined like a person.”

Hmm, sounds like that Peter Gabriel video…

“I love early Genesis,” he blurts out.

“But I thought you were punk…”

“Yeah, but a lot of the people who started punk in L.A. Loved progressive rock.  At that time it was the only shit around that was weird.  Yes, King Crimson, I love that shit.”

This kind of ultra-openmindedness is reflected in the spectrum of sounds Frusciante captures on the new LP: from the strong melody line in title tract to the chicken scratching on “If You Have to Ask” to the Robert Fripp – type backward solo on ‘Give It Away” to the “The Greeting Song,” which sounds suspiciously like “The Song Remains the Same.”

Frusciante switches off my recorder and whispers, “Achilles’ Last Stand.”

Then he starts in again with the air molecules.  Commenting on Rick Rubin’s favorite band, Nine Inch Nails, he says, “The way the air molecules are set up when they’re playing, I don’t appreciate it at all.  They’re bratty and don’t seem to have any respect for the humbleness of Robert Johnson.”

One could argue that the Peppers are pretty bratty themselves, but at least Frusciante has no lack of appreciation for the matters.  Listening to legendary bluesman Kansas Joe, he goes into an amazingly convincing strained-neck-and-clenched-jaw punk pantomime.  Sure it may be an act, but it comes off real.  What those people did was out there.  Out!  That’s the fucking outest shit!”

His voice quivering with emotion, Frusciante has either made a believer or a sucker out of me.  Probably both.

Flea:  If Anthony didn’t come to school, I wouldn’t know what to do.  I’d pretend to get something out of my locker, walk around, go back to my locker.

SPIN:  So up onstage, what comes out are all those years of pretending to look in your locker?

Flea: I can’t intellectualize it, but my fear of 0dealing with people has something to do with my aggressiveness onstage.

(Such trademark tantrums – read:  being assholes – have given way to what Flea calls the “more relaxed feel” of the new album.  Blood Sugar Sex Magik was recorded not in a studio but in the big stone mansion where the listening party was held – where the Beatles first took acid and where everyone from Valentino to Hendrix have allegedly lived.  But isn’t this just a latter day version of Eno and U2 recording in and Irish castle, that lamest of all mid-‘80s idiocies?)

Flea:  No, because you go into some studio, and for all you know, Poison or fucking Loverboy could’ve been in the day before puttin’ their vibe down and blowing your whole scene.

SPIN:  And you have these precious new acoustic songs—

Flea:  It wasn’t like we said, “Let’s do an acoustic song,  “We still want to explode in your face, but there are other emotions we want to express.

CONTRARY TO MY FIRST IMPRESSION, FLEA’S A FRIENDLY GUY, EVEN WHEN I wake him for an interview at 11:00 the next morning.  One of Magic Johnson’s size-14 sneakers hangs over a door like a horseshoe, and a display case gives way to reveal a secret room, “the reason I bought the house.”  Flea gleefully shows me a stain on the wall, courtesy of his three-year-old daughter Clara.  “She recently shit on the floor and smeared it all over the walls.  That’s art.”

Flea’s separated from his wife and sees Clara only three days a week, but that’s enough.  “If I’m depressed, she makes me happy.  I’d do anything for her.”  Confident enough to realize that “I have nothing to prove,” he’s toned down his act and is level-headed enough to put some perspective on the Peppers’ new dewy-eyed vibe which is, well, “Hokey?” he asks.

“It is,” I insist.

“Look,” he replies calmly, “John said we hug each other a lot, and suddenly we’re all happy and flowers blooming.  Fuck that.  We love each other, but we argue all the time.”  Fair enough.  But if Flea sounds mature and at peace with himself, it was not always so.

“I was just scared of people,” he says of his high school years.  “The whole concept of asking girls on dates completely terrified me.”  Consequently, he would shave his head just to be silly and once climbed with Kiedis onto this billboard where “we shook our cocks at everybody.”  Needless to say, he “thought people would like me if I was crazy and that girls would talk to me if I was in a band” – and he was right.

He eventually joined the punk band Fear, landed a part in the movie Suburbia, “and had a whole new social world opened up to me.”  He also became kind of a jerk.

“To this day I really regret our inability to deal with the producer on our first record, Andy Gill.  He’s say, ‘Why don’t you try this?’  And we’d scream, ‘Fuck you, man, that sounds like shit!’  We even took a shit right out of the toilet and put it on the mixing board.  We were really terrible.”

Coincidentally, Flea recently had a chance to exorcise that particular ghost.  “Actually, I saw Andy last night, but I was too scared to bring it up.”

But it’s the thought that counts, and Flea appears to be through playing tough guy for the time being.  Or as he puts it, “I love having the tattoos, but I don’t like the pain.”

Tattoo talk prompts Flea to find the connection between Henry Rollins and the late Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima – at first seemingly odd bedfellows.

“Mishima killed himself in the traditional seppuka way,” he informs me.  “And he talked about it as the final point where art and action meet, which is such a heavy thing to me.  And Hendry Rollins embodies that, art and action coming together.”

Don’t you guys have a little bit of that as well?

“I hope so,” he says.  “I hope so.”

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