Thanks to Kathie Davis for the transcript
Bridge over troubled water
“Sometimes I feel like I don’t have a partner.” The plangent words that open the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ breakthrough hit, “Under the Bridge,” refer back to a period in the band’s early history that was fraught with drugs, despair, and, eventually, death. When original guitarist Hillel Slovak died from an overdose of heroin on June 27, 1988, it deeply shook the foundation of a band who ‘freaky styley’ spirit was based most significantly on its profound love and affection for one another. Slovak’s bitter end bore deep into the soul of longtime friend, Anthony Kiedis, who not only blamed himself, but knew all too well that there but for the grace of God lay his lonely fate. In this exclusive excerpt from the forthcoming biography The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Dave Thompson traces Slovak’s tragic demise and its chilling aftereffects.
Until April 1986, when the return of Jack Irons, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ original drummer brought some welcome reinforcements, bassist Flea was fighting a losing battle against frontman Anthony Kiedis’s and guitarist Hillel Slovak’s growing addictions. Any drugs Flea had used in the past were of the recreational variety – pot and the occasional tab of acid. Alone, however, he was unable to stand against the tide of self-destruction that was threatening to sweep the Red Hot Chili Peppers into the abyss. For Flea, Iron’s return didn’t merely slot into place the last piece of the band’s jigsaw of friendship; it also offered him some breathing space.
“Hillel was a wild partier. Before he got carried away with the drugs, he was a lot of fun,” laments Kiedis. Unfortunately, similar things were being said about Kiedis himself, as he, too, discovered that getting “carried away with, and ultimately by, drugs” was the almost inevitable finale to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ flirtations with L.A.’s most potent subculture. And though he was more aware of what was happening to him, Kiedis was no more willing to extract himself from the vicious circle of fixing up and coming down than Slovak.
Occasionally, the pair did succeed in coming out of the tunnel, but only so they could rush back in immediately. “We would both clean up, and then we would both start using again.” Why? Because it was fun, something to do, a relief from the pressures and the boredoms of life on the road.
During one of these brief, and in hindsight, half-hearted moments Kiedis started going to Alcoholics Anonymous, then asked Slovak to come along to one of the meetings. Slovak laughed. “Why? I’m not an alcoholic.”
The pair did their dealing on the streets, making their purchases from unscrupulous characters involved with miniature Mafioso drug rings. They both had their own sources, but Slovak would never discuss this. Kiedis’s were the suitably connected gang members who gathered beneath a certain bridge in downtown Los Angeles—the same bridge that in later years would be immortalized in one of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ best know songs.
It was a closed society he was entering, the cabalistic world of violence, distrust, and death within which dealing – whether in drugs, arms, or sex – was often the only way to make a living. Certainly it represented a way of life which Kiedis had little business intruding upon. The gang member who made him swear never to visit the bridge on his own was at equal pains to convince his colleagues that Kiedis was ‘family’; was, in fact, affianced to the gangster’s sister.
The problem was, Kiedis already had one family – the Red Hot Chili Peppers. And it was beginning to suffer.
While Slovak fed his habit in private, as though, by refusing to acknowledge it, no one would ever know, Kiedis was considerably less subtle. These were his friends; he had nothing to hide from them, and even in the face of Irons and Flea’s undisguised disgust, he would, on occasion, make deals in full view of his bandmates.
“Barry,” a small-time dealer who gave up selling when he left L.A., remembers, “The Peppers had a reputation for partying really wild. When they came through town, every town, it was as if every scuzzball on the street knew about it, and would make certain he was backstage.”
The pressures of this life-style were immense. Too many nights passed with Kiedis and Flea locked within their private war of bitter attrition, each using his own musical talent to try and tear and band away from the other.
For all his problems, though, Kiedis at least remained reasonably controlled. Maybe it was because his need for the group was as strong as his need for the drug; maybe, simply, heroin affected him differently that the way it affected Slovak. The fact remained, had the Red Hot Chili Peppers been carrying just one user, things might have been easier. But with Slovak, too, borne along by the dragon, “it just slowed everything down.”
Bickering erupted into battles. Some nights, the Red Hot Chili Peppers took the stage as a three-piece: either Slovak had disappeared into the maw of the city and simply chosen not to return, or he was lying backstage, unable to play, unwilling to move.
The group was in absolute disarray, Irons remembers. “The whole process was grinding to a halt.”
By the early spring of 1988, Slovak’s problems were there for everyone to see. Even from ten rows back, Slovak looked haunted. His eyes, so laughingly alive earlier in the day were clouded, whether by grief or pain or something else entirely, it was impossible to ascertain. Following the show, as St. Louis’ Mississippi Nights reluctantly emptied after an evening of bone-crunching mayhem, the tension between the band members was still tangible.
Slovak sat off to one side, silent. He felt as though he’d been touring forever. After a while even he’s been touring forever. After a while even the faces and places started blending into one another. The few people who did venture over to him quickly wandered away again. He had fucked up, and even those visitors who hadn’t noticed anything amiss, who hadn’t heard the bum notes, or registered the slackening timing (or who had, but thought it was all part of the show), knew that.
To the people around the Red Hot Chili Peppers, it was Kiedis, not Slovak, who kept them awake at nights, worrying. “They were all afraid that I was going to die because I would just take too much too often for too long a period of time,” Kiedis confessed two years later. “Hillel was much more subtle and much more cunning in his disguise.” Even today, people who knew Slovak still remember the utter disbelief with which they heard the news of his death. No one suspected how far he had gone.
It was Kiedis who finally figured out what was going on – in St, Louis, in Chicago, everywhere that Slovak had, for no apparent reason, spend the night firing blanks. But it wasn’t Slovak’s behavior that clued him in. It was his own.
Kiedis was aware of his problems, aware that he was reaching “a demoralizing low, just kind of hanging out on the streets and doing my thing and not much else.” And with that awareness came another, even more shattering realization. “I became so familiar with the nature of addiction that I knew Hillel was in as deep as me. He was just more in denial. Hillel thought he had power over the dark side.
“It was real hard for me to tell him to his face how much I love him, and how much I wanted to make music with him,” Kiedis later confessed. From deep within the black depths of his own addiction, the singer clung to the ray of light that was the Red hot Chili Peppers, and he tried desperately to make Slovak see them in the same way.
Addressing himself as though he was talking to Slovak, Kiedis said, “We’ve got to be clean. We’ve got the Red Hot Chili Peppers in common, we’ve got our friendship in common, we grew up together, we love each other. I want to spend my life with you making music,” But he never said those words out loud. Instead, he wrote Slovak letters.
Death Is Mother Nature’s greatest contribution to rock’n’roll, the last-ditch gamble for comfortable berth in the history books. Had Jim Morrison not died in 1971, would he live on in the tangled web of Christlike imagery from which he today hangs suspended, a leather-drenched Lizard King forever bucking Daddy the Admiral’s belligerent beliefs?
Had Jimi Hendrix not passed away in 1970, would he, too have eventually fallen into decline, first equaled, then eclipsed, by the brilliant wave of new guitarists—Robin Trower, Ritchie Blackmore, Mick Ronson – who emerged during the early ‘70s? In death, he led by example; in life, he could have been left for dead.
Hillel Slovak was neither Jimi Hendrix nor Jim Morrison. He wasn’t even Sid Vicious or Darby Crash, punk icons whose deaths epitomized the lifestyles they led, senseless, nihilistic, and as the only way of surpassing the legends woven in life, beautifully romantic. He was just Hillel Slovak, the 26-year-old guitar player for the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
An autopsy had been performed on June 29, the day before the service. The results, a coroner’s spokesman informed the press, were ‘inconclusive.” It was only within L.A.’s underground that the real cause was spoken of aloud, although beyond that subterranean grapevine too, there was little doubting the truth of the matter.
The previous Saturday evening, Slovak returned to his apartment in the arms of the one friend he knew he could rely on – his habit. His friend was hungry, so he fed it. But that night, it’s appetite was simply too powerful. The drug he had purchased on the street just hours before hit Slovak’s system like an express train. Unconscious, he slipped into coma, and in turn slipped into death. Alone, he lay in his darkened apartment until a concerned friend dropped by to see him on Monday.
Kiedis did not even give himself time to think about what he was doing. From the moment he returned the receiver to its cradle, throughout the three days that followed, and even as Slovak’s body was laid to rest, he remained numb, unable to believe a single thing that was happening.
Everywhere he looked, Slovak’s laughing, slightly elfin face was peeking out at him, his full lips drawn back in laughter. Any moment, Kiedis expected his phone to ring or the doorbell to sound, and there would be Slovak, brushing the dirt off his clothes and roaring, “I really go you going that time! I mean, I really got you going that time!”
Numbness gave way to horror, and then terror. Slovak’s fate could so easily have been his own, and he wondered why it hadn’t been. They’d both been in as deep as one another, but death was random. Would he be next?
Kiedis needed to get away, to some place where the past couldn’t follow him, and where the pain wouldn’t leap from every single memory. The moment the memorial service was over, Kiedis threw a few clothes into an overnight bag and headed across the border for Mexico. Suddenly nothing mattered any longer: not the band, not his career, not his music, and most of all, not his drugs. He simply needed to escape.
He didn’t know where he was bound. He simply drove, heading south and scarcely seeing the road ahead or the signs that flashed past alongside him. When the car did finally halt, it was at one of the tiny fishing villages that dot the country’s Pacific coastline, a threadbare community that scarcely supports the hundred or so souls who make up its population. For Kiedis, the isolation was precisely what he required.
For close to a month, he lived “in this little hut out on the beach, basically drying out.” He walked, he fished, he did everything and anything he could that took his mind off his loss and away from the drugs that had caused it. Only when he believed his body was finally acclimatized to sobriety did he return to L.A. to begin the more complicated and even more painful process of piecing his life together.
On August 1, 1988, precisely five weeks after Slovak’s death, and with the incentive of experience behind him, Kiedis came back from his seclusion. He has been clean ever since. “In that sense,” he now reflects, “Hillel’s death gave me a lot of strength to carry on living.”
“Anthony has always been the man of fucking steel,” Flea marvels. ‘The fact that he is as healthy as he is, and weathered that shit has had weathered is amazing.”
“The death of Hillel changed our entire attitude,” Kiedis explained a year later. “Losing your best friend at the age of 26 is a mind- and soul-blower. But there was definitely an inspiration which came from Hillel dying, which helped sharpen the focus of the band. Flea and I were left with each other and we decided, ‘Here’s something we started a long time ago that we haven’t finished.’ ”
They realize, he continued, that “we had to bear down, change out life-styles, and look at what was important to us – things like friendship, love, making great music, and not getting sidetracked by the more negative influences in life. We tried to use our loss as a bolstering, positive influence – if nothing else, to prove to the world what we were doing was worthy and legitimate. Hillel may be dead; we’re not.”
Just as they had five years earlier, Flea and Kiedis put the word out that they were looking for new musicians, although not necessarily for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. They simply wanted to play, and if anything developed out of that , so be it. For the first time since Slovak died, Kiedis and Flea were laughing again. By the end of August 1988, the two were actively looking for next generation of Red Hot Chili Peppers. Now it appeared they had found them. Over the last few weeks, Anthony felt as though a chord had been struck in his heart, and when Duane “Blackbyrd” McKnight and Darren “D.H.” Peligro set up beside him, suddenly the Red Hot Chili Peppers were jumping again. Flea felt it as well, and after close to three months off the road, the worst three months of their lives, [manager] Lindy Goetz was talking tentatively of returning to live work.
But two years later, the feeling of awful devastation was still there. One afternoon in 1990, Kiedis was climbing into his car when suddenly, as if someone was holding a switch-blade to his heart, his entire being was gripped by an indescribable terror, and in layers beneath it, unimaginable sadness and unbearable pain. Suddenly, he understood how Slovak had felt, not only throughout that last year of increasing estrangement, but also as he lay that June night in his apartment, as the last spark of life was squeezed slowly from his body. He was absolutely alone.
Physically and emotionally, Kiedis had no one. Of course there was Flea, but he was back on top of his heart, raving about the band, daydreaming about his baby. Kiedis was Flea’s Friend, but that friendship was taken for granted. Kiedis tried to remember the last time he and Flea had suddenly, spontaneously, shown one another how much they loved each other.
His battle with heroin was over, but Kiedis still had to renew contact with the people he had left behind – his parents, his friends, the entire life that he had once led. The only thing he could grasp was L.A., the city in which he had lived for 15 years. Sitting crying behind the wheel of his car, he remembered the jokes Alan Johannes used to make about the little angels that were forever looking over his shoulder, and he saw them in the hills, the buildings, and the bustle of strangers who went about their business around him. They were his angels, and it was they who were looking out for him, “more than any human being in the world.”
Without thinking, he turned the key in the ignition and started driving the few blocks toward his home. A song sprang unbidden to his lips, and he sang it to himself, “Sometimes I feel like I don’t have a partner….”
The mood remained with him all evening, but it was countered now by an awareness of all he did have to be grateful for. “No matter how sad or lonely I got, things were a million times better than they were when I was using drugs all the time. There was no comparison.” He started scribbling lyrics – lyrics because that was all he knew how to scribble. But it wasn’t a pop song that he wrote. Instead his mind drifted back to the bridge where he used to score from the gang members, and the things that went on beneath the bridge. It wasn’t a song, it was an exorcism.