Transcipt by Rebecca Billingham
There was heroin, spanking, prostitutes, heroin, indecent exposure, divorce, lethal dengue fever and more heroin. Then things got really bad for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Q essays four gruesome years at the heart of the world’s funkiest rock band, the fall and rise of guitarist John Frusciante, and their amazing rebirth. “It’s almost worth the price we paid,” they tell Phil Sutcliffe.
It was 1997 and the Red Hot Chili Peppers were nowhere to be seen. Two years on from their sixth album One Hot Minute’s lukewarm reception and no new songs, no show in the studio, not a funky beat, not a sock on a cock. Never a sighting of the foursome in the same place at the same time. It looked bad – particularly when the guitarist and provocateur Dave Navarro took bassist Michael “Flea” Balzary off on a Jane’s Addiction reunion tour and lured drummer Chad Smith towards joining him in a putative band called Spread.
Then Red Hot Chili Peppers announced that they would play the Tibetan Freedom Concert. But they pulled out because they hadn’t rehearsed. Instead, they planned exotic gigs in Hawaii and Alaska for July, which were later postponed to September when, back home in Los Angeles, singer/rapper Anthony Kiedis crashed his Harley Davidson, the redemptive rock’n’roll glamour of the accident rather tarnished by the revelation that he had been felled by an elderly motorist who failed to check her mirror. In August, they did get on stage in Japan’s Mount Fuji Festival, but halfway through their set a hurricane struck and that was that. Then drummer Chad Smith came off his motorbike on Sunset Boulevard, dislocating a shoulder. Those Hawaii and Alaska gigs were put back to December.
At this point, Kiedis went on MTV to fly the flag and admitted that he had been using heroin again (having overcome a near-fatal addiction in 1988 after an overdose killed the band’s original guitarist, Hillel Slovak). He explained that “When I use drugs, my life sucks,” but promised he was clean again so it was “really beautiful”.
On the whole, that seemed encouraging. But nothing happened except that the December dates in Hawaii and Alaska were postponed, again due to lack of rehearsal. Flea said 1997 was “the year of nothing”.
The bleak mood was further darkened by news of John Frusciante, the handsome young guitarist who left in 1992 after playing on two of the band’s best albums, Mother’s Milk and Blood Sugar Sex Magik. The Los Angeles New Times newspaper found him holed up at the Chateau Marmont in a ghastly state: immersed in drugs, teeth gone, hair falling out, fingernails broken and bloody, skin scarred and scabbed, saying “I don’t care whether I live or die. I’m not afraid of death”.
Everyone who knew him thought was done for. And few were much more optimistic about the band either. The only uncertainty seemed to be whether their demise would play a farce or tragedy.
But that was then and this is 1999. Reunited, refurbished, practically resurrected, Red Hot Chili Peppers are riding three million worldwide sales of their new album Californication. It’s a fixture in the US Top 10 and the summer’s European bestseller. Live, as Flea put it, they have “beamed down from Jupiter and exploded in the faces” of the multitudes who attended in anti-violence tour for American high school kids, the third Woodstock and a row of European festivals included, at press time, Reading and Leeds on August 29 and 30.
So here they are in a murky LA rehearsal studio – Q their only audience – stood in a circle facing one another, grooving like madmen. On guitar, long hair lashing, false teeth flashing, funky right hand thrashing, all the way from the edge of darkness: John Frusciante. Red Hot Chili Peppers are the band that refused to die.
They blow into a photographic studio off La Brea, steaming ideas, irritation and deodorant-defying sweat. Smith takes everything in a large, good-natured stride, but Flea and Kiedis sulk over clothes and poses, while Frusciante rejects the stylist’s suits – “Aren’t my clothes good enough for you? I only bought them two days ago” – and takes against the photographer – “I don’t want him telling me what to do. I don’t him telling me how to play guitar”.
There’s one thing on their minds when they dally with the media: preconceptions. Right after “hello” Flea complains about “the way people, particularly in Europe, see us as these clownish, jock, Californian, misogynist playboys. It’s insulting and offensive to me.” Conversely, Kiedis immediately brings up an antique Q article which averred that Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “homoerotic history is almost as interesting as their music”.
Red Hot Chili Peppers stand simultaneously accused of gross daft laddishness and angling for the pink dollar and they swear they can’t understand why. OK. Let’s refresh their memories.
Clownish? The band first made its name by stripping down to sports socks on willies at an LA club and repeated the routine for the Beatles-parodying Abbey Road EP sleeve in 1988. They have played major gigs light bulbs and flame-throwing helmets on their heads. Sexist/misogynist? Their early albums featured unambiguous anthems such as Party On Your Pussy and Freaky Styley (“I fuck ‘em just to see the look on their face”). Later, in 1990 Kiedis, Flea and Smith had coincidental conviction for sexual misbehaviour with female fans – Kiedis for flashing his genitals at a backstage meet-and-greet, Flea and Smith for “spanking” a stage invader. Homoerotic? Flea and Kiedis maintain torsos of carved muscle and love to get their shirts off on stage – Flea oftentimes, as at Woodstock, going the full naked monty. And they have done photo sessions in full drag, they hug a lot in public and their 1995 warped video featured an enthusiastically interminable kiss between Kiedis and Navarro…
Red Hot Chili Peppers are sexy to all-comers, they’re wild and funny and sometimes they go too far. But they’ve also written tender love songs to close, dead males which bely their musclebound, party-on shtick. On 1991’s rumbustious Blood Sugar Sex Magik, My Lovely Man bade the gentlest farewell to Hillel Slovak (“Listen to Roberta Flack/But I know you won’t come back”), while 1995’s Transcending was addressed to another friend and drugs victim, River Phoenix (“I love you, you’re my brother”).
Kiedis shrugs, “Yeah, they’re love songs for a man. Not sexually romantic love songs, but love songs nonetheless. We didn’t grow up in a homophobic community, so we never worried about showing affection for one another, the ‘don’t undress in front of me, I’m not like that’ feeling.”
Flea sees this mentality as the backbone of the band ever since he, Kiedis and Slovak met as teenagers at Fairfax High School, Hollywood. “Us growing up, we didn’t come from standard functional families,” he says, his voice nasal and hoarse. “Apart from Chad, our parents divorced when we were kids and we left home young. So our friends were our family. Thinking about Hillel, we were so close. We did everything together. First sex, first drugs, first time listening to Gang Of Four or Echo & The Bunnymen. First time looking at a Basquiat painting. All the most intimate experiences I had. Doing this band is sometimes overwhelming, but if I can’t live inside of it and feel loved inside of it, then it’s very difficult for me.” Even as a 1988 late-comer Smith recalls that the fraternal sharing extended to “living together and pukin’ and fuckin’ on the same floor”. From the outset, they took their camaraderie away from the cityscapes into utterly non-rock star terrain. “Anthony and I first became close when we were 15 and we went up to Yosemite in northern California,” says Flea. “We hiked into the woods and the mountains for ten days. Jumping into a river, standing on top of a mountain I’ve just climbed – being one with the earth – is the most profound feeling you can have, the greatest moments of happiness flowing through my body. So ecstatic…”
Kiedis concurs. “I have no idea where that comes from, that compulsion to get out there and explore,” he says, with a trademark little cackle. “I really like to get in amongst those elements.”
It didn’t stop when their teenage summers expired. In 1992, the band’s tattooist friend Henky Penky and a fantasy about becoming Mowgli from The Jungle Book, Kiedis undertook one of those treks through Borneo “which only a handful of white people have ever finished”. He ended up lost in the rainforest, hallucinating, covered in leeches and open sores, with simultaneous diarrhoea and vomiting attacks and dengue or “bonebreak” fever. He cackles nostalgically.
Twice in recent years he and Flea have gone kayaking in the Alaskan fjords. “We camped in the wilds, cooking, playing
fantastic games around the campfire at night,” Kiedis reminisces. “Met the porpoise and the seal and the glaciers and the icebergs. Didn’t get to meet the killer whale. Met the bears…”
“A giant mama grizzly bear with three little cubs as far away as that wall right there,” Flea exults. “I loved that, knowing it could eat me. But it wasn’t scary because she was so majestic and beautiful. I’m of the opinion that when you love something it will never hurt you. She kept on walking by.”
But the Red Hot Chili Pepper adventurers are all 36 now (except for Frusciante, who is 29) and, in part, they have developed camaraderie into individual self-reliance. When stressed out, before consulting the Yellow Pages under “therapy”, their instinct is to dig out a map of somewhere difficult.
Kiedis has often painted his own sense of isolation as if he had a fair take on what Edvard Munch’s screamer had just noticed. In the band’s Funky Monks video (1991) he described how, while addicted to heroin, he plumbed depths of “incomprehensible demoralization”. In Knock Me Down (1989), another song for Slovak, he wrote “It’s so lonely when you don’t even know yourself” and in Under The Bridge (1991, bowdlerized for the All Saints cover) “Lonely as I am/…Under the bridge downtown/I gave my life away”/
When Slovak died, Kiedis went to a Mexican village alone to detox and dry out. In 1997, dicing with heroin again, he took off to India and travelled south-to-north on his own. He was hanging between two railway carriages, watching the night go by, when his train derailed, but he got away with bruises. He visited an ashram with a view to critically examining the baba’s claims to godhead. But the guru was out. He hiked the foothills of the Himalayas until he made it to the source of the Ganges: “The local guys told me this river is like a mother, it will love you, so I kinda believed them and I went swimming for days on end. The currents would hurl you around these giant boulders and nothing bad would ever happen.”
He felt a lot better after that, but admits that he finally “cleaned up” after Frusciante, in 1997. Since then, he has said hello to the idea of monogamy, hoping to buck the trend of a band who are rubbish at sustaining relationships. The current foursome have chalked up a total of two marriages, Flea’s and Smith’s, both ending in divorce and part-time relationships with their children (which both work at diligently, if regretfully).
“I fell madly, deeply, strongly, profoundly in love with a girl I met last October,” Kiedis murmurs. “She is probably the first girl I’ve met who I would truly consider getting married to. I am a sucker for the notion of monogamy and having a family.”
Later, Kiedis does don a skirt for the Q photo sessions (“That’s a handsome skirt,” he says). And when a female associate leaves the studio, Flea tells a roadie to ask her to leave her panties so he can “give them a sniff”. And Smith amiably recalls a couple of Parisian hookers he used to patronise. Frusciante says nothing at all relating to sex.
Without warning, Kiedis executes a standing high jump, clean over the head of his seated press officer.
An unassuming denizen of Hollywood, Kiedis invites Q to breakfast at his neighbourhood café, Joseph’s. He recommends the lentil soup, but orders an omelette. He is on first-name terms with the Greek owner and tickles his grandson under the chin when he comes by grizzling for his bottle. Kiedis starts to talk about his new diet based on the compatibility of particular foods with different blood groups. He’s felt especially chipper since he took to it in the spring. When his omelette comes with potatoes he hasn’t ordered, he pushes them to the side of the plate – sadly, because much as he loves them they don’t suit his blood.
Pedal disconcertingly to the metal, his “truck” leads the rented Q-mobile round a couple of corners to the rehearsal studio. The multi-platinum-shifting combo, in off-duty shorts, sneakers and T-shirts, gradually assembles around a beach umbrella in the car park at the rear. The chat is varied. Kiedis and Frusciante discuss an exhibition of Warhol’s Polaroids. Flea enthuses about surfing up the coast early that morning – a skill he only learnt at 32 when he bought a house in his native Australia (none of the others are any good at it at all, he scoffs). Smith sneaks an anticipatory mention of the Tuesday-night softball game he’s been enjoying with his pals for the last five years, despite the frowns of his bandmates who had to cancel a 1995 tour when a wild pitch broke his wrist.
Red Hot Chili Peppers were all born elsewhere – Kiedis and Smith in Michigan, Frusciante in New York City – but they have become Californians. Even so, their latest album had its origins in places and observations beyond the reach of any other band. The pith of the politico-cultural double entendre that is Californication first occurred to Kiedis in late 1992, after Frusciante left and around the time of his misadventure in Borneo.
“I went to Indonesia,” Kiedis recalls. “I’d visit all these market places in remote and bizarre places and they were full of Guns N’ Roses and Red Hot Chili Peppers T-shirts and CDs and videos of all of the Hollywood movies. These were locations where even Marlboro and Coca-Cola had a hard time with commercial infiltration. But California had found a way to seep into these tiny nooks and crannies of the globe and affect people.”
Five years later – typically, on a boat sailing the Andaman Sea between Thailand and India – Kiedis converted the idea into a lyric satirizing the states position at “the edge of the world/And all of western civilization”. When it was agreed that Frusciante should return to the band, Californication was the first song they tried to write together, although it took another seven months to complete – hence Frusciante chips in apologetically: “I didn’t have the skill to figure out what chord God wanted until right before we went in the studio.”
Here he is then, the prodigal guitarist, sharing the table beneath the umbrella in the car park. More than a year on from his return his friends seem to smile just to see him breathe.
Frusciante is skinny and flops about in his chair with a yoga buff’s boneless gawkiness. He wears long sleeves, but the odd glimpse of his arms reveals ruined tattoos and a white patch that looks like a skin graft. He promises the straggly Jesus beard will come off as soon his swollen jaw – product of extensive dental reconstruction – has resumed its normal dimensions. This may have some bearing on the muffled, whiskery tones of his speaking voice (temporarily reminiscent of some old Western movie curmudgeon, a Walter Brennan or Gabby Hayes). According to legend, this fragile man – already a devoted Red Hot Chili Peppers’ fan who followed his heroes everywhere and startled them with his ability to ape every Hillel Slovak guitar part, inflection for inflection – had to show the size of his erect penis by way of initiation when he joined the band in 1988.
Back then he plunged into a frenzy of commitment which, before long, became tainted by self-doubt and, eventually, self-loathing. His unsettled state of mind emerges in quotes from interviews about the making of Blood Sugar Sex Magik: “The rest of world didn’t exist when we were making this record. I’ve always felt like I was a failure and now we’ve done something as a band of friends that I’m very proud of…I feel like the air makes the music and I’m just an outline within that. The air that surrounds me is the actual walking person and this bit of flesh in between is just a blob…They’d go, ‘That was so beautiful’. And I’d just think whatever I played was full of shit…I’ll get an erection while I’m playing guitar and I’ll masturbate or I’ll hold back if the orgasm is something that would be detrimental to my strength creatively. Sometimes I’ll see that erection as being my enemy…”
In retrospect, he says he began to feel a moral revulsion at the band, the music he had loved and the money they made: “That feeling has caused some fucked-up things to happen in my head.”
Across the table, Kiedis acknowledges that at the time he hadn’t a clue what Frusciante as on about: “I didn’t understand. I was too self-centred and self-absorbed to even begin to experience what he was going through. All I knew was that John and I were becoming more and more distant. I didn’t see our success as a sell-out. I saw it as something really powerful and beautiful that we had created together. Getting through to the masses was something we had been aiming for and now that it was here why not embrace it? I mean, we’ve always had a bona fide fondness for making money. What was going on with John was like someone had cut my left nut out of my ball sac.”
Frusciante quit in the middle of a Japanese tour and declined to a grievous state. “I was positive he was going to die,” Flea asserts. “I’d visit him and he was always intense and into something, but I didn’t think his brain and body could stand up to the amount of drugs he was doing.”
The guitarist’s recollection is that by mid-’96 he had a notion that he might clean up. It took hold eventually, but only after many a weird detour.
“When I was 27 I had a year of not feeling like myself, a year of feeling like I was an impostor who didn’t deserve to be called John Frusciante,” he says. “It was the worst year of my life. But it ended really good. Although the rest of the world still wanted nothing to do with me I was happy within myself through dancing and through writing in notebooks and playing guitar -I was trying to record songs, but never finishing any – and doing whatever I wanted to do as far as the drugs go. I was smoking crack all day long, shooting heroin, shooting cocaine, drinking wine, taking valium.
“I was this close to killing myself. If I had had a gun I definitely would have killed myself. But when I was going extremely fast in my head and feeling I was about to die I would get these warnings from spirits saying, You don’t want to die now. I can see them, it was like they were in my room. And I got back in touch with the spirit that is John Frusciante, I knew that I was who I am and who I’d always been and I didn’t feel like an impostor any more.”
Spurred by a cash-flow crisis he accidentally gave $2,000 of his latest Red Hot Chili Peppers royalty cheque to a taxi driver, he agreed to enter a clinic. He took his time, dancing and so on, and came out the other side.
Coincidentally, after the travails of 1997, the band and Dave Navarro – another sporadic heroin user – had drifted apart. Flea looked up Frusciante and reported to Kiedis and Smith that it might work. In spring last year the foursome rehearsed for the first time in Flea’s garage; “The chemistry was bombastic and beautiful,” trumpets Kiedis. On June 13 they made their comeback at a Washington club, the 9:30, the night before playing the second Tibetan Freedom Concert at the RFK Stadium – no late withdrawal this time.
Then they recorded the album and, in Flea’s estimation, Frusciante was the mainstay: “When we made this record I was a mess, I was falling apart at the seams because of problems with a relationship, I had a breakdown, a psychological meltdown. But John is so inspirational to me the way he is now, he’s so focused and disciplined.”
NOWADAYS FRUSCIANTE IS LOST in music, that’s all. He spends most of his waking hours writing or practicing guitar. He considers a day wasted, he says, if he hasn’t come to understand the essence of at least one new piece of music.
“I’m really happy to be as much on my natural rhythms as I’m capable,” he says. “I don’t smoke cigarettes, I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t do drugs. Being a better musician, that’s what makes me happy, that’s what I’m meant to be doing. To me music is the centre of the universe and the voice of the spirits and the voice of God and the voice of all the people who have lived and died.” He sighs. “At least the ones I’m connected to.”
He pauses, then adds: “The parts of me inside that feel constantly let down, or constantly in a state of failure, I’m in touch with them and I love them…it’s not something I run away from.”
Having largely sat back to allow his friends the space due to any bona fide resurrectee, Kiedis nips in to pick up the tempo: “It’s almost worth the price we paid to have what we have now because I love this so much. It’s very fulfilling to hear John play his guitar and…” He breaks off. “Mind you that’s easy to say now that we’re all alive and together. Had we been two rotting corpses in a casket on the hill we wouldn’t be relishing the joy of universal rhythms. But since it’s come out this way I’m able to say, (whistles) That was a terribly interesting time.”
Kiedis and Flea insist that they never worried that rejoining Red Hot Chili Peppers might be dangerous to Frusciante. But doesn’t Frusciante himself fear that he could be en route to the same precipice he tumbled off in 1992?
“We’re going through the rhythms of the universe and it’s not our decision,” he offers. “I’m in a healthy state of mind today. If tomorrow I’m off in a hotel and smoking crack I can’t do anything about that. It’s what I’m driven to do if it’s what I’m driven to do and I can’t help that.”
Is that really it? You can’t find any basis for stability or permanence in the band and your music?
Frusciante ponders. “Dunno,” he concludes.
“I don’t know either,” Kiedis cackles. “I suppose we’ll find out though.” He smiles.