Can The Red Hot Chili Peppers Live Through This?
The quintessential L.A. band have struggled through motorcycle wrecks, heroin addictions and lightning storms. Jon Regardie finds out whether they can survive themselves.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers have released two albums of original material in the ’90s, with a third on the way. During this decade, the group have also hosted five guitarists. Two of the band members have tumbled off speeding motorcycles, and another has battled Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Several of them have been hospitalized for heroin addiction. Divorce has shaken them up, as have the deaths of close friends. Even Mother Nature’s taken a couple of swipes: One of the Chili Peppers’ shows was cut short by a typhoon, and another was halted when fans were struck by lightning.
Yet just before the release of their seventh studio album, an uneasy love letter to their home state titled Californication, the 16-year old unit are enthusiastic-indeed, nearly giddy. Recording’s gone smoothly. Everyone is feeling healthy. Tour plans are being readied. Perhaps most importantly, the group are no longer with their seventh guitarist, who, while well-known, was musically incompatible. Instead, a friend who abruptly quit the Chili Peppers seven years ago has returned to the fold.
“This is one of the most interesting times this band has ever experienced”, observes vocalist Anthony Kiedis, sitting in a well-appointed hotel bungalow in Beverly Hills. He takes a sip of coffee and adds, “Having been around for so long, and having things kind of falling apart at the seams, (the band) could have easily been buried a while ago. But it wasn’t. It’s the nature of surviving those hard times that gives so much strength and energy to the new time.”
Ah, the old adage “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”: It’s an optimistic outlook, and it’s got the entire group-Kiedis, bassist Flea, drummer Chad Smith and guitarist John Frusciante-thrilled about returning to rock’s forefront. Indeed, it’s charming to hear the four men repeatedly affirm their relationship with and brotherly love for one another.
At the same time, though, the Chili Peppers seem to be suffering from a case of group myopia. Either they’re unable to see the dark clouds that have forever been roiling around them, or they’re unwilling. They eagerly describe a thrilling past year, even though as recently as 1997, half of the current line-up was strung out on heroin. But every time life has seemed great for the Chili Peppers, tragedy has come forward to kick them in the face. Why should this year be any different?
The Chili Peppers’ oft-recounted history begins in 1983 in Los Angeles, when Fairfax High School students Kiedis and Flea, and their friends Hillel Slovak and Jack Irons came together. Formed from the ashes of the garage band Anthym, the Chili Peppers fused a snide hardcore attitude with a metal edge and a sex-tanked beat inspired by the funk triumvirate of P-Funk/James Brown/Sly Stone. They eventually drew the attention of EMI.
The Chili Peppers weathered several line-up changes, released a self-titled debut in 1984, and later recorded Freaky Styley (1985: produced by George Clinton), The Uplift Mofo Party Plan (1987) and the Abbey Road EP (1988). Sales were unspectacular. More attention-gathering were the band’s frenetic live shows and their now-famous “socks on cocks” public appearances.
Tragedy struck in June 1988 when Slovak, who was Kiedis’ best friend, died of a heroin overdose. Kiedis escaped to a small Mexican fishing village to wean himself of his own heroin habit, and Irons left the band. Months later the band reunited with new drummer Smith and 18-year-old guitarist Frusciante. They recorded Mother’s Milk (1989), toured frequently and jumped to Warner Bros. In 1991 they worked with producr Rick Rubin on Blood Sugar Sex Magik. This breakthrough album contained the band’s most radio-friendly tunes to date, including “Give it away” and the somber drug saga/mega hit “Under The Bridge”. The record sold more than five million copies.
Hence the enthusiasm around Californication, which reunites the band members with Rubin. The album is a pop-oriented Blood Sugar extension, from the bittersweet “Scar Tissue” to the near-ballad “Porcelain”. The psycho-sexy funk stomp returns in a few songs, most notably “Get On Top” (in which Kiedis rhymes “gorilla” with “cunt-illa”). Lyrically Kiedis is alternating melancholia with positivism-witness “Road Trippin’,” about three friends (Kiedis, Flea and Frusciante) journeying up the California coast, where they stop to dig the poetry of Big Sur and the setting sun.
The ingredients for success seem to have carefully stirred in though the band claim to be feeling no pressure to match Blood Sugar.
“Sure we want to sell a lot of records, and we want everyone to think we’re cool” says Flea, a spark plug in a Charles Mingus t-shirt. “But we feel like we made a really good record. We made an honest record. We’ve had success, and we’ve been a popular rock band for a long fucking time, and we’re so past validating ourselves by being commercially successful. When we had our biggest success, I was more miserable than I’ve ever been in my whole life.”
Between Blood Sugar and Californication the band released 1995′s One Hot Minute. While the Chili Peppers don’t disavow the record, they don’t embrace it, either. One Hot Minute was, to many, the band’s “heavy metal” record. It fell short of Blood Sugar both in sales and in critical acclaim.
One Hot Minute featured Dave Navarro, the guitar-playing phenom who injected Jane’s Addiction with a Led Zeppelin-meets-punk charge. Navarro joined the Chili Peppers in 1993, despite his dislike for funk, and left the band in 1998. While the band avoid dissing Navarro, who’s currently readying an album with his new project, Spread, they clearly feel that the marriage seemingly made in rock Valhalla never worked.
Kiedis remembers the tensions that led to Navarro’s 1998 departure. “The difference between Dave and the band grew larger and larger, and Flea’s lack of fulfilment got bigger and bigger until something had to break”.
“Basically, Dave left the band;” explains Flea, choosing his words carefully. “We did not fire him; he did not quit. It was like, this is not working. Basically, the intangible things that make magic happen were not happening.”
Now the Chili Peppers offer quotes like Kiedis’ “ Californication] has absolutely no relationship to One Hot Minute.” And Navarro, when describing Spread’s album, tosses this barb: “It’s certainly darker than the Chili Pepper record-there’s not much that isn’t.”
“It got to the point in the last line-up of the band where we weren’t having fun,” says Flea. “Now we’re in a situation where I can’t fucking wait to get into the rehearsal studio and rock the fuck out. I can’t wait to get up on a stage and jump out of my skin until I explode!”
Pause. “I haven’t felt that way in a long time.”
The Chili Peppers’ rehearsal space sits on an innocuous block in Hollywood: in front of it is a theater in need of a paint job. The large, air-conditioned room contains two back seats from a car, complete with seat belts, so visitors can watch the Red Hots drive. Christmas lights decorate a spiral staircase. An image of a duck graced with a halo hangs above Smith’s drum kit.
The Chili Peppers often face one another while they rehearse. They look inward, gathered like the four points of a diamond, and feed off one another’s energy as the music booms and segues into extended jams. They occasionally turn to face the car seat, but always revert to their tight collective.
They talk little between songs, making only minor comments about intricacies they hear in the music or what songs they want to play next. As the songs boil, Smith slams the skins with ferocious, Mike Tyson-like swings. Flea bounces and slap-plucks his silver bass while working the effects pedals at the foot of his microphone.
Kiedis is all rock-star swagger. He clutches the microphone stand in his right fist even when not singing. He quickly removes his shirt mid-jam to reveal a cut torso and numerous tattoos, including one of an Aztec-style mask that spreads across his shoulder blades. Cupping a cigarette in his left hand, he unleashes his trademark staccato rap and rocks back and forth, occasionally raising his left knee in a half-kick.
Then there’s the slightly hunched figure of Frusciante, languidly moving his head and gently wiggling his butt as he lays down potent hooks. Close your eyes and you hear a talented, inventive guitarist. Open them and you see a man with his shirt unbuttoned, his weak, addled chest exposed. With unkempt hair and a haggard face, he looks like an aging human train wreck. But Frusciante, who walked out on the Chili Peppers at the height of their popularity, is only 29.
While the body looks beaten, Frusciante’s voice is what stands out. He succumbed to heroin for several years, and now, when he speaks, it’s in a stereotypical, drugged-out Southern California surfer drawl. One must listen closely to understand him.
Even listening closely is often not enough, though. Frusciante routinely has trouble expressing himself. The syllables stutter, choke and misfire like a car that can’t get gas into its engine, as Frusciante starts and restarts his sentences. In one particularly egregious instance he begins, “And then… and then I…. and then, like….and then, to keep it solid was, was… would have been impossible…”
The damage is impossible to hide, and the other Chili Peppers try to protect Frusciante from the presence of outsiders. They seek to explain his actions and blame themselves for his split with the band. Kiedis acts like a big brother to the guitarist, aware that while he is on Frusciante’s wavelength, others are not. Kiedis frequently uses Frusciante’s words as a springboard for his own answers. For example, when explaining the funk elements in Californication, Frusciante delivers a dense description involving the amount of “air” in the music, remarking, “To me the air is the ultimate heavy thing.” When he finishes, Kiedis chimes in, “I agree with John that air plays such a big part…” And the he gives a concrete example so the comment makes sense.
The bailout of ’92 is now only being publicly explained. The Chili Peppers were in the midst of a massive tour supporting Blood Sugar. They were planning Japan in the spring; in less than a month they would be headlining Lollapalooza- alternative music’s marquee event at the time of the genre’s zenith. But while the band were in Japan, Frusciante suddenly quit. The Chili Peppers scrambled to hire a replacement, Arik Marshall, who got them through Lollapalooza.
Kiedis now says that Frusciante “had a damn good reason for leaving the band.” He claims that, while angry at the guitarist, “I think I was more sad and hurt.” Yet the calm words seem clouded by time: Kiedis became so furious after the walk-out that he did not speak to Frusciante for several years.
Seven years after the incident, however, the band members agree that the Asian tour had become a miserable experience, that inter-band communication had evaporated. And Blood Sugar’s platinum sales meant little to them: Flea, who was struggling through a divorce at the time, offers that “I must have been a bummer to be around.” Exploring his own melt-sown, Frusciante insists that he made the correct call.
“I definitely did the right thing,” he says. “There was a pure space I had gotten myself into spiritually by the time we finished recording Blood Sugar. I was the happiest person in the world. But at the same time I would have these speeches in my head; ‘This place you have gotten yourself to, it is all going to deteriorate when you go out on tour.’ I was thinking it seems right; I don’t think my head is lying to me. But I don’t want to quit now because it will not come off right. They won’t understand why, and I really don’t understand why.
“At the same time, I was so confused, and we went on tour and we weren’t getting along. I guess these strong personalities; we weren’t bending to feel the way the other person was feeling.”
Frusciante says he doesn’t feel he betrayed his friends departing so abruptly. “For a while I put off quitting because the album was so good,” he says. “We had such a good thing. Then, when Anthony stopped talking and we weren’t getting along at all, at that point I wasn’t quitting because me and Flea…. I would have felt like I was abandoning him. Then Flea became more distant from me, as well. Both of us blamed the other one. At one point, there was no way I could continue doing it. We weren’t creating good energy anymore.”
Flea maintained contact with Frusciante over the years and ultimately got the others to jam with Frusciante and embrace his return.
“He was young and got offered a situation,” Flea says, “Where we had worked slowly, slowly, slowly to get to this point, all of a sudden-boom! He was this huge rock star and this big giant thing, and he rebelled from it.
“John became really unhappy with the band. He was retreating. For a variety of reasons he was fucking miserable. It was a real dark cloud on what was happening but from what I gather, all the success and stuff became his enemy. He saw it as something that was going to rob his sacred spirit.”
Though renowned for the wild sexploits and their brash attitude, the Chili Peppers seem remarkably genial and pensive today. They have also become something of a paradox: able to sing “Give the finger to a cop” (in “Get On Top”), but just as able to launch into a heartfelt discussion about spirituality and soulfulness.
It is likely this latter characteristic that has allowed the band to survive the many other arrows with which they’ve been hit. In 1993, Flea was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and was prescribed rest for a full year. That same year one of the band’s best friends, actor River Phoenix, overdosed outside L.A’s Viper Room. In 1997, Kiedis crashed his Harley Davidson, breaking 11 bones in his wrist and undergoing five hours of surgery. Not to be outdone, Smith flew off his own motorcycle that same year, dislocating his shoulder.
After Kiedis’ accident, the band played a gig in front of Mt. Fuji. Typhoon Rosie poured in, however, and ended the show. In 1998, the Chili Peppers were performing in Washington, DC, at the Tibetan Freedom Concert. A lightning storm flashed, and several fans were struck.
Yet these travails are minor compared to the band’s drug problems. Even though their founding guitarist died from a heroin overdose, the Chili Peppers have continued to use.
Nit the entire band, though: by all accounts Flea (who has a 10-year-old daughter) and Smith have remained clean. But Frusciante has endured years of drug abuse, and as recently as 1997 he had to be hospitalized for his addiction. Likewise, Kiedis discovered a gateway in the painkillers he’d been prescribed after his motorcycle accident: They would lead to heroin.
The band speak frankly about their past. Frusciante says he’s learned much from his addiction, though the lesson isn’t what one might expect. He says he’s “glad” he went through the period. He says the drugs and the free time he had after leaving the band allowed him “to go inside myself and explore the different kinds of art… I basically did nothing with my life for a few years, and I’m richer inside because of it.”
Asked if he’s worried about getting hooked again, Frusciante turns philosophical. “As opposed to taking something and putting inside myself to make the world a better place for me, I’m more about putting something out in the air from inside myself that can take other people somewhere if they want to go there. The more I devote to my art, I don’t even consider the possibility of taking drugs. It would be ridiculous.”
Not so for Kiedis, who dodges a question about how long he’s been clean. Shockingly, though heroin has roughed him up several times, he’s not able to completely swear it off. The closest he comes to answering the question is asserting that right now the band, not drugs, is tops.
“I kind of envy the certainty John has that to do drugs again has no appeal for him,” says Kiedis. “I know that for me, what he described, drugs definitely stopped working. I was no longer receiving any benefit from going to that place, and it just became a purely destructive and evil energy for me. My acute awareness of the fact that I could go back to that is present. It is not a worry or concern, because at the moment I have no compulsion to go there. But I just know from my history of going back and forth that I do have that tendency and that capacity to fall into that.”
Smith and Flea also say they don’t worry that the band will be torn apart by drugs again. “We don’t have the crystal ball,” quips Smith, and the two go on to tout the gains of the past year. They seem obvious to the volatility that has always lurked around them. When confronted with the idea that they are about to be huge again-or literally die trying-they seem unable to fathom the latter.
“The last year has been one of the most sane, together times this band has seen in the last few years,” says Smith. “Recently, knock on wood, this is the best I have felt about all four of us in a long time.”
“All I can say right now is it feels really good”, adds Flea. “Is someone going to get stung out on dope? I don’t feel that happening. I really don’t. I think we’re really emotionally and spiritually fulfilled by this band right now, and I think it feels really good. I don’t see that happening. I see us giving and receiving great things.”
Many thanks to Invisible Movement for allowing me to use their transcript when preparing this one.