Red Hot Chili Peppers have survived drugs, madness, breakdowns,
seven guitarists, £70,000 of dental surgery and six deaths
(five in one person). They tell Dave Simpson why it's tofu and
candles from now on
a sectioned-off room in Milan's plush Four Seasons hotel, Chili
Peppers guitarist John Frusciante is explaining his unusual methods
of trying to come off heroin. "I's tried it by just smoking
pot and drinking," he says with a slight slur. "I tried
to quit by taking speed and other stuff, then smoking crack and
just taking heroin occasionally. I tried it by shooting coke.
I knew I was going to die. This was January and I was positive
I would be dead by March if I kept on taking drugs. So I tried
it without doing any drugs at all. I thought, 'Let's see what
happens in a year. If it still feels like the world is against
you and people don't want you, you can go back on drugs and you
years later, Frusciante has had no reason to go back, and he is
certainly loved. The Chilis' gig at the Fila Forum arena is so
in demand that there are people selling fake tickets, while Donatella
Versace has sent the band a bunch of clothes with a handwritten
note, politely requesting that rock's coolest survivors put in
an appearance on her catwalks. It's a similar story all over the
world, especially in the UK, where last August's By the Way album
has barely been out of the top 10 since its release, and has now
shifted 8m copies worldwide. It will surely outstrip the 12.5m
of its 1999 predecessor, Californication.
fact the album, hard-rocking yet filled with transcendental beauty
borne out of great pain, is a microcosm of their career since
a bunch of LA schoolfriends first mixed punk, funk, avant garde,
disco and jazz with every stimulant going 20 years ago. Nowadays,
the Chilis have never been in better shape. Three quarters of
the band - Frusciante, singer Anthony Kiedis, bassist Michael
Balzaray aka Flea - have gone through heroin addiction, but aside
from drummer Chad Smith's lingering indulgence in smoking and
drinking, they are now so healthy that Frusciante worries about
the amount of fat in a hotel biscuit.
them lies a litany of ups and downs. This is, after all, the band
that has outlasted trends, drugs, madness, seven guitarists, nervous
breakdowns, £70,000 of dental surgery (Frusciante's teeth
fell out from drug abuse) and one death (of founding guitarist
Hillel Slovak, from heroin, in 1988). That's six deaths if you
include the times Frusciante has OD-ed and technically passed
Chilis have avoided the traditional rock fate (band take drugs,
mess up, make bad albums, clean up, but are creatively spent),
and perhaps the clues lie in the once broken but daily recovering
figure of John Frusciante. The gifted guitarist plays on the Chilis'
best and most successful records. He joined the band for 1989's
Mother's Milk and 1991's Blood Sugar Sex Magik, and then he quit,
finally returning for Californication. While he was out of the
band from 1992 to 1998, the Chilis struggled. They produced only
one album, 1995's disappointing One Hot Minute.
bolt upright in a comfy chair, Frusciante is still only 32, ravaged
and recovering but extraordinarily childlike and vulnerable. His
long sleeves cover the scars of his addiction, but his words convey
the thoughts of someone who is intelligent and sensitive, perhaps
too sensitive for his own good.
done a lot of thinking and I wasn't very social," he sighs.
"I felt like I was turning my brain inside out to where my
subconscious was becoming my conscious. I was understanding things
that a man doesn't have a right to understand, about the way people's
energies work together and who they are. Why a rock star makes
one person happy and another makes you... wanna kill them. I was
seeing these things in a way that was... disgusting. Really disgusting.
I could deal with it until I saw the depths. At that point, everything
that was beautiful to me became ugly. Everything that had previously
brought me happiness caused me the hugest sadness. Music. Paintings.
People. It was pure depression. [Heroin] caused these things to
be beautiful again."
past interviews, Frusciante has hinted at unspecified "childhood
pain", but has never expanded. "It's subconscious childhood
pain which you've pushed into your memory and then suddenly it
pops out 20 years later and you's a drug addict," he whispers.
Can we talk about it, I ask. "Oh, come on."
grew up in California. Aged six, his parents divorced and he flitted
between living with his Mum in Santa Monica and visiting his father
in Florida in the summers. But the kid was happy, so what went
wrong? "Nothing... I mean, to have childhood pain you don't
need an unhappy childhood. It can be one little moment... or a
period of a couple of weeks that ends up growing..." A couple
of weeks? "Yeah... or 10 minutes in a couple of weeks that
can have a profound effect on the rest of your life." The
silence is screaming.
the foyer, bassist Flea is practising yoga moves. If Frusciante
is the band's creative force, Flea is the talisman. His posts
on the band's website make both hilarious and moving reading.
(December 2002: "I've had a hard on for this whole flight.
I haven't slept for the whole fucking thing!") But behind
Flea's goofball persona lurks a shy, likable, thoughtful man who
can feel "overwhelmed by the world", confesses that
touring gets "very lonely" and says he can even now
be found at parties "staring at my shoes".
the oddest thing Flea tells me is that only now - aged 40 - has
he finally been able to "forgive" his parents. "I
was raised in a very violent, alcoholic household," he says.
"I grew up being terrified of my parents, particularly my
father figures. My dad left when I was six, I didn't see him much,
and my stepfather was aggressive. It caused a lot of trouble in
later life." From the age of 11, Flea was hanging out on
street corners until 4am. The Chilis' early years were a party,
typified by the band's now notorious performances wearing only
socks (on their penises) but increasingly, the party took on a
darker hue. "We did drugs from a very young age and it just
started to kind of... steamroll."
first hit home with the death of Hillel Slovak. "When Hillel
died it was during one of the happiest times of my life,"
says Flea, prodding at his green tea. "I was married and
completely in love and had a baby on the way. I was smoking weed
and playing basketball and going home and loving my wife. I felt
very connected with a lot of people, but a lot of that was shattered.
When Hillel died, I completely hit the deck." The shellshocked
bassist veered between periods of abstinence and abuse, which
came to an end when he hit the bottom at 31. "I was this
incredible burst of wildness, and suddenly I was hacked down,"
he says. "I got sick. I had chronic fatigue for a year. My
system completely collapsed. But I was forced to confront things
about myself." Frusciante had replaced Slovak, but was falling
apart at around the same time as Flea. High in the Hollywood hills,
he virtually barricaded himself in at home on a diet of heroin
and hallucinations, often staying up for a week at a time.
admits to still having problems with the notion of being a "rock
star" as opposed to a musician. "It's something other
people see you as and you have to take it with a grain of salt,"
says Flea, but even now he has been known to snap when pawed by
fans and then feel "terribly disgusted and apologetic afterwards".
But - perhaps linked in with whatever happened in his childhood
- the biggest burdens have been carried by Frusciante. As a teenager,
he followed the Chilis: "Their shows were the most exciting
place to be." Then he beat off scores of competitors to become
suddenly part of those shows. "I made mistakes when I joined
the band," he says, surprisingly. "The way I behaved
was so careless and one-dimensional. Thoughtless. I thought, girls,
money, drugs..." You were 18 years old, I say. "I was
too young, yeah. But I had two years of negligence. When I see
pictures of myself back then I just wanna strangle the person."
Finally kicking drugs was made easier by the realisation that
his old emotional problems were behind him. A year later, he was
recording Californication. A big thing, says Frusciante, was "realising
that people loved me".
such person was Anthony Kiedis, the arty-Iggy frontman, who was
"very tight" with Frusciante originally, but who excommunicated
the guitarist for five years. As a recovering addict in 1992,
the last thing he needed around him was another user, and when
Frusciante left and got into heroin he felt "doubly betrayed".
However, as the band floundered, he slipped back into abuse. When
Flea was despatched to ask the recovered Frusciante to rejoin
them, Kiedis decided to clean up for good. The bad blood between
them melted away with the band's delight that the musical chemistry
was intact. "It's like jazz musicians," says Smith,
of the Chilis' now uncommon method of creating music by jams and
improvisations. "Unspoken musical telepathy."
(who joined with Frusciante in 1988) is the most regular Chili,
the epitome of the drummer - solid and dependable when all is
falling apart. He suggests his blue-collar roots - "Michigan,
smoking pot and drinking, occasionally too much" - helped
him avoid the band's worst excesses. He is the only one who heads
for the bars and fleshpots after gigs, and although he confesses
to occasional "mischief", it's unlikely to be drug-related.
If Smith has a problem, it's relationships. He has three children
by different mothers, and has never been able to settle down.
"I'm the dumper," he sighs. "I fall in love easily,
but... I get restless. I'll figure it out one day. Can we talk
about something else?"
has changed in the Chilis' camp. Tofu and fragrant candles have
replaced coke and heroin. Flea illustrates the transformation
from the "out of control, obnoxious brats" of their
youth to where they are now with a story. When producer Andy Gill
(of Gang of Four) did what they considered to be a bad job on
their debut album, they shat on his mixing desk. Nowadays, Flea
insists, they would "calmly explain". But the idea that
the band has mellowed totally is as daft as expecting no further
bumps along the way.
front of 15,000 fans at the Forum, the Chilis look and sound unstoppable.
Flea looks as cool as any 40-year-old father flea-hopping in orange
underpants ever could. Kiedis smashes his muscular frame around
the floor. Smith can't hold down relationships but conducts the
audience's applause using just a drumstick and a bass drum. Most
poignantly, Frusciante stands stagefront with his eyes closed,
lashing out searing solos that seem to come from a very private
place. "I's at peace with myself," he said earlier,
a man who knows he's blessed with a second chance. "I think
that when I was a young, confused and stupid person who actually
hadn't lived much, I think I really wanted to be who I am now.
In a way I's proud of all my experiences because they'se helped
me get here." As he turns to face the band, his face explodes
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