Frusciante sits under a rose-colored archway in the hills above
Los Angeles, clutching a pack of cigarettes and a one-hitter of
pot. He's barely recognizable at first. With a tousled mane of
Jim Morrison-style hair, a huddled posture and oddly matched clothes,
he looks more like a sleepless, absent-minded philosophy student
than a rock star. Gone is the buff, mohawk-sporting 18-year-old
who once energized arenas with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, co-wrote
hits like "Under the Bridge" and "Breaking
the Girl," and stripped funk-rock guitar to its raw essentials
on Blood Sugar Sex Magik.
His first two solo records, 1994's difficult Niandra Lades
[American] and the even darker Smile From the Streets You
Hold [Birdman, 1409 W. Magnolia, Burbank, CA 91506], reflect
even less of his former persona. Composed of splintered solo
acoustic/electric 4-track bedroom demos rife with backward guitar,
howling vocals, enigmatic lyrics and bare-bones guitar arrangements,
they are the aural documents of an idealistic, 27-year-old who
quit one of the world's biggest bands at its creative peak,
descended into heroin addiction and barely made it out alive.
It was only in the last few weeks of 1996 that Frusciante was
finally able to kick the three-year habit that contributed to
the loss of his Hollywood Hills home and the gradual deterioration
of his body; earlier this year, John's remaining teeth were
removed and replaced by dentures in order to avoid a life-threatening
infection. His right forearm appears badly burned, and his speech,
though filled with interesting insights and word games, is slurred
A voracious music listener, talented painter and devotee of
tragic, fallen angels like Syd Barrett, Marc Bolan, Kurt Cobain
and Sid Viscious, Frusciante is a mixture of passion, self-taught
cultural erudition and snivet-particularly regarding rock and
roll mythology. He constantly refers to death in the warmest
possible terms. "Death is a place I'm really looking
forward to being in," he says later, strumming a vintage
Gibson acoustic in a small room crammed with videos, CDs and
art books on Van Gogh, Duchamp, Basquiat and Da Vinci. "I
can also be very happy in this life, but it's usually happiness
that I get from other lives I've lived and other dimensions.
This life is hardly important to me. It's very small compared
to the importance that I think the fourth and fifth dimension
have. Those places are much more real to me, like when you have
a dream and it's more real to you than real life. Compared to
where I'll be going, this life seems like a dream that just
feels like a dream."
The recent release of Smile, new sessions in producer
Jimmy Boyle's L.A. studio, an interest in releasing tapes of
3 Amoebas (his improv trio with Flea and Janes Addiction
drummer Stephen Perkins) and his participation in this summer's
Nuttstalk tour with members of P-Funk and Fishbone
represent Frusciante's first forays back into the land of the
living. But it's an uneasy peace he maintains with what we call
reality. " I think the reason he embraces death
so much," says his friend and former bandmate Flea,
"is that he wants his spirit to be free. He really doesn't
care about being alive in the physical world."
Listening to Smile From the Streets You Hold can be unnerving.
Raw, vulnerable and stream-of-consciousness, it's a dark ode
to the demons and spirits that inhabit Frusciante's head -the
sound of an extremely talented guitarist in search of himself.
"The title song was a very intense moment,"
says Frusciante quietly, "because I was having verbal
communication with the spirits while I was recording, and I
started crying at the end of it. The spirits give you ideas
for things, and what's important to them is what's important
to me. I'm much more concerned with my fame in their world than
with my fame in this one. That's why it's been difficult for
me to adjust to being alive at all."
John Frusciante was born in New York in 1970 to John and Gail
Frusciante. John Sr. was a Juilliard-trained pianist who became
a lawyer and later a judge. Gail, too , was a promising musician,
a singer who became a homemaker, says her son, because her husband
ruled out the possibility of a musical career, though she now
sings for her church and provided the background vocals on "Under
the Bridge." The family lived in Queens, relocated
to Tuscon, Arizona, and then moved to Florida for a year, during
which time John's parents separated. Moving with his mother
to Santa Monica, California, John, like a million other California
kids, became obsessed with skateboarding, Aerosmith and
By age nine he was already a budding punk rocker, wearing out
copies of the Germs' G.I. record. By ten he'd figured
out most of the Germs songs in his own tuning that allowed
him to play everything with a single-finger barre. It was a
habit he'd have to break as he started lessons a year later
while living in nearby Mar Vista with his mom and new stepdad,
an avid philosophy reader and black belt who listened to Beethoven
and '50s R&B but "understood where punk rock was
coming from. He really supported me and made me feel good about
being an artist."
From the Germs, John graduated to Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and
Jimi Hendrix, tackled the almighty barre chord and blues scale,
and began pursuing increasingly complicated rock like King
Crimson, Yes, early Genesis and Frank
Zappa, whose work he'd study for hours, learning solos
and syncopations in detail. Captain Beefheart,The
Residents and other out-rock prophets became John's pantheon,
and by 17 he'd dropped out of high school and moved to Los Angeles,
where he and a friend figured a way to punch in for classes
at G.I.T. without actually attending in order to appease their
parents' desire that they get an education. He even showed up
at a Zappa audition, only to leave the rehearsal room before
stepping up to the plate. Cold feet? "Nah. I realized
that I wanted to be a rock star, do drugs and get girls, and
that I wouldn't be able to do that if I was in Zappa's band."
In 1988 Frusciante first jammed with Michael Balzary, a.k.a.
Flea, the bass player of his favorite local band, the Red Hot
Chili Peppers. Frusciante had begun jamming with former Dead
Kennedys drummer D.H. Peligro, who would soon temporarily replace
Jack Irons in the Peppers, and when Peligro learned of the young
guitarist's fascination with the band, he invited John to jam
with him and Flea at Flea's house on Fairfax Avenue. Less than
a year later, following original guitarist Hillel Slovak's fatal
heroin overdose and a short collaboration with former Funkadelic
guitarist Blackbyrd McKnight. Flea called the 18-year-old Frusciante
with the news: He was the new Chili Peppers guitarist. "There
were bootmarks five feet high on the wall in my room for months
after that call," Frusciante remembers.
was just a kid when he joined," says Flea, "totally
overexuberant about everything. His playing was amazing. He
was technically very competent and much more theoretically knowledgable
than I was, with a bit of the Steve Vai guitar wizard damage.
I've always relied on intuition and emotion to get me through,
and I think that concept is something he latched onto real quickly."
From the start Frusciante wrote with the band. Pretty Little
Ditty was salvaged from his and Flea's first jam, and the
hit Knock Me Down -a knockoff of Zeppelin's The Wanton
Song- took the band's writing to a new level of tunefulness
and economy. By the recording of the enormously successful Blood
Sugar Sex Magik in 1991, Frusciante had developed into an
intuitive and technically astute player who played funk as if
it were second nature. "But I wasn't really a funk player
before I joined the band," says Frusciante. "I
learned everything I needed to know about how to sound good
with Flea by studying Hillel's playing, and I just took it sideways
It was a half-hour before showtime at a gig in Japan in 1992
when Frusciante announced his intention to leave the group.
"He just said, 'I can't do it. I can't play anymore,'"
says Flea. "He didn't even want to play that night,
so we had to beg him to do the last gig." Frusciante's
disaffection had been brewing for months. "Toward the
end you could tell that his playing was angry at the band. If
the band got really soft, he'd start playing louder, and vice
versa. He did it just to be anti. He was really hating it, so
as much as I loved playing with him, it was a huge relief when
When i quit the band I couldn't do anything but lay on the couch
depressed, and then I became a junkie and came to life and started
playing music again," Frusciante told L.A.'s New Times
in late '96. Earlier that year, he said, he had nearly died,
as a result of his body having "a twelfth of the blood
it's supposed to have, and that blood was infected."
John's house in the Hollywood Hills became notorious for its
horrific mess and graffiti-covered walls ("My eye hurts"
and "Stabbing pain with discipline's knife" were among
the scrawled epithets), and after an accidental fire and difficulty
with payments, John eventually moved out, bouncing through a
succession of short-lived stays at the Chateau Marmont and the
Mondrian. Due to the arrest of a friend under whose name the
room was booked, John's many notebooks, crammed with poetry,
mathematics, word games, drawings and story ideas, are presently
locked away in the Mondrian. He wants them back, but his concern
is less for his past work than for what's going through his
head at any given moment.
he wants to do is be creative," says Flea. "He
doesn't care about money or personal hygiene or anything else.
And he never has. If we made $10,000, he'd give it to the pizza
delivery guy. He only cares about art." Flea, a former
drug user himself, tells Frusciante what he thinks about his
habits. "John once told me, 'I don't have a problem
with drugs, you have a problem with me doing drugs.'
In retrospect, I realize, yeah, I do have a problem with
drugs. I do have a problem with friends dying. It makes me really
fucking sad. I don't want him to do any drugs at all, and I
tell him that. That's all I can do as someone who loves and