the multiplatinum success of their comeback album, Californication,
the Red Hot Chili Peppers have kicked Behind The Music memories
to the curb. More sober than ever, though no less passionate,
Los Angeles' bad-boy icons are back--and they may have made
the year's best rock record
has electric blue hair today, which makes his blue eyes really
pop. “This journalist asked me yesterday why I dye my
hair,” he says. “It’s either that or
39, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist has had one nervous
breakdown, one stress-related illness (he “fell apart”
for about a year following the band’s breakthrough album,
1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik), one divorce, and one child
(Clara, 13). He is a full-time single father, a yoga practitioner,
and ten years clean and sober. “Being a dad is a top-important
thing to me,” he says. “I really want to
be her friend.”
on a couch in Los Angeles’ swanky Hotel Bel-Air, Flea eats
takeout Thai after a long silent prayer. He cultivates little
of the rock-star, wind-in-his-hair, Satan-in-his-pants mystique—instead,
he’s an excitable motormouth and quick to tear up. (“I
cry at the news all the time,” he admits.) He’s
also given to happy freakouts, like a recent Christmas meltdown
in Australia (where he was born and has a beach house). He explains
it his usual way, by spitting run-on sentences like flaming watermelon
seeds. Raising his eyebrows and grinning, he resembles Chet Baker’s
crazed little brother.
night I put on X’s Los Angeles [the 1980 punk classic] really
loud, and I just had a total epiphany about why I wanted to play
rock music in the first place. I started jumping around and threw
my plate against the wall! I was smashing shit. My daughter was
like, ‘Papa! What’s the matter with you?’ I
threw myself on the ground. I was on the verge of tears, but also
X means to Flea is deeply rooted in L.A. Before Jane’s Addiction,
hip-hop, or Beck, X were an L.A. band who rocked heroically and
poetically about the L.A. we all lived in but never saw in movies.
That L.A. was an ethnic cacophony without equal; economically
dysfunctional, yet throbbing with immigrant energy. It was dingy
and romantic, tinged with bohemian squalor and dreams of Hollywood
immortality, infected by a chronic loneliness.
know what L.A. is to me?” Flea asks. “It’s
that bird that goes, ooooh-ah-oooh, ooh-ooh.” He mimics
the low coos of a mourning dove. The Peppers captured all of that
melancholy and joyless drugging in their early-’90s ballad
“Under the Bridge,” and some of it on 1999’s
quadruple-platinum Californication, a bittersweet mix of sexy,
sunny exuberance and grown-up regret. The album’s MTV hit
was the mid-tempo wail “Scar Tissue,” whose video
showed the physically battered band members driving a dusty convertible
through the desert. It also featured exquisite vocal harmonies
and slide guitar lines from prodigal member John Frusciante.
emergence on Californication (after a six-year absence due to
a near-fatal drug addiction) has deepened the emotional core of
the band’s music. “John being back makes a huge
difference,” says producer Rick Rubin. “He’s
brimming with ideas, and he lives and breathes music more than
anyone I’ve ever seen in my life.” Frusciante’s
songwriting has helped Flea and singer Anthony Kiedis (whose voice
sounds better than ever) capture a more complete vision of their
L.A. “The soul of this city is a huge part of who we
are,” says Flea, “and I think the soul of
this city is an old and beautiful thing.”
new album, By the Way, wonderfully evokes L.A.’s, and the
Chili Peppers’, essence, both damaged and optimistic. Swooning,
beachy harmonies, Beatlesque chord progressions, Motown drumming,
new wave synths, non-schmaltzy strings. Plus, Kiedis’ daring
and expressionistic lyrics just sound much more personal. (“He
really outdid himself,” says Rubin.) There are ’60s
and ’80s currents throughout, thanks mostly to Frusciante.
(He handles all keyboards, vocal harmonies, and guitars.) The
Chili Peppers talk about “serving the song”
(Flea) and “getting out of the way of the song”
(drummer Chad Smith). They’re listening to one another,
and their sound is changing. By the Way’s sonic vibrancy,
as well as its maturity, sounds like a band being reborn.
now, most of you are familiar with the Chili Peppers’ back-story.
How Kiedis and Flea met at Los Angeles’ diverse Fairfax
High in the late ’70s, formed the band, and carried on after
guitarist Hillel Slovak died of a heroin overdose in 1988 (original
drummer Jack Irons quit after Slovak’s death and was replaced
by Smith). How Kiedis was still struggling with heroin (and Flea
was far from sober) when Frusciante, a teenage guitar prodigy
and obsessive Chili Peppers fan, joined; and how the band exploded
with Blood Sugar Sex Magik, its fifth album. How Frusciante later
quit to become a full-time junkie (replaced by Dave Navarro for
1995’s One Hot Minute) but finally cleaned up and returned
for Californication, and how everyone became even more rich and
are the raw facts. But the truth of the Chili Peppers’ story
is specific to the crucible where their young lives were shaped—public
schoolyards, punk-rock parking lots, jazz gigs, and proto-rap
clubs downtown. There was a moment in early-’80s L.A. when
several musical movements were happening all at once, and to kids
like the Chili Peppers, boundaries didn’t much matter. Their
initial sound was a mash-up of everything they heard.
and I were street kids, basically,” says Flea, who
was mostly raised by his mom and stepfather, a jazz bassist and
volatile alcoholic (like his biological father). At 11, Kiedis
left his mom’s home in Michigan to live with his father,
aspiring actor Blackie Dammett. Dammett went on to have supporting
roles in films (Lethal Weapon, Doctor Detroit) and on TV (Starsky
and Hutch, Night Court).
had a very violent upbringing,” says Flea. “[My
stepfather] had shoot-outs with the cops. I slept in the backyard
because I was scared. In a way, it gave me freedom. By the time
I was 12 or 13, I was out until three or four in the morning,
carousing, on drugs.”
and Flea were into funk, jazz, and early funk/rock hybrids like
Parliament/Funkadelic and Sly and the Family Stone. At 12, Flea’s
mom took him to see his idol, bebop jazzman Dizzy Gillespie. “I
snuck backstage, and there’s Dizzy, holding his trumpet,
talking to someone,” Flea says excitedly. “I
run up to him, and I’m like [looks up with wide eyes], ‘Mr.
Gillespie.’ And I can’t even talk. I’m in awe.
And he just puts his arm around me and hugs me real tight, so
my head’s kind of in his armpit. He smiles and just holds
me there for, like, five minutes while he talks. I’m just
frozen in joy—oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.”
boys’ wasted youth began for real when Kiedis and Flea discovered
the legendary West Hollywood punk/hippie/rock nexus, the Starwood.
“We were hanging out in the parking lot, mostly,”
says Kiedis, “trying to sneak into Germs and Black Flag
and Circle Jerks shows.”
weren’t cool enough to get in,” Flea adds, grinning.
“One time we painted ourselves in my mother’s
lipstick and went out stark naked.”
the early ’80s, Kiedis saw Grandmaster Flash & the Furious
Five. “It was mind-blowing,” he says. “I
subconsciously vowed I would somehow create that type of energy
to entertain others. I didn’t have a clue how to write a
song or sing, but I thought I could probably figure out how to
tell a story in rhythm.”
the early Chili Peppers were a chaotic spazzfest—guitar
noise, slapdash bass, nudity, carefully placed socks, and Kiedis’
hilarious attempts at rap repartee. But Kiedis says the band’s
sound—which has spawned legions of imitators—was never
premeditated. “Nothing’s ever been conscious,
especially not at that point, because we were pretty high most
of the time. Even now, when we get together, there’s never
a discussion of what we’re doing. We just close our eyes
and start playing.”
almost twenty years later, the band’s intuitive hybrid has
borne some sour fruit. “I don’t think any of those
conservative, ultra-aggro, rap-metal bands had the funk influence
or punk-rock energy that we had,” Kiedis says with
uncharacteristic vehemence. “Even when I was 14, I didn’t
have such one-dimensional angst.”
teenage boy in the crowd makes a heart shape with his hands and
points at Anthony Kiedis. The boy has a blond crew cut and a girl
close by, but he’s totally crushed out on the Chili Peppers’
you,” Kiedis says flatly—which means he really
means it. “Those are beautiful words at a time like
this. A man can get insecure under all these fluorescent lights.”
is some weird show. To promote By the Way, the Chili Peppers are
doing one of those dodgy, unreality-TV “surprise”
concerts for MTV, held in a skate park in Orange County. The modest
crowd sings along with the 45-minute set, but plenty of people
are we, the City of Orange?” Kiedis asks. The crowd
almost cheers. “Where is that? Is that near Fullerton?
I get behind the Orange Curtain, and it’s all a blur.”
Vague crowd noise. (You know it’s bad when the audience
doesn’t even realize it’s being insulted.) The band
works through a set of hits sprinkled with new songs. Flea jumps
around, wobbling his head, while Smith tosses his sticks, Tommy
Lee–style; Kiedis paces fiercely, and Frusciante tries to
find the magic friction, but the crowd is cold.
Kiedis ducks offstage, Flea plucks out a bass line and Smith kicks
in with a funky drumbeat. Flea and Frusciante walk toward each
other, staring, as Frusciante plays little notes here and there
off Flea’s snaky bass line. The audience warms up, cheering.
After a second or two, a slightly ominous groove emerges for 30
seconds or so. Kiedis reenters, watching intently. This is how
a lot of Chili Peppers songs are born. These guys are musical
soulmates, and the chemistry between them is so strong, it’s
pretty much sexual.
I interview Kiedis back at the Hotel Bel-Air, he’s wearing
a long-sleeve, black CALIFORNIA T-shirt. He’s the most guarded
of the Chili Peppers in interviews—cold without being rude.
It’s nothing personal; he just likes to be in control. And
considering how ridiculously fit he is for 39, and that he’s
a self-described type-A personality, he’s probably harder
on himself than on anybody else.
been through a lot since Californication, and it’s all there
in the lyrics: “There’s loss,” he says,
“but also joy and love and that little burst of euphoria
when the whole world makes sense for about 30 seconds.”
Kiedis’ ex-girlfriend, clothing designer Yohanna Logan,
inspired many of those epiphanies. (They broke up during the making
of the album; he wanted kids, and she didn’t.) So did his
dear friend/mentor/fellow smack survivor, Gloria Scott, who died
of cancer around the same time. The song “Venice Queen”
is written for her.
good at losing,” Kiedis says. “It’s
one of my specialties.”
that moment, Frusciante appears at the French doors of the hotel
suite. His hair is shiny, and he’s wearing a ’70s-style
up, Johnny?” asks Kiedis. “How are you? You
Frusciante replies quietly.
you get my message, John?”
I can’t check my machine.”
had a feeling,” says Kiedis. “I thought you
would’ve called me back. I was so excited about our rehearsal
yesterday. I was feeling so good to have heard you play, and I
was worried from our earlier conversation that you didn’t
realize how much I appreciated everything.”
to his bandmates, Kiedis’ communication skills have improved
remarkably in recent years—as have everyone’s. “I
feel like a new band,” Kiedis says. “When
we get together to rehearse, we could write music together all
day long—good music.”
changed like crazy,” Frusciante says later. “He
realizes the power he has to hurt people or to nurture them. Before,
you never knew—one day he was your friend, the next day
you were to think of John Frusciante as a vegetable, chili pepper
would not come to mind. Beet, perhaps. Strange and sweet, grows
in the dark, bleeds easily. During the MTV concert, Frusciante
cut the tip of his finger bending a string. When the band’s
road manager put some disinfectant on it later, Frusciante emitted
a long, loud waaaaaaa. Apparently, he has a low pain threshold.
This man, who ravaged his body with needles, this living Lazarus,
held up his finger as if he just needed someone to kiss it.
a group of damaged people, Frusciante, 32, stands out as the most
damaged of all. But he also has the most intense spiritual life:
He speaks often of a guardian spirit and says that when he was
closest to death during his heroin addiction, he was visited regularly
by figures from the other side. “I was so happy someone
was visiting, I’d make food for them,” he says.
“When they were gone, I’d cry.”
quitting the band on the Blood Sugar tour, Frusciante returned
to L.A. and recorded a solo album while diving into heroin addiction
with frightful determination. “When I originally decided
to become a drug addict, it was a clear decision,”
he says. “I was very sad, and I was always happy when
I was on drugs; therefore, I [thought I] should be on drugs all
the time. I was never guilty—I was always really proud to
be an addict.”
ventured close to the edge. But whether he knew it or not, he
didn’t descend into the void alone—he took little
bits of Flea and Kiedis with him. None of them will get over the
experience anytime soon, if ever. “You just don’t
do what John did—and live,” Flea says, awed.
It’s not only that their bandmate is back—but that
his talent seems more staggering than ever. “John is
the greatest musician in the world,” adds Flea. Says
Kiedis: “The artistic center of his brain is pretty
much all of his brain.”
clear as I talk to Frusciante on the hotel’s private patio
under the blinding sunlight.
So the record’s really pretty.
you have a lot to do with that?
Well, I spent a lot of time after the last tour furthering
my understanding of chord theory and learning Beatles and Charles
Mingus and Burt Bacharach songs. But I’ve got a lot more
You don’t worry you’ll ruin your muse with too
Absolutely not. It just leads to making music with a wider
variety of emotion. It makes me see even more how infinite music
pull out some sunscreen.] Do you want any?
Okay. I like the [SPF] 45 for my arms. My arms are in bad
chuckles, takes off his jacket. His arms are severely scarred,
as if he’d reached into a fire. They remind me of traveling
in Europe, visiting old battlefields now covered in grass; you
know something violent happened there. “It’s actually
more from coke than from heroin,” he says. “Coke
you’re shooting every five minutes. That’s what did
it to me.”
Did you know as a kid that you wanted to be a rock musician?
Well, it was put to me by “that guy” [the guardian
spirit] when I was, like, four. So I went into my parents’
record collection and found a rock’n’roll compilation.
And when my mom asked if I wanted to move to L.A., I said, “Yeah,”
because I knew that was where the rock stars were. I was seven.
Then when I found punk and listened to the Germs, I started seeing
how I was part of this. I remember being out on the baseball field
when I was 11, and I felt like such an outsider. Standing there
in right field, I started making up an angry punk song in my head,
and I went home and wrote, like, 20 songs in a row. I realized
it didn’t even matter if I knew how to play guitar yet.
Didn’t you ever struggle as a beginning songwriter?
Oh, yeah. But I realized that there is a way to hold onto
something that doesn’t exist yet. That’s what takes
place when a song is written: You see something that isn’t
there. Then you use your instrument to find it.
Saturday evening in east Hollywood, and the Silverlake Conservatory
of Music has just completed its first spring recital. The school
is a small storefront establishment located between a Mexican
grocery and a gay-friendly antique shop on East Sunset. Flea founded
it last year to provide people in the area with affordable music
crowd milling about tonight is a multicultural mix typical for
the neighborhood and includes several of Flea’s personal
employees and their families. There are also numerous thirtysomethings
who’ve run in concentric circles with the Chili Peppers’
gang since high school and now have kids of their own. Lots of
survivors—of harsh 1970s childhoods, divorce, drugs.
in the hall, dean Keith Barry (a.k.a. “Tree,” Flea’s
oldest friend) agrees that his generation—that is, the Chili
Peppers’—suffered quite a bit in the past. That’s
partly because of a lack of havens like the conservatory. “As
many places like this as we can create for kids, there will always
be a need as long as people keep having kids.”
school is a symbol of, and a gift to, Flea’s dream city
and the environment that shaped the Chili Peppers.
fact that people can stay sincere and have joy in their lives
in the face of phoniness or economic elitism is a testament to
the spirit of Los Angeles,” says Flea. “Whether
it be street kids from broken homes like me and Anthony, or victims
of huge racism like the black community, or the Mexican community,
crawling across the border just to survive. There are pockets
where all these people come together and live in a creative and
vibrant atmosphere, and that’s the Los Angeles I love.”
says he plans to hit up the “guilty rich people”
he’s friends with and make admission to the conservatory
free. Being here, you can feel that this tiny school could become
an institution, the kind of place that anchors a neighborhood
and even anchors lives.
thing that survives has to be really beautiful,” says
Flea, “and have a really substantial core to it. And
it has to be determined to stick to its guns and do what it’s
talking about L.A., but he’s also talking about his band—since,
in his heart, the two are inseparable. You see, even in Hollywood,
people’s roots eventually grow together.
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