Juice (USA) , December 1999
Added: June 10, 2007
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“His upper teeth are nearly gone now; they have been replaced by tiny slivers of off-white that peek through rotten gums. His lower teeth, thin and brown, appear ready to fall out if he so much as coughs too hard. His lips are pale and dry, coated with spit so thick it looks like paste. [...]
"His upper teeth are nearly gone now; they have been replaced by tiny slivers of off-white that peek through rotten gums. His lower teeth, thin and brown, appear ready to fall out if he so much as coughs too hard. His lips are pale and dry, coated with spit so thick it looks like paste. His hair is shorn to the skull; his fingernails, or the spaces where they used to be, are blackened by blood. His feet and ankles and legs are pocked with burns from unfiltered Camel cigarette ashes that have fallen unnoticed. His flesh also bears bruises, scabs, and scars... Drops of dried blood dot his pants."
This description, taken from an article in The Los Angeles New Times, in 1996 could have been from any junk clichè piece, an exposè of homelessness and drug addiction crafted to make average middle Americans feel warmer in whatever bed they made for themselves. But instead, it's part of a grander modern parable. The junkie in qoation was one John Frusciante, ex-Chili Pepper guitarist who'd fallen on what most of us would call hard times.
How did he get to this point? This cautionary story started out a nice fairy tale, as Frusciante played a fresh -as in 17-year-old- face in a band which was already dogged by sensational fallout from its ever present sexual energy, and by rumours surrounding the death of original guitarist Hillel Slovak in June 1988. Slovak OD'd on heroin. Despite denials, singer Anthony Kiedis was using too. Seemingly diametrically opposed to all of that was a mohawked young fan, Frusciante. All-Californian, his build suited the band's near-jock buffed look. And having chased his favourite band for years from venue to venue, copying Hillel's guitar moves, he was never going to think twice when Los Angeles' underground outside chance offered him the job after a string of temporary replacements.
Frusciante was known as a sensitive young man with an artist's heart, while the realities of being in a rock band - especially one in the midst of an explosion of popularity can he tough on the naive. Ironically enongh, until joining the Peppers, Frusciante had been so busy practising guitar 15 hours a day, that using drugs while playing music had never occurred to him. Then he realised bassist Flea was often high at shows. And so, by his 20th year, Frusciante was smoking pot every day, perhaps not so smart considering what appeared to he a fragile mental state. He first tried heroin just after recording the band's watershed Blood Sugar Sex Magik in 1991. The parable took a sinister turn.
The band was interested in at least appearing clean. A hit from 1989 album Mothers Milk, "Knock Me Down", was an anti-smack tribute to Slovak. "They're the stupidest lyrics I've ever heard," said Frusciante of the chorus: "If you see me getting high / Knock me down.
Considering Frusciante's description of drugs as "the greatest thing in the world," from there we can only imagine the slippery slope leading to the damaged state he was in by 1996. He'd been forced out of his home in the Hollywood hills after his inability to keep up payments was exacerbated by an accidental fire. The house reflected his personal state of mind - its smell was notorious amongst visitors, and the walls were scrawled with graffiti (samples including "My eye hurts" and "Stabbing pain with discipline's knife").
Holed up in the Chateau Marmont, a chic hotel for the Betty Ford set ("where bigger names than he have checked in to check out," the New Pimes afficle deadyanned, referring to John Beinshi), he was rake thin. Living on a calorie-boosting formula designed for invalids and the elderly, dressed in rags, nodding off by his own later admission he spent his time "smoking crack all day long, shooting heroin, shooting cocaine, drinking wine, taking valium."
But as far as Frusciante was concerned, things had been worse. There was 1992, the year in which he quit his dream job in the Chili Peppers. He'd made the call himself half an hour before a show in Japan in the midst of the touring which supported Blood Sugar- a runaway hit at the time. He was so adamant he had to leave the band - which he'd joined as a near obsessed fan back in 1988 - Flea had to beg him to play that night, let alone the rest of the tour.
At that point, he was unbearably depressed, unable to contemplate the music and art (he's a painter and writer) which had previously given him purpose. The Chili Peppers' success had turned the band upon itself leading to reports that at the height of Blood Sugar Sex Magik's six million unit sales, the scene backstage with the Funky Monks (as the hand was dubbed,) suggested they'd each taken their own vow of silence - at least when it came to communicating with one another. It had also turned Frusciante's muse inside out. He'd lost his way, and as far as he was concerned, getting out of it on heroin led him back. "I couldn't do anything but lay on the couch and be depressed," he said. "Then I became a junkie and came to life again and became happy and started playing music again."
Then there was the year he turned 27,1997. "It was a year of feeling like an impostor who didn't even deserve to be called John Frusciante," he recalled. "It was the worst year of my life."
At least while on this cocktail of substances, he felt creatively active. His solo albums were harrowing. The home-made four track recordings were closer to the emotionally exploratory and surreal work of his favourite artists (Van Gogh, Duchamp, Basquait) and the acidic tangents of the fallen musical minds he admired (trippers like Syd Barret Marc Bolan, Kurt Cobain and Sid Viscious) than the RHCP's athletic funk workouts. He explained that he wasn't so much writing the music on his two solo albums, Niandra LaDes and Usually Just a T-Shirt and Smile From the Streets You Hold, as channelling spirits from the fourth and fifth dimensions. And it sounds like those spirits aren't so benevolent, despite his claims that, "I'm more concerned with fame in the spirit world than in this one."
Still, when RHCP fans heard Frusciante would replace ex-Jane's Addiction axe-wielder, Dave Navarro, as guitarist in 1998, they were over-joyed. Blood Sugar was an accepted rock classic, a marriage of LA punk rock and funkadelic craziness that was as idiosyncratic as it was influential on the late '90s hip rock movement. Could the reunited hand replicate that feeling? Red Hot Chili Peppers singer Anthony Kiedis, has a simple explanation for the excitement. The chemistry is back.
"John's an amazing person, and I've never felt anybody that I've liked to make music with more than he," Kiedis says. "I couldn't be happier. It was actually much more than a dream come true, because I couldn't even have dreamed about that happening. It's better than my wildest dreams."
It's over three years after the New Times story, and Kiedis is talking lyrics, a rarity for him (he's more likely to dismiss these questions with a line like, "I hate to be too blunt with an explanation for a song, because the song really explains itself better than I ever could"). But there are some obvious slices of autobiography on latest album Californication, a fact made plainer by Kiedis' tendency to name names. Elsewhere on the record he rhymes John Frusciante with the line, "Python power straight from Monty," while "This Velvet Glove" is a love song for Kiedis' wife, which centres around the lines, 'John says to live above hell / My will is well."
It sounds like a plain reference to an understanding that's shared between friends who've beaten the same monkey off their backs. Kiedis says the quote is not so literal, but the John the song refers to is indeed Frusciante, and the lyric is an eavesdropped lift from one of his solo works in progress.
"He was singing about living life above hell, meaning whether from drugs or just state of mind," says Kiedis. "He'd sampled life living in hell, he thought better of it, got over it and was living in a more beautiful space. I was so deeply in love when I wrote it, and John was very much a part of my life during that time, creating good energy, I wanted to mention it."
Legend has it that Frusciante had checked himself into hospital "trying to get his mental health together", when he woke up in early 1997 to find Kiedis standing over him. The pair had barely spoken since their split, and for the year before he left the band they hadn't seen eye to eye. But Kiedis started visiting him regularly, along with Flea. It was some homecoming.
All members of the Chili Peppers had been through the wringer since Frusciante's departure, involving after a succession of cancelled tours, motor cycle mishaps for Kiedis and drummer Chad Smith, divorces for Flea and Smith, and a period of serious "writer's block" and soul searching. Flea has suggested that their vocalist's searching was done from the confines of detox.
Kiedis fell off the wagon in 1997, admitting on MTV "When I use drugs, my life sucks." His upbringing with his divorced father - a small time actor stage-named Blackie Dammett - matches that of a Hollywood star tearaway (virginity lost at 12, smoked first joint with Dad, mates with Sonny Bono etc). Having experimented with a range of drugs from age 15, his continuous problems with staying clean also fit the bill. He's since found cleanliness, true love and a re-fired musical career But there were many low ebbs.
And Frusciante had it worst of all, of course. The last live performance he offered was at the infamous Sunset Boulevard club, the Viper Room, with his part-time bandmates, Gibbey Hayes of the Butthole Surfers, Johnny Depp and Flea. That was Halloween morning 1993. The night coincided with River Phoenix, Frusciante's "closest friend, champion and protector" dying, gulping like a goldfish on the sidewalk. Frusciante would not play with the Chili Peppers again for almost four years.
“The Eagles’ Hotel California is heavily steeped in memories for me, growing up with my father in the ‘70s Hollywood,” says Kiedis, when asked to draw a line between a few cultural references to Hollywood and his own appraisal of the subject.
“I used to listen to Hotel California constantly,” he says. “That brings back a lot of memories, mostly good, from that era. Randy Newman’s “I Love LA” is something they play at the Los Angeles Lakers basketball arena when the Lakers are walloping their opponent. So that also has good memories for me.”
There have been songs written for and against the City of Angels. Even album’s like Hole’s “Celebrity Skin” celebrate that mix of Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles’ take on Tinseltown, albeit from an insider’s view. For Kiedis, this backlog of mythology- from A Star is Born to Showgirls and far beyond- is no impediment to making a new and valid statement about the city and its life.
“Our thing is a little bit different,” says Kiedis. “It’s a natural reaction to be inspired by your environment, all those competing energies in California. It’s so diverse there. It’s got the lowest-of-the-low-life-superficial-liposuction-mania-wanna-be-famous-for-a-minute weirdos. And then it’s got the most beautiful mountains, deserts, oceans and history or creativity of almost any place on earth. A lot of great artists have been born under those conditions, and a lot has been accomplished by this beautiful, irreparable creature that I live in.”
“It’s the edge of the world/And all of western civilisation/The sun may rise in the East/ At least it settles on the final location/ It’s understood that Hollywood sells Californication.”
So sings Kiedis on the album’s title track, the first line referring to stumbling on Coke-sign civilisation in a region of India that he’d never expected to have heard of Bollywood, let alone Hollywood (whether it be staggering around the rainforests of Borneo suffering hallucinations, leech bites and dengue fever, or falling from a derailed train while traversing India north to the south solo, it appears Kiedis is happiest risking his life trekking).
Considering the depths of friends like Frusciante have hit, the song is a surprisingly positive take on the town.
Lines like “Pay your surgeon very well to break the spell of aging,” and “Little girls from Sweden dream of silver screen quotations,” suggest a cynical view. And a central stanza, “Space may be the final frontier/ But it’s made in a Hollywood basement/ Cobain can you hear the spheres/ Singing songs of station to station/ And Alderon’s not far away...” brings to mind Lucasfilm morality and Capricorn One all at once. It could be starting to sound cynical. Does the buffed and cut Californian rock archetype, Kiedis, ever feel he may be succumbing to the dark side himself? He laughs.
“Yeah. It does tend to vacillate, you know, you might find yourself swinging back and forth. But it’s all OK, because whatever makes you feel like you’re conducting some of the spiritual space around you- if you’re fucking up, or drifting from the path which you’ve envisioned for yourself either artistically or just on a day to day basis, it always does go back to- I have no moral code like that. I embrace the bad and the bad or the good. In fact they trade places.
“As far as the dark heart is concerned, there’s both dark and light there, and it’s not difficult to put a positive spin on it,” he says. “Beauty can be found in darkness as well.”
Frusciante’s explanation that he was prepared to remain a junkie to keep his creativity flowing may sound like the transparent excuses of an addicted man. Likewise, the new age-isms which Kiedis uses so comfortably don’t read as naturally as they sound- more like a Hollywood archetype, vacuous, fame grasping for some solidity through pseudo spirituality. But to hear him speak is to know he’s a whole-hearted believer. And he’s been through the kind of mill which suggests he has a head and a heart which is not easily swayed from its purpose. The band which made its name wearing sock on its cocks, attracting convictions for sexual misbehaviour with female fans, and generally living up to The Uplift Mofo Party Plan also has a deep side.
He’s travelled the world- Indonesia, Alaska, Mexico, India- searched for gurus, swamis and soul in wide open spaces. He and Flea have been heading into true wilderness areas to ‘meet’ the locals since they were 15. “Met the porpoise, and the seal and the glaciers and the icebergs,” says Kiedis of a kayaking trip through the Alaskan fjords. “Didn’t get to meet the killer whale.” He found the source of the Ganges in the Himalayas, and surfed the Californian coast.
But for all of the metaphysical talk, he hasn’t found the answers in far off Eastern religions or Californian hippiedom.
“Teachers range from my three-year-old nephew Jackson, to books by Alister Crowley, and the smile of Magic Johnson,” he says. “I didn’t find that travelling to the Himalayas was any more of a spiritual breeding ground than the gutters of East Los Angeles.”
“My philosophy or the band’s philosophy on that stuff is, we gave a blue collar mentality,” he concludes, “where you can bring that kind of awareness and that kind of energy into your everyday existence. It’s just how you treat people wherever you go, and how you live your life wherever you are.”
“The struggle of going from being a Have Not to a Have is really where most of the fun lies,” says Kiedis at one point. “To have been born a have, or to get that too quickly or too easily would take all of the fun out of it. The best times we ever had would have been during that struggle, that’s where you develop your compassion. It doesn’t really matter where you end up, as a have or have not. It’s all about the journey.”
It’s easier to say when you’ve hit happier times. After visiting Frusciante in hospital around the time of the Chili Peppers’ split with Navarro, Flea decided maybe it was possible for the young space funkster to rejoin the band. The remains of his teeth had been replaced with dentures in the face of life threatening infection, he had gained weight, and grown a straggly beard and long hair to create the personable Jesus look he now sports. Visits from Flea turned into jam sessions with Smith and Flea in the garage of Flea’s home in the Hollywood foothills. Pretty soon the band was rehearsing five times a week and getting together to hang out on the days in between. Kiedis remembers a moment from those sessions in the middle of an excruciating hot summer, where a guitar riff turned him into an internal lyric. He came up with the hook from “Scar Tissue”: “With the birds I share this lonely view.”
“I heard something resonating in the room, a particular sound that wasn’t necessarily exactly what they were playing, but a synthetic sound,” he says, recalling his excitement. “And I ran outside so my brain could isolate it from what they were playing. And it was both that melody and that lyric. And I don’t know what it was. There were these giant hawks circling around above the palm trees. Maybe for a minute I connected with them, being a solo flier, and the idea of looking down on the world like that.
“That was the type of lyric I like best,” he says, “because I didn’t have to come home, sit at my desk and look out of the window to search for it. It was literally like an arrow shooting into my head.”
Kiedis seems happy with his lot. He’s in love, which has brought a change of lifestyle for him. Quoting his lines from “Otherside” (“The ashtray’s full and I’m spilling my guts/She wants to know am I still a slut”) back at him only reinforces his conviction. As a man who’ll sing lines like “Push me up against a wall/ Young Kentucky girl in a push-up bra/Fallin’ over myself/ To lick your heart to taste your health,” it’s perhaps surprising to hear Kiedis embrace monogamy. Eventually.
“It isn’t like I just woke up one day and embraced it,” he explains. “That’s one transformation that took at least two years to happen. At the moment I have thoroughly embraced that because I am very much in love with one particular person, I was just becoming tired of one thing, and becoming more interested in and in love with something else, one person.”
It’s all very uplifting compared to the band’s woeful musical and various personal histories in the mid to late ‘90s. And the newfound sense of joy the band now have is there on Californication. Which brings us to one last intriguing lyric, from the aforementioned new single “Around the World”. In one chorus, Kiedis sings, “I know I know it’s true/ Ding dang dong dong ding dang dong dong ding dang.” What’s the deeper meaning behind that one? Kiedis laughs.
“It’s like good old fashioned scat singing, which is an American tradition from way back, mixed in with a little bit of an Eastern twist to it,” he explains. “It just happened one day and actually, most of the band was thinking I was singing that because I couldn’t think of any more lyrics for that particular section. But I always intended for it to be that. When it came time for the recording, I did that during the session and they said. ‘OK, so you need to get the rest of those lyrics written.’ I said, ‘No, that is the song,’ and fortunately Flea’s daughter, Clara, was in the studio that day, and she thought it was the best part of the song. So it stayed.”