Chilly Pepper

In 1992, guitarist John Frusciante left the Red Hot Chili Peppers for greener pastures. If you see him getting high, don’t knock him down.

John Frusciante’s abrupt departure from the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1992 was as improbable as his induction four years earlier. When he joined, following the death of original guitarist Hillel Slovak, Frusciante had never even been in a band; his only credential was his status as the world’s biggest Chili Peppers fan, the 18-year-old kid who spent his nights going to all of their shows and his days alone in his bedroom honing his embryonic chops on their repertoire. And when he quit, in the midst of a Japanese tour and just two months before the band was scheduled to headline that year’s Lollapalooza tour, the Peppers were riding high on the runaway success of their mainstream breakthrough, Blood Sugar Sex Magik (Warner Bros.), an album that owed much to Frusciante’s soulful expansion of the band’s overall palette.

Increasingly frustrated by the mega-venue shows that the band was playing in support of Blood Sugar and personality conflicts with frontman Anthony Kiedis, he’d become anything but a fan. “After we were finished recording Blood Sugar I pretty much knew I wanted to leave,” Frusciante recalls. “I’d had a really beautiful time recording it, and I didn’t want to go on tour. It seemed like the antithesis of everything I found beautiful about that album. The direction the band going in was totally against what I was about.”

Frusciante retreated to L.A., where he immersed himself in painting and four-track home recordings he’d begun during the Blood Sugar sessions, which eventually became his solo debut, Niandra Lades and Usually Just a T-Shirt (American). For those familiar with his work with the Chili Peppers, Niandra Lades is a revelation, both disturbingly intimate and cryptically veiled. Ladled straight out of the guitarist’s stream of consciousness, it’s worlds away from the up-front, balls-out funk assault of his former band. Sparely orchestrated, with Frusciante’s howled non sequiturs backed up only by his interstellar guitar, there’s an ethereal, otherworldly quality to the album, reminiscent of Syd Barrett’s postbreakdown solo experiments.

“The whole point of recording all this stuff was just to smoke pot and trip out,” Frusciante explains. “I was stoned for every single note I played on the album.”

Even as Kiedis was singing, “If you see me getting high, knock me down” (“The stupidest lyrics I’ve ever heard,” blanches Frusciante), the guitarist was already making the transition from burning up scales to blazing buds for musical inspiration.

“Growing up, I didn’t smoke pot or do any drugs, because the way I was practicing had less to do with color and more to do with developing myself technique-wise,” he says. “The kids who smoked pot just seemed like burnouts to me. I was practicing ten to fifteen hours a day. But I never felt like I was expressing myself. When I found out Flea was stoned out of his mind at every show, that inspired me to be a pothead. I hadn’t had that image of a pothead–he’s certainly not a burnout.

“Pot put me in a position where I could walk far away from my playing and hear it in the second person. It helped me step away from myself. I stopped seeing the guitar as a thing I’m holding in my hands and started seeing it as a thing that’s at one with outer space and nothingness.”

Far from the maddening crowds and happily detached from the star-making machinery, the fully-greened Frusciante speaks of his music in spiritual terms–and, like most spiritual quests, its meaning remains elusive, even to Frusciante.

“There’s a big place I’m connected to when I write,” the guitarist reports. “As long as I have the feeling inside me that I’m connected to this huge, peaceful, beautiful place, no matter what I write, if it’s in conjunction with that place, it’s always gonna have meaning. It’s not really necessary to truly understand what I write, as long as I’ve got that feeling behind me.”