Out Come the Freaks
How skin grafts, new teeth and 400 mental ghosts helped Red Hot Chili Peppers make Californication.
The Los Angeles funk-punks show they’ve got heart as well as muscle here. Stripped of the bass histrionics and lyrics about singer Anthony Kiedis’ penis, this is an affecting, grown-up rock album that the band would never quite match again.
Key Track: Scar Tissue
The Red Hot Chili Peppers can rightly be regarded among rock’s greatest survivors. Within this durable group nobody has proved more resistant to astounding extremes of harm than guitarist John Frusciante. In 1999 Californication Frusciante’s return after an abrupt exit seven years earlier. He had spent much of the intervening time living in squalor as a junkie hermit, so this reunion made for a perplexing gambit. It turned out to be the smartest decision the Red Hot Chili Peppers ever made.
Eight years into a career that began in 1983 the Chili Peppers found themselves pressed against a glass ceiling. The quartet were alternative rock’s alpha bozos but advancement beyond this point seemed highly unlikely. That all changed in 1991 with their fifth album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, a multi-platinum global phenomenon thanks to the singles Give It Away and Under The Bridge. Though their audience had grown, the band’s basic roots remained broadly the same. Amid its numerous musical highlights, Blood Sugar Sex Magik contained such schoolboy tales of carnal hi-jinx as Apache Rose Peacock and Sir Psycho Sexy. Though the band rarely employed their old stage stunt of encoring naked but for socks covering their genitalia â€“ â€œThe key is to get it around the balls,â€ noted drummer Chad Smith. â€œPeople don’t realise thatâ€¦â€ â€“ at heart they were still randy oafs.
Nonetheless, they were now a mainstream act with a profile to maintain. Frusciante, a fan who had joined the band for their previous album, Mother’s Milk (1989), became increasingly paranoid under the strain of this sudden wave of adulation, and quit in 1992. â€œI was very confused,â€ he later explained. â€œI got it into my head that stardom was something evil. If you were a rock star you were trying to put people on. I don’t see it that way any more.â€
Rather than sharply capitalising on the success of Blood Sugar Sex Magik, the Red Hot Chili Peppers let four years elapse before releasing 1995â€²s One Hot Minute. Recorded with Frusciante’s eventual replacement, former Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro, the album was a commercially disappointing effort that found singer Anthony Kiedis’s on-off relationship with heroin very much on. The material was skewed towards rueful self- examination rather than cocksure celebration. But, ultimately, the chemistry was not there and Navarro soon left. Back to a three-piece again, by 1998 the Red Hot Chili Peppers appeared to be, if not down and out, then certainly receiving a standing count.
Bassist Michael â€œFleaâ€ Balzary thought that the writing was on the wall and told Kiedis that he was seriously considering bailing out. The only way to proceed, in his opinion, was by asking Frusciante to come back. Kiedis agreed, but wasn’t sure that the missing piece would be keen â€“ or, indeed, able â€“ to rejoin. Since leaving the band Frusciante’s addictions to heroin, crack cocaine and alcohol had taken their toll. Physically he had reached an appalling state of deterioration as he accepted that imminent death was a formality; the feeble guitarist’s arms were covered in abscesses and his mouth was a mess of rotting stumps. Mentally, matters were no better. He had claimed to have 400 ghosts in his mind and heard voices, though in the same year that Navarro got his marching orders these mysterious advisors told Frusciante to stop doing drugs. He duly cleaned up. When Flea saw that he might be able to work and offered him a job, Frusciante started crying with happiness. Skin grafts to repair the damage caused by lackadaisical needle use and $70,000 work of dental work â€“ the resultant swelling hidden by a scruffy beard â€“ were Frusciante’s first steps in looking the part again. The music was another matter: he had barely picked up a guitar for five years.
In the summer of 1998 the band assembled in Flea’s garage. Frusciante was incredibly rusty but, using a ’62 Fender Stratocaster bought for him by Kiedis, his enthusiasm was contagious and the band’s seventh studio album, Californication, began to take shape. â€œWhen John gets excited, he’s like eight billion volts of electricity,â€ said Kiedis. â€œIt was absolutely chaotic, like a little kid trying to set up a Christmas tree. When he hit that first chord, it was so perfect.â€ Dave Navarro had joked that some days he was more concerned with how his hair looked than what his guitar sounded like. Frusciante was the exact opposite, joyously consumed with rediscovering his instrument while content to resemble a scrubbed vagrant.
The guitarist’s bruised optimism permeates Californication; his delicate but self-assured playing and vocal harmonies giving hits such as lead single Scar Tissue a strikingly ethereal texture. Meanwhile the slap bass was dialled right down and, lyrically, an introspective Kiedis avoided the lurid excesses of his drooling sex commando persona. The result was a strong set of intelligent songs unmistakably written and performed by adults.
Produced by Rick Rubin (after Brian Eno and David Bowie’s names had been floating about), Californication was released in June 1999. The title â€“ at first glance a portmanteau of the band’s adopted home state â€“ was actually a comment on the proliferation of American culture: travelling through Thailand and Indonesia, Kiedis had been surprised by the ready availability of bootleg Red Hot Chili Peppers merchandise. It proved to be a prophetic choice of name as the album sold over 15 million copies worldwide and turned the moribund group into stadium rock mainstays. â€œWe’re like Jason in Friday The 13th,â€ said Chad Smith. â€œYou can’t kill us, man, we keep coming back.â€
Frusciante would record a further two albums with the Red Hot Chili Peppers â€“ By The Way (2002) and Stadium Arcadium (2006) â€“ before bowing out in 2009 to concentrate on his own music. â€œThere was no drama or anger involved,â€ he said of his departure. Back when Californication was released, though, the guitarist’s grim history begged the question of whether he was any better equipped to deal with superstardom a second time. â€˜We’re going through the rhythms of the universe and it’s not our decision,â€ a sanguine Frusciante told Q in 1999. â€œI’m in a healthy state of mind today. If tomorrow I’m off in a hotel and smoking crack I can’t do anything about that. It’s what I’m driven to do if it’s what I’m driven to do, and I can’t help that.â€