The Lost Boy
John Frusciante joined the Red Hot Chili Peppers at 18, left at 22, spent the next five years slowly killing himself with heroin and finally cleaned up for good. But he’s still hearing voices in his head…
When fresh-faced 18-year-old John Frusciante was recruited as guitarist by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, following the heroin-related death of original band member Hillel Slovak in June 1988, it seemed like nothing less than a dream come true. But following four years with the band, during which they recorded both ’89’s ‘Mother’s Milk’ and 91’s multi-platinium ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’ albums, Frusciante’s life had steadily metamorphosed into a living, breathing nightmare.
“I saw death in everything around me,” admits the guitarist as he fidgets endlessly on the sofa of his seventh floor Park Lane hotel suite. “And everything that was beautiful represented everything that was sad, lost and gone. I couldn’t listen to music, read books or watch movies anymore. I couldn’t do anything and I didn’t want to think. Everything made me miserable and all I could do was lie on the couch and stare vacantly into space.”
John abruptly left the Chili Peppers in the midst of a four-date Japanese mini-tour of May’92 and studiously set about destroying himself in a six-year haze of potentially lethal narcotics. Yet astonishingly, his indomitable spirit ultimately prevailed. He eventually cleaned up, rejoined the Peppers in April ’98 and is about to release his third solo album, ‘To Record Only Water For Ten Days.’
This, then, is the full and unexpurgated story of his incredible fall and rise; a harrowing saga which could so easily have finally seen the light of day as part and parcel of a tragic obituary.
John Frusciante was born in New York on March 5, 1970. Music was in his blood from the start: his father was a concert pianist, his mother a singer, his grandfather a renowned mandolin player.
“I knew that I was gonna be a guitarist ever since I can remember,” says John as he sips from a steaming cup of Egyptian liquorice tea. “There were voices in my head that were telling me so.”
You’ll find that we’ll be hearing a great deal more from these voices as the interview progresses, as they seem to be the spiritual and psychological echoes upon which Frusciante has based every major move and decision of his life.
After initially picking up an acoustic guitar at the age of seven, John soon became disillusioned with the fact that he couldn’t hope to emulate the sounds that he heard on records by Led Zeppelin and Van Halen (“It just seemed so far away,” he recalls, “so I gave up.”)
Two years later, an interest in the new wave sounds of Devo and the B-52’s led on to John’s forthbright embrace of punk rock bands: Black Flag, The Clash, Sex Pistols and, most tellingly, The Germs.
“The Germs’ first shows made me realise that being good at the guitar wasn’t something you had to work at,” babbles Frusciante with an infectious, child-like enthusiasm. “As long as you put the right kind of energy and feeling into your playing, that was what mattered. Then one day I was feeling a lot of rage – I was angry at two kids that I didn’t like and didn’t like me – so I went home and wrote 30 short punk songs in a row on my acoustic guitar. That was the first day that I really started playing.”
John’s early teens found him utterly immersed in rock ‘n’ roll, voraciously devouring music” that I thought was good for me as a musician” and slavishly practicing guitar licks in his bedroom. Then, at 17, he moved to Hollywood, began playing with a like-minded bass player and finally rejected technique-based rock stylings for something a little more visceral.
“The music I thought I was supposed to be listening to didn’t really give me the same feeling as David Bowie, the New York Dolls and T Rex,” shrugs Frusciante as he tucks his il-disciplined, gangling legs beneath his perpetually fidgeting buttocks in the accepted yogic-flying style. “So listening to those bands and getting experience through jamming was pretty much where I was at when I joined the Chili Peppers.”
Frusciante’s fairytale recruitment into the ranks of his all-time favourite band was to be fraught with sundry problems. Learning to relate on a personal level to three infinitely more experienced musicians who were not only eight years his senior, but also fully-fledged stars in his eyes, was a problem in itself. Add to this the demands of overnight celebrity and a debilitating work rate and you’re left with something of a recipe for Sid Vicious-style disaster.
“I expected them to be perfect and when they weren’t I got mad at them,” sighs John before resuming his sibilant, drawling narrative. “I’d get angry at Anthony (Kiedis, vocalist) and fight a lot with Flea (bassist). We’d say rude things back and forth to each other. I never really got over that feeling for the first four years I was in the band. Of course we were friends and loved each other, but when you start out with such an artificial image of somebody, it’s hard to balance that out with seeing them as they truly are.”
John roughly pulls at his woollen ski hat in frustrated hindsight before resuming.
“When I joined the band I wanted nothing more in life than to be a rock star. It was what I was working for and everything I wanted. So for the first couple of years I very superficially dedicated myself to that: getting drunk, getting together with girls, and not being true to myself. Then at a certain point I completely changed, I started dedicating myself to being the best musician I knew how, and it completely threw me off balance. I started to hate being a rock star. The last couple of years I was in the band I really hated interviews, photo sessions and fans asking for autographs.”
When you split from the Peppers was it because you couldn’t function within the band anymore?
“There were things taking place inside of me that were very confusing to me,” John remembers ominously.” I had all these voices in my head all the time, which I still do, but at that time I wasn’t spiritually protected against the spirits that meant me no good. Ghosts that are just there to f**k with me and drive me crazy. I couldn’t discern between them and the ones that were helping me and I was so confused. Everything that I was learning seemed to be pulling me more towards death.”
So what was it that finally pushed you over the brink?
“The voices had been telling me to quit the band ever since we finished ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’. But at that time there seemed that there was no reason to quit the band – other than I had a funny feeling about what going on tour was going to do to me as a creative person. At that point I was still growing creatively but, once we went on tour, I stopped growing and started coming apart. You can hear it on my first solo record (‘Niandra Lades And Usually Just A T-shirt’ released in ’94). The last thing on it was recorded right before I quit the band and it’s the sound of somebody falling apart. I had to do a shift of reality. I had to figure out what was going on inside of me and go on an adventure to find out what I was looking for, because I was very sad by that time.”
On leaving the Chili Peppers, Frusciante embarked on the ‘adventure’ that he still believes held the key to his ultimate spiritual and creative salvation.
Unfortunately, it also came perilously close to killing him.
“When I was in the band I’d take heroin every now and then, but it wasn’t a problem,” he deadpans without a trace of irony. “But when I left the band I was still terribly sad. All of the thoughts in my head had resolved into something that I was calling the will to death. Everything made me miserable, so I made the decision one day that I was gonna be on heroin and cocaine all the time, because when I was on them was the only time I was happy. So I figured there was no disadvantage in it and nobody could talk me out of it.
“During that period of time I had a lot of communication with what you might call ghosts in many different forms. It was such a fun time, I definitely got something in return for all the belief that I’d had in those things before I ever saw them for real.”
Did you know, or even care, how much damage you were doing to yourself physically?
“No, I’d totally lost balance in that way,” John shrugs casually, “It was all about what I felt mentally. I did get through it really well, and I attribute that to my not caring and not feeling bad about it. I felt I was doing something good and healthy for myself and I didn’t care if people said it was unhealthy. Most other junkies that I knew felt really guilty about it, but I always felt that I was doing something good.”
Frusciante’s idea of what’s good and healthy is very much at odds with conventional thinking. Toward the end of his spiritual quest his abject descent into narcotic oblivion had left him a shadow of his former self. He’d lost the majority of his front teeth, the ruined tattoos on his arms were peppered with countless abscess scars – the result of incautious mainlining – his hair was falling out and his shredded fingernails caked with dried blood. He seemed utterly beyond help. But suddenly, and without warning, he returned from the brink of death to check himself into hospital in January ’98.
When he finally sought help, was it because he felt a sense of completion – that his six-year adventure had come to its logical conclusion?
“Yeah, when I finally stopped for good three years ago, I felt very sure of myself and I knew it was the right time. Voices in my head had been counting me down ever since I started, at the beginning they said, ‘You can go on drugs for six years now’. And two years before I quit I remember a voice in my head saying, ‘You can still do drugs for another two years and then you’re gonna quit’.
“At the point where I stopped I knew that if I kept doing them I was gonna die. I probably had like three months. That was what the voice in my head was saying, and I also knew that a lot of these spirits were truly on my side and wanted me to stop at that point. They’d always been in favour of me doing it, and suddenly, they all wanted me to stop. So I had no doubt in my mind that I was doing the right thing.”
Was there ever a point where you honestly didn’t care if you lived or died?
“Yeah, I still don’t really care, but I have a great will to live because of what I think I’m doing by living here. I think I’m taking care of things in other dimensions by being here. I see this three-dimensional world as a bridge between the fourth and fifth and fifth dimensions. Ever since I realised that the spirits were the ones responsible for the music that was coming out of me, I’ve dedicated my life to doing what they want me to do: the ones who are on my side, the ones who are my friends. Also, for a long time, I had to dedicate myself to fighting the ones who weren’t my friends. I don’t have to do that any more, because I’ve got friendly spirits protecting me.”
Following Frusciante’s Lazarus-like return from the brink of death, his erstwhile colleague Flea wasted little time in asking him to rejoin the band following Dave Navarro’s departure in April ’98.
What was the feeling like in the rehearsal room when you first got back together?
“It was great,” John beams through his brand new Beverly Hills teeth, “But I had very little technical skill. I’d hardly played guitar for five years; I’d mostly been painting. But the way they took me back made me feel good about myself. I had very little ability, but it didn’t matter to them, it was just the spirit of what I was doing and the fact that it was me. It felt so good to have friends who really believed in me when nobody else did, because I was a person who people pretty much thought of as finished.”
What’s next for the Chili Peppers?
“As soon as I get back from Europe we’re gonna go back in the rehearsal studio to write some songs,” reveals John with undisguised excitement, “We’ve already got a few ideas and I’m so excited about the sound. Everybody’s approaching their instruments completely differently. Flea’s been playing with a pick because we have this Joy Division cover band and he’s been learning all of Peter Hook’s bass lines. And I’ve been learning synthesizer parts from different types of electronic music like Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode and techno music. I’ve been learning sequencer parts on the guitar as a technical challenge and to think of the guitar differently. I’m trying to get towards the purest representation of the feelings that I’m tuned into as I can.”
‘To Record Only Water For Ten Days’ – the follow up to ’97’s harrowing ‘Smile From The Streets You Hold’ collection – contains Frusciante’s most complete and spiritually uplifting solo work to date. Unsurprisingly, it’s fundamentally informed by the guitarist’s ongoing communion with ghostly voices from the fifth dimension.
“I’m so tuned into these imaginary realms of existence that they’re the places I’m writing about when I write lyrics. I’ve had so many visions of other lives and what it’s like in other dimensions that I can write about them with clarity and focus.”
Is the spectre of heroin in your psyche finally dead, or is it something you’ll continue to fight against for the rest of your life?
“I don’t battle against it,” considers John “If anything it helps me. I have no temptation whatsoever to do drugs, but the experience was beneficial to me. Not to say that I’d see drugs as beneficial for anybody else. I know a lot of people who took drugs and it destroyed every one of them. It destroyed me too, but I managed to pull myself back and benefit from the whole thing. It’s a sure-fire way to f**k up your whole life, but what I felt on them and what I learned from them I’ll never turn my back on.”
Do you feel stronger for your experience?
“Absolutely. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. I’m very proud of the life I’ve lived. I’m very proud of who I am and where I’ve been.”
And you’re happy?
“I’m very happy. Every day I tell myself that I love life so much.”
John Frusciante’s new album, ‘To Record Only Water For Ten Days’, is out now.
Many thanks to Invisible Movement for allowing us to use their transcript