The beautiful kit beckoned nine-year-old Jackie Irons from the L.A. music shop’s front window. Maybe when you’re older, his dad told him. “He didn’t think I was ready to take it on seriously,” Irons says. But then came an offer at 13 that would redirect the course of Irons’ life during the mid-’70s. Junior high classmate Hillel Slovak invited Irons to a birthday party, and within a year the boys were inseparable. But something was missing from this brotherhood: instruments.
So Slovak picked guitar; Irons picked the drums. The budding beatmaker took lessons until he was 17, but preferred to bang away to his Zeppelin and Who albums at home. During junior high school, Slovak and Irons teamed up with Alain Johannes, a guitarist since early childhood, and the boys formed Chain Reaction. The band played mostly Kiss and Queen covers, but soon wrote its own songs under the moniker Anthym. The group lacked a solid bass player, so Slovak convinced his friend Michael Balzary to step up. Anthym took second at Fairfax High’s 1978 Battle Of The Bands competition. An acting student named Anthony Kiedis began to introduce the group’s appearances. Meanwhile, Balzary’s wild stage antics had earned him the nickname “Flea.”
But it wasn’t until a few years after graduation that The Red Hot Chili Peppers were born — a fluke 1983 performance featuring Irons, Slovak, Flea, and Kiedis rapidly attracted an L.A. following, and EMI soon signed the funky foursome. Before the group ever made it to the recording studio, Slovak and Irons decided to part ways and join What Is This (formerly Anthym), their project with Johannes. The duo’s exit from The Chili Peppers left Kiedis and Flea scrambling to replace their guitarist and drummer just in time to record a debut. The original RHCP lineup would reunite in 1987 for a single album, The Uplift Mofo Party Plan, which contained the mesmerizing “Behind The Sun” and the aggressive rally-call anthem “Fight Like A Brave.” “I learned a lot, actually, about listening to drummers and watching them play from working with Jack,” says Party Plan producer Michael Beinhorn. “That was one of the first experiences I had working with someone who really was into how the performance felt.”
“The Chili Peppers at the time, they were a different band,” Irons remembers. “We were sort of that wild energy— full-on 100 percent energy went into every song. It wasn’t necessarily about playing dynamically or playing a song, per se. We were like this four-piece rhythm machine that just wanted to rock really hard and do what we did.”
That particular machine forever broke down when Slovak died of a heroin overdose. The loss of his closest friend led Irons to leave the band for good. By the time a newly formed Red Hot Chili Peppers broke through on MTV with its explosive interpretation of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground,” in the summer of ’89, Irons had long moved on. He recorded an album with Joe Strummer and embarked on a tour later that year. It was then that Irons fi rst crossed paths with Eddie Vedder during that dark hour backstage in San Diego. By this point Irons was a wanted man in the business.
But in 1990, when former Mother Love Bone members Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament invited Irons to drum for their new group, he passed. At 28, Irons was engaged and expecting his first child. He couldn’t abandon his family, and had just formed a new rock band, Eleven, with his friend from What Is This, Alain Johannes. Plus, entertaining the idea of moving to Seattle on a whim didn’t work for a guy whose income depended on constant session gigs. So just before he hit the road to support Redd Kross, Irons handed Vedder the demo tape that would turn out to be the symbolic conception point of Pearl Jam. Irons’ wife called to tell him that Vedder had left California. He’d joined that Seattle band, the one with that cassette. He’d written a song called “Alive.” Vedder speculates what might have happened if not for Irons’ suggestion: “I probably would have been the assistant manager at a Longs Drugs, or a folk singer. I don’t know. But when I look back on my life, that was the critical juncture.”
Full interview transcript and download links available HERE