Ladeez or Gentlemen!
We give you … four musclebound, cross-dressing ex-junkies from Hollywood! The Red Hot Chili Peppers! They rock! They funk! They shift units! They go into rehab! And “that dark room at the end of the hall is always a little bit open,” they inform John Aizlewood.
“Be careful,” warns Anthony Kiedis, as Q takes an uninvited gulp of the Red Hot Chili Peppers singer’s bitter-tasting hot drink. “It contains bark extract from the African yohimbe tree. It gives you incredible stamina, as well as a ridiculously hard erection that won’t go away for days.”
Yohimbe is used medicinally as an adrenaline blocker, hence stamina enhancement. Kiedis’s tight shorts as he struts across Dublin’s Point stage a few minutes later illustrate its other effect admirably.
Now, though, at the beginning of his band’s world tour to plug their sixth and best album, One Hot Minute, Kiedis is in Sanctuary, a cross between brothel and monastery. It’s a dressing room within a dressing room and stiflingly hot. The windows are blacked out; candles illuminate bottles of mineral water, Aqua Libre, ginseng, ginko leaf and our new chum, yohimbe. It reeks of joss sticks and is oppressively quiet.
Just before show time, the foursome plus backing singers (an ex-roadie and Rain Phoenix, the beautiful sister of the beautiful River), will gather and bond. Then they’ll go on stage and Australian bassist, Michael “Flea” Balzary will show the Irish his arse.
It’s always been that way for Red Hot Chili Peppers: part soulmates immersed in spirituality; part well-hung, bawdy pantomime, since the day, aged 11, the Lithuanian-extracted Kiedis fled his mother in Michigan to live with his father, actor Blackie Dammett, a Hollywood face, famous more for being mustard in the sack than for thespian prowess. Father and son trotted out on the town together and, under the name Cole Dammett, little Anthony took child acting roles. Most notably Sylvester Stallone’s son in F.I.S.T.
More worldly than his contemporaries. Kiedis made few friends at Fairfax High (alma mater of Phil Spector), save for Balzary, a shy but tempestuous, dwarf trumpet player, the stepson of jazzman Walter Urban Jr. He hardened, turned himself into Flea and hung with gangs.
“I robbed houses; I stole anything that wasn’t nailed down,” he claims, in a voice that rasps like raspy sandpaper.”I was a kid on the street up to no good. I had no money, nowhere to live. I was a wild man.”
Wild or not, by 1980, he still couldn’t get laid. Learning bass, he rasped his way into Anthym, a school group led by drummer Jack Irons and Israeli guitarist Hillel Slovak. “In a band it was like, Wow! Girls like me!” he chuckles.
BY LATE 1982, KIEDIS HAD FLUNKED university, Flea had left punk band Fear and turned down the chance to join PiL. The pair invited Slovak and Irons to moonlight from What IsThis?, their latest band. They debuted as Tony Flow & The Miraculously Majestic Masters Of Mayhem.
“It was an incidence of divine intervention that night,” declares Kiedis.”It went perfectly. The performance of the one song we played could not have been better had we rehearsed for 15 years instead of not at all. There was primal energy to what we were doing. We didn’t give a fuck, but Flea Jack and Hillel were incredibly creative musicians who played ridiculously funky stuff that could only have been played by people who loved each other as much as they did. I knew I’d found home.”
“The idea was to be cool, have fun with my friends and show up and shock everybody when we played little clubs in Hollywood,” adds Flea.
By the time the now-named Red Hot Chili Peppers were signed by EMI in 1983, What Is This? already had a deal. Irons and Slovak were therefore out of the Chili Peppers, Cliff Martinez and Jack Sherman were in and the resulting self-titled album, produced by Gang Of Four’s Andy Gill was hopeless.
What Is This? were over by the time Red Hot ail Peppers hooked up with producer George Clinton for Freaky Styley. Exit Sherman — who, despite still receiving royalties from that first album, would attempt to sue the band until his case was thrown out in 1993 — and Martinez, with whom Kiedis still takes regular trips to Alaska. Irons and Slovak returned to the fold but the results were feeble.
“I thought we were the greatest band in the world,” explains Flea. “I knew there was no one else like us. I still think that. We shared a certain aesthetic, a unique feeling of camaraderie, art and love.”
All was not well. Heroin is high fashion now, but then it was the drug of last resort. Kiedis and Slovak were last resort men.
“The drug situation was a problem,” admits Flea, no wallflower himself here. “If you grow up in Hollywood, drugs are there. Teachers said. Don’t smoke pot or you’ll be a junkie. You’d do it and not be a junkie. Then you’d try heroin. You should be honest with your kids: there’s a monstrous difference between marijuana and heroin. You can’t say, They’re all drugs. I don’t even eat sugar now but there were a lot of hard drugs in our band and it became difficult. The music and the friendship were the focus but the drugs got out of hand when Anthony and Hillel became junkies.”
The third album, The Uplift Mofo Party Plan, was their first work of note and the cheery (I Want To) Party On Your Pussy was re-titled Special Secret Song Inside to appease the PC brigades.
“We got shit for it, but I don’t give a fuck,” states Flea.”It’s about the excitement of a girl’s pussy, the most beautiful, sacred thing. All power to the pussy and all power to men — in a loving way — enjoying a woman’s pussy, I’m totally into pussy. When you start off as a kid, you’re trying to get laid. I’m still trying, but now by someone I love.”
The band’s physical health was in freefall, despite the famous cocks-in-socks photos which accompanied the subsequent Abbey Road ER “We had a lowbrow sense of humour,” smirks Kiedis, all Snoopy-like. “The British thought we were meathead, but the Abbey Road cover was the only thing they related to. It never seemed to be forgotten. People couldn’t get past the antic nature of what we did, to our ideology and feelings, to the intensity of the music and to the originality of the songwriting. We were multi-dimensional, although people only saw one dimension.
It looked more like Red Hot Chili Peppers had no soul and were a touch macho.
“It’s all soul,” snaps Flea. “It’s being honest about pain and letting it out. I bring my whole life to this band. I’m not a macho guy in the slightest. In fact, macho guys disgust me. I don’t like being around them, although I love sports. Sports are art.”
A month after those Abbey Road shots, June 25, 1988, Slovak died of a heroin overdose. That it wasn’t Kiedis is, by all accounts, a simple twist of fate.
“I’m not the grand creator of this script,” he says, very slowly, “but it could have easily been me. I was in a monumental and transitional period in my life. Hillel dying was the first time that I made a sincere effort to deal with my drug addiction. I had been living in a world of spiritual malady and I began to realise I was killing myself, everything I cared about and everything I was in love with. Everything sacred was gritting mutilated by my addiction. It had stopped working and turned on me. I had to die or get help and try to make changes in myself which would allow me to live without using drugs. I was so in denial of him being out of my life as a friend and coming out of such a thick stupor that it took two months for me to feel the pain of his death.”
Flea’s own drug use would peak later, around the time his marriage broke up. He had seen what was happening to his friends and hadn’t stopped them.
“Had I been smarter, I could have been more helpful in saving Hillel’s life,” he admits. “But I didn’t know. We learned by fucking up. We took things into our own hands. It worked to our advantage artistically and in living our own lives, doing things no one else did: at the same time, we hurt ourselves. That’s life. When Hillel died, I didn’t give a fuck about the band. I cared about my friend who’d died, about his loved ones’ pain and about my pain.”
The band met on a boat in Los Angeles harbour. Irons quit and checked himself into a psychiatric hospital.
“Hillel had instilled such a creative quality to my life and the life of this band that there seemed no sense in stopping doing what we love and what we had begun with him,” Kiedis explains. “Flea and I never discussed it. We wanted to continue playing as Red Hot Chili Peppers and find people we could share our experience and love with.”
Hopelessly addicted to heroin, Kiedis had his own battle to fight.
“It was very difficult,” he winces. “I had the help of people who’d gone through it themselves and I was granted a reprieve from a power greater than myself.”
As is the way of these matters, it’s not completely over yet.
“There are times when I feel incapable of dealing with life on life’s terms and so drugs enter my mind as an option,” he confides, “but it’s such an insidiously empty option that I know in my heart, in my spirit and in my mind that it does not truly offer relief from the pain and loneliness of life. I try to find other ways to deal with those things I used to deal with by using drugs. I try to figure out what it is about myself that leaves me with the need, and address those character defects. I try to get out of the fear and into the love. I have to try pretty hard to remember what drugs felt like; the brain has a way of forgetting the painful past.”
Flea wasn’t much help.
“Anthony got straight after a while, but I still did drugs,” he confirms. “I was never a junkie. I’d go out and get drunk all the time and smoke pot. Once in a while I’d do dope or coke. After the band started again, we were into partying, going crazy and having fun, although I was probably the only one doing drugs. We were into being a band on the road, getting into whatever we could: girls, staying out late every night, shit like that. Most young men I know are led around by their penises. I was.”
Ex-Dead Kennedys drummer Darren “D.H.” Peligro and P-Funk guitarist Duane “Blackbyrd” McKnight were tried, but Flea and Kiedis settled on guitarist John Frusciante and drummer Chad Smith. Frusciante was only 17 and, worse, a die-hard fan. Tears were bound to flow from the point of his initiation ceremony, where he had to show the others his erect penis.
Smith was of a very different mould. The Detroit native was the same age as Flea and Kiedis and looked like the rock pig he was. He’s still different. The rest of the band are teetotallers where-as he drinks beer, and he prefers to do his interviews in the dark and in a Cockney accent because it’s funnier that way.
“John said they should audition this guy Chad who eats drums for breakfast,” he remembers.”At the audition Flea said (worst Flea impersonation ever) You’re bringing your drums in: are those your breakfast? I thought, What the fuck is this guy talking about? We went into this crazy, giant, combustible Roman candle-esque thing. Anthony was cracking up on the floor and that was it.”
Smith’s debut, Mother’s Milk, stayed in the American charts for eight months and at last someone could just say no. Usually.
“I have my coke days and drink a little bit, but the heroin scares me,” Smith muses.”If you do that shit you die. I saw the Chili Peppers as guys with heads on their shoulders, I didn’t get the impression they were hanging out of cars with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and needles in their arms. Anthony was newly clean and letting people know it and I respected that. I’m the stable force in the band — the pillar, the engine, the anchor. I’m try-ing to be a sensitive, caring person.”
By the time the Rick Rubin-produced BloodSugarSexMagik was released, like Nirvana’s Nevermind, in October 1991, Red Hot Chili Peppers were bona fide stars. Under The Bridge, still perhaps their finest song, provided the breakthrough MTV hit.
“It changed our career,” reflects Kiedis. “It wasn’t a conscious diversion but so many people with a negative slant see it as an attempt to connect with the powers that be. It truly wasn’t, we got together at rehearsal and I had written, this poem and melody. I never thought we would make a song from it, but the minute I played it to them, the rest of the guys said OK and picked up their instruments. It was done for no other reason than to express ourselves and write a song we believed in. It’s therapeutic and cathartic to write music based on your experiences and that was specifically a moment of exorcism.”
“Compromise” was the word some people used. Deaf people probably.
“Never, never,” barks Flea. “Unequivocally never. We never would.”
“At first the fame was exciting. I’d go take a piss and some guy next to me would sing the song,” cringes Kiedis.”Suddenly we were making a lot of money, getting famous. People were recognising us and we had to acknowledge that egos were something not to fall prey to.”
Lacklustre British shows in March 1992 suggested otherwise. By April, in the middle of Japanese dates, Frusciante couldn’t take any more.
“Had we stayed on the same level, I don’t know if he’d have freaked out,” ponders Kiedis. “I think of him every day. I want him to be well.”
Zander Schloss of Joe Strummer’s band (Strummer had given Jack Irons his first job post-Chili Peppers, on the way to the drummer’s current gig in Pearl Jam), wunderkind Arik Marshall and Jesse Tobias didn’t work out. The man Kiedis really wanted was Dave Navarro, another ex-junkie and the first to jump ship from Perry Farrell’s perilous Jane’s Addiction. In Navarro’s lounge there is a coffin. In it there are hundreds of copies of an unreleased solo CD.
“The whole thing was based on a painful emotional situation,” he whispers. “To me it’s an art piece. I created it, it’s done, it’s in a coffin and no one opens it. Inside is my pain, I’ve buried it and moved on.”
In an election to find The World’s Cheeriest Soul, Dave Navarro would lose his deposit.
“People have labelled me as pessimistic,” he smiles wearily. “I underplay my expectations to the point where I’m positive that things are going to fail, that women are going to leave me and that the music we make isn’t going to be very good.
”Performing music is something that I would gladly pay money to do. It just so happens I make money doing it. The beauty of this craft is that you can do it in front of thousands of people and at home in your bedroom, as I did. For me, playing music is an avenue of therapeutic treatment. It allows me to release inner secrets.”
First, though, he had to sort himself out. Luckily for him, Kiedis had caught dengue fever in Borneo and wasn’t in a position to force the pace.
“My physical, emotional and mental health needed attending to. I stopped using heroin, stopped drinking alcohol, started exercising and stopped eating meat, dairy and sugar products, plus I sought therapy. Remembering what it’s like to be loaded on heroin is not necessary for me right now. More important is that I remember why I got stoned and drunk, what made me want to do those things. Now I’m a different person; I’m worthy of happiness and love.”
Don’t you get offered drugs all the time?
“All this band are drug free and we’re all interested in personal health and physical and emotional growth; that’s how we connect as people. There’s a lot of preconceived ideas about being in a band: that there’s hundreds of girls waiting in a line to get fucked by you and that people hand you drugs. It never happened in Jane’s Addiction, nor in this band. If I seek I will find, but I’ve never had anyone come up to me and ask if I want to do drugs. Anthony and I support one another when it comes to feeling squirly or getting shaky.”
One Hot Minute was no picnic either. Flea had recovered from what appears to have been a nervous breakdown.
“I had a big crash, physically, emotionally and spiritually. I’ve always been manic,” he offers.
“Flea reached a point where he was so hurt and troubled as a human being that he was forced by the motivation of pain to change and grow up,” expands Kiedis. “In the last two years, I’ve seen him make so many incredible, deep changes for the positive that it blows my mind.”
Extended rehearsals in Hawaii were good for morale. So good in fact, that Smith and Navarro now go to the gym together most days and have a sideline band, Honeymoon Stitch, who performed Day Of The Lords on the Joy Division tribute, A Means To An End. But, as Smith warns, “It’s always there: that dark room at the end of the hall is always a little bit open.”
Is it true that Kiedis re-kindled his old love affair with heroin and was bundled off into rehab?
“That’s neither here nor there in terms of my discussions with you,” he sniffs. “I was wallowing in a severe spiritual malady of stagnation. I wasn’t taking care of myself, mentally, physically, spiritually. I fell into an abyss of self-destruction.”
Another wrong-place-wrong-time scenario saw River Phoenix carried out of the Viper Rooms to die of yet more drugs. The last sound he heard was Flea jamming with Johnny Depp’s band.
“River was one of the best friends I ever had,” sighs Flea, who’s discovered yoga and meditation recently.”He was the kindest person I’ve known.”
One Hot Minute (including Transcending, about Phoenix) was eventually eked out.
“It seemed like such a fucking struggle,” remembers Kiedis. “I would write for days and think, This fucking sucks, it’s not happening. Sometimes a song drops out of me like a sneeze. Sometimes I have to sit down with a chunk of granite and a fork and knife and smash away until there’s something.”
Of late, they’ve had a schedule that would drive Thora Hird to heroin. At Shepperton Studios, a few days before Dublin, the band made the video for My Friends. They were dressed in drag: Smith is a ringer for Julian Clary; Navarro’s facial hair suggests Frida Kahlo; Kiedis would make a gorgeous woman and Flea looks like Flea in a dress. At the end of a wearing day, they must fall into a pool of chilly water, guarded by a portly, chain-smoking safety frogman.
After a rehearsal week, it was to London’s Subterania for a gig so secret that the entrance forfeit — apart from the admission price which would go towards uninsured ex-drummer Peligro’s medical costs after his recent liver failure — seems to have been prior consumption of a gallon of beer. The band played, the audience staggered about.
Further rehearsals in Dublin preceded the show there. Afterwards, the treadmill continued to Lillie’s Bordello, a club in the centre of Dublin (excepting Navarro, who was feeling peaky).Two days later they were back in London, playing Brixton Academy. They are in a minstrel tradition. Clowns playing sad songs.
“You’re totally right,” agrees Flea. “We’re like a circus: whether a song is sad or happy, it’s presented in a theatrical way. People deserve to see extreme emotion, pleasure and pain, high highs, low lows, fire-breathing dragons, dancing pygmies, 12-foot giants and lesbians hanging upside down. When I play, I give every bit of energy, soul and passion I have in my body, to put on the best show that I can humanly do. ”
Navarro, meanwhile, just floats.
“Oh wow,” he sighs, distilling everything that is Red Hot Chili Peppers. “There’s no girlfriend, no rent, no car payments, no insurance. I bond with the instrument, time stops and I’m not consciously thinking about what I’m doing. If I think back to shows I’ve played, they feel like dreams. It’s like its own kind of drug, everything shuts down, you’re floating through the cosmos.”
And when it’s over, all that will remain is Michael Balzary and Anthony Kiedis: from spoiled brats to blood brothers and beyond.
“Flea is a pillar of emotional strength in my life,” gushes Kiedis.”He’s so full of ideas and desire on a musical level and so full of love on a friendly level. Knowing that he exists, that he’s my artistic partner and my friend for life gives me a sense of confidence that it will be all right because he’s so honest and pure. As long as we’re together and as long as he’s taking care of himself and I’m taking care of myself, the worst thing that could happen would be great.”