Flea: Hillel got nicknamed Pick Handle Slim-which he liked- by Pinetop Perkins when we opened up for him at our first show in London at Dingwalls. He had all sorts of nicknames. We used to call him the Israeli Cowboy- he was so funny. A real artist, romantic and sensitive. A great painter.”
‘An Oral/Visual History’ by the Red Hot Chili Peppers with Brendan Mullen, page 19.
Hillel Slovak was born on 13th April, 1962 in Haifa, Israel but his family relocated to the US when Hillel was five, eventually settling in California after a very brief period in The Bronx, New York.
Little is known about his early life but Slovak received his first guitar at the age of 13 as a birthday present; Jack Irons was present at the party and saw his friend receive his gift;
“Irons and Slovak had known one another since they were ten, but it was Slovak’s thirteenth birthday party, in 1975 that finally brought them together… Among the birthday boy’s presents was his very first guitar, a gift from his Uncle Aron. As Irons watched him unwrap it, he caught his first glimpse, too, of the pair’s future together.”
‘Red Hot Chili Peppers By the Way’ by Dave Thompson, page17.
The friendship between Hillel and Jack grew and the bond deepened through their mutual love of the band Kiss; they formed their own tribute group to the group and they would cover themselves in make-up, with Slovak dressed as Paul Stanley, and mime to Kiss songs in front of school friends.
In addition to miming to Kiss, Slovak’s music had a more serious side and he spent many hours trying to emulate his musical hero, Jimi Hendrix; he listened to his music, studied his style, and worked out how to copy and perfect the same sounds and techniques himself and thereby began his apprenticeship as a guitar player.
In 1977, Irons and Slovak became students at Fairfax High and just before the Christmas of that year, they took to the stage, with friends Alain Johannes and Todd Strassman, in their first proper band called Chain Reaction. Chain Reaction began with songs heavily influenced by Queen & Led Zeppelin which were the members’ favourite bands. Chain Reaction soon became Anthem, which in turn became Anthym as there was already a band of the previous name.
One day, Slovak ran into someone wearing an Anthym pin badge, that person was Anthony Kiedis. Hillel invited Kiedis back for a snack and the two immediately formed a close bond;
“Within a few minutes of hanging out with Hillel, I sensed that he was absolutely different from most of the people I’d spent time with. I usually felt like the leader in most relationships with kids my age… but I immediately knew that Hillel was at least my equal, and in fact knew a lot of things I didn’t. He understood a lot about music, he was a great visual artist, and he had a sense of self and calm about him that were just riveting.
Hillel was Jewish, he looked Jewish, he talked about Jewish stuff, and the food in that kitchen was Jewish… After he sandwiches, we had a meaningful heart-to heart chat, by the time I left his house, I was thinking, “Well, that’s my new best friend for life right there.”
‘Scar Tissue’ by Anthony Kiedis with Larry Sloman; page 64.
Anthony Kiedis had already met, and become firm friends with, Flea at Fairfax High and soon Slovak, Kiedis and Flea were hanging out together so when Anthym needed a new bass guitarist, it seemed natural Hillel turned to Flea; Flea however was a trumpet player but undeterred, Slovak taught his friend how to play bass and their friendship developed with their musical talent.
“Flea: This amazingly talented Israeli kid opened up avenues of expression for me I didn’t know I had.”
‘An Oral/Visual History’ by the Red Hot Chili Peppers with Brendan Mullen’ page 21.
Upon leaving school, Anthym went through another change and took on the new name of What Is This?
“..a highly appropriate name for a group that pulled in a bewildering array of influences, from punk to funk and everything in between.”
‘Red Hot Chili Peppers: Inside the Veins of the Velvet Groove’ by Martin Roach; page 25.
The band started to gain wider exposure in the LA area as they were playing gigs anywhere- Anthony Kiedis was their booking agent and would take anything he could! Kiedis also introduced the band at gigs so the friendship between the group members grew and grew and although Flea was to leave the band and join Fear, a prominent punk band of the time, the bond remained strong.After two years, Flea quit Fear. The group of friends were by now devotees of a band called Defunkt and dedicated huge amounts of time to listening to and emulating the band, completely unaware that fate was about to play a massive role in their lives.
Gary Allen, one time frontman of Neighborhood Voices, had gone solo and was putting together a show at the Rhythm Lounge Club at a cafe in LA and needed an opening act; he approached Anthony Kiedis who readily agreed even though he had no band or material to perform with. Kiedis returned to his pals and a jamming session with them soon solved the problem over the lack of material. Kiedis had just been heavily influenced by seeing Grandmaster Flash in concert and realised he did not actually need to be able to sing to join in with his musical friends; he could rap instead. During the jamming session, Flea knocked out a bass line which perfectly fitted a poem Kiedis had written about the people he knew in LA and thus the song ‘Out in LA’ was penned. It was perfect for the opening number.
Kiedis, Flea, Slovak together with Jack Irons took to the Rhythm Lounge Club stage to perform the song under the lengthy moniker of Tony Flow and the Miraculously Majestic Masters of Mayhem. High on drugs and adrenalin they blew the crowd away with their ‘Out in L.A.’ rap and opening ‘dance’ routine. They were asked to return the following week but with two songs; they did as requested but they now had a brand new name of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Slovak was still a member of What Is This? and now he was a member of RHCP too; the two groups were so interconnected in terms of members and friends that this was not too much of an issue until the two groups were offered recording deals at very much the same time. Slovak decided to go, along with Jack Irons, with What Is This? as it was the more serious and better performing of the two groups, and because it seemed to offer more prospects than the ‘Red Hot Chili Peppers;
Flea: What is This? Was Hillel and Jack’s band, and they took that way more seriously than the Chili Peppers. It was definitely like a side, joke, fun thing to do outside of regular bands. As soon as they got a record deal they quit the Chili peppers, and we had to get two other guys.”
‘An Oral/Visual History’ by the Red Hot Chili Peppers with Brendan Mullen, page 28.
RHCP therefore went into the studio without Hillel to record their first, self named album, with Slovak and Irons being replaced by Jack Sherman and Cliff Martinez respectively.
What is This? had limited success e.g. their single ‘Mind My Have Still I’ from their 1984 EP Squeezed, was featured on a movie soundtrack (The Wild Life). However, Hillel began to doubt his role in the band and he started to deliberate whether he had made the right decision in joining What Is This? as opposed to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Meanwhile, Sherman’s role within RHCP was being appraised by Flea and Anthony Kiedis who were deliberating about whether Jack was the right person for the band both musically and personally. Hearing of Slovak’s desire to return to the band, the two made up their minds and Sherman was fired after recording just the first album and going on its subsequent tour;
“Hillel was off somewhere making a record with What Is This and was callin’ me up talking about how he was ready to come back to the fold. And that was getting me feelin’ mighty fine so AK and I [Flea] gave the Shermdog the axe”
‘Fornication: The Red Hot Chili Peppers Story’ by Jeff Apter, page 107.
Slovak returned to the Chili Peppers in time to record their second album, Freaky Styley, which was released on August 16, 1985. Jack Irons was to return to the RHCP fold in mid 1986 in time to record their third album, The Uplift Mofo Party Plan. The original foursome was back however this did not mean plain sailing. Kiedis and Slovak had dabbled with drugs for years and their drugs habits were now becoming heavy and starting to affect their ability to play, with Kiedis even being sent off to rehab for a month to sort himself out. However, the band worked through their issues and the friendship of the group was recorded in the song, ‘Me and My Friends’ with ‘Slim Boy’ Hillel name-checked in the track;
“It’s about my man
And his name is Hillel
For who my love
Is soul brother sacred
Take it Huckelberry
Slim Boy take it”
Slovak personally felt a deep connection to the album;
“…he reflected in his diary “[But] It was so fun. I’m so extremely proud of everybody’s work – it is at times genius. Anthony’s words are something else. This is going to be a hit-it has to be-every track is soooo good”
‘Fornication: The Red Hot Chili Peppers Story’ by Jeff Apter, page143.
Along with the tracks recorded for the album was a cover of The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s song, ‘Fire’. It did not make it onto the album (it was included in the Abbey Road E.P. and on the Mother’s Milk album); it would prove to be the last track Hillel recorded with the group.
“No-one knew for sure exactly when Anthony Kiedis and Hillel Slovak became addicted to heroin. What had started as a teenage experiment in Fairfax had now escalated to darker levels. Like most drug addicts, Anthony and Hillel had gradually increased their intake in order to get the same buzz. … Anthony and Hillel were hooked.”
‘Red Hot Chili Peppers: Sugar and Spice’ by Chris Watts, page 43.
However, the main fear at that time was over Anthony’s drug habit rather than Hillel’s;
“They were all afraid that I was going to die because I would just take too much too often for too long a period of time,” Kiedis would confess. “Hillel was much more subtle and much more cunning in his disguise. He had everyone believing he had it under control…He was just more in denial. Hillel thought he had power over the dark side.”
‘Fornication: The Red Hot Chili Peppers Story’ by Jeff Apter, page 155.
But it soon became clear that Hillel’s addiction was deepening to dangerous levels and rumours started to emerge from the tour that the band had embarked upon to promote The Uplift Mofo Party Plan that Hillel’s condition was worsening;
“There were rumours that Hillel Slovak was becoming more and more of a liability on the road. Whispers spread quickly of gigs where he played just one song all night long while the rest of the band worked bravely to paper over the cracks through the actual set-list… and both on and off-stage he was becoming more of a problem and a frantic worry to the rest of the band. Distanced from all his contacts on the tour, he became increasingly weak in appearance, haunted and clearly in serious trouble.”
‘Red Hot Chili Peppers: Inside the Veins of the Velvet Groove’ by Martin Roach, page 52.
A roadie even phoned Hillel’s brother and told him of his concerns about the guitarist’s drug habit and apparently Slovak was nearly dismissed from the band by Kiedis who was talked out of doing so by Fishbone’s Angelo Moore who pointed out that Hillel needed the support of his friends more than ever.
The tour continued into Europe with Hillel and Anthony vowing to give up drugs for the length of the tour with them using the lack of known drug dealers as the reason to break their dependency. RHCP released the Abbey Road E.P. to raise their unawareness in Europe, as they were less well known there than in their native America, and the cover showed the band members living up to their fun-loving image by adding their own twist to an imitation of the Beatles’ record cover of the same name by appearing naked except for socks.
All seemed well in the Chili Peppers camp and Anthony and Hillel spoke about their addictions at the end of the tour;
“Hillel and sat in that train birth, looking out at the scenery whizzing by, and talked about everything. A lot of what we talked about was drugs and heroin, and where we were with our addiction and what we wanted to do about it…On the train, we agreed that the band was going really well, and we vowed to make a concerted effort to stop the drugging.”
‘Scar Tissue’ by Anthony Kiedis with Larry Sloman, page 220-1.
Following the tour, the band returned to L.A. with a proposed break of a couple of weeks before they were to reconvene to record the band’s fourth album According to Lindy Goetz:
“They were trying to clean up and they were doing great, we’d been working very hard for a long time and they were fried. Everyone came home and said. ‘Hey, I’ll go my way, you go your way and I will speak to you in three weeks’”
‘Red Hot Chili Peppers: Inside the Veins of the Velvet Groove’ by Martin Roach 56.
Flea’s wife, Loesha, was about to give birth to their first child and Flea was eager to rejoin her and the rest of the band went their own ways:
“We played Oslo and then flew back to L.A. We landed at the airport, gave one another a hug, and it was “Great tour, great being with you.” “Call me in a few.” “I’ll be good, you going to be good?” “Yeah, I’ll be good too.” We said good-bye. And then both Hillel and I made a beeline for our individual dealers.”
‘Scar Tissue’ by Anthony Kiedis with Larry Sloman, page 221.
Hillel returned home and shortly afterwards he phoned his brother James,
“Then Hillel’s brother James received a phone call from the guitarist. “He said he was thinking of doing heroin again,” recalled James.”
‘Red Hot Chili Peppers: Inside the Veins of the Velvet Groove’ by Martin Roach, page 56.
But it seems Hillel had already made the decision to start using drugs again, if he had not already done so. On the 27th June 1988, Hillel scored some smack and returned to his apartment in a complex known as ‘Malaga Castle’ and overdosed;
Lindy Goetz “It was a matter of him being nearly clean and then suddenly scoring, and whatever he scored was too powerful or he did too much.”
‘An Oral/Visual History’ by the Red Hot Chili Peppers with Brendan Mullen, page 45.
Hillel’s body was found on the Monday following his death when a concerned friend called in to see him; he was hunched over the painting he had been working on; it had a whole burned into it from Hillel’s final cigarette:
An autopsy carried out on the 29th and Hillel was laid to rest, as soon as possible after his death, according to Jewish custom, at 1 p.m. on the 30th June 1988 in the Jewish section (Mount Sinai Memorial Park) of Forest Lawn Drive, Los Angeles. Most of the band were present at the funeral (the exception was Anthony Kiedis who, unable to handle and come to terms with his friend’s death, fled to Mexico on a drugs binge), but for many people the speed of the burial meant the first they heard about it was when they read the obituary to the guitarist in the L.A. times.
Following Hillel’s death, RHCP manager Lindy Goetz called a band meeting on his sailboat to discuss what they band did next.
Lindy: “… he was our brother and pal- But are we going on or are you going to call it quits.”
‘An Oral/Visual History’ by the Red Hot Chili Peppers with Brendan Mullen, page 46.
Jack Irons was too distraught and damaged by his friend’s death to want to continue and left the band but Anthony Kiedis and Flea took the decision to continue the Red Hot Chili Peppers;
“But Flea and I did not plan on stopping playing music together, it wasn’t out of lack out respect; it was out of respect. This was something that Hillel had helped build, and we were going to keep on building it…”
‘Scar Tissue’ by Anthony Kiedis with Larry Sloman, page 224.
Note: Hillel’s brother, James, cleared out Slovak’s apartment following his death and he found Hillel’s letters, diaries and artwork which he kept; James decided to publish them in his brother’s honour and in 1999 he self-published, ‘Behind the Sun: The Diary and Art of Hillel Slovak.’
Hillel Slovak Magazine Scans: Articles featuring Hillel, can be found in the 1980s Articles section.