You might not even notice the photograph if Anthony Kiedis hadn’t pointed it out, surrounded as it is by dozens of others. But on closer inspection, the old black-and-white image that graces one wall of the singer’s Hollywood Hills, Calif., home has a haunting, timeless quality that sets it apart. A trio of teen-age boys decked out in surf-punk gear, eyes lit by possibility and all-for-one, one-for-all camaraderie: Kiedis, the Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea and the late Hillel Slovak, the Peppers’ first guitarist, captured in mid-goof-off by a Hollywood street photographer more than a decade ago. It’s difficult to look at the photograph without imagining that the spirit that lent it such poignant resonance is guarding the house and all who pass through its doors.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers have weathered numerous traumas since that photograph was taken – Slovak’s death by heroin overdose in 1988; Kiedis’ struggle to overcome his own heroin addiction; and the abrupt departure of guitarist John Frusciante in 1992, during the most successful year in the band’s history – but always, through a career spanning 11 years, six albums and one EP, they’ve persevered.
Last year, the Red Hot Chili Peppers found themselves facing yet another hurdle. During early attempts to write songs for a new album with guitarist Arik Marshall – who had stepped in just prior to the Chili Peppers’ Lollapalooza ’92 outing to pinch-hit for the departed Frusciante – it became apparent that, as Kiedis puts it, “the emotional connection you need with a new person in your band” wasn’t there. Marshall left the band, and after scouring the ranks of their peers in a fruitless search to replace him – a process that included numerous pleading phone calls to former Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro – the Peppers resorted to placing a want ad in the L.A.Weekly. The ad drew 5,000 calls the first day it ran, but few of the eager auditionees came close to fitting the bill. “We were looking for very specific, cosmic characteristics,” says Kiedis, “and they just weren’t presenting themselves. Everything became very jumbled and confused, and we were losing sight of what we were doing as a band.”
Eventually, they settled on an unknown guitarist named Jesse Tobias. Tobias was in a newly signed band when he got the invitation to join the Chili Peppers; he quit his band and was welcomed into the Peppers’ fold with considerable media fanfare. He didn’t have much time to bask in the glory of his new gig, though: After only a month, he was issued a pink slip and replaced with the suddenly available Navarro. Kiedis says the Chili Peppers felt “awful” about ousting Tobias after he’d quit his other band but maintains that the decision would have been made regardless of Navarro.
“Though it may seem like a case of Dave uprooting Jesse, it wasn’t exactly like that,” says Kiedis. “The discontentment had already planted itself. We really liked Jesse’s playing, but it just didn’t develop into the musical camaraderie that we were used to. Flea didn’t feel right about it, and the fate of this band relies on Flea having a sense of musical contentment with the guitar player. So it had already been decided – in everyone’s minds, if not verbally.”
Chances are none of the Peppers are suffering sleepless nights over thoughts of the jilted Tobias. Now, a few weeks into February, the band appears to be firing on all cylinders again. Rick Rubin, who produced the band’s 1991 megahit, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, is lined up to produce its next record, and in two days, the Chili Peppers leave for Hawaii, where, free of distractions save the welcome variety, they’ll hole up in a house together and begin preproduction.
Yesterday, over a pot of strong coffee and numerous bottles of Evian, Kiedis held forth on all manner of topics. Tonight, he has some loose ends to tie up before the trip, but he’s offered a quick tour of his house before he moves on to other business. Kiedis’ dad, a handsome, outgoing actor and writer who goes by the stage name Blackie Dammett, is visiting from Michigan. Moving through the house, they point out various treasures: the aforementioned photo; an original Dalí photograph; half a dozen paintings by Robert Williams; a wrought-iron stair railing made by a Hungarian blacksmith; a rather imposing stone fireplace crafted in the shape of a woman’s body, complete with purple glass nipples; a wooden angel who smiles serenely down from the ceiling in the Kiedis boudoir. (“She’s supposed to safeguard those who sleep beneath her,” says Kiedis.)