Red Hot Chili Peppers: Tattooed Love Boys - Rolling Stone
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Red Hot Chili Peppers: Tattooed Love Boys

After 23 years, nine albums, death, love and addiction, they are at Number One for the very first time

Anthony Kiedis, Ant, lead vocalist, The Red Hot Chili Peppers

Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers performing in Charlotte, North Carolina, on May 20th, 2006.

Kevin C. Cox/WireImage/Getty

ANTHONY KIEDIS IS SITTING IN THE LIVING ROOM of his Los Angeles home, holding his heart in his hands: a pair of plain-looking advance CDs containing the twenty-eight songs on the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ new double album, Stadium Arcadium. “Love and women, pregnancies and marriages, relationship struggles — those are real and profound influences on this record,” the band’s singer says in a deep, thoughtful voice.

“And it’s great,” he adds quickly, “because it wasn’t just me writing about the fact that I’m in love. It was everybody in the band. We were brimming with energy based on falling in love.”

And staying in it. Kiedis, bassist Flea, guitarist John Frusciante and drummer Chad Smith took nearly two years to write, record and obsessively refine the psychedelic swagger and atomic singalong pop on Stadium Arcadium. Smith also got married (his second time around) and became a first-time dad (again), while Flea — who has a teenage daughter by a previous marriage — has a new baby girl, Sunny, with his fiancée, Frankie Rayder.

Kiedis and Frusciante are both still single but spoken for. Frusciante is going out with a singer, Emily Kokal. And as Kiedis talks, perched on the edge of an overstuffed chair in front of a huge stone fireplace, his girlfriend Heather can be heard rattling around next door in the kitchen, making a pot of tea.

“I could show you a line or two in every song that speaks of all that,” Kiedis claims. Then he does exactly that, going through Stadium Arcadium track-by-track, noting the references to commitment in general and Heather in particular in the ballads “Desecration Smile” and “Hard to Concentrate,” the droning folk of “If” and the funk hardball, “Charlie.” He cites the affection and crisis in “So Much I,” “Wet Sand” and “C’mon Girl.” The first verse in “She’s Only 18” came, Kiedis says, when he found that Heather was “decidedly disinterested in the Rolling Stones. Here’s a band loved by hundreds of millions, and she was like, ‘I could care less.’ ” He grins. “It seemed like a great way to start a song.”

But when Kiedis, 43, gets to the high-speed torment of “Torture Me,” the light in his still-boyish, sexy-devil features goes out: “Sometimes it makes sense to thank the universe for all the pain it gives you, because that’s where growth comes from. If you just bum out on pain and suffering, you don’t get the lesson.” It’s as if the Chili Peppers’ first two decades have just passed before his eyes: the fatal 1988 overdose of original guitarist Hillel Slovak; Kiedis’ own long battle with heroin in the Eighties and Nineties; the dysfunction that nearly killed the Chili Peppers just as they hit multiplatinum with 1991’s Bloodsugarsexmagik; Frusciante’s subsequent six years in exile and addiction, ending with the reunion triumph of 1999’s Californication.

“It’s funny, looking back at our band,” says Flea, whose real name is Michael Balzary and who became inseparable friends with Kiedis as soon as they met, in the tenth grade at L.A.’s Fairfax High School. “Throughout every situation — death, drug abuse, losing a member — when things went well, it was because we were honest and giving. And things didn’t go well when we weren’t.

“You have to be willing to love somebody no matter what,” insists the bassist, also forty-three. “It’s a big thing on this record — loving the faults. That’s what commitment is. To make something complete — a rich life, a rich record — you gotta love all the parts.”

Back in his living room, Kiedis is talking about another album track, “Snow (Hey Oh),” a soft shuffle with a driving bridge and the ring of a future hit single. The light in his eyes goes on again. “It’s about surviving, starting fresh,” he says. “I’ve made a mess of everything, but I have a blank slate — a canvas of snow — and I get to start over.”

Six weeks later, Stadium Arcadium is released, and love conquers all. The two-CD set debuts at the top of the Sound-Scan album chart, selling more than 440,000 copies in its opening week. It is the first Number One album of the Chili Peppers’ twenty-three-year career.

ONE AFTERNOON IN LATE March, the Chili Peppers play a mini-gig of six songs in the living room of a Spanish-style mansion overlooking Laurel Canyon Boulevard. It is the same house, converted into a studio by producer Rick Rubin, where he and the band recorded Stadium Arcadium and, fifteen years earlier, Bloodsugarsexmagik. Today, the Chili Peppers are performing for an audience of cameramen, audio engineers and executives from iTunes, which is launching the band’s catalog for sale online and is shooting this set for exclusive download.

But the real show is the one the Chili Peppers give for themselves: Flea, Smith and Frusciante improvising in high gear, eyes glued to one another, while the crew is still setting sound levels and camera angles. Smith keeps tight, hard time under Frusciante’s sunbursts of wah-wah guitar; Flea violently bobs his head in time to his brute-R&B bass lines. When Kiedis bolts into the room, he warms up his voice with guttural chanting and loses himself in the rhythm around him, breaking out in spastic pelvic thrusts and a high-stepping war dance. “It’s not acting,” he’ll claim later. “All I have to do is close my eyes and listen to Chad. It’d be acting if I didn’t do it.”

“It’s a fucking racket,” Smith admits. “But it’s not just everyone blowin’ and not listening. We’ve taken it a little further” — into songwritmg. The Chili Peppers compose as a family, by unanimous vote, mostly in jam sessions where the band will, according to Rubin, “create one main element, a verse or a chorus, and from that find pieces to make other parts of the song. Most bands write a lot of riffs, then see how they fit together to make a song. The Chili Peppers are more organic: creating pieces to go with other existing pieces.”

“They don’t make it easy for me,” Kiedis says of the other three. “They could be an amazing jazz-fusion trio. But somehow I find songs” — Kiedis writes the words and vocal melodies — “in the bigness of what they’re doing. It’s not like I get to decide: ‘I want this.’ It’s this unspoken moment of consideration, where as a unit we listen to these parts and meditate on what serves the song best.”

That day in the Laurel Canyon house, the Chili Peppers tear through “Can’t Stop,” from 2002’s By the Way, and Stadium Arcadium‘s first single, “Dani California,” with a force that is funk, punk and heavy metal all at once, but also evokes the intuitive might of classic-rock institutions like the Jimi Hendrix Experience and the Live at Leeds-era Who. “Flea and I had it the first time we played together,” says Frusciante, who was only eighteen and an ardent Chili Peppers fan with no prior band experience when he joined the band in 1988. “There was something there. But we developed it. Flea once read something [jazz drummer] Elvin Jones said about having chemistry with somebody: ‘You gotta be willing to die for a motherfucker.’

“That struck a chord, for all of us,” Frusciante goes on. “The more we love each other, the more we understand each other, the deeper our stuff gets.” The Chili Peppers also know they will never entirely live down the naked-knuckleheads stigma of their early years and records. Smith recalls a recent interview he did with another magazine: “The guy said, ‘Thanks for Limp Bizkit.’ He said this to me — in my house!”

“They misinterpreted us from the beginning,” Kiedis snaps when asked about ancient history: the stripping onstage, down to nothing but tube socks; raging-hormone anthems like “Party on Your Pussy,” on 1987’s The Uplift Mofo Party Plan. “Enough time has passed and enough has been revealed about what we are capable of that you really have to be a fool to limit us to one thing: ‘Oh, those are the assholes who go naked.’ It was a spiritual experience,” Kiedis insists, “from note one.”

Flea confirms that. Even before he and Kiedis formally started the Chili Peppers in 1983, with Israeli-born Fairfax classmate Hillel Slovak and drummer Jack Irons, Flea says he and Kiedis were “together, always, every day” from their first day of class in 1977: “I was a weird kid with no friends. Everybody called me a faggot. But my mom remembers me coming home from school and saying, ‘Mom, Mom, for the first time, I’ve found someone I can really talk to.’ “

Both came from broken homes, by different paths. A native of Melbourne, Australia, Flea was four when he emigrated to New York with his mother, older sister and stepfather, a jazz musician. The family moved to L.A. when Flea was eleven — the same age when Kiedis, born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, arrived in the city to live with his divorced father, John. A part-time actor also known as Blackie Dammett, Anthony’s dad quickly initiated his son into the Hollywood noir life of music, sex, film and drugs — a bizarre adolescence Kiedis later described in vivid detail in his 2004 memoir, Scar Tissue.

From the start, Kiedis and Flea had no secrets from each other. They talked about “everything,” Flea says, everywhere. “We’d go backpacking, except we carried our stuff in paper bags. We’d be in the mountains for ten days, just walking, with one sleeping bag between us.” The two also got into petty burglary — breaking into back yards in Hollywood, stealing pots of homegrown marijuana. They ate in restaurants and ran off without paying the bill. They flashed old women and did hard drugs.

“We were trouble,” Flea admits sheepishly. But there was “a lot of love between us.” And it “never felt transient,” even after Kiedis got deeper into heroin while Flea dabbled, then backed off altogether. “I guess I’ve always been willing to deal with the bummers. Many times I’ve wanted to quit” — most recently, he reveals, during the recording of By the Way, when creative tensions between Flea and Frusciante got personal.

“John was set on doing things he wanted to do,” Flea explains. “I felt like he didn’t give a fuck about what I wanted to do. I didn’t feel like it was my family anymore.” Flea quietly decided to leave after touring for the record, telling only his best friends outside the band and swearing them to secrecy. But in an airport one day, “I mentioned something to John. He said, ‘I know I hogged the overdubs on the record. I wouldn’t listen to anyone.’ ” Flea decided to stay.

It is a measure of how much — and how little — has changed between the Chili Peppers, in middle age, that Flea never told Kiedis until recently that he nearly split for good: “Anthony and I have been in and out of being close, especially since we became successful. But the most painful part of quitting, and the thing that stopped me, was the idea of telling Anthony.” (Smith had no idea Flea had come so close to leaving until I asked him about it: “Really? Quit the band? No! I didn’t know that.”)

“None of us have been hanging-out friends for a long time,” Frusciante confesses, idly stroking his rough, Jesus-like beard one night in his home up in the Hollywood Hills. “Maybe we know each other too well. When you’re in a band, your lives are one life. You make the same money. You go to the same places at the same time. It’s overload. It’s better to have your own life to create your own identity. So when you do come together, you’re not sick of each other.”

It has, in fact, come to this: Flea and Smith — who roomed together on Smith’s first tours with the band after he emigrated from Michigan and joined in 1989 — are talking about sharing a daddies’ bus, with accommodations for their respective families, on the Chili Peppers’ upcoming U.S. tour. Flea and Frusciante, in turn, both practice Vipassana, a style of Buddhist meditation. “There’s no chant,” Flea explains. “You sit quietly and observe the images in your head.” Flea, usually a motormouth, has gone to retreats where he managed to stay silent “three days straight.” Asked about religion, Kiedis — who has been sober since the late Nineties — simply says, “I don’t go for sects and denominations,” although he is reported to be a follower of the high-profile branch of Jewish mysticism, kabbalah.

“We all have different priorities now,” Smith says. “When I’m not with the band, I want to be with Nancy and Cole” — his wife and year-old son. “But I don’t have to meditate with John to feel connected to him. Or play golf with Flea, although I have and will.” Smith notes that in 2004, the band took six months off and he saw the others “once or twice. It was fine. It wasn’t weird. I’m forty-three. I want to be with my family.”

But when the Chili Peppers started writing Stadium Arcadium in September of that year, Smith says, “I couldn’t wait to go to fucking rehearsal. The shit we were coming up with was high quality. And there was lots of it.”

Even Kiedis is surprised by the tenacity of his relationships with the other Chili Peppers, particularly Flea. “Recently we realized that it was a crying shame that Flea and I weren’t hanging out anymore,” Kiedis says. “He was calling, inviting me to go kayaking. And I’m going, ‘Yeah, yeah, one of these days.’ “Then I went through a difficult time two months ago — I rediscovered some things about me that had to change — and I had this awakening: ‘This guy is important to me. And I can’t be the guy who says, ‘One day, one day….’ “We have reconnected,” Kiedis says brightly. “And it feels so much better.” John Frusciante’s house is much like his head. Both are almost entirely devoted to music. In Frusciante’s living room, floor-to-ceiling cabinets are filled with vinyl albums; narrow paths have been plowed through the overflow piles of CDs, more LPs and guitars on the floor. On the remaining free walls hang original paintings by Don Van Vliet, the avant-rock singer-composer also known as Captain Beefheart. Over an interview dinner of steak and vegetables that he whips up himself on his George Foreman grill, Frusciante talks excitedly about current passions: Hendrix, Mozart and the British pop-art band the Move, the last introduced to him by Frusciante’s late friend Johnny Ramone. “I have an addictive personality,” Frusciante concedes later, relaxing on a set of cushions in the living room as he talks about, among other things, his decision to bolt the Chili Peppers in 1992 and the years of death-defying drug use that followed. “But that part of me is to my benefit, because it enables me to make the music I do.”

In a band of outsized personalities — Kiedis’ warrior-frontman electricity; Flea’s hyperkinetic energy, on stage and off; Smith’s big-bear bonhomie — Frusciante seems like a man of quiet drive, consumed by music and devotion to his band. Actually, in conversation, he talks a blue streak and openly professes his faith in cosmic forces and desires to transcend time and space. “A lot of the time, when Flea and Chad and I play, there’s an unmistakable feeling that the music was there before we went into the room, waiting for us.” And he means it.

Frusciante was just as certain of his destiny as a teenager: “I knew that I was going to be a rock & roll guitar player. When teachers told me, ‘You gotta have something to fall back on,’ I knew they were wrong.” With his parents’ permission, he took a proficiency test and left high school at sixteen. Two years later, he was a Chili Pepper.

“When I look back over the way I grew up — my whole progress as a listener as well as a player — it all led straight to being in this band,” he says. Aside from several solo albums and sessions for friends like prog-rock extremists the Mars Volta, Frusciante, now thirty-six, has never been in any other group but the Chili Peppers. Even when he quit, he says, “I didn’t realize how much what I was playing had to do with Flea. I thought I was the goods, with or without him. That wasn’t the case.”

Today, Frusciante is not just the band’s guitarist. He is an orchestrator whose attention to guitar-overdub and background-vocal detail has transformed the Chili Peppers’ records. His encyclopedic lust for music is everywhere on Stadium Arcadium: the loving allusion to Hendrix in the “Purple Haze”-like guitar explosion at the end of “Dani California”; the Mountain-inspired riff in “Readymade” (a tribute to Johnny Ramone, who loved that band); the high Sixties-pop harmonies Frusciante sings all over the two CDs.

“He’s like a mad scientist in the studio,” Smith says, “and we let him do his thing.” At one point during the Stadium sessions, Frusciante gave Smith a CD of seven songs on which he’d been working. “The vocals were like the fucking Bee Gees — not in a bad way, but it wasn’t what I expected.” Smith’s wife had a more basic reaction: “Wow, that sounds beautiful.”

“Once the foundation of a song is built, John takes the song over the top,” says Rubin, who has produced every Chili Peppers album since Bloodsugarsexmagik. “It’s not a lot of experimentation. John has the idea. And if he goes too far in any direction, the other members pull him back in.”

“John’s always had an understated confidence,” Kiedis says. “But he likes being loud now, and part of that came from hanging out with the Mars Volta.” Their guitarist, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, and Frusciante got tight when the two bands toured Europe together a couple of years ago, Kiedis explains. “And Omar is such a rocker that John was like, ‘It’s time I let it all hang out.’ Being at the forefront, going for the heavy blistering guitar in your face: John’s always been capable of that. But he didn’t feel it. Now he feels it.”

Frusciante is an only child, born in New York and raised in Chatsworth, California, in the San Fernando Valley. (He now has half brothers and half sisters by his parents’ later marriages.) His father, also named John, was a professional concert pianist who, after a few years of touring and a serious back operation, enrolled in law school. He is now a judge in Florida. Frusciante’s mother, Gail, was trained as a theatrical singer but chose to be a full-time mom when she became pregnant.

“I got the combination of the two,” Frusciante says proudly. “My dad had the passion and intensity. My mom had the ear and pitch. I was sure I could do the dream they once had.” When Frusciante left school, he moved into his own place in L.A., where he religiously practiced guitar by himself. His parents supported him with a monthly stipend, enough, he says, “to pay rent.”

Frusciante saw his first Chili Peppers concert when he was fifteen, in L.A. It wasn’t just their funk and lunatic stage antics that blew him away. They had, he says, “this incredible force that made everyone in the club feel great. They lit up the room. That’s an incredible power to have, when you’re no different from anyone else — until you get onstage and everyone else is rocking out with you. I think that’s the thing that’s made Anthony and Flea stick with it, and stick with each other — that magical power.”

In 1988, shortly after Slovak’s death, Frusciante worked up the nerve to introduce himself to Kiedis and Flea, who recommended Frusciante to their friend Bob Forrest of the band Thelonious Monster, then looking for a guitarist. The two Chili Peppers even accompanied the nervous guitarist to his audition — Frusciante’s first for anyone — then decided to keep him for themselves after they saw him play.

For Kiedis, still reeling from the death of Slovak, Frusciante was a lifeline. Their age gap and the teenager’s inexperience didn’t matter, Kiedis says: “In the moment, it was, ‘That’s my new favorite guitar player and best friend.’ John and I became inseparable. Every day, we’d get together — eat, smoke cigarettes, chase girls, play pool.”

“Then it was like John swung the other way,” Flea remembers. “He’d been this eager kid, who would do anything to make the band work. Then Bloodsugar … came out, and he was like, ‘These guys are a bunch of assholes, sellouts.’ Becoming a hard-core junkie, deciding to live that life for a period — it was an intense decision, the most extreme I’d ever seen. And I’ve seen a lot.”

“Chasing girls, running around and being silly — I didn’t want to do that anymore,” Frusciante says. “But I didn’t know how to be an artist, a creative person, in the world. I only knew how to do that in the privacy of my home.” In a sense, Frusciante had never left his bedroom.

“I should have talked about what I was feeling, but we weren’t close at the time,” he says. “Flea was going through a divorce. If I’d be bumming out about something, he’d be like, ‘You’re fine. Look at me. My life is ruined.’ And it was true, compared to my problems.” Frusciante says that he did not start using heroin until after the band finished recording Bloodsugarsexmagik. “If I had quit when I first thought of it” — during the sessions — “I’m positive I would have gone on to a steady, paced life.”

Frusciante is adamant about his sabbatical: “I was not in the depths of darkness.” He talks about being holed up at home, painting and writing with the same isolated concentration with which he’d learned how to play guitar. He is also frank about his addiction: “I was ‘no shame.’ There was a dealer with the best Persian heroin and the best cocaine. He had thirty customers when I met him. He dumped them all so he could deal with me.

“The whole experience of being a drug addict and getting out of it — I don’t see it the way other people do,” he says. “Any rejoicing you do in life has to do with something you’ve overcome. I had my reasons for doing it.” And they were, Frusciante insists, “as good as my reasons for not doing it. Success, in a way, is this monster that says, ‘Now you’re gonna do this, and now you’re gonna do that.’ And everybody does what the fuck that monster tells them. I’m somebody who didn’t do that. I’m proud of myself for quitting the band when I did.”

Ironically, Frusciante’s return to health (he has been drug-free since 1998) and the band (initiated by Flea) helped Kiedis come out of the black himself. “I was struggling when he came back,” the singer confesses. “I had one last relapse. It was his chance to reach out to me and say, ‘Don’t do that. We have too much cool shit going on here.’ He was so nonjudgmental, as only another person with that kind of experience could be.”

But in his consuming love of music and desire to excel in it, Frusciante is still basically the same kid who jumped right from his bedroom to the ultimate rock & roll fantasy camp. “I don’t feel like a man,” he admits. Stadium Arcadium “reminds me of the way I felt when I was sixteen. The playing is exactly what I would have loved to do then — except I didn’t have the life experience to do it.”

I HAD A LITTLE REVELATION A COUPLE of weeks ago,” Kiedis says at one point that day in his living room. “My mom retired after forty years of faithful service to the same organization.” He repeats the number in a low voice. “Forty years.” And again. “Forty years.”

Kiedis’ mother, Peggy, worked at the Michigan law firm of Miller, Johnson, Snell and Cummiskey. “And she loved it,” he says. “Those were her friends. She was of service. And it wasn’t about money. That was her purpose.

“Then I was thinking: ‘We’ve been a band for twenty-three years. In my circle of friends, I don’t know anybody who’s done anything for twenty-three years. I was like, ‘How the hell have I had the same job for twenty-three years?’ Oh, right. You pattern yourself after your parents, whether you like it or not.”

Asked about the qualities he inherited from his mother, Kiedis replies without hesitation: “Survival. Strength. She’s a Leo. She’s quiet. But she is the stability in me. That is a huge factor. It’s not as flashy and colorful as the things I got from my dad — nor as destructive or newsworthy.

“But that’s what I took from her, this ability to stick with something long-term no matter what — the highs, the lows, the disasters, the triumphs,” he says fondly. “And the way things are going, if I had to draw an arc of how this band is going, I feel like the best is yet to come.”

When it is pointed out that he has another seventeen years to go with the Chili Peppers before he equals his mom’s record, Kiedis laughs. “I don’t mind having seventeen years left in this band.”


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