To Live and Die in L.A.: Our 1999 Feature on Red Hot Chili Peppers’ ‘Californication’
In the four years since their last album, the Red Hot Chili Peppers have survived drug relapses, mental freak-outs, and the departure of Dave Navarro. Now they're out to prove they can still keep up with the funky white boys
‘Californication’ turns 20 tomorrow. In honor of the anniversary, we’ve digitized and republished this story, which originally appeared in the August 1999 issue of Spin.
The portable monument to the Great Chili Pepper Wars is parked behind an anonymous Hollywood rehearsal space. The location is critical: one of the more skanky blocks between Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards, home to tattoo parlors and needle-exhange programs, a stomping ground for pimps and crack ho’s. The monument is casual: three Harley-Davidsons, belonging to Flea, Anthony Kiedis, and Chad Smith, lined up by the back door. Black, ornery, they stand together as a team, and if you knock one down, you’ll have to knock them all down.
The Peppers are practicing for an upcoming tour in support of their recent comeback bid Californication. By the time it kicks off, they’ll probably look like buff, sexed-up rock stars again, but today they appear a bit weathered. From eight feet away, singer Kiedis appears his usual pin-up self, but get closer and his skin’s a little loose, a little lined. Smith’s face is perpetually red. And Flea, forget about it: Ever the worrier, years of dogging everybody to show up when they said they would and being sober enough to play has the bassist aging like a leather jacket. If they weren’t the Peppers and you saw them walking down this street, you’d never wonder what these guys were doing in this part of town.
But how could they not look roughed-up, given all they’ve been through since they got together in 1983? Has any alt-rock band lived as hard ? Has any band in music history taken as many drugs? The Peppers’ first guitarist, Hillel Slovak, died of a heroin overdose in 1988; Kiedis, Flea, and ex-guitarist Dave Navarro are admitted former users; prodigal guitarist John Frusciante was a smack shut-in several years ago. The Peppers have been arrested, sued, and bad-mouthed by the secretary of Health and Human Services. They’ve outlasted hardcore, postpunk, and grunge, while borrowing from all of them, only to see their thrash-rap descendants like Limp Bizkit reeling in the suburban skateboarders who used to be the Peppers’ constituency. They’ve watched Hugh Hefner go from cool to uncool back to cool again, while they are sentenced to justify old tunes like “Sexy Mexican Maid” and “Party on Your Pussy.”
And in just the four years since their last record, the progressive One Hot Minute, they have survived motorcycle crashes, drug relapses, the departure of Navarro, and the trade of L.A. Laker star Eddie Jones. “That we should all make it to the same place and time together again,” says Kiedis, “and the fact that we didn’t die or become spiritually crippled in the process of going through all these hardships means there was really something in the air that wanted this [reunion) to happen.”
So now the Peppers’ war is on two fronts: They’re fighting for relevance, fighting their own conflicted selves. As everyone but Frusciante slouches toward 40, the Peppers know they should grow up, at least a little. Thing is, their fucked-up, boys-will-be-boys nature has always been part and parcel of their appeal and none of them seem entirely comfortable with moving on. “I don’t know if matured is the right word,” says Smith, “although we’re not the same kids pissing and fucking on the same floor.” So should they act their age, not their sock size, and come off newer by being wiser? Is a Pepper still a Pepper if it stops dancing around half-naked with fire spouting out of its head?
The lukewarm reaction to One Hot Minute devastated the group. A depressed Flea took off for Costa Rica, where he spent much of his time sitting in a hammock reading a biography of Che Guevara. Kiedis traveled through India, zigzagging along a spiritual course that included a swim in the Ganges and the de rigueur celebrity drop-in on the Dalai Lama in his Dharamsala monastery. There’s a rumor that Kiedis underwent exotic drug rehab on the subcontinent, which he doesn’t disavow so much as declare irrelevant—nothing in India was enough to make him want to be clean. “What I was looking for was in my own back yard,” he says. “It was my friends.”
One friend he was apparently able to do without was Peppers guitarist Dave Navarro, who was brought in during the recording of One Hot Minute and, depending on the source, either quit or was forced out in ’97. He left at a time when he was getting high again and Kiedis was relapsing too, but drug use was apparently not the main issue. “I can’t imagine it would be,” Navarro says tartly. “I have and always will have a tremendous amount of respect for all of them. And I’ll also say that my favorite member is John Frusciante.”
“I love Dave, and I miss him,” Kiedis says a little too smoothly. “I hope we had fun and go on to be friends at a later time.”
Though he learned a lot about exhibitionism during his days with Jane’s Addiction, Navarro didn’t necessarily like the part of his job description that included stunts like putting a giant lightbulb on his head, as the Peppers famously clowned at Woodstock II. But Californication producer Rick Rubin, who has known the Peppers since the ’80s, says the main problem was that Navarro came in just before they recorded One Hot Minute, and there was no time to bond before it failed to re-create the massive success of 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik. “Personality-wise they are really at odds, really different kinds of people,” Rubin says of Navarro and Kiedis. “Dave is dark-humored, dark-souled, and Anthony doesn’t appreciate that. But once Dave kind of left us and Anthony was dealing with his own insurmountable problems, (the other members] thought the band would not continue, that there was too much anti-momentum.”
But with Flea leading the way, the Peppers tried to reboot. Looking for new direction, they plotted, what else, an “electronica” album only to find they coudn’t get anyone to help. When producers William Orbit (Madonna’s Ray of Light) and Flood (U2’s Pop) turned them down, the Peppers looked back to their past. They rehired guitarist John Frusciante, who had played on Blood Sugar, and signed on producer Rick Rubin (Blood Sugar, One Hot Minute) for the third time.
“Personally,” says Flea, “I feel the most exciting music happening is electronica, without a doubt.” His voice gets more emphatic. “But you know, we rock like a motherfucker. I know that we can dig deeper and harder than anyone, and people are always going to want that. Our record is just as exciting as a new Prodigy record or the UNKLE record. [Playing with Frusciante again] makes me feel like this band is a really meaningful thing and that life is really meaningful, too.” He pauses. “I feel like we have some really good things to share with the world. And I feel like I’m going to grow as a human being from doing it.”
There is growth on the new record, including songs about marriage, of all things. (Kiedis says he’s “fallen in love for the first time in years.”) But Californication tries to have it both ways, sounding both enlightened and engorged, switching between their classic funk-punk and midtempo balladry. Soon after the song about the quick shag in Britain comes “Savior,” an unlikely tribute to God. “To celebrate you is great, now that I can,” sings the man who once wrote “Catholic School Girls Rule.” He ends up sounding like a swinger trying to pick up chicks at Lilith Fair.
With the Peppers unable or afraid to commit, Californication just puts it all out there, the paeans to holy matrimony and the holy pepperoni, and acts like there’s no contradiction. Even if the Peppers wanted to give up the funk and take it “Under the Bridge” for good, you have to wonder what the incentive is, what with homeboys like Eminem and Kid Rock throwing up an implicit challenge and Kiedis afraid to look like he’s backing down. If he’s not careful, he’s gonna be another character right out of “Californication,” a deluded soul blowing with the burger wrappers down Hollywood Boulevard.
The Peppers really do rock like mofos at the rehearsal space as they blast through the 1984 Minutemen tribute “Police Helicopter” and the defiant new “Parallel Universe.” On Californication, Frusciante keeps mostly in the background, but live he’s driving the band, making his presence felt in an ocean of noisy feedback. Still, the physical effort seems like a bit of a strain. During a break, the 29-year-old stretches his spindly arms behind him, and their mottled flesh hangs loose, with the shape and texture of an overcooked turkey drumstick. Perhaps his body hasn’t entirely bounced back from the raging heroin habit that nearly killed him; in early ’96, he told a reporter that his body had only “a twelfth of the blood it’s supposed to have, and that blood is infected.”
Over the years, Frusciante has alternately been the most sensible and most messed-up Pepper. At the age of nine the hard-rock fanatic heard punk rock for the first time, smashed his Kiss records, and threw the fragments out the window of his San Fernando Valley bedroom. Still, when he was plucked out of a Thelonious Monster audition in 1988 and asked to join the Peppers, Frusciante didn’t think twice—not even when the band made him strip to check his cock size. After recording Blood Sugar, he went on the road with a bagful of books about such artists as Marcel Duchamp and Leonardo Da Vinci. Turns out a stack of Kiss comics might have been better preparation. Just as the group was preparing to headline Lollapalooza, Frusciante realized that being a Pepper was, well, incompatible with his notion of being an artist.
“If I was going to follow the path I wanted to follow, I couldn’t do the things that were being demanded of me as a Red Hot Chili Pepper,” Frusciante says. “There was a time when I wanted to make sure I was in tune with my own understanding of what integrity was.” Translation: Duchamp didn’t wear tube socks on his dick.
One afternoon in Japan he told the Peppers he was leaving; he wouldn’t even play that night’s show until they begged him. Then he promptly tried to fall off the face of the earth. He became such a hard-core junkie that all his teeth fell out. His home—before the fire—was such a famously scary hovel (MY EYE HURTS was spray-painted on the wall) that Johnny Depp and But-thole Surfer Gibby Haynes made a private film about it. Somehow, Frusciante managed to record two weird solo albums, Niandra Ladies (1994) and Smile From the Streets You Hold (1997).
“I lived very close to death in the last few years, from every angle,” says Frusciante in a fumbling, mumbling voice that tries out each sentence a couple times before letting it go. “I didn’t mind dying, but the spirits that have made me do what I’ve done with my life up to this point didn’t want me to—and they’ve ended up being right. Because I have more to create. Whatever kind of craziness I’ve gone through, I was happy to go through it, and it’s made me be able to appreciate and enjoy and focus on the task that we have before us.”
You have to wonder if Frusciante is going to fare better on the road this time, since he doesn’t see the last go-round as a negative experience. “I don’t look at it as bottoming out,” he stresses. “I spent six years going inside myself in a way that people who are stuck with the idea that they have to accomplish something with their lives never get a chance to do. I was able to do what I was dreaming about, which was to just sit there and do nothing—to feel no obligation to do anything for anybody. Or for myself.”
“But now,” he continues slowly, “I think the rock star, his role in society, is a very beautiful thing and the best kind of a thing for a child to experience. Nothing more important to me was communicated at the age of seven than thinking about Zeppelin and Aerosmth and Kiss. There’s something magical about it that transcends intelligence.” He reaches for his cigarettes.
“That’s the cool thing about being a rock star: People don’t really judge you. If they do, they can shove it up their ass, because you’re a person who can do whatever you want.” This time, he says, he’s ready for Japan.
It happened at a show in Souther California, at one of the many political benefits the Peppers play. The lanky, pale bouncer in the baseball cap came up to Flea wanting to share something he was confident the bassist would appreciate. The bouncer was a member of the Spur Posse, the teenage crew from Lakewood, California, that had made date rape a male-bonding ritual at their high school in the early ’90s. And he felt comfortable approaching Flea with tales of their con-quests because the Peppers had earned a dick-waiving, antifemale reputation of their own.
“He was ‘relating’ to me,” remembers an appalled Flea. “I just ran out into the street. It was so sad to be perceived that way. He thought he was being part of this guys-being-misogynists-together thing.” The bassist looks like he’s about to explode. “Even at my most fucked-up, I’ve always respected women—always loved, admired, and been in awe of them.
Maybe the bouncer got the idea from the time in 1990 that Flea jumped off the stage in Florida, picked up a woman from the audience, and twirled her around while Smith paddled her rear. The two musicians were cuffed and booked the next day and eventually settled out of court. (“I was so embarrassed, so depressed, and so sad,” Flea says of the experience.)
Kiedis had been found guilty of indecent exposure and sexual battery in 1989, after displaying his penis backstage in Virginia and then allegedly touching a woman’s face with it. (He acknowledges exposing himself, but says there was no battery because there was no contact; he was fined and lost a sum in the civil case as well.) Such “antics” would never lead the band to rethink its lyrics or behavior, everybody says. “There’s definitely things I’ve done that were wrong,” Flea says, “but everybody does shit. I’ve been cruel, I’ve been mean, I’ve been selfish, but I’m a human being.” Still, he’s clearly the band member who works hardest to keep himself together. “Flea’s gotten a lot more sensitive,” Smith says with respect.
Its harder to tell if Kiedis has; as the band’s alpha muffin he’s got the most invested in his image. “Hopefully, I never edit my personality,” he says. “I don’t regret the sexually expressive side of myself or of my art or of this band. I probably have learned to be a little more sensitive and considerate of other people’s discomfort with certain sexual expressions, so I don’t force that on anybody who is unreceiving, but that energy is still a big part of me. I don’t feel like a bad guy or a deviant in any way.”
Though when Kiedis won’t check himself, the greater Chili Pepper community does. The band voted a song he was particularly fond of, “Fat Dance,” off the album. “It was fonky, it talked about the beauty of ass,” Kiedis laments.
On the clattery “Easily,” a track Rubin and Frusciante fought to get on the album, Kiedis proposes to his girlfiend —one of the few times the Peppers have worked deeper feeling into a rocker rather than a ballad. Then there’s “Road Trippin’,” a sweet song about how surfing with your buds is better than any drug in the phar-macy. It’s in such high points that the Peppers seem to be looking to a reasonably sane and viable future.
Of course, a viable future depends on the summer tour, and Kiedis seems recharged as he casually freestyles over one of Smith’s breakbeats. As the Peppers move into “Scar Tissue,” a test printing of the Californication art suddenly arrives. The cover photo, which looks like a Pink Floyd mind trip, is quickly approved, but what gets everybody’s full attention is the photo on the last page of the booklet. It shows the band members backstage, locked in a group embrace.
“Look at the four lads,” the amiable goof Smith says in a mock Liverpudlian accent. He’s joking, but he’s genuinely pleased, too. There they all are, arms interlocked, as if they’re determined to keep each other from falling down.