The morning surf near Malibu has started to pick up, the waves appearing as dark lines against the still overcast sky. The Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist, Flea, seems almost giddy as he struggles into his wetsuit, grabs his board and scampers down the hillside toward the water. He pauses on the sand for a minute of silent meditation, then throws his board into the water and begins to paddle out through the incoming breakers. Flea began surfing two years ago while visiting relatives in Australia, his birth country. Out in the lineup, he exhibits none of the natural hesitancy of a relative beginner. As sets roll in, Flea paddles furiously into each passing wave, occasionally tumbling headfirst over the falls with his board. When he finally does catch a wave, he lets out a series of joyful shrieks as he rockets down the face and carves out a respectable bottom turn before disappearing into an explosion of white foamy water. Paddling back out, he has a euphoric smile plastered across his face.
Onstage and in front of cameras, Flea exhibits a hyperactive confidence bordering on Tourettes syndrome. In person, he is energetic, yet thoughtful and almost shy. Preparing to eat a well-earned post-surf breakfast, he again pauses for a brief moment of silent meditation. Asked about it, he explains, I was praying, I do it every day. Ive never been religious, but Ive always had a sense of spirituality. Rick Rubin turned me on to transcendental meditation about eight years ago, and it helps me to just be in the moment and not be scared of pain and anxiety or whatever. Flea goes on to tell how, after the enormous success of the record BloodSugarSexMagik, he completely fell apart both physically and emotionally. In the wake of the 1991 CDs popularity, and with a young daughter onboard, he stopped doing drugs. But after an initial period of euphoria, he just collapsed. I thought I was Superman, but it all caught up with me, and I just fell apart. I felt so sick. I was in bed all the time, and it was completely traumatic because I was so used to playing basketball all day and partying all night and rocking out. And then all of a sudden I couldnt do anything. I was embarrassed that I felt so bad. It was the first time I was really forced to look inward.
Flea looks around at the tranquil Malibu setting. I was sort of wondering to myself. I live out here in Malibu now, am I going to get lazy because Im kind of disconnected from the anxiety of the city? Ive always had stress, and I grew up in L.A. and it made me who I am, and now Im out here and Im surfing, and its just this relaxed lifestyle. He shrugs. But then again, I know a week from now Im gonna be out on tour slugging it out. Asked why he still does it, Flea replies, More than anything, I have to say that I want to be of service to people. I mean, honestly thats it. I think were putting something beautiful out into the world that people can relate to. I feel like were doing something real.
Nearly 20 years into the Chili Peppers career, at a point when many of their contemporaries seem content to horde their shekels and recycle past glories, the Chili Peppers have produced By the Way, perhaps their boldest and greatest achievement yet. It is a diverse and complex pop masterwork that evokes Southern California, and particularly Los Angeles, as only a handful of previous records have done. So how did the band go from gyrating about with tube socks on their dicks and singing I want to party on your pussy to serving up one of the most accomplished pop records of recent times? Much like the aging Hollywood action star who has suddenly reinvented himself as a serious actor, the Chili Peppers have called upon their accumulated and tumultuous life experiences, added an almost obsessive willingness to push artistic boundaries, and taken a collective leap forward into the new. It feels less a calculated career move than a change borne out of sheer necessity, both musically and personally.
In the beginning, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were a joke -- literally. What would later turn into two decades of success began as a one-off lark called Tony Flow and the Miraculously Majestic Masters of Mayhem. The four original band members, their brainpans soaked with LSD, marched single file across Melrose Avenue and took the stage of a small Hollywood nightclub. They went through some syncopated dance moves and then performed their only song, Out in L.A., with first-time performer Anthony Kiedis rapping about how exceedingly cool the four pals were. People loved it, Flea recalls. We didnt even know what we were doing, it just happened by its own force. We just started playing and it exploded. The music was unheard of. No one was doing anything like that. The band landed a record deal within a few months.