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Sons of the City

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 Tourette’s 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. I‘ve never been religious, but I’ve 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 CD‘s 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 couldn’t 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 I‘m kind of disconnected from the anxiety of the city? I’ve always had stress, and I grew up in L.A. and it made me who I am, and now I‘m out here and I’m surfing, and it‘s just this relaxed lifestyle.” He shrugs. “But then again, I know a week from now I’m 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 that‘s it. I think we’re putting something beautiful out into the world that people can relate to. I feel like we‘re 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 didn‘t 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.

 

To understand how the Chili Peppers could generate such initial excitement with only a handful of songs, one must understand how entirely original they were at the time. In 1983, A Flock of Seagulls were on the radio, Risky Business was in theaters, punk rock was washed up and hard drugs were the new barometer of cool. Think Brett Easton Ellis’ nihilistic teen melodrama Less Than Zero without so many bisexual rich people. In a world presently overrun by a never-ending pestilence of shirtless white rap rockers, it seems nearly impossible to imagine an earlier time, yet music in the ‘80s was mainly perpetrated by Englishmen who jerked about as if re-creating Monty Python’s famous “Twit Contest.” Sure, there was some ingenious dancing on the other side of the racial divide, Michael Jackson was still living here on planet Earth, and countless Jheri-curl-sporting Boogaloo Shrimp clones were spinning about on cardboard slabs, but the notion that hip, white musicians could actually groove and exhibit a sex appeal beyond cross-dressing and suicidal depression seemed unheard of at the time.

The Chili Peppers earned a reputation for outlandish mugging, alleged sexism and onstage nudity in these early years. Flea believes this acting out cost them with music critics, especially in Los Angeles, where they have continued to receive little notice over the years. “I think it‘s because [the L.A. Times’] Robert Hilburn came to see us play at the Club Lingerie in 1983, and we said a bunch of really obnoxious stuff and he hated us. And because he hates us, it‘s like we don’t exist. Twenty years of putting out records and living in Los Angeles and being a band that pours our heart into everything we do, and not a spot of ink.”

On the radio a few months back, David Bowie stated that the American public really only remembers the three biggest things any artist has done. Sadly, for the Chili Peppers this would consist of nudity, drug addiction and funk rock. It is true that much of the public still envisions the band as the irreverent pranksters they once were, but, while capable of the occasional provocative outburst, the Chili Peppers have actually evolved over the last decade into rather serious artists. Rick Rubin, who has produced the band‘s last four records, theorizes, “Taking your clothes off is interesting; putting your clothes back on is less interesting. It’s less noteworthy. They‘re kind of still in the putting-their-clothes-back-on phase. But there’s no question that the quality of the work just keeps getting better and better. But the general public does still seem to view them as a party band.”

One of the raps on Los Angeles is that the town is populated by beautiful people incapable of any deep intellectual thought. This is relatively the same logic that says all athletes (and especially surfers) are stupid, the premise being that you can either have a good body or a good brain, but not both. The accuracy of this equation can easily be disproved by simply noting the hordes of unsightly simpletons who roam the planet. Nevertheless, it is a trap that plagues even modern music, where to be taken seriously you can be pretty or strange, but rarely athletic-looking. The Chili Peppers have always flaunted their physicality, regularly performing shirtless with not a flabby party ball among them. Though fast approaching middle age, the band has unfortunately aged exceptionally well. This combined with a willingness to interject overtly sexual images into their lyrics has pretty much damned them to the populist mainstream regardless of how inventive their work. Only the band‘s past appetite for heinous amounts of narcotics gets them slightly off the hook with arbiters of cool. Still, be so audacious as to mention their latest disc in the same category as a hallowed masterpiece like the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, and you‘ll get laughed out of the used-recordgraphic-novel store. But the truth is, the Chili a Peppers’ latest release is one of the most interesting and creative new records around and arguably belongs in the pantheon of great Los Angeles albums with the works of the Beach Boys, the Doors, the Flesheaters, X and others.

John Frusciante is sitting half-submerged in the swimming pool of his Hollywood Hills home, the lilting psychedelia of Tyrannosaurus Rex traveling out from a stereo. If you‘ve seen pictures of Frusciante from 10 years ago, his appearance is noticeably different. In youth, he was almost male-model pretty, posing for photographs with a confident smile bordering on a sneer. Nowadays, he appears somewhat fragile-looking, more disheveled artist than Southern California skate punk. He is surprisingly talkative, blending a sure intellect with slightly New Age spirituality, not particularly warm, but engaging. Frusciante was a teenage fan of the band when he was tapped as their fourth guitarist. “Everybody I ever met,” he says, “I would tell them, ’The Chili Peppers are my favorite band, I love them.‘”

 

He had migrated from the doldrums of the San Fernando Valley to study guitar at the Musicians Institute in Hollywood, when drummer D.H. Peligro of the Dead Kennedys introduced him to Flea, and he was asked to join the band. Chili Pepper drummer Chad Smith shakes his head. “He was 18 when he joined the band. Eighteen! The first band he was ever in was his favorite band. It would be like me having joined fucking Led Zeppelin!”

Frusciante recorded two records with the Chili Peppers during his initial go-round, the second of those, BloodSugarSexMagik, being the album that launched them into mainstream stardom. This sudden ascent to mass popularity left the acutely sensitive Frusciante increasingly unhappy and disillusioned. “By the time we were recording on BloodSugar,” he recalls, “it was very clear to me that I could make the world beautiful if I controlled my environment. But that if you rushed me into the middle of a traffic jam or put some ugly billboard in front of me, anything that wasn’t pleasant to me, I had no idea how to protect myself against it.” This discomfort also translated to fellow band members, whom he believed were too eager to sell themselves out for fame and fortune. “I felt like they thought to be successful they had to pretend to be something, to make funny faces and jump around and be silly and make weird jokes, because that‘s what was going to make them successful.”

At the time, Frusciante felt the band should model themselves after underground heroes like Black Flag, the Velvet Underground and the Butthole Surfers, and not concern themselves with selling vast amounts of records. Accordingly, he began trying to subvert the process, refusing to do interviews and changing the way he played during their live shows. “He was almost like the fan in some ways,” Smith says. “Like, ’I used to like them, but now everybody likes them, so I don‘t like them anymore.’ But we didn‘t really change. It’s just a mentality, that rebelling-against-being-popular thing. As soon as the record started to take off, he would just do the opposite of whatever he thought he was supposed to do. If it was time for a lead, he‘d unplug his guitar. If it was time for a rhythm break, he’d just go completely off.” On tour in Japan, Frusciante abruptly quit the band and flew home to Hollywood.

After leaving the Chili Peppers, Frusciante dedicated himself full time to a bout of heroin addiction that left even the most jaded in Hollywood aghast. With infection spreading throughout his arms and teeth rotting out of his head, many assumed the end was looming. Yet somehow he managed to linger in this isolated and somnambulistic state for six bleak years before finally being hospitalized. Drug free and on the mend, Frusciante was eventually asked to rejoin the band. “He comes over to Flea‘s garage, and I didn’t know what to think,” Smith recalls. “But once we started playing, it was just kind of like putting on an old shoe. It just felt good.”

His arms scarred from skin grafts and his grill replaced, Frusciante now seems finally at peace with the uncertainties that fueled his initial departure. Sitting on a couch surrounded by an enormous and eclectic record collection, Frusciante explains how he has finally come to accept life as a famous rock star. He tells of how, when all alone in the depths of his addiction, images he had of artists like Jean-Michael Basquiat, David Bowie and Leonardo da Vinci kept him alive. “And it matters very little whether these people were in tune with me on some subconscious level or were pure fantasy,” he says. “The fact is, they kept me alive and they made my life feel like it was worth living. They made me feel like I had a friend. And this time when I joined the band, I was so thankful for being kept alive all those years by my images of people, that I was just like, oh great, let‘s send out images to some other people. To me what’s important is the image that some kid in Montana has of me. If I make that person feel good, if I mean something to that person, it‘s just as real or more real than what I actually am.”

 

Frusciante now eats healthy, practices yoga and plays or composes music nonstop, seeming to have transferred his addiction from narcotics to the creative process. “I’m not saying that I‘ve done all this with a purpose in mind when I was just destroying myself,” he says. “It took a lot of suffering and a lot of confusion and a lot of searching. But I feel like I’ve been doing a good job for the last four years. I came back with a completely fresh perspective. I wasn‘t drugged and I wasn’t off balance. I was starting from a brand-new place, and there‘s a lot to be said for that. There have been other people who have gone away and then come back and seen the world or music from a brand-new perspective and then done the best stuff that they’ve ever done. Not only musicians, but also people like Mohammed and Buddha and Jesus Christ. They all led sort of normal lives, then disappeared for a while and then came back, and that‘s when they had all their fresh ideas and stuff that they’re known for.”

Before heading into the studio to record By the Way, Frusciante began studying different types of music, looking for tools to expand the band‘s sound. Spinning a rare EP by the Human League, he explains his recent fascination with ’80s synth-pop stars. “I learned all Gary Numan‘s synthesizer parts on the guitar because that was very much in the way that I wanted my guitar playing to be. I was spending a lot of time learning parts from Kraftwerk and Depeche Mode, Human League and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, because I was finding that people who were programming synthesizers in this early electronic music were playing in a very minimal way, where every single note means something new and every note builds on what the last notes were doing.”

That is not to say that By the Way sounds like a new-wave dance club filled with clove cigarettes and geometric haircuts. Unlike, say, the Strokes, who seem to merely cut and paste their influences into vaguely new arrangements, Frusciante has glommed onto various techniques, then used them to create something fresh. There may be a cold and futuristic Gary Numan--like synth weaving through the song “Warm Tape,” but it is placed between warm guitars and melodic harmonies. Much like contemporary hip-hop, the songs on the album seem a collage of existing, sometimes disparate influences in the service of something entirely new.

When Frusciante was still conflicted over his place in the pop mainstream, his friend Johnny Ramone revealed to him that for the entire time the Ramones were together, they had wanted to be like the Bay City Rollers. “And you know, when you see someone like him,” Frusciante says, “you see that that’s what was actually behind him . . . And you know, a lot of these great people like Lou Reed or the Germs, they would have loved to have been very successful.

”When I‘m writing music,“ he continues, ”I feel like I’m doing the same thing as the Ramones or the New York Dolls or what any of these people were doing, just writing music because you‘re excited. But I understand the level of success of the band that I’m in, and I‘m not going to try to pretend that what I really want is to be smaller. I know what we’re doing when we‘re going in there and putting the vocals under a microscope and making a verse shorter and a chorus bigger. I know what that’s all about, and I‘m not in any kind of fight with that. I see that the purpose is to make a pop record.“

The band had initially recorded a batch of minimalist punk songs as a counterpoint to the more heavily produced tracks on the new record. Yet when they sat down with Rubin, whose judgment they have come to implicitly trust, he suggested they leave the punk songs out. To him, they lacked the uniqueness of the other compositions, and he thought the band should stick to what they do best. The band, including Frusciante, agreed. ”People want to think that a fast drumbeat or loud guitars and a guy screaming makes it punk,“ Frusciante says, ”but I know I’m making music with the same feeling that I was getting from those records. The energy of punk is so inside of me and it‘s so much what draws me to keep doing what I do, that it’s in there inside the music, and when it a doesn‘t have any obvious remnants, that makes the music all the more intriguing.“

 

Their producer concurs. ”I think for a band that’s been making albums for a long time,“ Rubin says, ”finding new ways to express themselves keeps it interesting. And on this album there were lots of lush vocals and an orchestra, which we‘d never used before, and that just took it a new way. Maybe the next album will be much more sparse. I don’t know the direction it will go, but I know that evolution and change is a good thing.“

There may well be a painting of an aging Anthony Kiedis hanging somewhere in his Hollywood home, because in person the singer betrays few outward signs of being 40 years old, let alone a longtime ex-heroin addict. Perhaps like the old Twilight Zone episode, he has purchased some additional years of youth from a gullible elevator attendant; or, judging from recent pictures, Keith Richards. At an age when many men have lost hair and added chins, Kiedis arrives for rehearsal on a sleek, new Vespa scooter, looking like an athletic man in his late 20s. Gone are the exaggerated mannerisms and anti-social mugging of years past, replaced instead by a quiet and seductive politeness. When he talks of the band‘s history, as well as his own life growing up in Hollywood as a terminally stoned child actor, it is with a sense of warm nostalgia. He appears to have few regrets, though there remains a deep sadness when he speaks about the overdose death of the band’s original guitarist, Hillel Slovak.

It was this heartbreak that would inspire the band‘s first truly introspective song and signal a new attention to the craft of songwriting. While Slovak’s death was the catalyst for the song ”Knock Me Down,“ it was the band‘s new guitarist, Frusciante, who would help to channel Kiedis’ grief. ”Here‘s what John did, which had never been done for me before,“ Kiedis explains. ”I had lyrics about the loss of Hillel, but all I had were lyrics, no melody. And I brought it to John and said, ’These are the lyrics, maybe we could turn it into something.‘ He looked at my words and said, ’Okay, I‘ve been working on this thing that I think might go with this.’ And he just started playing guitar and singing a melody for these words that had no melody. He‘s so knowledgeable about affecting melody in original ways, and what he started to bring was this idea of writing different kinds of songs.“

What is perhaps the best song on the new album, or on any Chili Peppers album for that matter, is also inspired by a close friend’s death. On ”Venice Queen“ Kiedis sings about his beloved friend and mentor Gloria Scott, a gray-haired, ex-junkie drug counselor from Venice Beach who helped Kiedis and many of his friends battle their drug addictions. When it was discovered that Scott had lung cancer, the Chili Peppers held a benefit concert for her at the Hollywood Palladium. When her cancer became terminal, they rented her an expensive apartment overlooking the Pacific Ocean, where she eventually died.

The song begins with a tense guitar resembling Mike Oldfield‘s Tubular Bells Exorcist theme accompanied by a low Joy Division--like synthesizer fading in and out. Another guitar emits mournful notes as the bass and drums gradually build to a fast, nervous pace, with Kiedis singing: ”Does it go from east to westbody free and a body less . . .“ and ”Dropping in coming through the meshchecking in just to get blessed.“ A few minutes in, everything drops out, and a lone guitar begins to strum like Pete Townshend on ”Pinball Wizard,“ the bass and drums quickly joining in. What had seemed the tension of illness and impending death becomes a bittersweet celebration of a life well spent as Kiedis sings: ”We all want to tell hertell her that we love herVenice gets a queenbest I’ve ever seenWe all want to kiss hertell her that we miss her.“ Soon Frusciante‘s voice is harmonizing behind him, and the song has the exuberant, driving-up-the-California-coast feel of the Mamas and the Papas. What began as a moody meditation on mortality and loss grows into a heartfelt tribute. It is an incredibly effective song, musically striking and intensely emotional.

Flea says that before recording the album, he and Frusciante had listened a lot to the melancholy work of Joy Division. ”Sad music is beautiful,“ he says. ”A lot of the music we play is definitely born of sadness. I mean, it’s a sad world that we live in. It‘s a sad and beautiful world is what I say.“

The new album showcases Kiedis as a vastly improved vocalist. Still not blessed with enormous range, he has learned like other rock singers -- Mick Jagger, Joe Strummer, Iggy Pop -- to use interesting cadences and emotional delivery to surprising effect. ”One thing I really can’t stress enough about this record is Anthony‘s growth as a singer,“ Flea says. ”We would start playing stuff on this record, and he would just start singing melodies that were incredible. And I think probably that has as much to do as anything with making it a great record. He’s just continually shown growth, and on this record he really took everything to the highest level.“

 

Still, it is a topic Kiedis appears weary of. ”People always bring it up, but I just don‘t think about it,“ he says. ”I just sing whatever comes to me. Some days I feel like I can sing anything I want, and some days I can’t sing shit. But I try not to think about it so much. I just close my eyes and sing whatever I can.“

On early records, Kiedis‘ lyrics tended toward simple, almost adolescent-like rhymes of self-congratulatory boasting and lustful fantasy. Over the years, he has matured as a lyricist, his subject matter becoming increasingly observant and revealing, his wordplay skilled and inventive. On the song ”This Is the Place,“ Kiedis addresses the search for romance amid the debauchery of L.A. nightlife: ”This is the placewhere all the devils pleadtheir case to take from you what they needCan I isolate your genecan I kiss your dopamineIn a way I wonderif she’s living in a magazine.“ Later in the song, he looks inward, contemplating the behaviors he might have inherited from his once hedonistic father: ”I don‘t want to do itlike my daddy didI don’t want to give it to my baby‘s kid.“

Rubin believes it is this more revealing subject matter that has inspired Kiedis’ enhanced vocal delivery. ”I always found Anthony‘s lyrics interesting,“ Rubin says, ”but it seems like they have gone from interesting abstract lyrics to personal, heartfelt lyrics. And I think that’s because he‘s not telling a sex story but conveying a real emotional experience. It’s fueling the singing to be better and more emotional because the substance of it is coming from a deeper place in him.

“I would say Anthony has gotten more secure in who he is,” Rubin continues. “He‘s always been fighting demons, but it seems like his relationship to the demons is better than it used to be. I don’t know that he would ever say that he‘s cured, or the demons are gone. But it does seem like his relationship to the demons is a much more positive one. Does he feel like a happier person? That’s not so clear.”

Drummers in rock bands tend to either be out-of-control court jesters like Keith Moon, or anonymous and easily replaceable components like whoever played in all those other bands. In the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Chad Smith is neither. He provides both a steady backbeat and some much-needed stability. It seems no coincidence that the most down-to-earth member of the band is also the only one who didn‘t grow up in the self-obsession of Los Angeles.

Smith is from the suburbs of Detroit and has lived the rock & roll dream. A local hero back home, he was playing the bar-band circuit with no real prospects, besides drunken backslaps and the warm advances of countless wet T-shirt contest winners, when he packed up and headed for Hollywood. In town for just under a year, he landed an audition with the Chili Peppers. Sporting poofy Billy Squier hair, a tattered Guns N’ Roses T-shirt and some way-too-short cutoffs, Smith sat down and attacked the drums, oblivious to the attitude being thrown his way. The band loved it. “We were laughing so hard,” Kiedis recalls, “we told him, ‘Okay, shave your head and you’re in the band.‘ He said, ’No,‘ and we thought that was even more punk than being pushed around by a bunch of assholes like us.” Reminded of this, Smith offers, “I think I’ve just been sitting in for the last 13 years. They never actually said, ‘You’re in the band.‘”

Along with Frusciante’s new songwriting influence, it was Smith‘s hard-hitting drum style that initially broadened the band’s appeal. The first Chili Peppers songs to receive mainstream radio play, “Knock Me Down” and “Higher Ground,” both feature Smith and a percussive drumming that bordered on straight-ahead rock. “He came in and had a monstrous influence on our sound,” Kiedis says. “We‘d always had great drummers, but Chad’s particular sound was something that was so solid and profound that it kind of spoke to the world. Cliff Martinez is the coolest drummer of all time, but his shit only spoke to a kind of more refined, intellectual artfunk vision of the world. We loved the hell out of his shit, but Chad‘s simple, powerful rhythms reached a lot more people.”

 

As of late, Smith’s drumming has become much more varied and subtle. No longer strictly in the John Bonham school of monolithic pounding, he has broadened his approach considerably, often employing several different beats and styles within the same song. On the album‘s title track, he works a driving neo-tribal beat similar to ’80s postpunk sensations Bow Wow Wow, before returning to a more conventional kick, snare, high-hat for the silvery pop choruses. Like bass virtuoso Flea, who rarely employs his trademark funk-slap style on the new record, Smith is now strictly in service of the song. “You just have to do what you think fits,” he says, “and the music that we‘re making now is more melodic, so we have a different role. I played with this blues guy in Chicago not long ago, who said, ’If I can hear you, you‘re playing too much.’ And I knew exactly what he meant.”

Smith has finished a barrage of interviews at the posh Chateau Marmont hotel and is dining in the celebrity-strung courtyard, looking surprisingly relaxed and unaffected. Upstairs on a nearby balcony, there‘s an intense glare of bright lights as Flea gives yet another interview to promote the band’s upcoming tour. Several hours before, each new group of foreign reporters had asked Flea to do something outrageous and funny for the camera, and he is still visible up there, gamely, if not reluctantly, hamming it up.

It is perhaps telling that the songs for By the Way were mostly written and recorded at a suite in the famed Chateau Marmont. It is an atmospheric, old Hollywood hideaway that has seen more than its share of high-end depravity. Comedian John Belushi died there shooting speedballs, Montgomery Clift recuperated there after his disfiguring car crash, and countless stars and starlets have shacked up in the bungalows. Columbia Pictures founder Harry Cohn was quoted as telling his two stars William Holden and Glenn Ford, “If you must get into trouble, do it at the Chateau Marmont.” The hotel now uses the quote as an advertisement.

Like in the X song “Sex and Dying in High Society,” what makes Los Angeles such a fascinating artistic milieu is its abundance of contradictory images -- violence amid opulence, poverty in a perfect climate, spirituality fueled by depravity, fame and crushing loneliness. While Kiedis claims to have never intentionally written a song about L.A., for him to address almost any aspect of his life is in many ways the very same thing. More than any current artist, Kiedis appears to have lived the quintessential L.A. experience, having been a child actor, a drug addict, a rock star, a hedonist, and a spiritualist. In simply observing the stations of his life, he delivers telling snapshots of the city.

With his face on MTV and countless magazine covers, Kiedis still rides through the streets of L.A. on his small scooter. And while he has witnessed the ruin of many friends, he still views the city as a forgiving and hospitable locale. “Los Angeles is a part of me,” he says. “This is where I got turned on to the magic of life and music and sex and drugs and movies and all the friends that I‘ll be with for the rest of my life. These are the streets that I walk up and down and where I wrote my lyrics. It’s where I got stabbed, it‘s where everything happened to me. So it’s part of who I am, and I don‘t look at it as inhospitable because it never was. It’s the greatest place in the world.”

The band has arrived at a Hollywood soundstage to tape a segment for the venerable English television show Top of the Pops. An enthusiastic audience culled from their fan club has packed the room and is pressed excitedly against the stage. The Chili Peppers stroll out to ecstatic applause and, as cameras roll, launch into a symphonic, big-beat, glitter anthem called “Don‘t Forget Me.” Teenage girls elbow one another and stare lovingly up at Kiedis as he undulates before them, singing, “I’m the rainbowin your jail cellall the memories ofeverything you‘ve ever smelled.” A bearded Rick Rubin stands back in the crowd, smiling and nodding his head to the music. Pausing before the next song, Frusciante casually removes his shirt, exposing his severely scarred arms. Audience members exchange concerned looks and whisper to one another, but Frusciante simply closes his eyes and starts to play his guitar. The song builds and he leans back on his heels, lost in the music. Afterward, the Chili Peppers are walking offstage when someone from the crowd hurls a single white tube sock. It lands directly in the band’s path, yet none of them appear to see it.

 

In a current musical environment of near pedophilic youth obsession, a veteran band has sold an experimental pop record to the world. Glance at the stark portrait on the album sleeve and you can see the complete transformation. While years ago they would have mugged and posed for the camera, now they simply stare off, like somewhat shell-shocked survivors. What‘s on the surface seems so much less important, it’s what‘s inside that matters. After 20 years of constant unraveling and rebuilding, the band has drawn from the experiences of a lifetime and made the album of their career.

“It feels like it’s a new time,” Kiedis offers. “No one feels like, oh well, we did some good stuff in the past. I mean, fuck all that. That was then . . . let‘s do something great today.”

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