board the Chili Peppers' tour bus, ARIEL LEVE finds peace and serenity
- except when they run out of organic mustard.
It is 7pm, two hours before curtain call. Backstage at the Palace
in Auburn Hills, near Detroit, the dressing room for the Red Hot
Chili Peppers is peaceful, serene even. Inside their sanctum the
lighting is low; candles are lit, incense is burning. The cinder-block
walls have been draped with flowing fabric tapestries and rugs
cover the floor. A table of food offers berries, raw vegetables,
figs, hummus and pistachio nuts. Ceramic mugs are laid out next
to a basket of herbal, chai and green teas and a jar of organic
honey. Clear bottles of "electrolyte enhanced" water
are lined up, like statuettes.
Anthony Kiedis, 41, the puckish and introspective
lead singer, sits on the couch, head down, hair floating over
his forehead into his dark eyes, writing down the set list with
a black pen. John Frusciante, the savant-like guitarist, sits
opposite, practising lovingly on his guitar. Flea, the vibrant
bassist, in a white tracksuit, buoyantly enters the room singing
"Up and down, you little weaslers...", a verse for a
children's album he is planning. He grabs a carrot stick. Chad,
the red-blooded drummer, who is described as the most "normal"
of the group, is down the hall, smoking, greeting family and friends;
this is his home town.
When it's 30 minutes to go, there is a ritualistic
feeling to the countdown. John does vocal warm-ups. Flea meditates,
practises scales and yoga, finishing off by doing a "cleansing"
-lighting a stick of dried sage and waving it around the room,
himself and his bass, for good vibes. Anthony sits back; a nurse
in a hot-pink sweater, who travels with them, is kneeling with
a syringe, injecting pure ozone into his bloodstream. It purifies,
she says, destroys viral infections; soon his blood will be full
As they jog onto the stage, the crowd roars.
In the arena, there is combustible energy. A peroxide blonde in
a black bra is gyrating next to a frat boy with his arm draped
over his teenage girlfriend, next to a science teacher, next to
a spiky-haired, eyebrow-pierced rock chick. Anthony's lyrics spill
out like a beat poem; it is no surprise he enjoys Charles Bukowski's
poetry. After an hour, the adrenaline is soaring, the endorphins
have kicked in. Anthony spins and whirls dervish-like, then pulls
back. John moves up to the edge of the stage while Anthony takes
a break. There is an oxygen tank waiting and he lies down, a white
towel rolled under his neck, as the mask is placed over his mouth
and nose. He inhales.
Afterwards, at 11.30pm, dinner is served
backstage. Tonight's buffet offers brown rice, vegetables, chicken
and fish, but a box of pizza is set out for Chad because, being
the most "normal", he eats fast food. The atmosphere
"Relaxed" is not, however, a word
that you would have associated with the band for most of their
20-year history; "self-destructive", "drug-addled"
and indeed "doomed" would all have served better. The
band's current mega- platinum status is all the more remarkable
because the Chili Peppers were originally dismissed as a joke.
Their early albums flopped and they twice seemed on the point
of collapse -first when their original guitarist, Hillel Slovak,
died of a heroin overdose in 1988, and again when his replacement,
John Frusciante, also left the band and spiralled into several
years of heroin addiction in the mid-1990s.
It was only after Slovak's death that the
band as we know them today really took shape. Three factors sharpened
up their sound: the arrival of drummer Chad Smith, the hiring
of producer Rick Rubin, whose hip hop sensibility was employed
to curb the band's muso excesses, and, the presence of Frusciante.
Only 17 when he joined the Chilis, Frusciante was a fan who had
learnt the guitar parts to all their songs. But despite his youth,
his arrival helped the band to grow up musically. It was when
Frusciante arrived that the Chilis found a softer, slower side
to balance their trademark funk-rock. And it was this new side
to their music that won them a huge crossover audience, drawn
in by ballads like Under the Bridge. Yet, though Frusciante helped
the Chilis achieve huge worldwide success, it didn't make him
happy. After a period during which he appeared to be wilfully
sabotaging gigs, he left in 1992.
Without Frusciante, the band lost the chemistry
that had made their 1991 album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, so successful.
Their 1995 album, One Hot Minute, was a disappointment. Frusciante,
meanwhile, had been so deep in addiction that he later recalled
being visited by creatures "from the other side" -visitors
so real he cooked meals for them. But when he finally came off
heroin, far from being a drug casualty, he came back musically
stronger than ever.
To prepare for his return, Frusciante studied
the work of late-1970s and early-1980s synth bands -Human League,
Depeche Mode, Gary Numan -trying to understand the secrets of
their ultra-simple melodies. The idea of a technically proficient
guitarist trying to play the one-finger keyboard lines plonked
out by amateurish musicians may seem strange, but it certainly
worked. The resulting melodic simplicity underpins the ballads
that have propelled the band's two most recent albums, Californication
(12m+ sales) and By the Way (rapidly catching up). The Chili Peppers'
sound is usually taken to be a fusion of rock and funk. Few people
realise that their best-known songs also owe a huge debt to the
likes of Phil Oakey. But then, despite their more recent sensitivity,
the band have retained their image as a hard-rocking live band.
As Rubin said recently: "The general public still sees them
as a party band."
Perhaps this image would be dented if people
could see on board the tour bus that ferries Kiedis and Fruisciante
to their Chicago gig the next day, with its strict no-smoking,
no-alcohol rule. (Flea and Chad's bus does permit these vices.)
Inside, it is refined, tasteful, plush: blond wood, leather couches,
plasma TV and cutting-edge electronics. Time on the bus is spent
watching episodes of The Simpsons and King of the Hill, film noir
and westerns. They listen to music, eat, read, and on Chad and
Flea's bus, play Boggle.
There is a chance to talk with Anthony in
private. Being on tour so much, where does he go when he feels
lonely? "I definitely don't go into a place of self pity
or remorse. I don't necessarily equate sadness with something
bad or loneliness - to me, they're all just feelings." And
anger? What about that feeling? "That's, uh ... well, I go
back and forth with anger. Usually, I just end up poisoning myself
with anger. I'm more of a simmerer. I don't often explode."
He says he can now admit when he is wrong,
but it wasn't always this way. "I grew up in a household
with my dad, where it was all about being right, no matter what.
And I held on to that for a very long time,
until I realised what a pain in the ass it was. It's not important
to be right. Especially in a marriage. You'll be in a much happier
marriage if you forfeit the right to be right."
By 5pm, Chicago is two hours away. John
and Anthony have to eat. They have meals in plastic containers
waiting -raw vegetables and brown rice and protein. The nurse
in the pink sweater is a constant presence. She knows about nutrition
and homeopathy and holistic healing. She also knows that Anthony
follows The No-Nonsense Guide to Diet, by Dr Philip Maffetone.
Anthony and John sit facing each other at the table. Out of the
window, rural scenes of middle America glide by. John drizzles
olive oil into his box, but then suddenly jumps up and is opening
cabinet doors, a flurry of activity. He turns to the nurse, panicked:
"Are we out of mustard?" Anthony looks concerned. Having
organic mustard on board is essential. The nurse assures them
it will be taken care of and they relax.
"Wanna watch The Simpsons?" John
asks. He is already popping in the tape. The sun is beginning
to set and we are stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic somewhere
on a freeway in Illinois. In a few hours, they will be on stage
in front of 20,000 people in Chicago. The episode of The Simpsons
begins and John, sitting, feet up, hugging his knees, is laughing
out loud, with a freedom and intensity that is infectious.
John is a solitary person. He doesn't go
on holidays. He listens to Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner's famous
Two-Thousand-Year-Old Man comedy recording over and over and over
while he is eating. When he's not on tour, he's trying to record
as many of his own songs as he can. On the last break, between
touring for Californication and writing By the Way, he released
a solo record and did a solo tour. He feels that in the past few
years he's had a lot of catching up to do.
"I've worked twice as hard these past
five years. Because when I was a drug addict and I wasn't doing
anything whatsoever -except lying in bed and taking drugs for
about four years -it was the prime years of my life, 22 through
26, when most musicians are doing their best stuff. For me now,
it's a matter of making the best use of time. Not letting anything
slip away." Relationships, pop culture, modern movies, news
and TV all of it is a diversion from his music. "I'm very
proud to be who I am, and I don't have any interest in changing
to accommodate somebody else's needs. I'm a very cold person in
that way. The ways that I am insecure only come up in a male-female
relationship. Otherwise I feel very secure with who I am."
The Tweeter Center in Chicago is an outdoor
The chill of autumn is in the air. The dressing
room has been replicated. It is a different space, but the same
decor. Anthony begins making the set list and John roams the room
with his guitar. Flea is excited, hooked on a new verse: "Don't
be naughty; go to the potty!"
It's 9.05pm, 10 minutes before the show,
and the lights go down. The stage is smaller, but the electricity
is just as palpable. On stage, Flea's bass is pure jubilation
and Chad is whipped up in a testosterone frenzy. A bra is tossed
onto the stage. Anthony picks it up and drapes it around his hips.
Chad tosses a drumstick out into the crowd. John and Flea improvise
the intro to Californication. The air is crisp and cool; hands
are cold, breath is visible.
At the end of the show, the hallways backstage
are filled with friends and relatives. The buffet is set out,
with the lone pizza box nearby. Anthony's mom is on hand, and
Chad's six-year-old son rolls on the floor, while Flea lies on
his back, arms out, hands cupping his head. The Chili Peppers
have been around for two decades, and they have been travelling
for a long time. It is tedious at times, but it's what they do,
and they still like it. Tomorrow is another day and they will
be moving on to Cleveland, Ohio; doing it again.