There is, for people with musical taste, a stigma to enjoying anything tangentially related to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. RHCP admittedly has some unfortunate features, but there’s no doubting the musicianship of their instrumentalists. I was a fan as a middle school kid. It wasn’t until a few years ago, though, that I developed an obsession with their on-again-off-again guitarist John Frusciante, an alien-boy prodigy who at one point (after leaving RHCP at the peak of their ‘90s fame) was so far gone on heroin he was toothless and living in squalor, the walls of his home covered in scrawled messages from the voices divined to him from other dimensions. Johnny Depp filmed this macabre tableau, which alerted Frusciante’s old friends to the severity of his situation.
Something like that.
A German television show came to interview John, the lost Chili Pepper from whom no one had heard a peep in a couple years.
To watch footage of John at the nadir of his heroin addiction and to know that a year later he’d be back in the band with a set of new teeth (financed by RHCP LLC. as a token gesture) is pretty amazing, but even more astounding than that— and the fact that Frusciante’s return gave the RHCP their comeback hit (Californication)—is Frusciante’s solo work of this period. After an album of bedroom recordings in 2001 (To Record Only Water For Days), he released seven albums in 2004, an outpouring of creative energy from a guy who’d seen death and had come away with a philosophy for life and music, which he called “The Will to Death.” It’s also the name of one of the seven albums. His lyrics during this period are often vaguely quantum-mechanical, traversing time and space, sometimes conversing with, or divined by spirits. John would talk about them, these spirits and “the force that created us expressing itself.” These themes suffuse his verse, rarely stated outright but always present:
And we will show that wherever you are, that is where all time starts
It’s a pleasure to die, a pleasure to be gone, into the sky we move on
Life is unchanging, let me go
Life gave me up and I have no control
Everything goes a way that I do not
I clean up the clouds I ride
He doesn’t take ownership of his music, his musical language.
“The idea of someone considering themselves respondible for a piece of music is ridiculous, we’re only acting into the laws of nature… the current, the creative force of the universe, or the ‘source,’ or ‘god,’ or whatever you want to call it.”
Whatever connectivity to higher powers John received in transcending his own death, his philosophy seems tinged with Buddhism and Californian notions of “Energy.” Some people voyage on Ayahuasca; John seems to have taken an even vaster trip and he’s on his own wave. Other songs seem to be a conversation between present-tense John and the version of himself who was shed during the spirit death of his heroin bottom. Few are outwardly autobiographical, save my absolute favorite, a song called “Look On.” The recording is raw, captured entirely on analog tape, and sounds to me a little like a more terse and groovy Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Lyrically, it’s a present tense but impressionistic scrapbook from John’s heroin days (“A paper and a pencil are the best friends I’ve got/I went to downtown L.A./Got picked up by the cops”). There’s what we can assume is a reference to his days in the ‘90s Chili Peppers (“When I thought life was terrible/Things were going fine”) and also a nod to the time his friend Vincent Gallo tricked him into an intervention (“Vincent called as a set-up”). What follows is one of my favorite guitar solos in all of rock n’ roll. John said that these recordings would include mistakes, off-key notes, that he was concerned only with the moment—the “Look On” solo is the best representation of that intention. Like Neil Young’s emotion-rules-all jamming, Frusciante is heard speaking through his soul, the spirits. You hear him choosing each note as it comes, the straight-into-the-amp guitar weeping, at times sounding as though it’s sinking below the wave on which it rides, then rising above, flying.
“Look on, Look on, look on, “ chants Frusciante all the while.
Look on, presumably, from the past he’s reciting here, lyrically and musically.
I hear in this music a human desperate to release an immensity of energy, feeling, that of one who’s died and been reborn.
I am a separate entity from the guy I was before
Here nobody wants me, I hope for something more
Flip through empty pages, I thought I’d wrote on
I can’t tell what is dreaming
Look on, look on, look on
What’s sophomoric about his lyrics—“the guy I was before” or the grammatical blunder “I’d wrote on”—endears me, especially set beside Frusciante’s near-constant focus on mortality, or the absence of (“I’m warning you, I’ve skipped a life/To be here, I’ve got no right”). “Look On” is perhaps the most instantly comprehensible of the hundred-some songs John released between 2001-2004. Most swirl much further into aphorism and the language of other worlds.
While known for the lo-fidelity of his recordings, Frusciante has recorded one “big-budget” record (one of the seven released in 2004). Shadows Collide With People come out at the height of the Pepper’s “comeback” fame but made little impact, possibly because John was recording six other albums and did nothing to promote it. Shadows is a art-pop wonder that requires numerous listens and, if not as likely to be popular at the frat house, is vastly more rewarding that anything the Chili Peppers have recorded. Frusciante’s voice is an acquired pleasure; there’s that. You can hear the effects of his dental work, and there’s an odd timbre when he’s in the alto range, but the earnestness of each note goes a long way. He sounds human, like no one else, and has a gorgeous falsetto. When he screams, which is rare, it is demonic. In “Carvel” he seems to be using a venture to buy a Carvel ice cream cake as the lyrical trope for a series of flights into the metaphysical (Up and down and that’s how energy stays alive/And I wouldn’t have it any other way), the stacked vocals propelled by an analog-synth bassline and pounding acoustic guitars. This is Frusciante with a major label budget:
Frusciante quit the RHCP again in 2007 and has since drifted further into reclusion, drugs a possible factor in his disappearance. He’s released a few fascinating electronic records, but nothing as engaging as his 2001-2004 period. His final guitar album, The Empyrean (2009), recorded in his home studio, holds some of his best guitar playing and most expansive compositions. Consider where “Unreachable” begins and where it goes, the flow of movements. The Rhodes is the lead instrument until Frusciante’s Electric Ladyland solo at 3:50. Flea is on bass. It’s a beautiful groove.
But why do I feel like I’m defending Frusciante, or my love of his music?
The Red Hot Chili Peppers had some embarrassing moments, have some flinch-worthy aspects, but they’re a band who loves music. I wondered, when I saw Tom Yorke’s Atoms for Peace in New York, if Flea would tone down his persona while playing beside the man I believe to be the most important popular music artist of our age, singer of the most important band: Radiohead. Flea came onstage shirtless, wearing his goofy pants, and for his obvious joy in playing (and incredible chops) fit right into a band that was one of the best I’ve ever seen. He improved Yorke’s music—no simple feat.
I was thinking of Frusciante this week and played his song “The First Season.” I realized I think of him often, as a fellow survivor, a guiding light, the freest spirit, a voice singing from the other side, even while he’s still here. “Become your space everyday,” he sings on “The First Season,” and then, in the outro, “Actually, people in the wrong come through and go on/Leave my lonely mind, a cell/I keep holding to myself/Be humble, take it the slow way, as I’m allowed/Even holding onto the cell of space that holds me.”
Some Jungian part of me knows what he’s singing, feels the truth of something ancestral. You know when it’s real. It’s how I get come to love the soulful oddness of John’s voice, the obtuseness of his words, the auditory limitations of his bedroom recordings. Take it the slow way, as I’m allowed… I believe I will, I need that today. But John also sang that “The will to death is what keeps me alive, one step away/Limitations are set, only then can we go all the way, all the way…”
Whatever he means, I feel it anew each time I hear him sing.