Four years ago he was in one of rock and roll's biggest bands, the Red Hot Chili Peppers' guitarist just as the group was climbing up from the college radio ranks and into the arenas. Now he's a transient in the hideaway's hallowed hall-ways: The living room of his suite is filled only with dozens of CDs (from Bowie to Devo to his favorites, King Crimson and Nirvana) scattered on the floor, bottles of mineral water, cigarettes, journals, and alcohol sterile pads. Frusciante is holed up in the Chateau Marmont this night because he has been kicked out of his Hollywood Hills home for not paying rent, and he now has no permanent address. After this interview, he was booted out of the Chateau, then kicked out of the Mondrian. As of a few days ago, a business acquaintance who until very recently spoke to Frusciante every day says he hasn't heard from the man for more than a week. when that happens, some people shrug: Well, maybe he's dead.
It is Frusciante who first mentions his heroin use ~five minutes into the interview, no less--yet at the end of an exhausting night of conversation, he also asks that the details of his life as a junkie be veiled; he explains that he doesn't want the cops fucking with him and that any article describing his hobbies might bring the heat down on him. But that's unlikely, and a quick glance at his fragile, decaying figure reveals the sad truth his silence could never hide anyway. He looks 20 years older than he did during his Peppers days, and his voice is harsh and slurred now. He doesn't eat food, instead gulping canned high calorie formula normally consumed by the elderly and invalids. He likes the way his body appear~a skeleton covered in thin skin-because that's how David Bowie looked in The Man Who Fell to Earth. Frusciante says he almost died in February; he explains his body had "a twelfth of the blood its supposed to have, and that blood was infected. My body.wasn't making any new red blood cells." So he quit the drugs for a few months and cleaned up, as much as he could. But the world didn't look right to him through dead sober eyes, didn't feel right to him through numb hands. The spirits didn't visit, the ghosts didn't talk to him; the door heroin opened for him had been shut, and he would again force it open even if it killed him.
When Frusciante joined the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1988, he was touted as a clean young thing--a fresh faced 17-year old Southern California kid who would stand in direct contrast to original guitarist Hillel Slovak, who died in June of that year of a heroin over-dose. Frusciante joined just in time to record Mother's Milk, which contained the minor hit "Knock Me Down," an anti-smack song about Slovak ("If you see me gettin' high, knock me down") that would seem hilariously ironic now if it weren't so pathetic in retrospect After all, lead singer Anthony Kiedis himself just got off junk after years of claiming he was clean; bassist Flea was a user: and current guitarist Dave Navarro is a former junkie. The needle and the damage indeed. Frusciante quit the Peppers in 1992 after spending a year on the road with the band-a year of watching the crowds multiply with almost every gig. Frusciante had come to hate the crowds who sang along with every word and danced to every song; he couldn't understand the connection between artist and audience, and he came to loathe the people who were cheering and adoring him without knowing' him. And musically he felt stifled by the tight structures of the songs and the way audiences expected the band to perform the hits exactly as they had been recorded. Frusciante had been straitjacketed by expectations, stifled as a musician, cut off from the ghosts that wanted him to play their music.
"The first couple of years I was in the Chili Peppers, I don't consider myself a very good guitarist by my own standards," he says now. "I don't feel like I was 100 percent taking the feelings and colors in my head and adequately transferring them to the guitar and into the world where they became something concrete instead of just a feeling that floats through outer space. But then I became as good at that as a person could be, and every night when I would play, I would play different solos and different guitar parts. I just had a good relationship with the spirits and with the ghosts and with the colors in outer space. "A song is something spirits can get feelings from, but its nothing a human being can be aware of except I am. So they give it to me as just a color and as a vibe and as a feeling and as an aesthetic echo in my head, and then I'm able to take it and turn it into music. when he returned to LA, he sat on his couch for nearly a year, depressed and alone and unable to function. He wondered whether he had made the right decision in quitting the band, or in joining in the first place; he was convinced he was pissing away his talent. He had only experimented with drugs, smoked pot "every day when I was 20," and says he first shot heroin right after the recording of 1991's breakthrough Blood Sugar Sex Magik and then dallied with the drug on and off again. But he finally became a junkie as a final salvation, and in time he again started writing in his journals, painting, and recording. Now he can't be without his needles or his guitars; three guitars are scattered on the floor of his Chateau suite, and he often fondles the neck of one as he talks.
"I used to record every day" he explains. "it's good that I do at all now. When I quit the band, I couldn't look at art, I couldn't paint, I couldn't read books, I couldn't play guitar, I couldn't listen to music, I couldn't do anything but lay on the couch depressed, and then I became a junkie and came to life again and became happy and started playing music again. But I couldn't exist at first. I was so depressed. I couldn't talk to people. I was just the most hopeless, miserable person you have ever seen. I thought I was through with music and that I was gonna die within a couple of weeks from depression. I thought, Where I'm at in my head is the head of a person about to die. I thought my body was literally gonna give up. "And then I just decided, I'm gonna become a junkie now' and the next day I was just happy and better.. I just decided without [heroin], I have no control over what thoughts take over my brain. See, with this, I have control over what I want to think about, and when something comes into my head that is useless to think about, it won't take over I can get rid of it I would sit there and think about the way things could have been if I would have done it this way, the way I didn't do it But those are pointless things to think about, but that's all I could think about, and I had to just forget it I always had a really good discipline as far as my head goes, but that stuff was just too heavy. With heroin, I was able to all of a sudden have the power to get rid of those things that would pop up into my head and think about something else. like, all of a sudden I wasn't the boss of my head any more.
In the fall of 1994, he released his first solo album on American Recordings, the label owned by Rick Rubin, who had produced Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Warner Bros. Records, the Peppers' label, had rights to the album because of a leaving-artist clause in Frusciante's chili Peppers contract, but because he was living as a recluse who refused to do many interviews, the label happily handed it over to Rubin, who finally released the album at the insistence of River Phoenix, Butthole Surfer Gibby Hayes and Johnny Depp. In the end Frusciante's solo album Niandra Lades and Usually just a T-shirt sold about 15000 copies--a tiny number compared to the six million the Peppers moved of Blood Sugar. Niandra Lade: Is a bizarre and complicated album, two dozen tracks that grow increasingly fragmented and frightening as the album wears on; any Chili peppers fans who listened to the record expecting more punk-funk likely thought their stereos were broken. Still, Frusciante expects to release another album at the beginning of the new year, and David Katznelson, vice president of A&R at Warner Bros. Records,.confirms he plans to issue Frusciante's tentatively titled Smile from the Streets You Hold sometime in the spring. The album will be released on Katznelson's own Burbank-based Birdman Records label (home to such avant favorites as Three Headcoats and Omoide Hatoba), with Warner handling some of the distribution. "This stuff isn't alien to me" Katznelson says of Frusciante's music. "Rick and John had a great relationship, but I kept thinking about John and listening to the record, and there were a couple of songs on there that I thought were so inspired, and I thought that if we put out another record on an indie label it would get more focus than if it had been put out on American or Warner's or something with so many other records. So I called John, and and he jumped at the chance." "It was done at various times," Frusciante explains of the forthcoming album- One song even dates back a decade, to when he was 17 years old and just about to join the Peppers.
"These are some of the best things I ever recorded." He wants to play some of the new music, so he goes to the portable stereo to find the cassette of the unmixed songs. But as he is fumbling with the tape, forwarding and rewinding to just the right spot he accidentally knocks the stereo off its milk-crate stand. "Motherfucker" he howls, and he kicks a small pile of CDs flying across the room. Then, in a second or two, he is again calm and focused, his temper under control. This is not the tape of my new record," he explains. This is a tape of the things that are on my new record, but not all of the things are on the record. Its got a lot of things that aren't on the record, but the things I'm gonna play you are are on my new record." He hits play and turns up the volume, and the room fills with a song that sounds as though it has been lifted from an old Sergio leone spaghetti Western; its beautiful and eerie, feedback and restrained frenzy, lyrics slinking in between the off-kilter melody. "Kill your mama, kill your daddy," goes one particularly memorable phrase. The song is followed by an instrumental that seems to turn in on itself--solo reverie filled out by backward tracks and other ethereal effects. It's haunting music~quite literally the unexpurgated sounds of Frusciante's demons come to life, an unedited electronic reproduction of the sounds inside his head-and as he listens to his own music, Frusciante seems once more tangled inside the notes. He closes his eyes and seems to nod off, letting yet another freshly lit cigarette burn to its end and deposit its ashes all over him. But when the songs end, he snaps to life again. "Heroin emphasizes whatever you are," Frusciante explains "Like, if you want to record music, it'll help you concentrate on that more, but if you want to lie in bed and not do anything, it'll help you do that better. It helps you do anything better you want to do. At least for me, not for other people. A lot of people--close friends of mine who are clean, and I'm glad they're clean-they know that when I'm clean I lose the sparkle in my eye, I lose my personality, I'm not happy, I'm kinda empty. A lot of people say they feel a wall when a person's on drugs, but I have three girls who I love and consider my girls, and one of them came and visited me when I was clean in February, and she called me after-ward and said she felt a wall. My head works differently than most people, so consequently drugs affect me differently."
Frusciante insists he wants to get on a stage again--the last time he performed was at the Viper Room the night his closest friend and champion and protector, River Phoenix, died outside its doors--and that he wants to assemble a real band to perform his pop songs, the ones that go verse-chorus-verse instead of just verse. And he still would like to release tapes of the Three Amoebas jam sessions he recorded with Flea and Porno for Pyros drummer Stephen Perkins years ago. Katznelson says he'll try to help Frusciante get his music out there, book a few gigs, make him some money so he doesn't keep getting kicked out of home and hotel. But he realizes it isn't going to be easy; there are never any guarantees with a man who's slowly killing himself while no one does anything~to stop him. "A lot of artists have their own demons, and he's one of them," Katznelson says. "If I made judgments on people because of their lifestyles, I wouldn't work with anyone. I work with a lot of artists who have problems-illegal substances or personal demons--but one is just as problematic as the other. If I was expecting him to tour and play and there was a lot of money involved, I would tear the hair out of my head. But there's not a lot of money. I just want people to hear what he's about. If he wants to play, fine; if he doesn't, fine If he wants to do interviews, great; if he doesn't, fine. I think he's very.. .he's very used to his own skin."
In the end, Frusciante has become just another gifted musician who plunges a needle into his arm every few hour~between playing and painting, between reading and writing, between preparing a new record and finding a new home, between living and dying; these days, record label rosters are once again stockpiled with men and women just like Frusciante, though they have publicists to hide their artists' habits. Since Phoenix's death, most of Frusciante's other close friends have abandoned him, sometimes after trying to intervene and save his life; they're too fired of watching him decay in front of them, too sick of watching him unapologetically kill himself. He knows they don't like being around him, but he doesn't give a fuck. -They're afraid of death, but I'm not," he says. "I don't care whether I live or die."
After Hitting Rock Bottom,Ex-Chili Pepper John Frusciante Confronts Life and Art - on His Own Terms.
From Guitar Player, November '97
John Frusciante sits under a rose-covered archway in the hills above Los Angeles, clutching a pack of cigarettes and a one-hitter of pot. He's barely recognizable at first. With a tousled mane of Jim Morrison-style hair, a huddled posture and oddly matched clothes, he looks more like a sleepless, absent-minded philosophy student than a rock star. Gone is the buff, mohawk-sporting 18-year-old who once energized arenas with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, co-wrote hits like "Under the Bridge" and "Breaking the Girl," and stripped funk-rock guitar to its raw essentials on Blood Sugar Sex Magik.
His first two solo records, 1994's difficult Niandra Lades [American] and the even darker Smile from the Streets You Hold [Birdman, 1409 W. Magnolia, Burbank, CA 91506], reflect even less of his former persona. Composed of splintered solo acoustic/electric 4-track bedroom demos rife with backward guitar, howling vocals, enigmatic lyrics and bare-bones guitar arrangements, they are the aural documents of an idealistic, art-obsessed 27-year-old who quit one of the world's biggest bands at its creative peak, descended into heroin addiction and barely made it out alive. It was only in the last few weeks of 1996 that Frusciante was finally able to kick the three-year habit that contributed to the loss of his Hollywood Hills home and the gradual deterioration of his body; earlier this year, John's remaining teeth were removed and replaced by dentures in order to avoid a life-threatening infection. His right forearm appears badly burned, and his speech, though filled with interesting insights and word games, is slurred and erratic.
"Death is a Place I'm Really Looking Forward to Being in."
A voracious music listener, talented painter and devotee of tragic, fallen angels like Syd Barrett, Marc Bolan, Kurt Cobain and Sid Vicious, Frusciante is a mixture of passion, self-taught cultural erudition and na´vetÚ -- particularly regarding rock and roll mythology. He constantly refers to death in the warmest possible terms. "Death is a place I'm really looking forward to being in," he says later, strumming a vintage Gibson acoustic in a small room crammed with videos, CDs and art books on Van Gogh, Duchamp, Basquiat and Da Vinci. "I can also be very happy in this life, but it's usually happiness that I get from other lives I've lived and other dimensions. This life is hardly important to me. It's very small compared to the importance that I think the fourth and fifth dimension have. Those places are much more real to me, like when you have a dream and it's more real to you than real life. Compared to where I'll be going, this life seems like a dream that just feels like a dream." The recent release of Smile, new sessions in producer Jimmy Boyle's L.A. studio, an interest in releasing tapes of 3 Amoebas (his improv trio with Flea and Jane's Addiction drummer Stephen Perkins) and his participation in this summer's Nuttstalk tour with members of P-Funk and Fishbone represent Frusciante's first forays back into the land of the living. But it's an uneasy peace he maintains with what we call reality. "I think the reason he embraces death so much," says his friend and former bandmate Flea, "is that he wants his spirit to be free. He really doesn't care about being alive in the physical world."
A Dark Ode to Demons and Spirits
Listening to Smile from the Streets You Hold can be unnerving. Raw, vulnerable and stream-of-consciousness, it's a dark ode to the demons and spirits that inhabit Frusciante's head -- the sound of an extremely talented guitarist in search of himself. "The title song was a very intense moment," says Frusciante quietly, "because I was having verbal communication with the spirits while I was recording, and I started crying at the end of it. The spirits give you ideas for things, and what's important to them is what's important to me. I'm much more concerned with my fame in their world than with my fame in this one. That's why it's been difficult for me to adjust to being alive at all." John Frusciante was born in New York in 1970 to John and Gail Frusciante. John Sr. was a Juilliard-trained pianist who became a lawyer and later a judge. Gail, too, was a promising musician, a singer who became a homemaker, says her son, because her husband ruled out the possibility of a musical career, though she now sings for her church and provided the background vocals on "Under the Bridge." The family lived in Queens, relocated to Tucson, Arizona, and then moved to Florida for a year, during which time John's parents separated. Moving with his mother to Santa Monica, California, John, like a million other California kids, became obsessed with skateboarding, Aerosmith and Kiss.
Beethoven and Barre Chords
By age nine he was already a budding punk rocker, wearing out copies of the Germs' G.I. record. By ten he'd figured out most of the Germs' songs in his own tuning that allowed him to play everything with a single-finger barre. It was a habit he'd have to break when he started lessons a year later while living in nearby Mar Vista with his mom and new stepdad, an avid philosophy reader and black belt who listened to Beethoven and '50s R&B but "understood where punk rock was coming from. He really supported me and made me feel good about being an artist."
From the Germs, John graduated to Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix, tackled the almighty barre chord and blues scale, and began pursuing increasingly complicated rock like King Crimson, Yes, early Genesis and Frank Zappa, whose work he'd study for hours, learning solos and syncopations in detail. Captain Beefheart, the Residents and other out-rock prophets became John's pantheon, and by 17 he'd dropped out of high school and moved to Los Angeles, where he and a friend figured out a way to punch in for classes at G.I.T. without actually attending in order to appease their parents' desire that they get an education. He even showed up at a Zappa audition, only to leave the rehearsal room before stepping up to the plate. Cold feet? "Nah. I realized that I wanted to be a rock star, do drugs and get girls, and that I wouldn't be able to do that if I was in Zappa's band."
The Chili Peppers and Beyond
In 1988 Frusciante first jammed with Michael Balzary, a.k.a. Flea, the bass player of his favorite local band, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Frusciante had begun jamming with former Dead Kennedys drummer D.H. Peligro, who would soon temporarily replace Jack Irons in the Peppers, and when Peligro learned of the young guitarist's fascination with the band, he invited John to jam with him and Flea at Flea's house on Fairfax Avenue. Less than a year later, following original guitarist Hillel Slovak's fatal heroin overdose and a short collaboration with former Funkadelic guitarist Blackbyrd McKnight, Flea called the 18-year-old Frusciante with the news: He was the new Chili Peppers guitarist. "There were bootmarks five feet high on the wall in my room for months after that call," Frusciante remembers.
"He was just a kid when he joined," says Flea, "totally overexuberant about everything. His playing was amazing. He was technically very competent and much more theoretically knowledgeable than I was, with a bit of the Steve Vai guitar wizard damage. I've always relied on intuition and emotion to get me through, and I think that concept is something he latched onto real quickly."
From the start Frusciante wrote with the band. "Pretty Little Ditty" was salvaged from his and Flea's first jam, and the hit "Knock Me Down" -- a knockoff of Zeppelin's "The Wanton Song" -- took the band's writing to a new level of tunefulness and economy. By the recording of the enormously successful Blood Sugar Sex Magik in 1991, Frusciante had developed into an intuitive and technically astute player who played funk as if it were second nature. "But I wasn't really a funk player before I joined the band," says Frusciante. "I learned everything I needed to know about how to sound good with Flea by studying Hillel's playing, and I just took it sideways from there."
It was a half-hour before showtime at a gig in Japan in 1992 when Frusciante announced his intention to leave the group. "He just said, 'I can't do it. I can't play anymore,'" says Flea. "He didn't even want to play that night, so we had to beg him to do the last gig." Frusciante's disaffection had been brewing for months. "Toward the end you could tell that his playing was angry at the band. If the band got really soft, he'd start playing louder, and vice versa. He did it just to be anti. He was really hating it, so as much as I loved playing with him, it was a huge relief when he left."
"When I quit the band I couldn't do anything but lay on the couch depressed, and then I became a junkie and came to life and started playing music again," Frusciante told L.A.'s New Times in late '96. Earlier that year, he said, he had nearly died, a result of his body having "a twelfth of the blood it's supposed to have, and that blood was infected." John's house in the Hollywood Hills became notorious for its horrific mess and graffiti-covered walls ("My eye hurts" and "Stabbing pain with discipline's knife" were among the scrawled epithets), and after an accidental fire and difficulty with payments, John eventually moved out, bouncing through a succession of short-lived hotel stays at the Chateau Marmont and the Mondrian. Due to the arrest of a friend under whose name the room was booked, John's many notebooks, crammed with poetry, mathematics, word games, drawings and story ideas, are presently locked away in the Mondrian. He wants them back, but his concern is less for his past work than for what's going through his head at any given moment.
"All he wants to do is be creative," says Flea. "He doesn't care about money or personal hygiene or anything else. And he never has. If we made $10,000, he'd give it to the pizza delivery guy. He only cares about art." Flea, a former drug user himself, tells Frusciante what he thinks about his habits. "John once told me, 'I don't have a problem with drugs, you have a problem with me doing drugs.' In retrospect, I realize, yeah, I do have a problem with drugs. I do have a problem with my friends dying. It makes me really fucking sad. I don't want him to do any drugs at all, and I tell him that. That's all I can do as someone who loves and respects him."
- By James Rotondi
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