Some things are so automatic they require no more thought than breathing. I never had to think about hating the fucking Red Hot Chili Peppers. I hated their goofy Caucasian funk music, I hated their dance moves, I hated Flea’s face. They were somehow deeply, profoundly unattractive to me on an instinctual level. In the plus column, I was moved by “Under the Bridge” the first time I heard it on the radio on KROQ, mostly because I was half-asleep at the time, having stayed up half the night writing a college term paper, and for some reason I thought it was Graham Parker (who I loved then). It was dawn when the opening chords of the song reached my bedside with the lightening sky, along with the chirps of birds waking up for the day. That was nice. I lived in Los Angeles at the time, and found the city of L.A. fascinating and worthy of sentimental film-noir daydreams. This song seemed to be written by someone who felt the same. Also, I had once heard that someone in the band was named Hillel, which is my husband’s (at the time, just my classmate and friend) spiritual Hebrew name. So that was cool. And many years later, the first time I heard “Zephyr Song,” driving in Los Angeles on a pretty, sun-drenched day with the windows rolled down, I thought “That’s pretty.”
But mostly I still hated them. Two good songs were not enough to sway me from my aversion. Something in the band’s collective energy unnerved me on an instinctual level. Something about their vibe seemed creepy….as in sexually creepy, as in date-rape creepy.
How can a person determine that from a band to whom she has never given much thought in particular — or no thought at all? I can’t say. It was just a feeling. I had no evidence to back this up. I had never really read an interview with or an article about the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The Internet didn’t exist yet. For years, the Red Hot Chili Peppers had taken up zero bandwidth in my musical brain. And yet, if asked, I would respond “God, I hate the Red Hot Chili Peppers.”
And then I went to New Zealand. In early 2018, my husband (Hillel) and I spent time in the city of Auckland, doing the things we like to do while abroad, which included wandering aimlessly around cities and dropping into local hot spots like the public library. The Auckland library is fascinating in that its signage is bilingual, in both Maori and English (taihara, as it turns out, means True Crime and nga whakahoki books). In the foyer of the library, a red cart was drawing attention from a throng of passers-by. I went to investigate, and saw a sign taped to the cart: Free Books. Most seemed to be generic romance novels for old ladies, with watercolor depictions of hydrangeas on the front cover and no sex scenes inside. From this thicket of hydrangea gardens and white picket fences, one book jumped out at me in its boldness — a shirtless Anthony Kiedis lounging on the front cover of his autobiography, Scar Tissue. “Wow, this is practically a brand new book,” I thought to myself (it was actually published in 2005. That’s how much I care to keep abreast of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.) I thought maybe it could be entertaining, It was, after all, about rock and roll. After double-checking that it hadn’t been left on the Free Books cart by mistake, and that I was not about to commit antipodal book theft, I put it in my purse.
The kind of travelling that my husband and I enjoy is not luxurious. It tends to involve a lot of walking, and can be somewhat brutal. At the end of the day, we will often retreat to our accommodations and pursue our own independent interests (reading books, watching goofy local television shows, planning the next day’s itinerary). On this trip, Scar Tissue became my after-dinner read. And strangely enough, I found myself very drawn to the world depicted by Anthony Kiedis. It was primarily about Los Angeles, which is always intriguing, and the voice he wrote in wasn’t the cocky, bragging, off-putting one I would have expected. He seemed honest, and kind of funny. The stories he told about himself were not at all flattering (like the time when, as a pre-teen, he teased a kitten, and then worried that his having done so made him a psychopath, or the time when he cut his hair into a repulsive mullet during a short-lived stint at UCLA). He didn’t have to share some of this stuff. Nobody would have known.
Particularly interesting to me were the sections that focused on the band’s songwriting and recording process. Their 1991 album Blood Sugar Sex Magic was recorded in an old, reportedly haunted Hollywood mansion where Houdini had once lived! Anthony Kiedis and guitarist John Frusciante had separate rooms at opposite ends of the house, and Kiedis would record his vocals alone under the full moon while staring out the window at the sky and singing into a tube. Frusciante isolated himself in his room between takes, painting and reading esoterica. This was stuff I could get into. Even the sex discussed by Kiedis in Scar Tissue, while definitely over the top in quantity and variety, suggested vulnerability. I felt a little sorry for him. He seemed to have multiple addictions, not just to drugs. The book quickly became something I looked forward to every night, mostly because of it raw and frank style. It wasn’t boring.
Our vacation continued, exotic and pleasurable. The sun came out and I got sunburned in places that I didn’t know could get sunburned. We flew to Wellington; I brought Scar Tissue onto the plane. I found myself looking forward to investigating the band’s oeuvre when we got back to the United States, listening to the songs I was reading about, in spite of being a long-time Chili Peppers’ hater.
Almost immediately upon return, I found myself involved in a massive, stressful, all-encompassing project for work. All plans and goals I had dreamed up in New Zealand, all ideas for future investigation, fell by the wayside as I put my shoulder to the grindstone. I did listen to the Red Hot Chili Peppers as I toiled at my desk, mostly random selections from YouTube. One day I posted on my Facebook page a link to their song “Otherside” (which I discovered I actually enjoyed very much). Some people liked it, and others commented on it in various capacities. Then a friend who I consider to be in the know about music commented: “This is rapist rock.” I was surprised and didn’t know what my friend meant. It did know that his comments strangely echoed the feelings I’d long had about the band. It was like peering into a strange and upsetting looking glass. It was disconcerting.
Based on my friend’s remarks, I hit up Google, did some research for myself, and discovered that the band has in fact been in hot water numerous times over the years for sexual misconduct — some of it admitted,. There's the creepy video above of Anthony Kiedis molesting a woman on a UK television programme. It had never been a secret, but rather that I had never looked. Something about the band had turned me off in a way that I hadn’t cared to investigate. Some things are based on feelings, not on facts.
Must we permit ourselves to enjoy the music only of those whose characters we admire? Do we need our rock stars to have exemplary pasts and impeccable morals? That would keep us from enjoying great, seminal swaths of rock and roll, from Jerry Lee Lewis to David Bowie. Since reading I’m With the Band while slathered with baby oil in the sun in my back yard, I have had trouble making eye contact with Jimmy Page (even in photographs). Having read Hammer of the Gods, I can never think about land sharks in the same way. I still love Led Zeppelin and don’t see that changing. David Bowie remains a personal icon despite my knowing that he took the virginity of a 14-year-old groupie, a fact that makes me feel personally ill. I think of myself at that age, still a child, but so in love with rock and roll that I could have been persuaded to do many things I would probably have regretted later.
While you ponder whether we can reasonably expect good behavior from our rock stars, I’m back to loathing the Red Hot Chili Peppers.