Why you should care
Because the laughter had to stop, eventually.
I’m guessing you have no idea what it’s been like, but I’m game to tell you that hating something loved by so many others causes a cognitive dissonance that can only be cured by complete silence. Or like my mother used to say, if you’ve got nothing nice to say, say nothing. So like a wider cultural appreciation for reality TV, Harrison Ford and Burning Man, when it comes to the Red Hot Chili Peppers it just seemed to make sense to shut up.
Like I’ve done since 1984 when my bass player at the time, Sam Smoot, played them for me. “True men, don’t kill coyotes!” rang from the turntable, and I screwed up my face. It was catchy. But it was also sucky. Sucky and catchy. Smoot sang the praises for their musicianship, but as a singer myself, my interest always cohered around what the frontman was doing. And in the case of founder and singer Anthony Kiedis, it was him I was focused on.
And for good reason. Some of their earlier efforts had been produced by Andy Gill from one of my favorite groups on the planet, Gang of Four. And then later Keith Levene, one of my favorite musicians from his work with PiL, and even funk great George Clinton. But with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, it was always like having good friends who were all friends with one shitty friend. The atonal bleating, little-man macho stylings, faux frat funk shit and the unremittingly LA-ness of it all just put me off.
“Yes?” It was my friend Karin Spies.
While Kiedis’ clowny mimicry is by far the worst and most offputting part of their whole schtick, the music … is still pretty catchy. But sucky. Sucky and catchy.
“I’m going to book a show. Would you want to play support for the Red Hot Chili Peppers?”
“Yes.” While I am a man of firm convictions, I am also a man with a firm appreciation for knowing on which side the bread is buttered. That, and with very little shame.
So it was booked, and in 1987 my punk band Whipping Boy would be playing support for them, over my unspoken and largely unvoiced objections. But there was a weird twist.
“And hey, my ex wants to come out and get married during your set, so do you think you could learn a little bit of the wedding march?”
“Sure.” Because sometimes it just makes sense to say “sure” to things that are aggressively and poorly thought out. But the deal got even weirder. Apparently, Spies’s ex was getting married, but it was also rumored that she had dated one of the Chili Peppers as well. Was this a way to pay someone back? Or forward?
Unknown. But we were geeked to play, and I even chatted comfortably backstage with Kiedis and bass player Flea. We had other friends in common and despite the knee-jerk antipathy between San Francisco, where the show was taking place, and Los Angeles, everything was mellow. And fine. Fine and mellow.
The opening band played, the club was packed and then we were up. We tore into our set with a gleeful brio, screaming songs about getting killed by trains and nuclear winters. Suddenly, a woman dressed like a priest appears on the stage. Our guitar players start to pick their way through Mendelssohn’s Wedding March and the bride and groom appear and sure as shit get married in the middle of our set. They say their vows, kiss and are off, and we’re back to finish our set.
But then, one song away from the end, the guitars stop, the bass stops, the mic I’m singing through drops out and nothing remains but the drums. The sound guy says over the house mic, “Your time is up.”
“We’re in the middle of the last song. You had your wedding,” I shout. “We’ll leave when we finish this song.”
Their response was typical state politics: They dispatched the bouncers. And a riot ensued.
It was our road crew against the club bouncers who were trying to stop our drummer from drumming. Me, livid, on stage, demanding our due. I glance up and see Flea and Kiedis watching from the upper balcony. They’re punk rock guys originally. I’m sure they feel our pain.
I hand gesture a request for some help of some kind. One word from the headliner ends all of this. They shrug, then turn and head on back to the dressing rooms. The police show up. The show is “over.” Total elapsed time not including 30 minutes of set time: one hour and 10 minutes. It would have been easier to just let us play the remainder of the two-minute song.
Flash to the next year, as I stand on Sunset Boulevard about to cross the street to have our newest record mastered. A blue Mercedes-Benz comes into my line of sight. The driver is Flea. Oh man. Despite all of the past weirdness, I’m still happy to see the clown prince of bass players and so I wave him over.
The Benz picks up speed. I am guessing he really wants to see me. Like really badly. I am waving and smiling, but instead of slowing to a stop, and this could be my imagination, the car seems to speed up. I stop waving. I stop smiling. But I don’t move. It’s not fear. It’s resistance.
If giving my life is what it takes for me to carry my message to the world of their total musical worthlessness, I think, in total “Give me liberty or give me death” conviction, then so be it.
The car comes within inches of me as he accelerates past me and into the Hollywood night. With a sticker of Jimi Hendrix on the back of his car.
Since then I’ve watched them win awards and sell out stadiums. I’ve watched Kiedis magically learn how to sing in recorded product and video while magically forgetting how to sing live, while he’s published a memoir painfully described as a “searingly honest memoir of a life spent in the fast lane.” I’ve seen them play Super Bowl halftime shows.
While Kiedis’ clowny mimicry is by far the worst and most off-putting part of their whole shtick, the music, complex and sophisticated even if a little soullessly envisioned, is still pretty catchy. But sucky. Sucky and catchy.
Meanwhile while covering an MMA event for GQ magazine, I happen to glance back while I sit in a cage-side seat only to see Kiedis four rows and two seats over behind the media row in the celebrity seats. The camera alights on his face and he mugs widely and broadly as the arena breaks into cheers for the singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Though I’m quite sure he has no idea who I am, we lock eyes, and while I smile, widely, broadly, my hand shoots up, middle finger first.
I get braced by some sort of production assistant who reminds me of the journalistic code of ethics I had to sign to get the seat I am sitting in so I swivel back into it, more than pleased with myself and in the full bloom of realizing that my work here was done. And it only took 31 years.
Was it worth it? How could it have not been?