John Frusciante, the heart of the Red Hot Chili Peppers

By Sergio Ariza

John Frusciante's dreams came true very quickly but also, in a very short time, turned into nightmares. He became the guitarist in his favourite band as a teenager and at just 21 was the key to making them superstars, but the fame was not what he was looking for and he blew it all, band included, when they hit the big time. Six years later, unbelievably, history repeated itself and the Red Hot Chili Peppers rescued Frusciante from drug hell and he rewarded them with their second masterpiece. His Stratocaster turned a fun funk rock band into one of the top groups of their time, giving them a depth that they didn't have until his arrival, and he was the key factor in the path from Sex Rap or Party On Your Pussy to Under The Bridge or Scar Tissue.   


John Anthony Frusciante was born on 5 March 1970 in New York into a musical family, the son of a pianist and an aspiring singer. His parents separated while he was still a child and he ended up leaving with his mother to live in Los Angeles with his stepfather, who encouraged him to follow his artistic instincts. By the age of nine he was listening to punk and by 11 he was studying Zappa; his guitar skills were such that he was allowed to drop out of high school at 16 to enroll at the Guitar Institute of Technology, although, despite enrolling, he did not attend any of their classes.

By then he had discovered the Red Hot Chili Peppers and they had become his favourite band. At their concerts he would actively participate in the tremendous pogos that would form, feeling part of the band. Being a guitarist, it was only natural that his favourite member was Hillel Slovak, who he learned all his parts from and became half friends with. Another friend of his was D. H. Peligro, the former drummer of the Dead Kennedys, with whom he would hang out and play. Peligro invited Flea, the bassist of the Chili Peppers, to one of his jams with Frusciante and it soon became clear that the bassist and Frusciante hit it off perfectly. Flea came away with the bass riff from Nobody Weird Like Me and the conviction that the teenager Frusciante, who was not yet 18, had a bright future ahead of him.


Shortly before Slovak's death by overdose on 25 June 1988, the Peppers’ guitarist met one last time with the man who was to replace him in the band, although neither of them was aware of it. Slovak asked Frusciante if he would still like the Chilis if they became famous and played the Forum and big stadiums. Frusciante's answer was prescient, "No, it would ruin all the magic. That's the great thing about this band, the audience doesn't feel any different from the band at all". Four years later, with a top selling album in the US, with a packed stadium in Japan waiting to see them, Frusciante would remember that conversation and leave the band.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves, after Slovak's death, Frusciante was not the first choice, and the Chilis chose DeWayne 'Blackbyrd' McKnight, a former member of the seminal band Funkadelic/Parliament. For his part, Frusciante tried to join Frank Zappa's band, but fled as soon as he learned of the Peaches En Regalia author's strict anti-drugs and alcohol policy. At the age of 18, Frusciante was not only advanced with his guitar, he had been living the "sex, drugs and rock & roll" thing since he was a teenager. It was then that he got the call that changed his life.


The Chili Peppers hadn't hit it off with McKnight and Flea remembered the bright young Frusciante, so, with Anthony Kiedis' blessing, he decided to give him a call for an audition. Frusciante couldn't believe it and was jumping for joy all over the house, there wasn't an audition he was better prepared for, he knew all their songs perfectly, the job was his.

Frusciante was a great admirer of Hendrix, one of the band's great references, but not particularly of funk; though Flea taught him the basics. Shortly after the guitarist joined the band, there was another change in the line-up, Jack Irons, their drummer, had not wanted to continue without Slovak, and had been replaced by D. H. Peligro, but the former Dead Kennedys’ drummer was too hooked on heroin for a band like the Red Hot Chili Peppers to kick him out. Replaced by Chad Smith, the band had found its most memorable line-up.


They were recording Mother's Milk, a continuist album in which Frusciante follows Slovak's steps to the letter. His best moments come when he unleashes his Les Paul Custom - a guitar that he could buy with the first money he made in the band - on Knock Me Down, a great funk rock song, as well as another of the great moments of that album, his version of Stevie Wonder's Higher Ground. The band sounded better than ever and the melodies were breaking through, but they were still the same Chili Peppers. Still, it was the biggest hit of their career, rising to a modest 52nd place on the Billboard album chart.

But everything was to change for their next album. The band hired Rick Rubin as producer and moved into Rubin's former Harry Houdini mansion. There the magic would happen when the producer asked the singer to turn a poem about his heroin addiction into a song. Kiedis went with the lyrics of Under The Bridge to Frusciante and Frusciante composed the famous intro with his Fender Duo Sonic, although he would later appear in the famous video for the song with his '66 Fender Jaguar. The fact is that this song marks the moment when Frusciante began to become the band's sonic architect and to demonstrate that, despite their beginnings and their concerts, the Chili Peppers gave the best of themselves in their most intimate moments.   


With the ghost of Hillel Slovak hovering all over their message, Under The Bridge marked a new stage for the band: they were capable of being more melancholic and vulnerable, and this opened the way for new wonders such as I Could Have Lied, Breaking The Girl and Soul To Squeeze. Of course, cuts like Give It Away, Suck My Kiss and Sir Psycho Sexy showed that sex and the desire to have a good time were still with them.

The result was their masterpiece and one of the must-have albums of the 1990s, Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Released on 24 September 1991, the album climbed to a more than acceptable 14th place in the album chart, before beginning its gradual decline, but then something happened that was to change the course of rock music. And that was that another album released on 24 September that year,
Nirvana's Nevermind, began to rocket up the charts. The Chili Peppers were caught in the middle of that tremendous explosion, because to present their album they had gone on tour with two other emerging bands, the Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam, two bands that had also released albums that year without making much noise.


In the wake of Nevermind's sales, Blood Sugar Sex Magik was climbing up the charts again and their record label decided to take a chance on them and put them together with the new sensation from Seattle, at first the ones sacrificed to make way for Nirvana were Pearl Jam but
Billy Corgan, the leader of the Smashing Pumpkins didn't want to play with Kurt Cobain's band and in the end the line-up was completed with Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Red Hot Chili Peppers, the albums they presented were Ten, Nevermind and Blood Sugar Sex Magik, a musical history of the 90s. Three days after their last concert together, Nevermind displaced Michael Jackson's Dangerous at number one, and the alternative rock boom was underway with the Chili Peppers as ‘luxury witnesses’.

But not everyone was happy with the new success, Frusciante was angry and his behaviour was increasingly erratic. When they were invited to the legendary Saturday Night Live, he changed the tone of Under The Bridge to the torture of a Kiedis who found himself stabbed on air. The singer had always longed to become a rock star and now that he was on the verge of achieving it, he couldn't understand Frusciante, who was increasingly interested in sabotaging his newfound success. It all came to a head in Japan, just the week that Blood Sugar Sex Magik hit #2 in the charts, with Frusciante throwing it all away - the band, the success, his guitars and his health.


The guitarist faced depression and gave up music, sold his guitars to get heroin and became an addict for several years. His connections allowed him to record a couple of solo albums but he himself admitted that the last one was to get some money to keep scoring.... He finally managed to kick his addictions in 1998, just as the Chili Peppers had fired his replacement, Dave Navarro. Morale in the band was at rock bottom and Flea told Kiedis that he only saw a future for the Chili Peppers if they got Frusciante back.

The bassist went to Frusciante's house and proposed a comeback, Frusciante's words were "nothing would make me happier". Of course, after years of addiction, the guitarist didn't even have a decent guitar to record on, so Kiedis took him to a Music Center where he bought him a '62 Stratocaster. A short time afterwards they began to record Californication and the guitarist's magical hand would once again be felt in a big way. Scar Tissue served as the opening track, with that guitar coming back in like a welcome breeze with the car window down. The chorus is the most perfect ever made by the band and the whole thing is rounded off with a solo in which Frusciante uses the slide on his 60's Telecaster Custom. On that album, the most melodic of his career, he also highlighted his work with a 1955 Gretsch White Falcon connected to a Fender Showman on songs like the title track or Otherside.


It was his second masterpiece and gave way to the happiest period of his career and his life, enjoying the success of the band's albums such as By The Way or Stadium Arcadium, where he was the main composer, combining his work with solo albums such as To Record Only Water for Ten Days (2001) or Shadows Collide with People (2004) in which he gave free rein to his more experimental vein. Even so, in 2009 his path separated again from those of the Red Hot Chili Peppers in an amicable way.

But, incredibly, Frusciante has decided to return, once again, to the fold represented by Kiedis, Flea and Smith, and the classic line-up of the Chili Peppers is about to present their sixth album together, Unlimited Love, the twelfth of their career. Just listening to the opening bars of the single Black Summer makes it clear that, although Kiedis and Flea are the brains and lungs of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, John Frusciante is the real heart of the band.