There is a scene in Anthony Kiedis’ autobiography Scar Tissue in which a recovering addict persuades him to go and visit the grave of his deceased band mate Hillel Slovak at Mount Sinai Memorial Park Cemetery in Hollywood Hills, California. Following Slovak's death from a heroin overdose on 25 June 1988 Kiedis had fled to Mexico on a drug binge and had not attended the funeral, in what appeared to be a classic case of denial. However, Kiedis had now been convinced to visit Slovak's grave, and as he approached his final resting place, he found himself standing there alone. “It’s a plot of grass with a rock on it,” he said to himself, feeling awkward. However, never having properly grieved, the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s frontman suddenly felt a blinding connection, became totally overwhelmed, and started to sob like he had never sobbed before. He became ‘a waterfall of of blabbering and blubbering and crying and coughing’, as he told his dead friend how much he loved and missed him. Kiedis promised him that he would ‘stay clean’, and he was still in pieces and unable to stop the tears as he walked out of the cemetery.
Hillel Slovak was born on 13 April 1962 in Haifa, Israel, to Jewish parents – a Polish mother and Yugoslavian father - who had both survived the Holocaust. However their prospects were limited and so five years later they decided to move to the Queens’ borough of New York City, before relocating to Southern California in 1967.
At school Slovak soon developed an interest in art, something that would stay with him for the rest of his life. He attended Bancroft Jr. High School in Hollywood, where he met future bandmates Jack Irons and Michael "Flea" Balzary. Slovak received his first guitar at age 13 as a bar mitzvah present, in which Irons was present at the party and saw his friend receive the gift. “… Among the birthday boy’s presents was his very first guitar, a gift from his Uncle Aron. As Irons watched him unwrap it, he caught his first glimpse, too, of the pair’s future together,” relates Dave Thompson in his book ‘Red Hot Chili Peppers By the Way’.
The friendship between Slovak and Irons grew and they were soon miming Kiss songs to school friends. Slovak’s interest in music grew rapidly and he was increasingly influenced by the sounds of Jimi Hendrix, Queen and Led Zeppelin. In 1977, Irons and Slovak first took to the stage in their first proper band called Chain Reaction, which soon became Anthem, and then Anthym. After one of their gigs, Slovak met Anthony Kiedis, who had gone to see them play, and the pair went back to Slovak’s house. "Within a few minutes of hanging out with Hillel…” says Kiedis, “I sensed that he was different from most of the people I'd spent time with ... He understood a lot about music, he was a great visual artist, and he had a sense of self and a calm about him that were just riveting. Hillel was Jewish, he looked Jewish, he talked about Jewish stuff, and the food in that kitchen was Jewish. After… I was thinking, “Well, that’s my new best friend for life right there.”
Flea later joined Anthym, having been encouraged to play bass guitar by Slovak, and the band decided to change its name to What Is This? Shortly afterwards Slovak, Flea, Kiedis, and Irons formed Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1982, which started to gain a fan base in and around Los Angeles. There was some fluidity between the two bands but, when Red Hot Chili Peppers and What is This? were both offered record deals around the same time, Slovak chose to focus on What is This? as he felt that they were more professional and most likely to succeed.
Slovak’s guitar playing revolved around improvisation at this time, and Kiedis noted how his style became increasingly funky and aggressive; though he also experimented with reggae, speed metal and even a talk box. Slovak bought what became his favourite guitar, a late 60s Fender Strat with a rosewood fretboard, in a sunburst finish, which can be seen on several of his live performances, and his riffs often formed the basis of the group's songs.
However Slovak became frustrated with What Is This? and eventually rejoined the Chili Peppers in 1985, to record the albums Freaky Styley, produced by George Clinton, and The Uplift Mofo Party Plan, with Jack Irons on drums. It was at this time Slovak was given the nicknames “Slim Bob Billy”, “Slim” and “Huckleberry” by Kiedis, names which the guitarist reportedly enjoyed. Kiedis and Slovak were increasingly experimenting with drugs around this time and Kiedis affectionately wrote Skinny Sweaty Man based on how Slovak would ‘shuffle dance’ when on cocaine.
Slovak personally felt a deep connection to the album:“…It was so fun. I’m extremely proud of everybody’s work – it is at times genius. Anthony’s words are something else. This is going to be a hit -it has to be- every track is soooo good,” Slovak wrote in his diary. The guitarist was not just influencing the band at this time, he was also making a huge impact on their fans, which included a young John Frusciante, who ‘learned everything’ from his style (and would later replace him in the band). However the drug taking was increasingly starting to affect the group’s capacity to play, with Flea noting that things were ‘not fun’ anymore, and Kiedis took time out to go into rehab.
The band tended to be more concerned about Kiedis’ addiction, because he was more open about it, whereas Slovak was "much more subtle and much more cunning in his disguise…" according to Kiedis, “he had everyone believing he had it under control... Hillel thought he had power over the dark side.” However, Slovak's health began to deteriorate. As Chris Watts notes in ‘Red Hot Chili Peppers: Sugar and Spice’ “Like most drug addicts, Anthony and Hillel had gradually increased their intake in order to get the same buzz. … [they] were hooked.”
Slovak was becoming more of a liability on the road. Sometimes he would play just one song while the rest of the band attempted to work through the rest of the set-list. A roadie even phoned Slovak’s brother James to warn him about his addiction, and the guitarist came very close to being kicked out of the band for good. However he continued on The Uplift Mofo Party Plan tour, as both he and Kiedis tried to work together to break their addiction. Both suffered greatly from heroin withdrawal, but Slovak was much more unstable than Kiedis, and he was also in denial about the scale of his problem.
As the tour drew to a close Kiedis recalls“Hillel and I sat in that train, looking out at the scenery whizzing by, and talked about everything. A lot of what we talked about was drugs and heroin, and where we were with our addiction and what we wanted to do about it…On the train, we agreed that the band was going really well, and we vowed to make a concerted effort to stop the drugging.”
Everyone involved in the tour was exhausted and when they returned to Los Angeles they decided to have a couple of weeks break before starting work on their next album. “We landed at the airport, gave one another a hug, and it was “Great tour, great being with you.” “Call me in a few.” “I’ll be good, you going to be good?” “Yeah, I’ll be good too.” We said good-bye. And then both Hillel and I made a beeline for our individual dealers,” explains Kiedis in Scar Tissue.
On 24 June 1988 Slovak called his brother James from his apartment to say he was “thinking of doing heroin again.” The brothers agreed to meet soon, but it was not soon enough.
Slovak’s body was found on 27 June after a concerned friend called in to see him and then called the police. He was reportedly found hunched over the painting he had been working on; it had a hole burned into it from his final cigarette. After his autopsy, authorities determined that he had died two days earlier, due to an overdose. He was just 26 years old.
Jack Irons was so affected by his friend’s passing that he left the band, but Kiedis and Flea took the decision to continue:“Flea and I did not plan on stopping playing music together, it wasn’t out of lack out respect; it was out of respect. This was something that Hillel had helped build, and we were going to keep on building it…” said Kiedis.
James Slovak cleared out his brother’s apartment and later decided to publish the letters, diaries and artwork that he found there as a tribute in ‘Behind the Sun: The Diary and Art of Hillel Slovak.’ One of Slovak’s diary entries reads: “Fuck drugs, music is my destiny. Even though I don’t necessarily feel it now, I know soon that this experience will make me stronger.”
Hillel Slovak was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers on 14 April 2012, with his brother James accepting the award on his behalf. The band have always been united in stating that although Slovak is ‘no longer an earthly presence, his influence and energy will always live on’.