The Myth of the Red Hot Chili Peppers Is Better Than the Band I Remember

I was always "too cool" for the Chili Peppers. But upon reading their superb memoirs, I'm now wondering if I missed out.

October 14, 2021 9:36 am
The Red Hot Chili Peppers pose for a goofy photo in the February 1990
To truly understand the Chili Peppers, you've gotta look beyond the music
Michel Linssen/Redferns/Getty

One of the pinnacles of internet prankdom was reached in 2014, when comedian Jon Daly convinced the unsuspecting masses that the Red Hot Chili Peppers had released a song called “Abracadabralifornia” in anticipation of the band’s upcoming Super Bowl performance. It was a low-stakes joke, a funny way to sum up what one of the quintessential 1990s bands had turned into in the 21st century: a mishmash of Anthony Kiedis word-soup set to music that, in hindsight, sounds like it was played by a Chili Peppers cover band and not the original version. It was, and remains, perfect to me. 

The Red Hot Chili Peppers are a band that you truly had to be there for. People older than me who witnessed them in their early years, before the band’s original guitarist Hillel Slovak died of a heroin overdose at 26 in 1988, say that was the perfect version of the band. I got into them around the age of 12, when videos for 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik that were on hourly rotation on MTV made me enough of a fan that I spent my lawn-mowing money on a cassette version of the album. That’s generally where my fandom for the band is most concentrated, though I have emotional attachments to some of the songs they put out over the next few years, just before the clock turned to Y2K.

But after 1999’s Californication, I moved pretty far away from the Chili Peppers. They were a band I liked in junior high, and all I knew about them up until the Daly prank was that they played nearly every single music festival that would have them. Over the last two decades, I’ve actively listened to zero new Red Hot Chili Peppers songs, though they’ve released four albums over that time period. I haven’t seen them play, I didn’t pay much mind to the talk surrounding the recent 35th anniversary of the album that got me into the band in the first place, and I wasn’t swayed to see them on their upcoming tour, no matter how many special guests they have playing alongside them.

And yet, I find myself once again obsessed with the Red Hot Chili Peppers for reasons that have nothing to do with their music. In fact, I think Anthony Kiedis wrote maybe the greatest rockstar memoir ever with Scar Tissue. It is a portrait of an artist as a rich, beautiful dummy, and every single page is perfection. Consider a line like this, which memorializes a show in Chicago in the group’s heyday: “The band was in a great groove, and this hot little club girl, cute as can be, grabbed me, dropped to her knees, yanked off my stretchy fabric pants, and started giving me a blow job.”

Rockstars tend to be the last of the acceptable scumbags. Anybody who has read The Dirt by Mötley Crüe probably recognizes that 95 percent of the stuff they write about would probably get them canceled by 2021 standards at best, and more likely thrown into jail. Yet the book is considered a classic of the genre, and just two years ago was turned into a Netflix biopic. As a book, The Dirt is pretty much just destruction and debauchery without any pretense, and I think that’s why people still talk about it. Scar Tissue, on the other hand, is Kiedis mixing destruction and debauchery with the sensitivity of an artist. He’s a Byronic hero whose collected works include lines like “Doo-doo dingle zing a dong bone/Ba-di ba-da ba-zumba crunga cong gone bad.” The Kiedis story starts out with him in a bad place after shooting cocaine for three days after the band’s first album was released, and the only way to fix himself up is by splitting a tab of LSD with bandmate Flea and playing a “steakhouse disco in Arizona.” Then we get to his early days growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, followed by a move to California at the age of 12 that changed everything for him. “For the first time in my life, it felt like this was where I was supposed to be,” he writes. 

The book cover of "Scar Tissue," the autobiography by Red Hot Chili Peppers singer Anthony Kiedis
“Scar Tissue”

From there, his life is all music and drugs, drugs and music. He gets into UCLA, but quits after his first year. He starts the 1980s just drifting around until his music career starts sort of unexpectedly, since the guy notoriously isn’t a good singer. “Thanks to Grandmaster Flash,” he writes, “I didn’t have to sing a song, I could go out there and rap a poem.” And in a lot of ways — some good, but most of them bad — that’s how Kiedis changed popular music forever. That realization was not only what launched one of the most successful bands of the last 30 years, but also probably gave a lot of white boys a similar idea: that they could rap over funk or metal and that was all they needed. 

And that’s the other great thing about Scar Tissue. It’s about the debauchery, but it’s also about a very small moment in time when anything was possible and acceptable in underground music. The book is like a weird cousin to Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, except instead of trying to do it all DIY and avoiding the trappings of the rockstar life like indie and hardcore pioneers Black Flag and Sonic Youth did, RHCP were all about trying to be a massive band. They just wanted to do it their own way, and they succeeded at that. 

Two years ago, there was an addition to the RHCP memoirverse: Flea’s Acid for the Children was nearly as weird as his lead singer’s memoir, but I came away thinking the bassist was a little more self-aware. Kiedis comes across as a megalomaniac who was put on this earth to entertain people, and that’s what made Scar Tissue such a classic. Which isn’t to say I didn’t love Flea’s book, because I really did; but it was Kiedis’s reflections that really sent me down this larger reevaluation of the band and their collected works.

Their albums, sure. I like the ones I listened to growing up and still haven’t heard much of their music that came out since. But it’s also the films the members were in (just look at Flea’s IMDB page) and also, in the case of Acid for the Children but especially Scar Tissue, the books they wrote, that made me rethink Red Hot Chili Peppers. It made me appreciate them more, and made me wonder how many other bands from my time growing up as a faux-jaded “xennial” I may have written off because of some silly idea I harbored 20 years ago.

I’m still not sure acid is for the children. But if you grew up in the ‘90s, the Red Hot Chili Peppers certainly were, and they deserve their place in whatever rock-and-roll echelon they ultimately end up in.

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