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by Ann Magnuson
TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A.
The Beach boys, Doors, Germs, N.W.A.- all embodied the blood, sugar, sex, and magic of Los Angeles. Now, with former Jane's Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro on board, the Red Hot Chili Peppers have truly earned their place on the walk of fame. Hollywood troubador Ann Magnuson follows their footsteps.
" Los Angeles is my favorite city in the world!" declares superfoxy Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Dave Navarro, offering as proof of his conviction the city's name tattooed on the back of his neck. "I would never live anywhere else."
Navarro, drummer Chad Smith, and I are wedged into Newsroom, a trendy Beverly Hills restaurant/coffee house/media mill where omnipresent TV monitors serve up the latest from the E! network with your rice-milk cappucinos.
"But I feel like the bad is taking over," says Smith, who at age 33 seems to have settled down considerably since. "I want to get out."
Navarro, however, is undeterred. "I feel that we have everything, even the cliché of L.A. being this melting pot of people struggling to make it-the superficial what-kind-of-a-car-do-you-have thing. In some breakfast-cereal kind of way, I love that. I really love how I never know how I'm going to feel when I wake up in the morning. This city is so powerful that at the flip of a coin it can make me feel on top of the world, or like the most insecure, vulnerable person on the planet."
As Talk Soup yammers in the background, Navarro suggests that we reconvene to his house in the Hollywood Hills. "Do you know where the Liquor Locker is, right accross the street from the Coconut Teaser?" He asks, straddling a pristine Harley parked on the street outside. "Do you know where Selma is?"
Selma? Selma Avenue? That famous street of 1970s sleaze where male hustlers plied their trade in between brews at the Spotlight Lounge? The street immortalized forever in the TV Movie of the Week Alexander: The Other Side of Dawn, sequel to Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway, where Eve Plumb's country-bumpkin-turned-Hollywood-hustler boyfriend tries to go strait, only to backslide into a sordid relationship with a homosexual football pro, played with aplomb by movie-of-the-week veteran Earl Holliman?
But alas, Navarro was referring to the far west end of Selma, an entrance to a much tonier neighborhood, a locale that can serve as either the opening backdrop to a tale of ruin or the final frame in a lesson of redemption. It all depends on which version of the classic success story you're shooting. If the Red Hot Chili Peppers have been cast, though, then it's the happy ending you'll want. Hooray for Hollywood!
I first heard the Red Hot Chili Peppers' latest, One Hot Minute, while driving on a fiercely treacherous stretch of the Hollywood Freeway, near the Universal City/Barham Blvd. exit. Having just returned from a long trip back East, I hadn't been behind the wheel of a car in weeks, and I desperately missed the godlike rush that comes from navigating the death-defying California freeway system as guitars blare from your speakers and numb your senses.
As I headed north into the valley, One Hot Minute provided the ideal soundtrack to weaving in and out of traffic at top speeds. When, on the record's first single, "Warped", Anthony Kiedis sings that his "tendency for dependency is offending me," he may be referring to drugs, but as I passed the seven dwarves that hold up the roof of Disney's Burbank headquarters, the chorus-"warped and scared of being there"- applied to another kind of addiction: to Los Angeles itself.
L.A. is heroin in city form. Give yourself over to the alternately laconic and superheroic feeling induced by perpetual sunshine, blooming cacti, and the very real, if remote, possibility of becoming a "star" overnight, and you may become an addict for life. The Red Hot Chili Peppers are lifers.
When the Chili Peppers burst onto the national scene in the mid-`80s with little more than a funk jones, some tube socks, and a Reagan-size degree of moxie, the buff foursome, led by childhood pals Kiedis and Flea, established themselves as the new ambassadors of SoCal hedonism, upholders of a sun-kissed tradition that includes Frankie frugging with Annette on the golden sands of Zuma Beach, Dennis and Brian Wilson waxing their woodies in Malibu, and Lizard King Jim Morrison waxing poetic on the Venice boardwalk.
While the summer may have been endless, in the immortal words of Maureen McGovern, there's got to be a morning after. And like the Beach Boys before them, underneath all that tanned musculature lurked some hungry demons. Internal strife, record-label wranglings, and a man-size appetite for drugs wreaked havoc on the group. In the aftermath of a string of L.A. disasters both natural and man-made, the joie de vivre the Chili Peppers so recklessly radiated around Tinsel Town quickly wore thin. And as heroin replaced Oscar as Hollywood's deity of choice, the casualties piled up: In 1988, guitarist Hillel Slovak died from an overdose; most recently, Peppers pal River Phoenix became another statistic outside of Johnny Depp's appropriately named Viper Room on Halloween night, 1993.
"My friends are so depressed," a line from "My Friends," could well be the subtitle of One Hot Minute, an album that charts the band's passage through a melancholic landscape nearly devoid of the sox-on-cox punk-funk that once characterized the Peppers. Deep purples and blood reds now dominate the foursome's musical palette, the result of both a newfound. sobriety and newfound guitarist: Dave Navarro, formerly of Jane's Addiction. If the Red Hot Chili Peppers were the Southland's rock'n'roll face of comedy, then Jane's Addiction were the glum mask of tragedy, summoning up the fetishistically dressed demons of Santeria at every gig. By joining forces with Navarro, the Red Hot Chili Peppers fused an unholy alliance, the likes of which had not been experienced in L.A. since Dennis Wilson introduced Charles Manson to record producer Terry Melcher.
Contrary to what District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi said in 1970, it wasn't "Helter Skelter" that motivated Charlie and his clan, but rather rejection by the music industry. Unforgiving of failure (or worse, anonymity), this town can beat you up so brutally you wonder why you keep coming back for more. But some people, as Kiedis notes on "Aeroplane," like their pleasure "spiked with pain."
As every 12-year-old girl must go through her "horse phase," so it seems every rock musician must go through his "death phase." I follow Smith and Navarro through the winding streets above Sunset Boulevard until we reached Navarro's split-level hillside home. Once inside, I realize that I have entered the lair of a full-blown Goth. There's a Ouija board on the dining room table, purple candles in the wrought-iron candelbra, prints of Francis Bacon's "Screaming Pope" and Andy Warhol's "Electric Chair" on the wall, and a coffin-cum-coffee table in the living room. All that's missing from the crushed velveteen is the tarantula in the terrarium and the pet rat.
Whereas most boys who toy with the macabre do so merely as a pose, Navarro's preoccupation with death has legitimate roots. When he was 15 his mother and aunt were brutally stabbed to death in front of him by his mother's ex-boyfriend, who had an "insane, jealous fit of rage."
"He was on the run for eight years," says Navarro, now 28. "And, believe it or not, they got him because of the show America's Most Wanted. We just got done with the trial last year. I was a key witness in the whole thing. It was a real heavy experience for me at 15, and it's affected every relationship I've been in since."
Much has been made of the "dark" musical textures woven throughout One Hot Minute, and if you miss the uplift mojo or yore, don't whine about it to Navarro. "Funk by nature is more of a happy sound, and none of us were really feeling like that," he says. "I've never felt like that in my life. Right now I'm listening to Berlin by Lou Reed. That's how I feel most of the time. There's this song on there called `The Bed.'" He sings: "'This is the place where she lay her head when she went to bed at night/ This is the room where she took the razor and cut her wrists/ That strange and fateful night.' That's the kind of music I relate to."
I glance at the reading material on the coffin/coffee table: George Battaille's Story of the Eye, a work of nonfiction called Looking at Death, and Dr. Seuss's Are You My Mother? It's this last one that really gets to me.
"Yeah, you could say I have `mother issues.'" Navarro laughs, then enthusiastically leads me downstairs to his dungeonlike budoir. Immaculately neat, it contains a human skeleton at the foot of a black, canopied bed. "It's not real," he says. "I won't have a real human head in the house." Like a kid on Christmas morning showing off his new train set, Navarro opens his closet door to reveal an array of vinyl and rubber schmattes, a row of neatly arranged T-shirts (in varying shades of black), and the object of which he seemed most proud, a pair of black patent-leather pumps, size 12.
I presume the rest of the band must have raided Navarro's wardrobe for their last two videos. The S&M-themed "Warped" featured a "controversial" same-sex make-out session between Navarro and Kiedis ("Perry [Farrell] and I used to kiss all the time," shrugs Navarro), and the genuinely weird video for "My Friends" finds our boys in formal ball gowns while trapped in a rowboat on a surrealist sea. "This one guy at Warner Bros. told us to stop making pretentious, faggy videos," laughs Flea when later quizzed. "I thought I looked really suave and handsome."
Whether or not the gender-bending has alienated the band's rock-boy fan base is anyone's guess. But so far, sales on One Hot Minute are perceived to be disappointing, even though many consider it the band's finest record; at press time, the album had sold 1.1 million units here in the U.S., lingering at number 45 on the Billboard charts, despite heavy MTV airplay for both "Warped" and "My Friends." A third single, "Aeroplane," and a rescheduled tour might very well jump-start sales (an earlier tour had to be canceled when Chad Smith broke his wrist playing baseball). Even so, if the Chili Peppers' management tried in vain to persuade them to excise the mano-a-mano smooch in the "Warped" video, they'll likely have a coronary when they get a gander at what Navarro shows me next.
Turning on a video monitor over his bed, I am granted a screening of a rough cut of the Chili Peppers' stab at a rockumentary à la The Song Remains the Same. Mr. Navarro's segment features Smith in some sort of medieval metal-head executioner drag sporting a papier-màché strap-on the size of a Scud. As for Navarro, who best resembles a Mexican dominatrix, he spends his camera-time being prodded from behind with the aforementioned phallus.
"In the same vignette," Navarro tells me, grinning from ear to ear, "I purchase a baby off the black market."
That's nice. I'm not sure what the intended effect of all of this subterfuge was, but rather than finding it shocking, or even titillating, I found the whole thing, well, cute. Instead of wanting to hump the guy- a very reasonable implulse- I felt like giving him a big, maternal hug.
If you want to trace the origins of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, listen to "Deep Kick," a song that details the misadventures of the fabled Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn of rock: "I remember 10 years ago in Hollywood," sings Flea. "We did some good/And we did some real bad stuff/ But like the Butthole Surfers said/ It's better to regret something you did/ Than something you didn't do."
Although Flea and Kiedis asked to be interviewed separately, their ruminations on life, love, and Los Angeles are almost identical-not unlike the telepathic connection many twins boast of when they're separated. Both feel increasingly alienated by Los Angeles- Flea: "I feel like I'm constantly under attack in this city"; Kiedis: "It's a stifling land of smog, violence, and hate." Both extol the virtues of nature- Kiedis: "The power of 20 mountains shaking at the same time is so divine!"; Flea: "I deal with very meaningful things in the mountains or the deseert, like sky and rocks and dirt and water and wildlife and shit." Both worship at the altar of PJ Harvey- Kiedis: "Fucking crazy for PJ"; Flea- "I met her and it was like, uhhh...will you marry me?" Both stash their gold records in the bathroom, both are fond of the word "immeasurably," both vehemently insist I see the movie Babe, and neither seems to own any shirts.
"All my life I've been a very hectic, crazed person," admits 33-year-old Australian-born Michael Balzary, a.k.a. Flea, "with very high highs and very low lows and not a lot of grooving in the middles. At first I was proud of that. I was like, `Fuck the middle of the river, I like the intense dynamic- that's how I want to live.' And it caught up with me-I just crashed."
Two punky houseguests are flopped in Flea's living room, watching a rerun of Mike Tyson's 15-second comeback fight on a wide-screen TV. I recognize one of them from the Nature Mart down in Los Feliz, where he was wandering around barefoot amidst the melatonin tablets and turkey jerky. He turns out to be a friend of Flea's who has just kicked heroin.
I always knew the L.A. art-and-music world had its share of career junkies, and Kiedis's struggles have been well documented, but it still came as a bit of a shock to discover just how firmly the Chili Peppers scene is entrenched in the comfortably numb world of narcotics. Or, hopefully, was.
"As long as there are people on this planet, there'll be people doing heroin, or something just like it," ruminates Flea, as I silently study the dichotomy of his washboard abs and his chipped glitter nail polish. "Drug addiction is such a baffling, powerful thing. It's so difficult to understand how people can reach such a level of insanity and hurt themselves so bad. And especially kind, sensitive, smart, creative people. I've seen it so many times. I've had three close friends die, including River. I'm dealing with it right now with someone I love."
He gestures to the phone as he awaits a call from a friend who has just recently and reluctantly checked into rehab. "I saw this person the other day, and they're like on the verge of death," he explains, clearly upset. "Getting them into rehab, they nearly die detoxing. Trying to give someone hope and faith again after they lose it to drugs, it's such a scary, scary thing. I've done heroin plenty of times. But I was always too much of a wimp to get strung out. The next day I'd feel like such shit. I couldn't do the things that I loved to do. I didn't feel like playing music, I didn't feel like playing basketball."
The phone rings and it's the call Flea's been waiting for. We take a break and I poke around. Tacked onto the kitchen cupboard walls are drawings done by Flea's seven-year-old daughter Clara. Though she divides her time between her father and mother (Flea's ex-wife, Loesha Zeviar, with whom he remains on cordial terms). Clara spends most of her time with Flea, even visiting him on tour. "She likes to stay in hotels and swim in the pools and get room service," he tells me later. "But I don't think it's a good place for her to be.
"Every time I see her it's the most incredible thing in the world," he says. "It makes me feel really good when I can do things for her. I try to help her be a considerate, cool, creative person."
In Flea's absence, I continue to snoop. Scattered among Clara's fingerpaintings are backstage snapshots of Tori Amos and Michael Stipe, and a fresh batch of photos of Flea and Kiedis's last wilderness trip to Alaska. When Flea returns from his clandestine phone call, he appears visibly relieved.
I ask how he progressed to the point where he could help other people with their addictions.
"I had to work really hard to bring myself back to being healthy," he replies. "Rick Rubin took me to learn to do transcendental meditation, and that really helped me a lot. It kind of changed my life."
Flea gives me the number of Gurmukh, the yoga instructor whose chanting, along with that of Flea and Rubin, can be heard throughout the song "Falling Into Grace."
"I recommend a rtualistic meditation practice of some kind for everybody," he enthuses. "I think it's just the greatest thing in the world."
If only Gurumkh had been able to come to the rescue of River Phoenix. I don't believe Phoenix's demise was for any lack of trying on Flea's part, though he is understandably reluctant to discuss the sordid details of his friend's death. Flea contributed most of the lyrics to the song "Transcending," whose outro, "Fuck the magazines/ Fuck the green machine," not only conveys anger at the media vultures who descended on his home soon after Phoenix's overdose but cautions against straying too close to the quicksand of celebrity.
I tell him about one of the last phone messages Phoenix left on the answering machine of a mutual friend: "I'm just trying to keep my head above water in this crazy business."
"I don't think you can ever really get the brass ring," Flea contends. "It's the permanently dangling carrot in front of your face. River needed to find that feeling of smallness again." That feeling of smallness, he explains, is what One Hot Minute's most idiosyncratic track, "Pea," is all about. "I wrote it after I had just spent a lot of time in nature," he said. "I think I was in Costa Rica, far away from the city and money and power and material possessions. I get away and gain perspective and realize how insignificant all that shit is and how insignificant I am and that just makes me happy." He pauses. "It's also in particular about the time these guys beat the shit out of me at the Mayfair supermarket on Bronson and Franklin."
Really? That's the celebrity Mayfair!
"Yeah. This was ten years ago. I think I had a pink mohawk or something and these redneck guys talked shit to me and I gave them the finger, so they beat the hell out of me. After they kicked my ass, I walked home about a block away, seeing stars and all bloody. I walked in the door and my old guitar player, Hillel, was stirring this big pot of lentils. he was this tall, skinny guy, and I walked in and was all beat up, and he was like, `What happened?' and he was holding up his lentil spoon and I said, `Oh, man, these guys kicked my ass at Mayfair,' and he was like, `Let's go get them. Come on, let's go get them.' And he just looked so skinny and he had the lentils and I was like, `Dude, forget it, there's nothing we can do.'"
Neither Flea nor Kiedis has completely gotten over Hillel Slovak's overdose (it was the memory of Slovak that Flea conjured when he had to produce tears for his emotional close-up in Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho). It was also the catalyst Kiedis needed to clean up his act. "I feel very blessed because I was forced to discover the deepest and truest me," says Kiedis, "and I probably wouldn't have taken steps to accomplish that if I wasn't in the midst of a life-threatening disease.
What happened to Hillel is a constant sadness and loss that Flea and I live with. But it's not something we go around feeling tragic about all the time. It's just the learning process and the living process and being happy for the experiences that we had when he was around, and the immeasurable wealth of knowledge that I gained from hanging out with this guy. And the same with River."
Sitting by Kiedis's shimmering pool, near the Hollywood sign under which he practically grew up, I wonder where Phoenix would be today had he, like Kiedis, eventually made his way out of the thick fog of drug addiction. "I sort of picture him singing and dancing and pulling his pants down," muses Kiedis, "you know, falling around and swimming in rivers."
It's hard to imagine someone like Kiedis, at age 33, being a "survivor." Then again, Drew Barrymore was a recovered alcoholic at 13. Kiedis was introduced to the fast lane by his scenester dad, a sometime actor known as Blackie Dammett, a name that needs no editorializing. Kiedis has been clubbing since he was a "wee lad," dancing the nights away with older women at the famous Corral club in Topanga Canyon (where the Stone Poneys and the Eagles used to play), and hanging out "as a 12-year-old boy in a club full of sodomizing adults" at the Led Zeppelin-approved Rainbow Bar and Grill.
Kiedis has earned a reputation for being, well, to put it nicely, an arrogant fuck. Yet he has always struck me more as a Joe Dallesandro/ Merry Prankster hybrid; a good-looking, immediately likable, fun-loving boy-toy that most every gay man and sexually primed woman over 30 has drooled over. Though he does have a tendency to sound like a smooth-talkin' New Age pimp, I never for a moment thought him disingenuous.
"I really can't bear the process of reading about myself, and I can't really bear the process of looking at myslef," he claims, contradicting almost everything his detractors have alleged about his self-worship. "It's nonproductive for me and I don't want to be self-conscious."
Not everyone can resist the power of their own celebrity. Before my rendezvous with Kiedis, I had attended the 69th Annual Rudolph Valentino Memorial Service at the Hollywood Memorial Park cemetery behind the Paramount studio. Death took Rudy at a young age, a prerequisite for any legend. After the appropriately kooky service, I popped side two of One Hot Minute into my tape deck and drove past the Egyptian-themed, art-deco crypts where members of Hollywood's first generation- Marion Davies, Douglas Fairbanks, and Cecil B. DeMille, to name a few- were buried. I listened closely to One Hot Minute's "Tearjerker": "First time I saw you/ You were sitting backstage in a dress/ A perfect mess.../ I liked your whiskers/ and I liked the dimple in your chin/ Your pale blue eyes." Suddenly, the song took on an altogether different meaning from the one I had first ascribed to it. I needed to ask its author a question.
"Is `Tearjerker' about Kurt Cobain?"
"I don't know," responds Kiedis.
"Did you write it?"
"Yes." Kiedis eyes me suspiciously.
"You don't want to answer that, do you?"
"Umm...that song is just about love. It's a love song."
I respect Kiedis's wish to remain detached- with love, of course, as 12-step rhetoric goes. "Imagine me taught by tragedy," he sings on "My Friends." If only recovery were something that could be bottled and sold next to Calvin Klein's Obsession, then maybe some of Kiedis's friends would still be here. On of those friends (or former friends) is ex-Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante. It's difficult to get anyone to talk about the enigmatic Frusciante, who, rumor has it, has become somewhat of a recluse. "I care about John a lot," says Flea. "That's all I can say." Kiedis tells me that he sometimes sends Frusciante "messages through people that I know who see him, just to let him know that I love him, but that is all. I don't get anything back."
The gardeners next door have revved up their leaf blowers, which are as common to California as toilet-seat covers, and we're forced to abandon poolside and head inside, where Kiedis's lissome model/girlfriend Jamie Rischar is doing some leafing of her own, through the pages of an herbal remedies book. She's got some wicked blisters on her inner calves that I recognize as "biker hickey's," the burns you get from the superhot exhaust pipe of your boyfriend's motorcycle. They're not a pretty sight, and she's understandably annoyed that the aloe vera previously suggested is not doing its job.
When I notice the letters A-N-T-H-O-N-Y tattooed between her thumb and forefinger, I ask Kiedis just how serious this love affair is.
"Well," he sighs. "It's serious in the sense that it's nearly two years going and I love her with all my heart. But we try not to get too overly serious about being alive together."
It's a perfect Anthony Kiedis answer, but one I'd find a bit vague if I were the one with his name tattooed across my hand.
"Whose AA lighter?" Dave Navarro calls out to everyone and no one in particular.
Hell, it could be anybody's here at the band's Hollywood rehearsal studio, where all four Chili Peppers have convened to jam in preparation for their upcoming tour.
I've been granted the pleasure of observing the proceedings, Yoko-like, from the one piece of upholstered furniture in the room. Two largeish middle-aged roadies who bear a disturbing resemblance to a grown-up Beavis and Butthead stand in stark contrast to the four rock stars, who are stripped to their waists, tattooed and muscle-bound, thanks in part to the bench press that sits prominently in the center of the room. I'd figure I'd stick around for a song or two, you know, get the feel for how the band works, and disappear. Then Navarro removes his denim overalls and continues to play in nothing but his undies.
I decide to stick around for a few more songs.
Feigning nonchalance, I pick up a magazine and bury myself deep within its pages when I hear Flea yelling, "Ann? ANNNN!"
"Uh, yeah? What?"
"Do you like that song?" he asks about the gloriously melodic "Aeroplane," which the band had run through.
"Uh, yeah. I love it. Why?"
"My sister hates it."
"Eighties pop drivel," Smith snorts.
"I love `80s pop drivel," I demurely counter, before sinking back into my magazine.
Later, after rehearsal breaks up and the band fire up their Harleys and scatter like coyotes in the Hollywood Hills, I ease into my sensible Volvo and head east down Melrose Avenue. "I like pleasure spiked with pain/ And music is my aeroplane," sings a laid-back Kiedis from my car stereo. Just when it seems like all is right in the world, a traffic cop slows my progress. A nasty little accident had just occurred moments before at the intersection of Virgil and Melrose. Shards of glass and metal blanket the street. I slow down long enough to catch a glimpse of the bloody aftermath. Altough I can't see her face, the neckline of a young woman's white T-shirt looks as if it had been tie-dyed crimson red. Everything moves in super-slow motion.
"Looking in my rearview mirror," Kiedis continues, "Looking in my rearview mirror/ I can make it disappear."
One block later, the ugliness is gone, a distant memory, just another shitty day in Paradise. "Just one note could make me float," Kiedis croons, "make me float away," The song spins `round my head as I drive the same palm-lined streets that both O.J. and the LAPD freely roamed. After each fire, riot, earthquake, gang shooting, and misguided verdict, everyone I know here threatens to move. But we just can't seem to shake the craving for just one more taste, one more fix of sunny SoCal lifestyle. Maybe Bertolt Brecht was right. In his epic poem from the 1940s, "Hollywood Elegies," Brecht wrote that when God was creating heaven and hell, he decided to save time and put them both in the same place: Los Angeles.