Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea tells Russell Baillie about his intoxicating autobiography and why the story stops just as the band hit the big time.
It’s an intriguing book for what it is – a scattershot blast through the musician’s hazardous formative years – and for what it’s not. It’s not the story of the band. It finishes just as the RHCP are getting a foothold in the early 1980s Los Angeles post-punk music scene. And it’s possibly the better for it. Its author certainly thinks so, as he talks to the Listener from his Californian home.
Flea, who was born in Melbourne in 1962, shifted with his family to New York at age four. There, after a life in the Big Apple suburbs, which, in the book, sounds like an episode of Mad Men, his father and mother split.
His mother left his businessman father for Walter, a bohemian jazz bassist who was to have a profound influence on Flea’s future, as did their eventual move to Los Angeles, where Flea attended high schools in the Hollywood area. There, he met his future bandmates and started a lasting friendship with RHCP frontman Anthony Kiedis, who wrote about his own Hollywood-brat upbringing in 2004 memoir Scar Tissue.
As a kid, Flea took up jazz trumpet, hoping to become the next Dizzy Gillespie. He describes himself in adolescence as a combination of musical overachiever with no time for rock music and teenage tearaway with an alarming appetite for hard drugs, something he kicked around the time RHCP were becoming one of the biggest bands on the planet on the back of albums such as Blood Sugar Sex Magik.
These days, the band remain stadium fillers and have just regrouped in their classic line-up with guitarist John Frusciante. These days, too, Flea remains the most famous bassist of his generation, his playing having evolved from the hyperactive slap-funk style that drove RHCP in their early years to something sinuous, melodic and restrained enough to play with the likes of veteran singer-songwriter Smith. She penned a poem about Flea as a foreword to the book. Seeing she’s at the beginning – and seeing the last time this writer saw Flea play it was a guest spot with the punk-rock godmother and author – Smith seems like a good place to start …
Was Patti Smith and her memoirs such as Just Kids an influence on the writing of yours?
I can’t say that she’s an influence on my book writing, outside of the fact that she was really supportive of me from the beginning. Even when I was super scared, she was like, “Flea, this is a beautiful thing. Put it out because it’s got such a feeling of vulnerability and everything.” She was really there for me in a way that just felt so meaningful, because she’s someone I respect and whose opinion I trust very deeply. So it meant a lot. She gave me some good advice about writing. But, of course, her advice was just to write the way that you write – you vamp when you’ve got to vamp, you solo when you’ve got a solo. Just sit down and write the f---ing thing.
So what made you sit down and write the f---ing thing?
Well, originally it was just that I agreed to do it. I had been approached a number of times to write a book and I always said no. But when I figured out that I was just going to write about my childhood and not about the band at all, I got excited. Then I was like, okay, this is a challenge. This is something that has to live on its own as a piece of literature without the band in it. Without, like, the secret tell-all of the band or anything like that. No celebrity shit. It was important to me to write a piece of literature that could stand on its own regardless, you know, of whether Chili Peppers fans liked it or not. I just hoped to write a piece of literature that was a contribution to the literary canon. I did my best.
What did it do to your mind spending so much time trying to recapture your childhood?
Well, the actual writing process was beautiful. I would put my head down to write for an hour and when I came up I felt like that was time well spent. It’s funny because it’s a long time ago, a lot of it. My childhood has come and gone a long time ago … but going through my whole childhood like that, it was in one way super therapeutic, just to write about it and figure it out. In another way, it was revealing and I learnt a lot about myself and coming to terms about myself and the things about myself that I don’t like.
To have been therapeutic, it must have stirred up some old emotions.
Writing it was therapeutic, but after it was all written and done, I did the audiobook. That was emotionally overwhelming. In the writing, I was caught up in wanting to do a good job – in understanding and articulating my feelings. But when I spoke to them and said it out loud, it was emotionally overwhelming. Audiobooks are, like, nine hours long and I broke down and was overwhelmed by tears time and again during that process.
How did Anthony Kiedis’ book affect yours, if at all?
In all honesty, I have never read Anthony’s book, only because all the experiences that Anthony and I shared – in the band, in our childhood, growing up together – I felt it would just be difficult for me to read his take on it all. I’m kind of scared to read it. His book didn’t affect mine in the slightest. I don’t know what he wrote. I know that he wrote about the band a lot and my book ends before the band starts.
Still, the drugs began before the band started. Are you worried that despite your best efforts, the book will be seen as “Chili Peppers bassist writes teenage junkie memoir”?
I guess my hope is that in being honest and in not writing about the band like that it would be beyond that and people would have the sensitivity and the intellect to see that and read that and see that it’s really about taking pain and trauma from my childhood and turning it into art. Which is kind of what it’s really about, you know, making sense of my childhood, which will be unorthodox to many. But everybody has their own weird childhood, everybody’s got a story. So I just kind of feel like that was one of the reasons why I ended it where I ended it.
How has your drug career – I don’t know if it’s the right term …
That’s good enough.
How has it affected you now?
Well, now, at this point in my life, I feel like all that stuff is long cleaned out of my system. I stopped doing drugs 26 years ago. Through the years, there has been a joint here or there, and once or twice I’ve had a beer. But I literally stopped getting high or f---ed up when I was 30 and I’m now 56. Twenty-six years. The hard part was, when I stopped, I thought, “Okay, I’ve stopped and everything is great now. I don’t do drugs. I’m healthy.” But I kind of collapsed afterwards. I got really sick for three years. It was scary because I just felt like shit all the time. But I got through it. I think the drugs really messed with my nervous system. They stopped me from growing up and learning about, like, restraint and thoughtfulness and being able to focus and concentrate on something for a long period of time … When you do drugs when you’re a kid, it f---s with you and retards the growing-up process. When I was writing about shooting up cocaine, I was like, “What were we thinking? What the f--- was I thinking doing this?” It was so ridiculous.
Were your editors worried those sections were a little too instructional?
I did think about that but if someone’s going to do something that stupid they’re going to do it whether I write that shit or not. I worried about it a little bit and I looked online ... I’d search “how to shoot up drugs” and every health website in the world has explicit directions on how to do it because they want people to not hurt themselves and get diseases.
The book paints a picture of you as a curious mix of musical overachiever – you were conducting your high-school orchestra at a young age – and wild child.
I think that’s kind of true. I had this obsessiveness with being as great as I can at playing. But I was running around on the street, partying and getting high, getting into trouble, playing basketball, doing all these other things. But I think it’s sort of the perfect marriage to be good in a rock situation, where there’s the street life and the stuff that comes into that, along with the love of music and taking being a good musician seriously, or at least knowing what it takes to be a good musician.
Any regrets you didn’t become that great jazz trumpeter rather than a great rock bassist?
Well, thank you for the compliment. I don’t know if regret is the word. I still yearn and hope to one day be a great jazz trumpet player, and it is something I kind of talked about in my book … I wanted to be Dizzy Gillespie when I grew up. It’s a part of me that I had planned on really working on and developing that I didn’t. And I’m saying that right now while I’m looking at this most beautiful portrait of Miles Davis and another one of Louis Armstrong on the wall in front me. That didn’t happen but there’s a lot of time left.
Acid for the Children: A Memoir (Headline) is out now.
This article was first published in the January 25, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.