The Problem with Being A Fan

I’m supposed to be reading The Secret Agent by Sir Robert Conrad. This book is about a supposed anarchist-cum-terrorist who botches his targeted explosion because he gives his bomb to his autistic brother-in-law who kills himself, possibly to save others, a theme I have yet to read about anywhere else. And I know you’re thinking this can’t possibly be relevant to the image to your left here and what could an early 20th Century Novel not really about politics, anarchism or terrorism have to do with The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and why are you even writing about THAT album, but it’s important.

In 1991 I entered High School in the Northern Virginia Suburb of Herndon. That summer, thanks in part to Perry Ferrell, I discovered Black Flag and turned down a long and dangerous path of punk rock idiocy. Three weeks after I entered into the most terrifying institution I could imagine, my favorite band The Red Hot Chili Peppers, released the epic (and I do mean epic) album Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Not until 1993, when Fugazi released In On the Kill Taker did I really consider any other albums. Oh sure I was introduced to King Missile, The Dead Milkmen, Blur, The Butthole Surfers and a plethora of other awesome and weird bands, but nothing held my attention like Blood Sugar Sex Magik. When John quit the band in May of 1992, right around my 15th birthday, I was devastated. That single act on his part is still, to this day, unforgivable to me. A person with that much natural talent should have the damn decency to keep his shit together and realize he was in the most magical band that ever walked the planet. The point of this is that Blood Sugar Sex Magik came at a pivotal part of my life and largely got me through a lot of odd times. I shed old friends and gained new ones, found there is a pecking order and hierarchy in life and it’s bullshit and marginalizes everyone,  and that any descent from the norm is treason. You can call this band mediocre and radio rock and bullshit, and to some extent I will agree with you, but these tattooed, free wheeling, hyper-sexualized, physically sexy and utterly talented four men were all I aspired to be. Some of that is true even today.

Currently, I am living in a new state, at 34, totally unemployed and thus unencumbered by adulthood and once again finding myself inside the halls of institutionalized learning. There are differences of course. I know a lot more now and I am a lot more confident at 34 then I was at 14 and I have a clearer, more detailed view in how the world works. Largely my suspicions of my youth have been confirmed. But, I’m still anxious as hell, feel out-of-place and wonder if this is all just one big joke being played on me. And somehow, the Red Hot Chili Peppers are still there for me. And it’s partly the same, and partly different. I did drive to school this morning, I’m With You emitting from my speakers as the cloud of slumber slowly relinquished from my head. The spirit of the music I loved 20 years ago is still there, somewhat, and it helped me to be a bit more confident and sure of myself. Chad Smith’s steady, solid drumming is like the foundation of each step I take (even hindered by crutches), putting the world beneath my feet. Anthony Keidis’s imperfect voice and vocals are childlike and playful (most of the time) and makes my heart sing. And what can be said of the flowing, freaky bass lines of Flea. They enter a sphere all of their own, giving me swagger and sway. It’s so familiar to me, like an extension of myself. But obviously all is not the same.

I am a fan of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I refused to endure the negative when One Hot Minute came out (the album is horrible, by any standards) and embraced it fully. I still accept that bastard step child. I lived through the jockish Californication which was the return of John and somewhat of a return to form. I celebrated and loved the mostly amazing By The Way  and am angry to think that Flea almost quit because he felt understated on this record (I won’t forgive him for that either). I even braved the sloppy, useless double album Stadium Arcadium seeing the band for only the second time on that tour. That concert by the way, even amongst 25k other people from 100 yards away from the stage played directly into my heart. Seeing John Frusciante even from that distance is one of the singular most important moments of my life. Other people celebrate their marriages or the mediocre, redundant births of their idiotic and unentertaining children. For me, it was seeing a rock god tear apart every aspect of my being in what was essentially a concrete bunker. There is nothing magical about the “wonders of childbirth” and nothing remotely important about “the unity of family”. I love my parents, they did amazing and great things for me. But John Frusciante bending steel against wood and smashing his finger tips on that fret board were all I needed to sustain me for the rest of my life. Pathetic, I am sure. But my values clearly differ from those of the rest of so-called “normal society” so if you are offended, good. I don’t like you any way.

The problem with being a Red Hot Chili Peppers fan is having to defend this band. They have drifted their feet into the wadding pool of mediocrity. After Stadium Arcadium I can’t even blame or be mad at John for leaving the band. I would have left while that monstrous disaster was in process. But even still, I don’t care. I can’t really defend most of their career, their actions or their behavior. I have been a fan of this band since I was 11 years old. They lip synced “Me and My Friends” on a TV show that was shot at Paradise Bowling. Dead Kennedy’s DH Peligro played drums and it might have been John’s first appearance with the band in public. All I remember was they had tattoo’s, mohawks and wore dresses and it was the most amazing moment of my life up to that point. There was clearly a marked difference in my appearance and attitude at that point. So, seriously, how can I objectively defend this band when they are so central to who I am now. I submit this, to you dear reader, the following. All of us start out star struck. No one comes from a singular point of DIY ethics and coolness. We’re dorks before we’re hipster dorks, running around in ill-fitting jeans and stupid Keds shoes. And we don’t get to pick the moment that alters our state of consciousness into an awakened state. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, for better or worse, did that for me. And as far as I am concerned, it was for the better.

So here I am, almost 25 years into my love affair with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, a new album and another new guitar player at the helm. What do we do with this? How do we even feel about this? Is the three days I’ve spent, relentlessly listening to this album even enough time to unpack everything and anything about this? Is it even fair to my love of this band or the love I still feel from them. Because I do feel like they care. As soft as they may have gotten, nothing about the relationship between Flea and Anthony indicates anything but love. It’s an abusive, fucked up relationship (if you haven’t read Scar Tissue you should. I mean it breaks down like this I grew up. I did Heroin. I got clean. I did heroin. Someone Died. I got clean. I did Heroin. and so on and so on. But it’s still telling) but it’s a relationship of great love. And I still feel that love when I hear this band. Yes, they wrote “Sir Psycho Sexy” which is totally sexist and borderline appalling. But if you can listen to “Lovely Man” and not get choked up then your soul is more black and cold and empty than mine.

Photo By Clara Balzary (Flea's now adult daughter)

Where to begin (is it even worth it) with I’m With You, their first new offering in five years? Well, “Monarchy of Roses” and “Brendan’s Death Song” are some of the best songs that this band has ever written and “Dance, Dance, Dance” while not perfect is the strongest closer on any Red Hot Chili Pepper’s album in their nearly 30 year career. And while I suspected that they would lean on Josh Klinghoffer, who is younger than I am, to reignite this band, instead Flea once again takes center stage as the principle, a role he hasn’t really had since Mother’s Milk. This is partly problematic, because as a bass player, there is no one better (except for Mike Watt, whom Blood Sugar Sex Magik was dedicated to). Seriously. But he’s not the strongest song writer. Here is where John’s talents, not just a great guitarist, but as a great arranger and song writer are missing. Josh is a natural fit for the sound and the feeling he imprints is seamless, even though he is quite a different musician than John. But the songs are meandering, lacking focus and punch. After the fourth song, the slow but solid “Ethiopia” I’m With You loses it’s footing. There are some great, funky, hard-hitting parts, some even reminiscent to some of the best and earliest work, like the bridge on “Look Around”. This smooth, sinister break could have easily fit perfectly on Freaky Styley and it makes my heart warm. But even lead single “The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie” starts off strong, funky and beautiful and diverts into something radio friendly and less fresh. The lyrics, as I am reading now, just make me want to cry, because they are cringe worthy. The song never gets off the ground, feeling older than I think even Josh should have allowed.

Other moments of music are sweet and sugary. Josh, much like his predecessor (and some would argue mentor) John has an innocence in his approach to the guitar, which is so necessary for a virtuoso. Further, his vocals, whether a part of the background offering support, or giving a punch to a song (such as on “Did I Let You Know”) are just stunning and beautiful. It’s could be suspected that John foresaw his second departure  sooner than he let on and groomed Josh to take his place. This is a service I think that both the Chili Peppers and their fans should be thankful for. For Josh does interject that much-needed young blood at such necessary points on this new album, making at least a worthy if wobbly entry into the canon.

What I think this album could have used was some more new blood. Because more than anything, I think Rick Rubin is mostly at fault here. It’s true, I believe at the time of Blood Sugar Sex Magik he was the perfect spirit to inject this band with some far out shit while simultaneously holding on to the reigns. But Rubin has just become another icon of the dinosaur music industry he once brought to its knees with the likes of Slayer and LL Cool J. And I think his inattentiveness to this project (and just about everything else he’s worked on in the last ten years) is beyond apparent. The Red Hot Chili Peppers are soulful, talented and amazing. But they lack focus, clearly, and this is where the role of the producer is so important in rock. Without John’s strong sense of arrangement, the Red Hot Chili Peppers suffer from their own abstract nature, now allowed to wander around their own landscape, without actually taking a good hard look at the aesthetics of their garden.

I’m not sure if, ultimately the problem is me or them. After all, when Blood Sugar Sex Magik came out, I didn’t even read record reviews, let alone obsess for  thousands of words in print about albums. My love for the Red Hot Chili Peppers was pure and unencumbered with many confusing years about ethics in music production, DIY attitudes and fuck all punk rock. Even at the height of my punk rock posturing, I made room for the Peppers, unforgivingly so. But at a certain point, love stopped being enough and I wanted more. Granted, there is more on I’m With You that touches my heart then anything they’ve done since By The Way, which is nearly ten years old already. But I still feel distanced, if only slightly. But is it my over critical, sarcastic, pessimism that created that small scratch? Or am I being too forgiving? I’m sure almost everyone who reads this would say so. After all this is The Red Hot Chili Peppers, one of the most popular, recognized bands on the entire planet. To many, they define what is wrong with major labels and the music industry. People find them overplayed, mediocre and bland. And maybe my love blinds me from this slightly. But they mean so much to me. I trace my personal history, not just in terms of my musical aesthetics, but my own personal identity back to that moment when I saw them as a youth, because that was when my awareness for all things occurred.

There is ultimately no solution to this for a die-hard fan. They are my first, one and true great love. I am a dedicated fan, through the good and the bad, no matter what fetid garbage the naysayers hurl at me. I will stand by this band until the end (which to you probably seems like it will never happen) believing that nothing better can ever happen to a person than this music. Which, rationally, I know is not the case. But just don’t argue with me. I don’t want the bubble to burst.

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