John Frusciante: A Defense…

What interests me most about John Frusciante’s music is that there is absolutely no good reason for me to like it as much as I do. In fact, my affection for all things Frusciante is a source of ongoing amusement to my friends. And my efforts to bring them into the fold with artfully composed “greatest hits” CDs have failed miserably. No matter how passionate or poetic my defense, they simply do not see it. That, or they cannot see around their nineteen-year-old selves, the ones who loved the Red Hot Chili Peppers; something few self-respecting thirty and forty-somethings would admit to in 2009. And so the fact that amongst my peers I am basically alone in my near-fanatical devotion has made manifest the need for me to understand this inexplicable attraction.

It must be stated that with the exception of an intense affair with Of Montreal’s Hissing Fauna, Are you the Destroyer? in the summer of 2008, and my recent obsession with all things WFMU, I have spent most of the last two years listening to Frusciante’s nine solo albums, and the news last January that he was about to release his long-awaited tenth album sent me into paroxysms of delight. This despite the fact that like my aforementioned comrades, I cannot stand the Red Hot Chili Peppers. In fact, though I am disinclined to use the word hate in any context, it seems the best word to convey the degree to which I dislike this band.

But it was not always this way.

Like many of my generation – those of us unfortunate enough to have come of age in the 1980s – I dug the Red Hot Chili Peppers (or RHCP, as their fans are wont to call them). Around that time, my friend – and drummer of the long-defunct, but totally awesome band, The Ted Clark Five – had been granted the opening slot when RHCP played Calgary, and put me on the guest list. If memory serves, there were only about twenty of us in the crowd that night. Hillel Slovak was on guitar, and Anthony Kiedis was doing his thing. Though I remember little else, I clearly recall thinking Kiedis was the most exciting thing I had ever seen. This too seems impossible today, but I was 17, and had spent my formative years in the suburbs.

In 1990, I saw RHCP again at the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver, an excellent venue as its floor, designed for ballroom dancers, allowed the audience to bounce in unison to Flea’s funky bass. Something my nineteen-year-old self thought was incredibly cool. This was during the Mother’s Milk tour, so I know that Frusciante was on stage that night. But he was invisible to me, lost behind the bobbing heads and Kiedis’ then-flowing locks. I could not know that fifteen years later, these experiences would play a critical role in my rediscovery of Frusciante.

The internet is rife with biographies of Frusciante. Culled from the same data, they construct a narrative of mythic proportions, traversing the quick rise, tragic fall, and almost literal rebirth of a man who will only be celebrating his 39th birthday in March.

In short, Frusciante was born in Queens to musical parents who nurtured his passion for the guitar. After their divorce, he moved to California with his mom, and by fifteen had dropped out of school and moved to Los Angeles to pursue his dream of becoming a rock star. Drawn to the thriving punk scene, he hung around the clubs, chatted up musicians, played guitar, and grew accustomed to the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. By all accounts, one of his favorite bands during this period was RHCP. Having internalized Slovak’s guitar stylings, Frusciante was an obvious choice when Flea and Kiedis sought to replace Slovak after his overdose in 1988.

Frusciante joined the band on the eve of their first mainstream success, and soon soured on the very same lifestyle that he had dreamed of – embracing the drugs and alcohol, but shunning the requisite demands of the label and media. At odds with his bandmates’ desire to be in the spotlight, he quit and went into seclusion, spending the next five years in a downward spiral of heroin addiction that saw him shockingly close to death on several occasions, as videotape from that time will attest to. And though there is much to say about this era, for now it is sufficient to note that he did not die, but instead went cold turkey, kicking heroin, and the following year, his other lingering addictions. None of this, however, was known to me on that winter afternoon when I first heard his music.

In addition to my various freelance gigs, I am also a college professor. A few years ago, in an attempt to gain some street cred with my all-male class, I jumped into a conversation about an upcoming RHCP concert. There was much excitement in the air, which surprised me, as I had forgotten about the band sometime in the early 90s, and assumed that everyone else pretty much felt the same way.

“You like RHCP, miss?” said one.

“No!” I declared emphatically, “I hate—I mean…I really dislike that band.”

They were unimpressed, and though I really should have just walked away, I persisted.

“But… you might be interested to know that I saw the original line-up in a small club in the 80s.”

They were.

Shortly thereafter, one of the aforementioned students decided that my dislike of RHCP was completely unacceptable and so set about on a project to convince me otherwise. His strategy: one John Frusciante CD a day, for nine days. I was implored to listen to them in their entirety, an activity he felt sure would function as a sort of gateway drug, allowing me to return to the bosom of Kiedis and bros, ever-thankful to said student for providing the key. Fortuitously, as it turned out, the semester was over, and so as I sat down to mark the plethora of papers that greet me every December, I plugged in my headphones and popped in the first CD: Shadows Collide With People.

Here are the first five things that I liked about John Frusciante:

He sings with a pronounced lisp, a physical impediment that I later discovered is attributable to an infection that required the removal of most of his teeth.

He is friends with Vincent Gallo, the person I most admire for being exactly the type of person who I would never admire: pretentious, self-congratulatory, seemingly unhinged.

His songs are quite shockingly beautiful and affecting: so full of pain, and revulsion, and regret, but also hope, and the desire to break through the bullshit of life to something more beautiful; a sentiment that drives the caterwauling that characterizes much of his mid-addiction recordings, but resonates in all his work.

His voice feels like the aural equivalent of Super 8 film – all rich textures, saturated colours, and course grains. It’s the kind of voice that you can feel on your skin.


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