On June 27, 1988, Red Hot Chili Peppers founding guitarist Hillel Slovak was found dead in his Hollywood apartment. Investigators later determined that Slovak died from a heroin overdose two days prior. The guitarist and his bandmate Anthony Kiedis had battled heroin addiction for years, but they made a joint effort to stay clean during a European tour earlier that year. When the band returned to the United States, Slovak started using again.
The news rocked the band to its core, so much that founding drummer Jack Irons suffered severe depression and left the group. With Kiedis and Flea (real name Michael Balzary) left to pick up the pieces, the band decided to press on. That’s when longtime fan and guitar prodigy John Frusciante entered the mix.
Frusciante had no prior band experience under his belt at the time. However, the kid had the necessary guitar licks to compete, and he was even auditioning for guitar gigs in other bands, most notably for Frank Zappa. But Frusciante opted for the Chili Peppers because the band would let him “be a rock star, do drugs and get girls,” while Zappa’s outfit strictly banned such behavior.
Yet, the most important thing was creative chemistry. When Frusciante first jammed with Flea, both immediately realized that they shared a significant musical connection:
”Flea and I had it the first time we played together,” says Frusciante, who was only eighteen and an ardent Chili Peppers fan with no prior band experience when he joined the band in 1988. ”There was something there. But we developed it. Flea once read something [jazz drummer] Elvin Jones said about having chemistry with somebody: ‘You gotta be willing to die for a motherf*cker.'”
Kiedis and Flea quickly decided to invite Frusciante into the band. When the latter called the young guitarist with the news, he took it calmly at first. But as soon as the call was over, Frusciante ran around his house screaming in celebration and left a few permanent boot marks in the walls.
“I Was Confused”
With the addition of Frusciante and drummer Chad Smith, the recovered band enjoyed its first mainstream success on major radio stations and music charts with 1989’s Mother’s Milk, and their 1991 follow-up, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, went on to sell more than seven million copies, thanks in part to their decision to embark on an massive international tour to support the album.
The still-young Frusciante was caught off guard by the band’s newfound international fame, however, and he didn’t know what to do:
It was too high, too far, too soon. Everything happened or better everything seemed to be happening at once and I just couldn’t cope with it. (Via NY Rock)
Frusciante’s fandom for the Chili Peppers began when Kiedis, Flea, Slovak, and Irons were the biggest local act in the Hollywood club scene. Back then, the shows were so intimate, “The audience [felt] no different from the band at all.” But now they were touring big arenas, and Frusciante thought the intimacy her cherished was gone forever.
After months of increasing tensions between Frusciante and the other members of the band, things finally came to a head in Tokyo before a sold-out stadium show. He felt that Kiedis and the others were “no longer talking” to him, so the guitarist promptly quit the band and refused to take the stage. Kiedis, Flea, and Smith talked Frusciante into playing the show, but he was gone the next day.
Fornicating Yet Again
Shortly after his departure, Frusciante became depressed and actively embraced drugs to cope. He barricaded himself in his Hollywood apartment, occasionally writing new music, recording tracks, and painting. But all of his independent creativity quickly came to an end as his drug use increased exponentially.
The effects of Frusciante’s dueling depression and addiction were physically visible, both in his appearance and in his dilapidated home. Around the time friends finally convinced the guitarist to enter rehab in late 1996, New Times opened an interview with a horrifyingly accurate description:
His upper teeth are nearly gone now; they have been replaced by tiny slivers of off-white that peek through rotten gums. His lower teeth, thin and brown, appear ready to fall out if he so much as coughs too hard. His lips are pale and dry, coated with spit so thick it looks like paste. His hair is shorn to the skull; his fingernails, or the spaces where they used to be, are blackened by blood. His feet and ankles and legs are pocked with burns from unfiltered Camel cigarette ashes that have fallen unnoticed; his flesh also bears bruises, scabs and scars. He wears an old flannel shirt, only partially buttoned, and khaki pants. Drops of dried blood dot the pants.
After he successfully completed rehab, Frusciante and Flea reconnected in 1998. That’s when the Chili Peppers decided to invite him to rejoin the band, which was on the verge of collapse after firing guitarist Dave Navarro. Frusciante happily agreed, and the foursome quickly got to work on writing and recording a new album, Californication.
Released in 1999, the album signaled the band’s triumphant return, a welcome sign for many old friends and newly-minted listeners. When asked if Frusciante’s return and Californication‘s success were “a second chance,” Flea agreed wholeheartedly:
The old magic is back. Everything is possible and that’s a great feeling. We’ve grown as people and musicians. So, the music is different. It’s a different time, but it’s still great, even better than it was.
“No Choice Involved“
Californication sold more than five million copies in the United States, cementing the band’s triumphant return with Frusciante at the helm. By the Way and Stadium Arcadium soon followed, all while the maturing guitarist continued writing and recording for his own solo efforts, side projects, and film soundtracks.
It seemed like things were going well for Frusciante and the band in the decade following his return, but in early December 2009, rumors swirled that the guitarist had quit the band a second time. The news was later confirmed by Frusciante and Rolling Stone a week later:
“I really love the band and what we did,” Frusciante writes, adding that there was no drama or anger involved in his decision to leave. “Over the last 12 years, I have changed, as a person and artist, to such a degree that to do further work along the lines I did with the band would be to go against my own nature. There was no choice involved in this decision. I simply have to be what I am, and have to do what I must do.”
No drugs. No feelings of ill will or confusion regarding the band’s international fame. Frusciante decided that it was time to leave the group in order to compose music that didn’t “go against” his nature. His friend and Chili Peppers touring member Josh Klinghoffer took his place as the band’s new guitarist.
Today, Frusciante enjoys a successful career as a solo musician, frequent collaborator, and member of the newly-formed Kimono Kult. In 2012, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the other former and current members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He declined to attend the event, but not because of any hard feelings between him, Kiedis, Flea, Smith, or Klinghoffer.