#286: Californication, Red Hot Chili Peppers
Shortly after the explosive success of Blood Sugar, prodigious guitarist John Frusciante decided that fame sucked and he would do drugs about it. He ended up leaving the band for One Hot Minute, briefly replaced with equally-legendary Dave Navarro of Jane’s Addiction. Sometimes the formula matters more than the individual parts, though: One Hot Minute did not sell well and it was not good. (Though that’s hardly Navarro’s fault, since Kiedis relapsed at around the same time.)
Then, hallelujah! Frusciante returned, saving the Chili Peppers and the world. I love the adorable Anthony Kiedis quote in the RS blurb: “[John] was knocking things over — it was absolutely chaotic, like a little kid trying to set up a Christmas tree.”
I was five when this was released, and even I remember these songs getting near constant radio play. As Billboard’s William Goodman said, “You couldn’t exist in American pop culture without hearing [this record’s] singles.” How many times did you hear the insanely singable “Otherside” in the early aughts? Or their bright ode to masochism, “Scar Tissue”? To say nothing of the poetic masterpiece “Californication,” which references Kurt Cobain and David Bowie in the same nonchalant line.
The music is great but part of the reason this record was such a smash hit was RHCP’s shrewd marketing campaign. After the tragedy at Columbine High School, the band played at a number of high school proms, in part to spread a message of “Stop The Hate” but also to sneakily reintroduce themselves to America’s youth. They even tried out something of a “viral” marketing campaign called Fleamail. This was 1999!
Blood Sugar is all about the delights of the flesh — doing drugs and having sex under a bridge, mainly. Californication is a much more spiritual album. Kiedis rap-scats us “Around The World” then takes us into a “Parallel Universe,” shrieking about psychic distress and elation in the same breath. Just like the Wu-Tang Clan, they take inspiration from the Shaolin monks on “Easily,” then makes them shake for the sake of their soul. And just like your brother’s roommate, they once took a mystical surfing journey and wrote a song called “Road Trippin’” about it.
With two members deeply affected by drug addiction, it’s a major theme here. Kiedis’ songwriting has become more cryptic and thoughtful, packing so much figurative language into each song that it’s hard for me not to include lengthy quotes from each one. But you still understand the situations he describes: the bouncy, fun side of drugs (“Right On Time”), the unbreakable bond of drug buddies (“This Velvet Glove”), and the all-too-real single mothers that fight this same disease (“Porcelain”). The only thing keeping it from being an incredibly dark, depressing record is the feeling that salvation is right around the corner. “Savior” shows Kiedis forgiving his drug dealing father, and grappling with the fact that his struggles have made him what he is.
The other thing that gets me about every single Chili record is that they all sound like they were recorded yesterday. They just sound so freaking young. Why is that? It’s not just Frusciante’s speedy little fingers or Kiedis’ clear-as-a-bell voice. (And it’s NOT green juice and exercise, no matter what Anthony Kiedis tells you.)
I personally think it’s nothing more or less than their joie de vivre. They just seem like they’re always having fun! They sound silly and sexual and energetic, even when they’re dead serious. “Get On Top,” “Emit Remmus,” and “Purple Stain” are just as explicit and absurd as Blood Sugar, because you can’t keep a straight face for a full fifty minutes.
RHCP is forever my favorite Simpsons cameo and I hope they never change.
Song With The Best Title: “I Like Dirt,” which I assume is an Earth Day song.