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Decay Becomes Him

Ex-Chili Pepper John Frusciante sleepwalks through a rock and roll nightmare

His upper teeth are nearly gone now; they have been replaced by tiny slivers of off-white that peek through rotten gums.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.

There had been rumors passing through the Hollywood rock world -- stories no one denied, mostly because they didn't much care any more. There were whispers about how he was holed up in his Hollywood Hills home, a place few dared to tread because of the stench; it was the smell of death, a few people mumbled, or more likely just the smell of feces and urine collected over weeks and months. There were stories of a former superstar rock band's guitarist who now sees little of the outside world, who stays in his house to read and write and paint and play guitar. And shoot up.

But they're not just rumors. John Frusciante is living the cliche -- the rock star holed up at the Chateau Marmont, where bigger names than him have checked in to check out. Four years ago, Frusciante was in one of rock's most popular acts, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He was the band's guitarist just as the group was climbing up from the college-radio ranks and into the arenas. Now he's a transient in his Chateau hideaway. The living room of his suite is filled only with dozens of CDs (from Bowie to Devo to his favorites, King Crimson and Nirvana) scattered on the floor, bottles of mineral water, cigarettes, journals and alcohol-soaked sterile pads.

On this night, Frusciante was holed up in the Chateau Marmont because he had been kicked out of his Hollywood Hills home for not paying the rent. After this interview, he was booted out of the Chateau. Then he was kicked out of the Mondrian. As of a short while ago, a business acquaintance who until recently spoke to Frusciante every day said he hadn't heard from the man for more than a week. When that happens, some people shrug: Well, maybe he's dead.

It is Frusciante who first mentions his heroin use -- five minutes into the interview, no less -- yet at the end of an exhausting night of conversation he also asks that the details of his life as a junkie be veiled; he explains that he doesn't want the cops fucking with him and that any article describing his hobbies might bring heat down on him. But that's unlikely, and a quick glance at his fragile, decaying figure reveals the sad truth his silence could never hide anyway. He looks 20 years older than he did during his Peppers days, and his voice now is harsh and slurred. He doesn't eat food, instead gulping canned high-calorie formula normally consumed by the elderly and invalids. He likes the way his body appears -- a skeleton covered in thin skin -- because that's how David Bowie looked in The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Frusciante says he almost died in February; he explains his body had "a twelfth of the blood it's supposed to have, and that blood was infected. My body wasn't making any new red blood cells." So he quit the drugs for a few months and, as much as he could, cleaned up. But the world didn't look right to him through dead-sober eyes, didn't feel right to him through numb hands. The spirits didn't visit, the ghosts didn't talk to him. The door heroin opened for him had been shut, and he would again force it open, even if it killed him.

When Frusciante joined the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1988, he was touted as a clean young thing -- a fresh-faced 17-year-old Southern California kid who would stand in direct contrast to original Peppers guitarist Hillel Slovak, who died in June of that year of a heroin overdose. Frusciante came aboard just in time to record Mother's Milk, which contained the minor hit "Knock Me Down," an anti-smack song about Slovak ("If you see me gettin' high, knock me down") that would now seem hilariously ironic if it weren't so pathetic in retrospect. After all, lead singer Anthony Kiedis himself just got off junk after years of claiming he was clean; bassist Flea was a user; and current guitarist Dave Navarro is a former junkie. The needle and the damage done, indeed.

Frusciante quit the Peppers in 1992 after spending a year on the road with the band -- a year of watching the crowds multiply with almost every gig. Frusciante had come to hate the fans who sang along with every word and danced to every song; he couldn't understand the connection between artist and audience, and he came to loathe the people who were cheering and adoring him without knowing him. And musically he felt stifled by the tight structures of the songs and the way the band was expected to perform the hits exactly as they had been recorded. Frusciante had been straitjacketed by expectations, stifled as a musician, cut off from the ghosts that wanted him to play their music.

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