Decay Becomes Him

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

"The first couple of years I was in the Chili Peppers, I don't consider myself a very good guitarist by my own standards," he says now. "I don't feel like I was 100 percent taking the feelings and colors in my head and adequately transferring them to the guitar and into the world where they became something concrete instead of just a feeling that floats through outer space. But then I became as good at that as a person could be, and every night when I would play, I would play different solos and different guitar parts. I just had a good relationship with the spirits and with the ghosts and with the colors in outer space."

When he returned to L.A., Frusciante sat on his couch for nearly a year, depressed, alone and unable to function. He wondered whether he had made the right decision in quitting the band, or in joining it in the first place; he was convinced he was pissing away his talent. He had only experimented with drugs, smoked pot "every day when I was 20," and says he first shot heroin right after the recording of 1991's breakthrough Blood Sugar Sex Magik and then dallied with the drug on and off again. But he finally became a junkie as a final salvation, and in time he again started writing in his journals, painting and recording. Now he can't be without his needles or his guitars; three guitars are scattered on the floor of his Chateau suite, and he often fondles the neck of one as he talks.

"I used to record every day," he explains. "It's good that I [record] at all now. When I quit the band, I couldn't read books, I couldn't look at art, I couldn't paint, I couldn't play guitar, I couldn't listen to music, I couldn't do anything but lay on the couch depressed, and then I became a junkie and came to life again and became happy and started playing music again. I just decided, 'I'm gonna become a junkie now,' and the next day I was just happy and better.

"Without [heroin] I have no control over what thoughts take over my brain. See, with this, I have control over what I want to think about, and when something comes into my head that is useless to think about, it won't take over. With heroin, I was able to all of a sudden have the power to get rid of those things that would pop up into my head and think about something else."

In the fall of 1994, Fruscianti released his first solo album on American Recordings, the label owned by Rick Rubin, who had produced Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Warner Bros. Records, the Peppers's label, had rights to the CD because of a leaving-artist clause in Frusciante's Chili Peppers contract. But because he was living as a recluse who refused to do many interviews, the label happily handed the CD over to Rubin, who finally released it at the insistence of River Phoenix, Butthole Surfers frontman Gibby Haynes and Johnny Depp.

In the end, Frusciante's solo release, Niandra Lades and Usually Just a T-Shirt, sold about 15,000 copies -- a tiny number compared to the six million the Peppers moved of Blood Sugar. Niandra Lades is a bizarre and complicated effort, two dozen tracks that grow increasingly fragmented and frightening as the disc wears on; any Chili Peppers fans who listened to it expecting more punk-funk likely thought their stereos were broken.

Still, Frusciante expects to release another CD early in 1997, and David Katznelson, vice president of A&R at Warner Bros. Records, confirms he plans to put out Frusciante's tentatively titled Smile from the Streets You Hold sometime in the spring. The CD will be issued on Katznelson's own Burbank-based Birdman Records label (home to such avant favorites as Thee Headcoats and Omoide Hatoba), with Warner handling some of the distribution.

"This stuff isn't alien to me," Katznelson says of Frusciante's music. "[Rubin] and John had a great relationship, but I kept thinking about John and listening to [Niandra Lades], and there were a couple of songs on there that I thought were so inspired, and I thought that if we put out another record on an indie label it would get more focus than if it [were] put out on American or Warner or something with so many other records. So I called John, and he jumped at the chance."

"It was done at various times," Frusciante explains of his forthcoming release. One song even dates back a decade, to when he was 17 and just about to join the Peppers. "These are some of the best things I ever recorded."

He wants to play some of the new music, so he goes to his portable stereo to find a cassette of the unmixed songs. But as he's fumbling with the tape, forwarding and rewinding to just the right spot, he accidentally knocks the stereo off its milk-crate stand. "Motherfucker!" he howls, and he kicks a small pile of CDs across the room. Then, in a second or two, he is again calm and focused, his temper under control.

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