Decay Becomes Him
His upper teeth are nearly gone now; they have been replaced by tiny slivers of off-white that peek through rotten gums.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.
"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.
"This is not the tape of my new record," he explains. "This is a tape of the things that are on my new record, but not all of the things are on the record. It's got a lot of things that aren't on the record, but the things I'm gonna play you are on my new record."
He hits play and turns up the volume, and the room fills with a song that sounds as though it has been lifted from an old Sergio Leone spaghetti Western; it's beautiful and eerie, feedback and restrained frenzy, lyrics slinking in between the off-kilter melody. "Kill your mama, kill your daddy," goes one particularly memorable phrase. The song is followed by an instrumental that seems to turn in on itself -- a solo reverie filled out by backward tracks and other ethereal effects. It's haunting music, quite literally the unexpurgated sounds of Frusciante's demons come to life, an unedited electronic reproduction of the sounds inside his head.
As he listens to his music, Frusciante seems once more tangled inside the notes. He closes his eyes and seems to nod off, letting yet another freshly lit cigarette burn to its end and deposit its ashes all over him. But when the songs end, he snaps to life again.
"Heroin emphasizes whatever you are," Frusciante explains. "Like, if you want to record music, it'll help you concentrate on that more, but if you want to lie in bed and not do anything, it'll help you do that better. It helps you do anything better you want to do. At least for me, not for other people. A lot of people -- close friends of mine who are clean, and I'm glad they're clean -- they know that when I'm clean I lose the sparkle in my eye, I lose my personality, I'm not happy, I'm kinda empty. My head works differently than most people, so consequently drugs affect me differently."
Frusciante insists that he wants to get on a stage again -- the last time he performed was at L.A.'s Viper Room the night his closest friend and champion and protector, River Phoenix, died outside its doors -- and that he wants to assemble a real band to perform his pop songs, the ones that go verse-chorus-verse instead of just verse. And he still would like to release tapes of the Three Amoebas jam sessions he recorded with Flea and Porno for Pyros drummer Stephen Perkins years ago. Katznelson says he'll try to help Frusciante get his music out there, book a few gigs, make him some money so he doesn't keep getting kicked out of home and hotel. But he realizes it isn't going to be easy: There are never any guarantees with a man who's slowly committing suicide while no one does anything to stop him.
"A lot of artists have their own demons, and he's one of them," Katznelson says. "If I made judgments on people because of their lifestyles, I wouldn't work with anyone. I work with a lot of artists who have problems -- illegal substances or personal demons -- but one is just as problematic as the other."
In the end, Frusciante is just another gifted musician who plunges a needle into his arm every few hours -- between playing and painting, between reading and writing, between preparing a new CD and finding a new home, between living and dying. Since Phoenix's death, most of Frusciante's other close friends have abandoned him, sometimes after trying to intervene and save his life; they're too tired of watching him decay in front of them, too sick of watching him unapologetically kill himself. He knows they don't like being around him, but he doesn't give a fuck.
"They're afraid of death, but I'm not," he says. "I don't care whether I live or die.
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