With record/disc/hardcopy sales no longer a major source of income for most musicians, a staggering amount have gone down the memoir/autobiography route (the streaming docudrama being the other popular form). Some are alright, most are below average. Very few are a little more than good.
Flea’s fellow Red Hot Chili Pepper Athony Keidis beat him by 15 years with the revealing and extremely “Scar Tissue.” Like many who grew up with the band in real time (i.e. started seeing them in clubs not arenas), count me among those who aren’t interested in RHCP much anymore. (If guitarist John Frusciante is involved I’m all in, if he isn’t…. well…).
Flea, born Michael Peter Balzary in 1962, seems hyper-aware of today’s landscape and wisely plays his memoir from his own birth until the formation of the band in 1983. The birth of the Red Hot Chili Peppers is where “Acid for the Children” ends. It opens with a poem by high punk priestess Patti Smith that reads in part:
“Providence assigned him an instrument
That in his hands formed a spectral voice
A color wheel spinning out of control
Then returning, as a boomerang returns
To its burning center, its creative heart”
Wow. That is pretty difficult language to compete with — and it is simply part of an opening verse by an outside author.
Wisely, Flea doesn’t try to compete with Patti, per se. Smith wrote arguably the best rock and roll book of the past decade with “Just Kids,” which documented — and focussed solely on — her relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe.
Like “Just Kids,” “Acid for the Children” is a love story. Mainly between Flea and Keidis; ,and, to a lesser extent, with the late guitarist Hillel Slovak. By sticking within a place and time, and the relations of a small group of people, “Acid For the Children” invites the idea of subsequent volumes (a la Smith).
Here is the rough biographical material. Flea and sister Karyn were born in Australia, raised in Rye, N.Y., before the family eventually settled in Los Angeles with Flea’s abusive but nurturing step-father Walter Urban, a jazz bassist who ultimately had more to do with the young musician’s evolution, which began with trumpet before switching the four-string bass guitar, which Flea all but reinvented for the alternative rock era, than anyone.
Jazz and punk fit Balzary’s writing style, as well. Prone to quick bursts of manic poetry/prose, the author doesn’t stick to a single thought for very long before jumping to the next. Like his nimble bass work, it moves fast but is still highly effective. It’s a style whose antecedents were both Beat and jazz writing.
Before publication this book, Flea posted to Instagram stating: “It’s my great hope that it could be a book that could live beyond being a celebrity book or a rock star book and just stand on its own as a piece of literature.”
Ouch. You had me until the word “literature.” Aside from Dylan, the late Robert Hunter and Smith’s “Just Kids” neither rock books nor lyrics hardly ever classify as literature. But throw that grievance aside and Flea makes a valid point. What Flea (and hence his autobiography) has in abundance is both heart and enthusiasm — and a pride in being not in step even in bohemian Southern California.
“I was completely out of touch with the pop culture other kids shared. A girl sitting next to me in social studies class had written on her notebook the word ‘STYX’ in large ornate lettering, so when no one was around I wrote the same on the front of my notebook in a lame attempt to be a part of” he writes.” I had no idea what it meant. Ha.” Such embarrassing honesty is one of the many traits that have made Flea so likeable throughout his career.
While he wasn’t schooled in the corporate rock of STYX, he was completely versed in jazz thanks to his tenuous relationship with stepdad Walter. He talks Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford Brown and Arthur Blythe with the same affection as the Germs, X and FEAR.
“I knew there was something important in that punk rock, bit I liked the great musicians in Weather Report, Rush, and Led Zep,” Flea expounds.
Such enthusiasm propels the book but sometimes gets caught in its own energy. The following is a complete chapter:
“My god, they invented the Sony fucking Walkman! Can you imagine holy fuck! Of how we fucking marveled! After you smoke a spliff, you walk to Tree’s house for a bowl of beans, put on the headphones, and trip down the street blasting Coltrane into the center of your fucking brain! We couldn’t fucking believe it.”
Um, okay, I guess.
Surprisingly, Anthony Kiedis isn’t introduced until the reader is 160 pages into a 380 page book.. His deep love for the singer automatically manifests itself. “On this ride together, the energy that keeps us together is bigger than we understand,” Flea writes. “No matter the discomfort, there’s no use fighting it. This is our magic carpet ride and burden to bear. Yin and yang, light and dark, beginning and end. In perfection. I’ve had to learn faith, honesty and forthrightness to survive it, for until the universe decides to change it up, this is our lives. It’s not a matter of career, money, love or even history. There are no questions or explanations. It is what nature has done.”
A little later, and less cosmically, Flea states: “He went hard and challenged the external world. I went hard the other way, slipping deeper into an interior world. Two sides of the same coin.”
The same can be said when it came to their drug use. Despite living a completely misspent and deprived youth, Flea came out the other side rather unscathed. A rarity indeed. This is probably the right moment to compare with Kiedis’ “Scar Tissue” to see how the addictive/non-addictive genes and personalities diverge. Here, there’s a 12-page user’s manual of sorts devoted to the ritual of shooting coke/speed/heroin that doesn’t really fit with the overall tone of everything else Flea is trying to convey.
Let’s allow the author to handle this topic. “For clarity’s sake, I’ve never been a drug addict,” he writes. “A wildly out of control and misguided experimenter, yes. I thought there was something to find there, but those drugs play tricks on your brain, toying with your chemicals, your serotonin, dopamine and shit, making you think something meaningful is happening. It’s all bullshit. There is no romance there, there is nothing. Experiments that yielded sadness, neurosis, and physical damage.”
Hillel Slovak is the tragedy that backs up that sentiment and his demise the only point in the book where Flea breaks the timeline. The original RHCP were Flea, Kiedis, guitarist Slovak and drummer Jack Irons. Slovak died of a heroin overdose in 1988 between “The Uplift Mofo Party Plan” and “Mother’s Milk” albums. Some of the most emotionally raw and poignant writing comes from the three pages of the fever-dream poetry that attempts at reconciling the loss from a few angles (including framing it in the good-time atmosphere of a Mike Tyson fight).
But “Acid For the Children” has ended years before Slovak’s death, well before the Red Hot Chili Peppers would become one of the most important bands in rock’s unruly history. Should it be his wont, Michael Balzary probably a few more collections of scattered snapshots in him. I think a good number of us will be expecting them.