Flea thrives in beauty. Driven by the purest expression of empathy, the Chili Peppers’ iconic bassist is a beacon of humanity, but his lifelong journey of enlightenment has not been without its challenges.
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“Let me ask you: did you read the book?” This, pleasantries aside, is how Flea prefaces his interview after answering Clash’s call. He’s in Los Angeles – “glad and sad” to be home after a backpacking trip through the “power and the majesty of nature” in Yosemite National Park – but even after this restorative trip, he’s feeling a little disheartened. The previous caller, he sighs, hadn’t read it.
The book in question is Acid For The Children, the autobiography that Flea had always sworn he’d never write, which was finally published in early November. It recounts in brutally honest and sometimes graphic detail the tumultuous childhood of Michael Balzary – his beginnings in Australia, the family’s upheaval to New York, the strained relationships with his mother, father, then aggressive step-father, the unpredictable life of a street kid in LA, and all the drugs taken in between – and the artistic development of an endlessly curious creative mind that saw Michael eventually become Flea, the globally renowned master of the bass for Red Hot Chili Peppers, whose genesis only commences in the closing chapters.
Some days prior to our conversation, the publisher had emailed me a PDF of the full manuscript. Being such a huge and unashamed Chili Peppers fan, I tell him, I had read it cover to cover in about three hours.
“Great,” he responds, suddenly enthused.
“Let’s get into it!’
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Originally deeming memoirs to be “arrogant”, upon being convinced to embark on the telling of his story, Flea’s intentions to write a book centred around his band were quickly eclipsed by what instead began to instinctively flow from his subconscious, and it was soon clear that this was going to be a narrative that would dig deeper than first expected.
“Once I got going, and I started writing about my childhood,” he explains, “I just started finding a lot of meaning in there for me, and in my yearning to understand my childhood and what shaped me, and why did things happen – and not just the things that happened, but what was underneath the things that happened, what was pushing and pulling and tugging at me to make me be the way that I am and shape me, and that just became really interesting to me, so I wrote about it.”
The opportunity to relive that journey is – for any reader, but a Chili Peppers fan especially – the chance to explore the fertile DNA of a man who has committed himself so fully to music and improving the lives of others, and in turn, afforded the author a fresh perspective on what it is that motivates him to do so.
“One of the things that was a theme for me in my book, and in wanting to understand myself,” he says, “was like, ‘What is it that’s driven me? What drives me? Why have I always done what I’ve done?’ Like, say with the Chili Peppers: every time I step on stage with the Chili Peppers I give every fucking thing I’ve got, like to the point where I collapse in exhaustion after the show, and I push myself to the point where it hurts me. But I do it because I feel like I have to. When I go on a stage, I have to give everything I’ve got. And I think in a way there is a reason for that – and it might not be the healthiest reason. Like, why am I driven? Is it because I want to prove to everybody, like, ‘Please love me! Look at me, I’m doing this!’ Or is it because I really yearn to connect so much? Like, there’s something inside of me that wants so love so bad that I feel like I have to make this hard connection for the audience? Or is it because I just admire a beautiful piece of art and I know that it’s my job to do everything I can to create it? Trying to understand that about myself is the big theme of my book.”
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On the second page, while recalling a profound experience that happened during an adventure in Ethiopia in 2010, where music proved the prevailing bridge between two cultures, Flea writes that it had reaffirmed his purpose. But what, I enquire, is his purpose?
“To connect. To be humane,” he answers. “in my understanding that all are one, and that we really are all connected.”
“I’m always touched by that connection,” he continues, “and I feel like my purpose is to use art to make people feel less alone, and to use love as a means to make people feel less alone. Because it’s a lonely, cruel, harsh world, and when I feel people’s pain being expressed in a beautiful way, it touches me in a visceral way; I feel moved, I feel shook, I feel like I’ve been given a meaning, and that meaning has come from love and compassion, and from people doing everything they can in order to express their compassion through art. Ultimately, if you’re trying to make things that are beautiful, we help other people to feel less alone, so I think that that’s my purpose in this world.”
Interestingly, this unyielding longing for engagement coexists with an innate awkwardness that has persistently set Flea apart from others – in Acid For Children, he points to an “underlying sense that something’s wrong with me,” which stems from childhood, “that everyone else is clued into a group consciousness from which I’m excluded.” It’s a source of great distress to Flea, whose vocation, which ironically depends upon his involvement within a group, is regulated by the inspiration found in isolation.
“I’ve struggled a lot in my life with periods of intense anxiety and panic attacks and really difficult things,” he says, “and I feel – except for the times in my life when I did drugs to escape things – very proud of myself for being brave enough to sit by myself and to feel that pain, and to feel that fear, and to use it to process it and feel it in a real way, instead of running from it, running around partying with other people, or drinking or doing drugs to escape it, but to sit and feel pain and to understand it and to walk through it and to grow and become a better person through the process of learning and feeling it, which is not an easy thing to do.”
“So I treasure my solitude and my quiet time and my time alone as, one: a place to actually know myself – the good and bad parts of myself – and to be honest with myself,” he adds, “and two: to give myself time to create, and to discipline myself to take that solitary time to be a good artist.”
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Writing the book, he tells me, was an emotional exercise, and it’s just as affecting to read, I concede. There’s a direct line that the reader can draw between these anxieties and his treatment growing up by those around him.
Born in Melbourne in 1962, Michael Balzary’s earliest days were spent negotiating a stern father and a detached mother. They moved to New York in 1967 for his dad’s work, where Michael was old enough to recognise and suffer the increasing aggression between his parents. A few years later, they’d divorce, his dad moving back to Australia, and his mum moving in with Walter, an unpredictable and emotionally unstable jazz musician. Though Walter inspired young Michael with his playing, he was also an alcoholic and a drug addict, prone to violent rages.
You can’t help but sympathise with the young boy growing up in these dysfunctional environments. There were no stable figures of authority, and he was almost completely deprived of affection. He was disconnected, and he needed to feel loved.
That all changed in 1972, when Walter led his charges to Los Angeles. There, evading life at home by roaming the city’s streets, Michael found transformative friendships and meaningful relationships that allowed him to truly explore his identity for the first time.
“It was there that I found the connections that really helped me to be who I was, and to support me in being who I was, and to evolve and grow, and to be the best person I could be,” he asserts, “as well as to make a complete ass out of myself, and be a rude, inconsiderate idiot; all those things that you learn growing up, because we all do great things and we all make mistakes.”
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Tales of adolescent adventures are brought to life with a colourful cast of characters who all accompany Flea as he navigates a life of drugs, juvenile delinquency, and Hollywood’s decadent club scene.
The most impactful of these friends were fellow Fairfax High School students, Hillel Slovak and Anthony Kiedis.
Slovak’s cosmic, artistic soul is lovingly eulogized in these pages – it was he who suggested to Flea to try playing the bass. In contrast, Kiedis was the gang’s tough, confident foil. The three – along with drummer Jack Irons – would eventually form Red Hot Chili Peppers, but the founding unit was shattered by Slovak’s fatal heroin overdose in 1988. Flea breaks from the book’s chronology to address the guitarist’s loss – “It was almost impossible for me to write about his life without writing about his death,” he reasons.
From the moment they met, Flea and Kiedis’ friendship was a deep and penetrating one. Despite their opposite personalities, they encouraged each other’s freakiness, finding the courage and empowerment together to be proud of who they were. The Chili Peppers have subsequently endured through death, drugs, and other deplorable dramas because of this indelible link that the universe produced. Noting in the book that he is “scared to poison things between us,” he clarifies that it’s not being afraid of offending Anthony with what he’s written, but how analysing their relationship might affect its chemistry.
“For whatever reason,” he says, “whether it’s fate or interaction or something, I have always felt that there was something bigger at work putting he and I together in this life to do whatever we’ve done for so long, and it’s almost like saying ‘I can’t understand this. I’m gonna do the best to explain it. And if I did understand it, will the magic that is there disappear?’ I just did my best to understand it, and I don’t even know if I came any closer, but I did my best.”
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In the final pages, as the friends’ embryonic precursor to Red Hot Chili Peppers prepare for their first gig, we relive the exact moment that Flea’s divine purpose is ignited, realising the immediate capacity of this energy they’d harnessed.
“The thing that was successful about it was in that moment, from the first second the Chili Peppers started playing, was just this feeling of absolute fulfillment in every way,” he beams. “I just knew that we were riding a wave that was so powerful and strong that there was no way that it wasn’t going to carry people away with it… This thing didn’t even need trying. It was just like, get out your fucking surfboard and ride this thing because it’s going to take you.”
“And I was right,” he declares. “There was no question in my mind that it wouldn’t touch people and carry people away.”
Over 35 years later, the Chili Peppers’ towering stature as one of the world’s most successful rock groups is an absolute affirmation of Flea’s instincts, and though the band’s dynamics have fluctuated over time, at their core remains the force that first propelled them. “The spirit of what it is and the thing that keeps it going is still there,” Flea confirms, “and it’s the exact same spirit that was there on that first note on that first night in 1983.”
It’s an impulsive, outrageous sense of freedom that permeates the Chili Peppers’ music, allowing its creators the privilege of growing old disgracefully. Considering his disconnection from all the grown-ups outlined so candidly in his autobiography, I suggest, could that be why he chose a career in music, where rock and roll means never having to grow up?
“I don’t know about never growing up,” he replies, “because I’ve tried for a long time now to grow up. I think a lot of my childhood and doing drugs as a kid made it really difficult for me to grow up, and it made the process more difficult than it needed to be, but I would like to say that I am a grown-up and I have grown up, and I continue to grow up, and that is something that I am really proud about, because I think growth is good.”
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Had Flea’s book continued past the confines of 1983, much darker days would have been documented, as the reader may surmise from his remarks and regrets within regarding his use of drugs. Clean living now since 1993, he is keenly aware of his status as a role model to millions, which somewhat explains the lengths he goes to in Acid For The Children to demystify the abuse of his past.
“It was a difficult thing to write about in a way,” he acknowledges. “I did a lot of really awful shit. But I didn’t want to glorify it in any way or make it seem like, ‘Look how wild I am! I did all these drugs! See how cool I am?’ Because the point is it’s not fucking cool, it’s stupid… And also not lying that I had some fun, too! You know what I mean? Because I did!”
“Though there were some things that I got out of drugs,” he adds, “anything that I got out of them I could have gotten without them, and was obviously depending on the drug and how, and when, and where. Like, all those hard drugs – the cocaine, the meth, the heroin – it’s awful for you. It’s terrible. It sucks your spirit out, it hurts you physically, it poisons your relationships, and it inhibits you from living a full, rich life. I’m lucky that I survived it.”
I tell Flea that I share his gratitude, as undoubtedly do all those around the world who have been touched by the Chili Peppers’ music, Flea’s own spiritual and philosophical influence, and the turbulent path that brought him here today. “Life is naught but a journey to achieve love,” he proclaims towards the book’s end, and while we can only assume that the recently remarried (to fashion designer Melody Ehsani) father of two has accomplished that particular goal, would he have settled for knowing that he’d successfully spread a lot of love instead?
“Well, I’ve done my best to spread as much love as I could,” he concedes. “And I‘ve done my best to rise above my own fear, and to live a life that revolves around being a kind, loving person, and to be conscious of any time that I’ve been distracted from that purpose and that way of being. So, all I can say is that I have done my very best, and that I continue to do my very best, to live a life rooted in a deep and clear love.”
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Words: Simon Harper
Cover Image: Bruce Weber / Truck Archives
All Other Photographs: Courtesy of Flea, taken from Acid For The Children, which is out now and published by Headline Books
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers
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