The parallel universe of the Red Hot Chili Peppers
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
I was at the end of my junior year of high school when Californication was released, a surprise sign from a band that I thought might be done. One Hot Minute, released in 1995, had been an important record in my development, coming at a time when my current taste was still developing.
I was seeking out current bands, bands with a sense of purpose and history while still modern and relevant. So the Red Hot Chili Peppers were nearly perfect, the freaky counterparts to R.E.M., both bands that grew up in the 1980s and grew through touring and radio play in colleges, bands for which the moniker “alternative” were originally coined.
But by 1999, things didn’t look good for either. R.E.M. had decided to carry on after drummer Bill Berry left the band, and in 1998 released Up, an album that didn’t do as much for me as I wanted it to.
Some of the other bands from that first wave of discovery weren’t doing as well, either. Soundgarden and Screaming Trees had broken up. Alice in Chains were effectively done. Oasis looked like a lost cause. There were a startling number of newer bands that I despised and my classmates loved. I was looking for a line, something beyond Pearl Jam and my classic rock cassettes.
On the same token, after traveling back into the near past to hear Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Mother’s Milk and the songs on What Hits!?, One Hot Minute was beginning to wear on me a bit. I had spent a good deal of time defending that record, but I could see how the songs were weaker than their best work, the arrangements initially exciting but paper thin over time. So, at some point that spring, I heard that John Frusciante was back in the band and that a new album was a couple of months away.
Most albums worth anything have a key song. Not necessarily a song that stands above and beyond the rest of the record, but one where a mood and, sometimes, a band can be encapsulated. In my relationship with the music of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, that song has been “Parallel Universe” since the first time I heard it, sitting on my bed, hearing it spin out of the black boombox CD player that was a constant companion in high school.
Following the pop/funk of “Around the World,” “Parallel Universe” played that dangerous, edgy card that’s present in the Chili Peppers’ best music. It starts with Flea and Frusciante trading notes in a fast double time with Chad Smith’s drums smacking down on every other beat. Here was Anthony Keidis not straining or streching himself in singing, but pushing lyric forward with his own combination of sing-shouting, dipping down into his sly growl in spots.
And the chorus brings the whole thing back. Moving quietLOUDquiet like a Pixies song, the middle eight comes screaming in, the guitar crunching in with the drums, Keidis wailing, the bass still flying along as fast as before. I was about seven minutes into this new record, one I hadn’t even expected to hear.
Recently, a coworker lent me a copy of Keidis’ autobiography, Scar Tissue. It was a little difficult getting past Keidis’ writing style at first — though he was working and likely reciting to the ghost writer, most of the narrative is told in the present tense, creating an exhausting effect at first. But, as the band picks up steam in the early 1980s, so does the book, and the climax comes around the time of Frusciante’s return and the recording of Californication in 1998.
Keidis doesn’t spend much time on “Parallel Universe,” focusing more of his recollections on “Californication,” “Scar Tissue” and “Porcelain.” But, as when I’m reading about any musician, I threw Californication back on for the first time in years — likely for the first time since I saw the band play at Coachella in 2007.
Like all classic records, every lyric, note, guitar riff and drum beat came back to me in the car and in my headphones. I found myself tapping my foot and singing along to these songs again; they had retained that same spirit of summery discovery they had when I was 17.
But even if I’d come to this album later, I think that it would still hold that spirit. The best pop music usually does. And certainly, the best work by the Chili Peppers always has.
Aug. 16, 2011
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org