In a new memoir, the bassist describes how he expanded his consciousness, found his muse and landed in a storied rock band.
On a Thursday in mid-October, Flea sat in a patio chair he'd dragged down to the lawn, looking out at the green lake in his backyard. As the late-morning sun beat down on his greying skull and the tattoo-dotted arms under his Vin Scully T-shirt, he curled his battered bare toes in the grass just centimetres from an ashy fossil that was once a piece of dog waste, and began reckoning with the unanswerable:
"Like, your heart, your spirit, who you are — does it come out no matter what context you get put in?" he asked, "Or is it shaped immeasurably and irretrievably by your circumstances? I don't know."
He's just written his first book, a memoir called Acid for the Children that's out November 5. In it he recounts how he took up bass guitar, learned to thumb and finger-pop its strings and formed a band with three high-school buddies: Hillel Slovak, Jack Irons and Anthony Kiedis. That band became the Red Hot Chili Peppers and persevered for three wild, shirtless decades, weathering the loss of members to addiction and attrition, not to mention the waning of alternative rock as a commercial force.
In March, the band performed at the Great Pyramid of Giza, like Frank Sinatra and the Grateful Dead before them. In September and October, they played Rock in Rio in Brazil, a Formula One racing event in Singapore and a festival on a man-made island in Abu Dhabi. They've reached the point where traditional rock autobiographies tend to close the curtain — on the far side of the hurricane years, after all the Grammys and all the drugs, with their subjects sober and solid and selling out shows on the wonders-of-the-world circuit.
Flea's book is not that kind of book. It's written with the same lyrical, holy-goofball energy its author brings to all his public activities, and its earnest, eccentric prose reflects Flea's evolution from Hollywood-scene knucklehead to reflective, spiritually clued-in adult. The early ups and downs of his friendship with Kiedis — the Chili Peppers' lead singer, the longest nonfamilial relationship of Flea's life and seemingly the most emotionally fraught — are tenderly but unflinchingly addressed.
But not until page 375 of this 383-page volume does the band that will become the Chili Peppers play its first show: in 1983, for 27 people at the Grandia Room in Hollywood, as Tony Flow and the Miraculously Majestic Masters of Mayhem, whose live set at the time consisted of one original song and a choreographed dance routine set to the Jonzun Crew's Pack Jam (Look Out for the OVC).
The curtain closes there, with the rise and fall and rise of the Peppers — not to mention Flea's adventures in marriage and child-rearing, much of his film-acting career, the details of his philanthropic work as founder of the Silverlake Conservatory of Music and his career as a sideman to everyone from Thom Yorke to Tom Waits — seemingly assured but still to come.
Instead, Acid for the Children is about everything that happened to Flea before that night, a chain of events as improbable as the Chili Peppers' eventual path to global ubiquity. Flea can turn a phrase and knows when to turn one sideways. "The kid showed no pretty colors," he says of a bad-egg bully who turns him on to PCP-laced bong hits. The very next sentence is "Angel dust is like smoking death."
And so we come to the question now hanging in the warm October air — about possibility, and destiny, and what's inherent in us, and how much context and circumstance can change that path.
Infidelities and PTSD: Carly Simon reveals the private side of Jackie O
He's electric: Noel Gallagher on his return to New Zealand
The life of Cameron Douglas: From privilege to prison and back
Flea was born Michael Balzary in Melbourne, Australia, in 1962. Four years later, his father, Mick Balzary, who worked in customs for the Australian government, accepted a post at the Australian consulate in New York City and moved his family to the New York suburbs.
"We lived in a nice house like this" — he looked back at the big Craftsman behind him, which he's renting with his soon-to-be wife, jewelry designer Melody Ehsani, while they renovate their place in Malibu — "in a nice suburban neighbourhood in Rye, New York."
His father was supposed to stay only four years. There may exist some parallel universe in which this happened, where Michael finished growing up in Australia, never tasted Hollywood's night air, and went on to be a bush pilot in Kenya or a plumber in Estonia or someone else to whom the thought of playing bass guitar on MTV in pants made from sewn-together stuffed animals would never occur.
"My father always says to me, still: If I had my druthers, you would've been an engineer," Flea said, slipping easily into an Australian accent.
"I like to think I would've rebelled and ended up in the Birthday Party or something," he said, meaning Nick Cave's first band, who began making unholy noise in Melbourne in the late '70s. "Odds are I might be sitting in Australia, drinking a Fosters, working at an oil plant or something."
Instead, in New York, Flea writes, his mother Patricia took guitar lessons and fell in love with her teacher, Walter Urban. Flea's parents split up and Mick Balzary returned to Australia alone. Patricia took Flea and his sister, Karyn, to live with Walter, a jazz bassist, in his parents' basement in Larchmont. Walter became Flea's stepfather, and life at home took a sharp turn for the bohemian.
In 1972, they moved to Los Angeles, chasing theoretical career opportunities for Walter, and Flea's newly free-range upbringing became even less rule-bound.
"I got up to whatever I wanted all night long," Flea said. "Started getting high at 12. It was the '70s, and let me tell you, the '70s in Hollywood were wild." He described nights out until 4 in the morning, running into "every flavour of person, people in all kinds of inebriated states. Scary states. People in predatory states."
He was a feral Huckleberry Finn running loose in a "Repo Man" world. But he was also drawn to music, basketball and books — structured forms, offering a sense of security he couldn't come by in other parts of his life. Flea, who ran with other "petty thievin' street rats," also lost and found himself in the words of Kurt Vonnegut and the sound of Clifford Brown and Max Roach.
He felt safer in the small rooms of his interests than he did with the adults in his world. He said Urban was an addict and an alcoholic, prone to terrifying rages. But he loved his stepson fiercely, and his commitment to artistic expression lit a fire in Flea.
"I remember watching him play when I was a kid," he said, "and the intensity when he would go for it. Just viciously attacking his instrument, with his eyes closed and sweating, and just, like, going off. Whether he was conscious of it or not, he was exorcising the demons within him and taking the torment of his life and using it as an energy to make something truly beautiful."
Flea said despite the trauma Walter brought to the family, "He really gave me gifts that are such a huge part of who I am."
"Sometimes people do these books to get back at people," David Ritz, author of 46 biographies, said a few days later, describing agendas like making an argument for one's own greatness, or getting revenge on a spouse.
"With Flea," he said, "I think his drive is to enlighten himself by figuring out who he is and what he did. And so there is a lightness to this book, even though it's a heavy book."
As a ghostwriter, Ritz has helped bring forth the life stories of Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Ray Charles. He did not write "Acid for the Children," but he will politely acknowledge that his editorial input is probably the reason it is less than 1,200 pages long.
Flea calls himself "completely uneducated" as a writer, has never so much as kept a diary, and said he resorts to the act of journaling "only when I'm really miserable."
Publishers had approached him about writing a book for years, he said, but he'd always thought of it as an arrogant, rock-starrish thing for a rock star to do. But in 2015, he took a spill on a snowboarding trip with Kiedis during a break from recording "The Getaway" and broke his arm in five places.
"At first, I was on painkillers for a month, which sucked," Flea said. "Once my head was clear, but I couldn't really get around, there was a couple-month period where I just wrote like crazy." (Flea remains a bit in love with the voluminous original version of the book: "I do see a beauty in it.")
His favorite autobiographies include Luis Buñuel's My Last Sigh, Harpo Marx's Harpo Speaks, David Niven's The Moon's a Balloon, Miles Davis' Miles and Charles Mingus' Beneath the Underdog: His World as Composed by Mingus — all books in which the protagonist's voice feels indelibly theirs, even if it's mediated by a collaborator. He's suspicious of books that credit a ghostwriter, he said, and didn't want to write one that did.
"That really pissed David Ritz off," Flea said, laughing. They began a creative conversation anyway. Ritz said the decision to stop in 1983 was Flea's idea, but also that it was the right call, and he's convinced that in Flea he's encountered the next great American writer at the start of a brilliant career. He envisions literary fame for him akin to that of Patti Smith, who wrote a foreword in verse for Flea's book ("providence assigned him an instrument/that in his hands formed a spectral voice").
By this point, it was clear that Flea's book-promotional duties would cost his Australian shepherds their trail run. They flopped in the grass spine-to-spine, a pair of inside-out parentheses. Flea was talking about drugs, which figure prominently in the book, starting with the cover, a photo of a baby-faced Flea sucking on a joint at a nude beach. Harder stuff beckoned before too long.
"I never became a junkie," Flea said. "I would go through periods where I was shooting heroin, and then I wouldn't do it — 'Oh, it's terrible'— and I'd be listening to Minor Threat. And then I'd go do it again."
Slovak died of an overdose in 1988. Flea got clean for good in 1993. Kiedis documented his own cycle of sobriety and relapse — and the strain it put on his friendship with Flea — in his 2004 autobiography Scar Tissue, a sordid and soulful bestseller that Flea said he's never read.
"It's too much shared stuff," he said, although he used a more pungent word than stuff." I don't want to know what he said, because I know it's going to be completely different than what I thought."
Their relationship is the central romance in Acid for the Children, which by leaving off where it does saves Flea from discussing any strife Kiedis' addiction issues may have created. And yet their drama is all there, implicitly, foreshadowed in painful moments from their high school years, like the impromptu camping trip where Flea loses the cap to Kiedis' canteen while filling it at the river. Kiedis curses his friend out, then gives Flea the silent treatment for the rest of the night.
"It was a painful pattern, a dynamic that repeated between us in so many contexts for years to come," Flea writes. "I was needy for stable support, and he was needy for the stability of control. Symptomatic of my fragility, my yearning for familial comfort. Light does not exist without darkness. The shadow side of our friendship."
The original broken-arm draft of the book followed the arc of the band's career up through their career-rejuvenating 1999 album Californication," and after the last page of the finished version there's a somewhat tongue-in-cheek-seeming teaser for a second volume. Flea said he changes his mind day to day about whether he's going to write one.
"I've become kind of obsessed with the idea of writing a novel," he admitted. But for the moment, the future held only a photo shoot. Earlier, he'd joked about wearing a tweed blazer, in the pipe-smoking literary manner. But when the cameras were ready, he happily posed without his shirt.
Written by: Alex Pappademas
Photographs by: Ryan Pfluger
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES