Michael Balzary is one of the world's best bassists. Better known as Flea, he's revealed all in a bold, brave memoir. He tells Bridget Jones why he's never embraced his real name and why he loves bees.
Tell me about your childhood. Do you think your parents loved you? Why do you think you turned to sex, drugs and the rock 'n' roll brotherhood?
Flea had expected this. He had called me for this highly unqualified psychoanalysis.
No PR bull, no middlemen, just a grown man dialling an international phone number all on his own, with nothing to hide. Well, his phone number was blocked but let's blame technology for that, not privacy.
After all, he has shared pretty much everything. That's what happens when you famously run around with a sock on your cock and, more recently, lay your soul bare in a book sharing stories of shooting up cocaine in a train toilet, cheating on girlfriends and trying to steal an old lady's handbag (even if you feel bad about it later).
But before we fiddle with that can of worms, let me tell you about Flea and his bees.
He's been neglecting them recently. Being one of the world's best bassists in a stadium-filling band like The Red Hot Chili Peppers keeps you busy, you see. Regardless, the "three big, fat, successful beehives, with zillions of bees" in his backyard are thriving.
"I learn so much from them. It's so kind of perfect the way a bee will gladly give its life for the hive and the work they do for their young and the way they work together to get it done. It's really f***ing amazing."
After reading his memoir, that idea sounds awfully familiar. Acid For The Children isn't your typical rock god reflection on fame, fortune and everything that goes with it. It's an origin story. The recollections of an Aussie lad who became a New York loner, then finished up an LA street rat, before - yes - becoming a famous rock star.
There are colourful characters, raw, revealing recollections and witty honesty. Stories of suburban misery, big-city mischief, life and deaths. But nothing of the 57-year-old's 80 million record sales, Grammy awards and place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
"I grew up in Hollywood and there is nothing more boring on this Earth than fame and fortune," Flea says, without the ego of a genuinely very famous musician. "But I didn't want to be as arrogant to think my life is so interesting that I should write about it. I know if I walk across the street and see the guy mowing someone's lawn, if I really found out about his life, it would be fascinating. Every human life can be interesting if you shine a light on it."
Once he started writing about his childhood though, it suddenly felt meaningful to the world. Some of his earliest memories are rooted in a sense that something is wrong with him, that he always lives with a sense of separation from other people. And that he suffered from "gnarly f***ing panic attacks".
"I started thinking, 'Gosh, I might fail but if I write a book about my childhood that actually conveys something that makes other people feel less alone, then I would have done something…'"
But where do we start with what he finished: the music, the drugs or that lonely childhood signposted by angry, broken men? Flea was 4 when his family moved from Melbourne, Australia to Rye, New York, for his father's career.
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He nostalgically recounts time spent camping in the Australian bush with Dad Mick before their lives were uprooted but as a child, Flea was also terrified of the man who could fly into fits of rage. He lived with a knot of fear in his stomach whenever his father was around, terrified of the moment his eyes turned cold and his face turned red.
He never thought to turn to his mother, Patricia, for love or warmth. She was a "children should be seen and not heard" kind of woman. He has no memories of ever hugging her - and none about feeling bad about that.
"My father worked for the government. He wore a suit every day and a tie and he went to work. We had dinner at 7 o'clock and it was a pretty conservative, tightly run ship," he says. "Then my mother took up with this junkie jazz musician who lived in his parents' basement and everything got upside down."
His new stepdad, Walter Urban, was often drunk, frequently strung out and sometimes violent. And yes, he invited Flea, his sister Karyn and their mother to live in his parents' basement before the foursome moved to Los Angeles. Mick returned to Australia; contact with his children was limited for a long time.
"As a little boy, you look to men to be seen and to be understood and appreciated and supported. For them to see you and see what's important to you and to be there for you. And when you are unable to form that connection, it's a very rootless and disorientating feeling. So, then you look for it elsewhere."
In Flea's case, he turned to his friends, finding a family at school (not that he was a particularly diligent student), while running around the streets and eventually through music. When the connection was there, it was profound.
"I didn't really understand, as a kid, how important that was to me; how I looked for what I didn't get at home in my friends. But a friend can't be a parent; they are just f***ing kids like you, just trying to figure it out."
The drugs probably didn't help things either. At 12, he started smoking weed. Cocaine and heroin came just a couple of years after. Psychedelics were a late addition.
"I was a wild experimenter who tried everything and did everything. And at the same time, I was never a drug addict, believe it or not - I know that sounds insane."
True or not, they left a mark.
"They hurt me physically, they hurt me spiritually, they disconnected me from emotions I should have been having, they made growing up way more difficult than it needed to be and really hurt me. It took me years and years to recover from the damage I had done to my body and my relationship to the world."
"They just f***ed me up. If perfect health is the ideal, you probably don't want to be shooting up cocaine, you know?"
He writes honestly about the highs and the soul-crushing come-downs, the ecstasy and the near misses; and what he calls the general absurdity of it all. But not about the glory. That, he insists, never existed.
"I lost my friend Hillel, my dear, beautiful friend and it was a real wake-up call," he says, taking a minute to gather his thoughts.
The memory of Hillel Slovak, the founding guitarist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, overdosing in 1988 is one wound he is still reticent to re-open. While writing about his death and other dark times was largely cathartic, like a release of bottled-up emotions, it was reading them aloud for the audiobook that devastated Flea.
"At the time, I knew it was getting carried away. When guys are getting addicted to heroin, it's getting f***ing bad. But then he died and that was a real wake-up call and real sad and really final. It was obviously bad news, man."
He's been sober for 26 years now (apart from the odd joint here and there) and he says he's still trying to figure out how to feel truly comfortable in his skin.
"I saw drugs as a way to transcend a world that I saw as cruel and hypocritical - and really, I'd had the answer all along: in books."
Baby Flea had always been a ferocious reader, through the best times and the worst. Forget school. Books, he says, were his real education. And like the words of his favourites Jane Austen and Kurt Vonnegut jnr, from a young age Flea remembers music feeling like a magical thing. He was completely bewildered by it, but utterly impressed.
Then, when he was about 7 and his mother took up with that junkie jazz musician, everything shifted.
"I will never forget, as long as I live, the first time he and his buddies set up in the living room, drums, piano, sax, trombones and started playing hard, fast, intense jazz music with wild, exploratory, extrapolating composition going on, ferocious, intense, swinging rhythms. I sat there as a kid and my mind was blown.
"It was live, it was in front of me, sweating and playing and laughing and yelling and getting crazy. I fell on the floor; I threw myself around. And it opened up a part of me that changed my life forever. And it changed what I thought was possible for a human being."
After a childhood worshipping the jazz greats, mastering the trumpet like his heroes Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, it was dear, beautiful Slovak who introduced him to real rock music. Around the same time he picked up the bass, met his future frontman, Anthony Kiedis and the 15-year-old's life changed all over again.
"Growing up, to me rock music was music for people who liked haircuts and didn't care about music.
"Obviously I ended up making a bunch of money [from it] but that was never a motivating factor. As I got older and [the fame and fortune] started happening, I liked it, I just didn't really know how to function within it ... but I figured it out." He almost sounds embarrassed.
What would have happened if the Flea circus had never left Australia, though? In his dad's mind, there's still hope Flea might do something sensible with his life, like becoming an engineer.
"I don't know that me being a musician, I don't know how much sense that's ever made to him. [Growing up in Australia] is an alternate reality that I don't know. But I know it would have been a hell of a lot different if my parents had stayed together."
Flea's been married once, engaged a couple of times and is newly married to jewellery designer Melody Ehsani. He's also dad to daughters Clara, aged 31 and Sunny Bebop, 14. But growing up with two father figures who didn't exactly provide the perfect image of the perfect dad has absolutely influenced how Flea feels about being a parent.
"I've certainly made my mistakes. And when I started understanding my childhood better, seeing where my parents failed, first I was really angry about it. Why didn't you do this? Why did you let me run off on Christmas? Why didn't you make me feel safe?
"But I didn't really free myself from making those mistakes until I was able to forgive my parents and understand that they were in pain, struggling with their own things. When I was able to see that and that they did the best they knew."
Our time is almost up and I realise there's one vital question left. What should I call the man I've been speaking to all this time? After all, he was born Michael Peter Balzary, not "Flea". That's the name he was given by his other family - his friends. Mike B the Flea, a boy who could never settle.
As far as he knows, there are only three people in the world that call him Michael with any success: his father, his stepmother Margaret and his sister. So, it's Flea.
"Sometimes I'll think about it, what does it mean that I let a word take over my life like that? Maybe that's a big part of declaring my oneness out in the world, going away from my family. After writing this book I've wondered, 'Gosh if I had grown up feeling closer to my family. perhaps I wouldn't have liked having a nickname all my life.'
"But that just wasn't what happened."
Flea - Acid for The Children (Hachette, $38)