Drugs, ghosts and the radical re-birth of John Frusciante

John Frusciante on stage in 2001
(Image credit: Peter Pakvis/Getty Images)

The voices in John Frusciante’s head were getting harder and harder to ignore. These voices had been there as long as the guitarist could remember – indeed it was largely because of them that he first picked up the guitar at the age of seven – but for months now, they were predicting disaster, telling him he had to move on, urging him to abandon the life he had carved out for himself over the past four years. And deep down Frusciante knew they were right.

In the quiet of a Tokyo hotel room the 22-year-old had time to reflect upon where it had all gone wrong. When he’d been invited to join the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1998, it was a dream come true. The Peppers were his favourite band: frontman Anthony Kiedis and bassist Flea heroes in his eyes. For his first couple of years in the band, Frusciante threw himself headlong into the rock ‘n’ roll whirl, taking full advantage of the myriad temptations laid before him. But all too soon, the dream started to sour. The meaningless sex got routine, the drinking and drug-taking monotonous, the fame and adulation nothing short of embarrassing. Frusciante had always wanted to be a musician, but increasingly it was becoming all too apparent that music now played only a minor role in the circus that was his day-to-day life. Being a rock star, he realised, wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

The voices in Frusciante’s head told him to walk away when he’d completed his guitar parts for BloodSugarSexMagik, the band’s fifth full-length album. But the quartet, rounded out by garrulous Minnesota-born drummer Chad Smith, were getting on better than ever, and hitting new creative peaks, so he chose to block them out. 

On the road however, matters deteriorated rapidly. As the album passed the platinum sales mark in the US, the band’s record company demanded more photo sessions, more promotional interviews and more shake-and-fake meetings with industry ‘players’. The fans wanted wacky antics, socks-on-cocks and the hit singles – Give It Away, Suck My Kiss and monster ballad Under The Bridge – played exactly as they been played in Rick Rubin’s Hollywood home in the spring of 1991. The guitarist hated the showbiz rut he felt the band were falling into and hated being treated as a performing monkey. But nobody cared very much for what John Frusciante wanted at all. Something had to give.

The guitarist announced his intention to leave the Chili Peppers on May 7, 1992, one day into the band’s Japanese tour. Though he’d been a royal pain in the ass during their earlier European trek (“I did want to kick his little f**king ass sometimes,” Chad Smith would later confess) his bandmates pleaded with him to change his mind. Reluctantly, he agreed to play one more show. When the quartet took to the stage of the Omiya Sonic City Hall in Saitama that night, Anthony Kiedis took the guitarist aside and gestured to the 2,500 enrapt faces staring up at them as if to say ‘Look at this, look at what we’ve achieved, look what you’d be leaving behind.’ Frusciante wasn’t swayed. The following morning he flew back to Los Angeles. And, just for a little time, the voices in his head weren’t quite so shrill anymore.

To get a glimpse into John Frusciante’s mindset in the period framing his departure from one of the world’s most successful rock bands, you need only listen to the music on his first solo album, 1995’s Niandra La Des And Usually Just A T Shirt. Recorded on a four track tape recorder and heavily influenced by sonic eccentrics Syd Barrett and Captain Beefheart, the bizarrely-titled ‘songs’ (Your Pussy’s Glued To A Building On Fire, Blood On My Neck From Success), with their scratchy acoustic guitar and surrealist/nonsensical stream-of-consciousness lyrics, are the sound of overloaded mental circuitry melting down. 

The recordings spanned a time period between the BloodSugarSexMagik sessions and the months immediately prior to his departure from the band, and as the album unfolds, the decline in his mental state is all to obvious. As he told a US magazine at the time: “My recordings had gone to from these happy, optimistic things, to celebrations of the surreal, to really scattered, demonic-sounding things like the sound of someone whose mind was about to explode.”

Frusciante wasn’t merely using this kind of language for effect. At the time he claimed to have 400 “ghosts” in his head telling him what to do.

“I wasn’t spiritually protected against the spirits that meant me no good,” he told Classic Rock's Ian Fortnam. “Ghosts that are just there to fuck with me and drive me crazy. I couldn’t discern between them and the ones that were helping me and I was so confused. Everything that I was learning seemed to be pulling me towards death. I saw death in everything around me. And everything that was beautiful represented everything that was sad, lost and gone.”

As Frusciante wallowed in depression in the Hollywood Hills in the summer of 1992, his erstwhile bandmates initially hadn’t time to offer their sympathy. Under The Bridge was breaking big on US radio, and the band were very much the new darlings of the alt. rock set as they embarked upon that summer’s Lollapolooza tour. Anthony Kiedis felt betrayed by the guitarist’s exit, and it would be five years before he spoke a single word to Frusciante. 

Flea, the Chili Pepper closest to the guitarist while he was still a member of the band, was more sympathetic. When the band returned to LA, he would occasionally drop by Frusciante’s home to jam with his old friend. More often that not though, he would arrive to find Frusciante lying on his couch, wholly uninterested in doing anything.

In a bid to shake off this numbing torpor, the guitarist decided to embark upon a rather radical period of spiritual re-alignment. Step one involved putting his guitar to one side and channeling his artistic energies into his painting instead. Step two he decided, even more radically, would be to start taking heroin and cocaine all the time.

“When I was on them was the only time I was happy,” he reasoned. “So I figured there was no disadvantage in it. I felt I was doing something good and healthy for myself and I didn’t care if other people said it was unhealthy.”

Having been surrounded by junkies for much of his adult life, Flea initially stuck by Frusciante and his new lifestyle choice. But as the guitarist’s drug use rapidly escalated into drug abuse, Flea’s visits became more and more infrequent.

“I didn’t think his brain and body could stand up to the amount of drugs he was doing,” he confessed.

“Two people can’t have any kind of consistent relationship when one of them is a junkie,” Frusciante later acknowledged. “We did drugs together once in a while, but for Flea it was a recreational thing, for me, it was my life.”

In truth, he was too far down his chosen path to be deflected, even when the potential dangers of his addiction were highlighted in the starkest, most tragic way imaginable.

The Chili Peppers had been friends with rising Hollywood star River Phoenix for several years. The actor had worked with Flea on the movie My Own Private Idaho (directed by Gus Van Sant who also directed the Peppers’ Under The Bridge promo video) and had collaborated with John Frusciante on two solo songs Bought Her Soul and Soul Removal. On the night of October 30, 1993, Phoenix went with his sister Rain and girlfriend Samantha Mathis to Johnny Depp’s Viper Room club on LA’s Sunset Boulevard. Details of the night remain sketchy, but at some point Phoenix took heroin, and just after 1 am, he staggered out of the club and collapsed on the sidewalk, his body racked by violent seizures. By 2am the young actor was dead, as a result of what the LA Coroners’ Office would describe as ‘Acute Multiple Drug Intoxication’.

The Chili Peppers camp was devastated by their friend’s death. Hearing the news in New York on the day before his 31st birthday, Anthony Kiedis claims to have wept for 24 hours. Flea – who would later celebrate his friend’s life with the lyrics to Transcending (“I called you hippy, you said fuck off”) on the Peppers’ 1995 album One Hot Minute – had something close to a breakdown. John Frusciante, while talking about having lost “a playmate”, refused to see Phoenix’s death as a wake-up call however. The previous year, the voices in his head had told him that he was to take drugs for six full years: he still had five years to go.

Hollywood has always loved its misfits, and among a certain achingly fashionable clique, John Frusciante’s drug-fuelled spiritual quest was considered noble, even admirable. Sometime in 1994 Johnny Depp and Butthole Surfers frontman Gibby Haynes visited Frusciante’s home to document the guitarist’s lifestyle for a short movie (later sent to out to journalists to promote the release of Niandra La Des And Usually Just A T Shirt). 

Filmed in black and white, the abstract movie featured a cameo from ‘60s drug guru Timothy Leary, and rambling, mumbled monologues from the man of the house which reflected his chaotic, squalid surroundings. As the camera pans around the house, scrawls of graffiti reading “My eye hurts” and “Stabbing pain with discipline’s knife” can be seen. Evidently, this was not the home of a happy man. The art set considered the piece, simply titled Stuff, haunting and affecting. Many others who saw it though, considered it distasteful voyeurism of the worst kind, an unnecessary, and cruel, vacation into one man’s nightmarish existence.

In 1995, more visitors were welcomed into Frusciante’s home, as Rick Rubin’s American Recordings label gently pushed the guitarist into promotional chores for Niandra La Des… Frusciante was a genial host to the media folk who dropped in on him, and more lucid and together than the rumours surrounding him may have suggested. He talked of his love of artists Vincent Van Gogh and Marcel Duchamp, sang the praises of his girlfriend Toni and told the world that he was jamming with Flea again, the two old friends having started an instrumental project called The Three Amoebas with former Jane’s Addiction/Porno For Pyros drummer Stephen Perkins. He was still given to bizarre pronouncements – and one magazine sensitively titled their article on the guitarist ‘Space Cadet’ – but the general feeling was that John Frusciante was going to be okay.

In fact his darkest days were looming.

Frusciante probably should have died in 1996. He OD’d in February that year, a result of his body containing, he estimated, just one-twelfth of the blood it was supposed to have. After getting a blood transfusion, his first thought, he later recalled, was ‘Great, I’m good to go again. Let me get my hands on some more drugs’. From this point, the guitarist was spending up to $500 per day on his habit. With only royalty cheques keeping him afloat, this was always going to lead to problems. At one point, Frusciante owed $30,000 to his drug dealer, and had to beg for cash from his friends to avoid taking a bullet in the head. That same year, he was kicked out of his house for not paying his rent. Temporarily housed in the Chateau Marmont hotel – famously, the rock star-friendly hotel in which comedian John Beluishi died from a cocktail of drugs – the guitarist was visited by Robert Wilonsky, a reporter from the Phoenix New Times, who was aghast at the transformation which heroin had wrought in the once cherubic guitarist.

“His upper teeth are nearly gone now,” wrote Wilonsky. “They have been replaced by tiny slivers of off-white that peek through rotten gums. His lower teeth, thin and brown, appear ready to fall out if he so much as coughs too hard. His lips are pale and dry, coated with spit so thick it looks like paste. His hair is shorn to the skull; his fingernails, or the spaces where they used to be, are blackened by blood. His feet and ankles and legs are pocked with burns from unfiltered Camel cigarette ashes that have fallen unnoticed; his flesh also bears bruises, scabs and scars. He wears an old flannel shirt, only partially buttoned, and khaki pants. Drops of dried blood dot the pants.”

If Frusciante was aware of Wilonsky’s horrified reactions to his appearance, he certainly did nothing to placate the reporter, calmly telling him “I don’t care whether I live or die.”

Astonishingly, Frusciante had further to fall. As he remembers it, 1997 was the worst year of his life. Desperate for cash to feed his addiction, he managed to scrape together enough raw demo tracks to compile a second solo album, Smile From The Streets You Hold, but the album’s release gave him no sense of pride or joy.

“I had a year of not feeling like myself, a year of feeling like I was an impostor who didn’t deserve to even be called John Frusciante,” he told a UK music magazine in 1999. “I was smoking crack all day long, shooting heroin, shooting cocaine, drinking wine, taking valium. I was this close to killing myself. But when I was going extremely fast in my head and feeling I was about to die I would get these warnings from spririts saying ’You don’t want to die now’”.

Suddenly and without warning, Frusciante returned from the brink. In January 1998, the voices in his head told him that if he kept doing drugs he would die. Having previously tried to quit heroin by smoking crack and shooting up cocaine, he decided that he’d just quit drugs cold, promising himself that if he still felt the world was against him in twelve months time, he’d return to the drugs and calmly wait for death. He checked himself into a California rehab that same month.

Flea was one of the first people to visit. He was delighted to see his old friend on the road to recovery and impressed with Frusciante’s mental strength and new positivity. He confessed to Frusciante that the Chili Peppers too were in something of a mess. The previous year had been disastrous for the band. Two years on from the release of One Hot Minute, recorded with Frusciante’s replacement, ex-Jane’s Addiction man Dave Navarro, the band had not written a single new song. That summer they decided to regroup to play the Tibetan Freedom Concert, but pulled the gig when it was obvious that they were in dire need of more rehearsals. The quartet did manage an appearance at Japan’s Fuji Rock festival that summer, but their headling set was curtailed by a freak typhoon. Either side of this farcical gig, Anthony Kiedis and Chad Smith suffered injuries in motorbike crashes, and that autumn both Kiedis and Navarro both slipped back into heroin abuse. On a creative level, it was increasingly obvious that Navarro and the band just weren’t gelling.

In April ’98 Navarro and the Chili Peppers parted company. Flea then took the opportunity to tell Kiedis and Smith that if they didn’t at least try to get Frusciante back into the band, he was leaving too. Kiedis was sceptical about the idea, Smith astonished – “the last thing I knew he was ready to die” the drummer stated bluntly – but both agreed to give the idea a try. That Spring, the four men reconvened for the first time in six years to rehearse in Flea’s garage. The session could have been disastrous, but it wasn’t: “The chemistry was bombastic and beautiful,” Kiedis admitted.

“All that resentment just evaporated instantly,” he said. “It’s like a boyfriend-girlfriend thing. Sometimes you’re so fucking hurt by somebody that you won’t allow yourself to be friends with them. It doesn’t mean that deep down you don’t love them. But, you know, ego. Ego and mind games.”

“It was great,” Frusciante agreed. “They way they took me back made me fell good about myself. I had very little ability, but it didn’t matter to them, it was just the spirit of what I was doing and the fact that it was me. It felt good to have friends who really believed in me, when no-one else did.”

John Frusciante’s rehabilitation was a slow and painful affair. The guitarist had skin grafts to mask the countless abscess scars on his arms, and $70,000 worth of dental work to turn what looked like a mouthful of broken crockery back into a beaming smile. But the real transformation occurred internally, as with the patient help of his bandmates, he made peace with himself. He officially re-joined the Red Hot Chili Peppers on June 12, 1998, walking out onstage with them at Washington DC’s 9:30 club to play a warm-up show for the band’s Tibetan Freedom Concert appearance. Back in Flea’s garage as that summer unfolded, it was clear that he was bursting with new ideas, fired up with enthusiasm for taking the Chili Peppers to new creative heights.

To the world at large, the final proof of Frusciante’s Lazarus-like recovery came with the release of the band’s seventh album Californication in the summer of 1999. The Chilis sounded engaged, energised and excited once more, with Frusciante’s lyrical guitar work injecting colour, life and genuine soul into new songs such as Parallel Universe, Otherside and the sun-kissed title track. The author F. Scott Fitzgerald once memorably claimed that there are no second acts in American lives: the 15 million people who bought Californication and John Frusciante himself might well disagree. 

In 2009, three years after the release of the Stadium Arcadium album, John Frusciante exited the Chili Peppers for the second time. This time he would stay away from the band for a full decade, until a sudden announcement at the very end of 2019 confirmed that his replacement, Josh Klinghoffer, had been dismissed and Frusciante reinstated in his place

“The Red Hot Chili Peppers announce that we are parting ways with our guitarist of the past 10 years Josh Klinghoffer," the band said in a statement. “Josh is a beautiful musician who we respect and love. We are deeply grateful for our time with him, and the countless gifts he shared with us. We also announce, with great excitement and full hearts, that John Frusciante is rejoining our group.”

It didn't take long for Chad Smith to accidentally let slip that a new album featuring Frusciante was in the works. Beyond that, that the Red Hot Chili Peppers have planned for their future remains uncertain – what is clear is that Frusciante's part in their story isn't over just yet.

The April 2022 issue of Classic Rock features the Red Hot Chili Peppers on the cover and brings the John Frusciante story up to date. It's available to buy online.

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.