Ex-guitarist of Red Hot Chili Peppers John Frusciante's career in the limelight tells a tale of immense mental anguish. The troubled rock star, who quit the Red Hot Chili Peppers twice, struggled with dependency for years. He emerged from those depths with some scars, a catalog of platinum albums, and a set of false teeth. While his struggles are harrowing and relatively well documented, they typically play second fiddle to the bizarre, nigh-unbelievable antics of other band members, including astral funk priest Anthony Kiedis. Frusciante wrestled with demons induced by childhood pain the notoriously press-shy guitar prodigy refuses to specify in interviews. He told the Guardian in 2003, "It's subconscious childhood pain which you've pushed into your memory and then suddenly it pops out 20 years later and you's a drug addict."
After joining the Red Hot Chili Peppers at age 18, Frusciante went from practicing his craft 15 hours a day to spending $500 a day on illicit substances while living in a hotel. He found himself in the middle of a perfect storm of addiction with easy access, money to burn, and a lifestyle that supported and encouraged his vices. Through it all, the guitarist was instrumental in crafting RHCP's signature sound across multiple eras, from his early, Hendrix-influenced funk style to later contributions as a backing vocalist, effects pedal guru, and occasional shred master.
A major part of the LA scene in the early '90s, Frusciante traveled in the same circles as the likes of Johnny Depp, who made a harrowing film about his friend. The Johnny Depp documentary Stuff, co-directed by rock frontman Gibby Haynes, was a wakeup call; it depicted the guitarist living high and in squalor after River Phoenix's passing (John Frusciante and River Phoenix were on a days-long bender when the latter collapsed and perished outside of the Viper Room in 1993). Throughout all of it, Chili Peppers bassist Flea never left his struggling bandmate's side.
When John Frusciante joined the Red Hot Chili Peppers, he was only 18 years old, and he quickly adopted the ethos of hedonism espoused by the band. According to a 2000 Rolling Stone profile, Frusciante said, "I was totally abusing the situation, but by the age of 20, I started doing it right and looking at it as artistic expression instead of a way of partying and screwing a bunch of girls. To balance it out, I had to be extra-humble, extra-anti-rock star."
As RHCP's fame exploded, Frusciante struggled to self-identify as an "artist," so he set out to separate himself from cliched rock star excess. This drive to be a more authentic type of artist is what pushed him to quit the band in 1992.
Frusciante had a hard time dealing with how the Red Hot Chili Peppers' fifth album, Blood, Sugar, Sex Magik, catapulted the band into superstar status, selling seven million copies in the US and more than 13 million worldwide. He preferred the level of success achieved from the band's previous album, Mother's Milk, which saw them headlining mid-sized venues and making a living off music without endless mainstream media exposure and corporate pressure from labels, promoters, radio, and TV.
Fruisciante's discomfort with success manifested in his resentment toward the band's hit, "Under the Bridge." He purposely tried to throw vocalist Anthony Kiedis off in the ensuing live performances, playing extended intros and wrong notes, and in different octaves and keys. The most infamous instance of this was when Frusciante purposefully sabotaged the band's performance on Saturday Night Live in 1992.
Kiedis resented Frusciante for the performance. As Kiedis wrote in his book, Scar Tissue:
I had no idea what song he was playing or what key he was in. He looked like he was in a different world [...] We were on live TV in front of millions of people, and it was torture. I started to sing in what I thought was the key, even if it wasn't the key he was playing in. I felt like I was getting stabbed in the back and hung out to dry in front of all of America while this guy was off in a corner in the shadow, playing some dissonant out-of-tune experiment. I thought he was doing that on purpose, just to f*ck with me.
Frusciante left the Red Hot Chili Peppers for the first time in 1992 while the band was in Japan promoting BSSM. He tried to quit immediately before a show in Tokyo, but was persuaded by his bandmates to play one last gig. Immediately after the show, he returned to California.
RCHP needed a replacement – a really good replacement, after suddenly being thrust into the spotlight. After trying out a few musicians who didn't fit, the band eventually settled on Dave Navarro from the band Jane's Addiction. RCHP's sole album with Navarro, One Hot Minute, garnered mixed reviews, though the guitarist showed undeniable chemistry with Flea and drummer Chad Smith on the more jam-oriented tracks.
Navarro's time with the band was rough for a variety of reasons. As Anthony Kiedis wrote in Scar Tissue, Navarro was a great presence when he first joined RHCP, but it was hard for the band to adjust their process to include the new member. A major tour was delayed more than a year when drummer Chad Smith broke his wrist, and Kiedis was in a motorcycle crash that led to a relapse during the ensuing hospital stay. Navarro was dealing with drug issues of his own in 1998 when the band was trying to record the followup to One Hot Minute.
Navarro was fired in April of 1998, which opened the door for Frusciante to rejoin the band. RHCP's comeback single, "Scar Tissue," references Navarro between weeping slide guitar solos with the line "sarcastic Mr. Know-It-All."
Frusciante quit RHCP in May 1992, shortly after their bizarre and uncomfortable Saturday Night Live performance, but he didn't quit music. In 1995, he released his first solo album, an experimental and unhinged collection of self-made recordings called Niandra LaDes and Usually Just a T-Shirt. Half of the album's songs were written in Frusciante's down time while the Chili Peppers were writing and recording Blood Sugar Sex Magik.
In an interview, Frusciante admitted he wrote the tracks to "have fun, smoke pot, and trip my head out," and had no plans to release them. After friends – including Johnny Depp, River Phoenix, Flea, and Gibby Haynes – convinced Frusciante to release the record, he dove headfirst into the project with little concern for its commercial viability.
When asked by Billboard Magazine in 1994 whether he was concerned about RHCP fans reacting negatively to the strange material, Fruisciante responded, "If they have any imagination, if their heads are capable of tripping out, they'll get it." He went on to speak of creating a character for himself to play on the album. "I wanted to create some freak-out guy from the '60s," Frusciante explained. He wanted to release the album under the character's name, but was dissuaded from doing so by the label who put out the record.