Underrated: The tarnished legacy of John Frusciante

Frusciante may be one of the most talented songwriters of his generation – but has his association with the Red Hot Chili Peppers tarnished his reputation?

I’ve never gotten on with the word ‘best’ when it comes to art and artists. I struggle with the idea that people with (usually) no demonstrable skill in filmmaking, songwriting, or whatever the list relates to, feel comfortable taking an authoritative stance on what the ‘best’ of that art might be. Sure, when it comes to something like guitar playing, there’s technical ability to consider, but does the technical ability of, say, Eddie Van Halen so notably outshine that of Chuck Berry? Or the other way around? Stylistically each is on a different planet, so how do you even begin to pick that apart?

It was only when I stumbled upon a Rolling Stone 100 Greatest Guitarists piece from 2015 recently, that I stopped to think about these lists and the way they can reflect the legacy of an artist – specifically one of my own favourite musicians, John Frusciante. Now I’ll start by saying one thing, I don’t really care that Frusciante was listed at 72 in this particular list – and there are a few reasons for that. Firstly, the list was compiled by a panel of notable guitarists including Eddie Van Halen, Joe Walsh, Tom Morello, Kirk Hammett, Thurston Moore… (the list goes on), so, folks that know more about it than I do. Secondly, it makes no difference to my enjoyment of Frusciante’s music (or anyone’s music for that matter) where he happens to be placed in some random magazine article. And finally, knowing what I know about the guitarist himself, I honestly doubt he gives a fuck. But what I do find myself thinking about, is how the list illustrates how Frusciante is perceived as not just a guitarist, but as a musician and songwriter. How his relationship with a band in rapid decline, has maybe tainted his legacy. And how frustrating it is that his best known work is by far his least interesting. 

I first discovered Frusciante back in 1992, thanks to a rather obscure and little-known album named Music from the Motion Picture Wayne’s World. I’d heard of the Red Hot Chili Peppers before, but for whatever reason I’d never actually heard them. Track five, Sikamikanico, changed that – and began a lengthy and dysfunctional relationship with the band that would last for many, many years. Sikamikanico was everything I thought I wanted from music at that point in my life; super-charged, frenetic guitars and explosive drums, layered over thunderous, insistent bass. It sounded like the punk music I wanted to like, but it didn’t take itself as seriously. It was fun and fast, yet melodic and warm. It was around the same time that I had also welcomed cable TV into my life and, with it, MTV. I was introduced to a glorious (though admittedly overplayed) Chillis track named Under the Bridge, which was built around a riff which somehow, to this day, still manages to set the hairs on the back of my neck on end.

I knew the band had a new album out, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, but I wanted to know more about their whole sound, so I picked up a newly released compilation album called What Hits?! and, I have to admit, I wasn’t keen. An 18-track album clearly timed to cash in on the success of Under the Bridge (which it also featured), the album was exactly what it said it would be. A collection of songs from the bands five-album career. Only problem was, that’s not what I wanted. I wanted Under The Bridge plus 17 more songs like Sikamikanico. Thankfully, as a 15 year old kid with limited cash and no internet access to distract me, I persevered. And after a few listens, I started to wonder if maybe what I thought I wanted from music, was actually very different to what I needed. What Hits?! had, in parts, those frenetic guitars, explosive drums and thunderous bass lines, but they were intertwined with p-funk, psychedelia, soul and sun-soaked California rock. 

From there, I felt like I had the Red Hot Chilli Peppers pegged, but Blood Sugar Sex Magik proved me wrong. It was next level. Four incredibly talented (well, three and a lead singer) guys locked away in a house in the Hollywood hills bashing out the most addictive, erotic, charged, soulful, celebratory, mournful, hand-crafted music I’d ever heard. The drums were crisp and complex, the bass was noodly and made my neck move in ways I didn’t know it could, and the guitars, my god where do I even start with the guitars… I immediately sought out the band’s previous album Mother’s Milk, then went further back to explore their pre-Frusciante history. I watched Funky Monks – the 60-minute black and white Blood Sugar Sex Magik fly-on-the-wall documentary – over and over, fascinated by not just the construction of the songs, but the band creating them. The egotistical, provocative lead singer. The wacky, passionate bassist. The aloof, fun-loving drummer. And the prodigious, space cadet guitarist.

Fast forward a few years and the Red Hot Chili Peppers – and John Frusciante in particular – had been on a pretty strange journey. In 1992, less than a year after Blood Sugar Sex Magik was released, Frusciante left the band having grown uncomfortable with the level of fame that came with the record. He began his spiral into heroin addiction while writing and recording his first solo record Niandra LaDes and Usually Just a T-Shirt, a record that signalled just how far he wanted to take his solo work from the sound of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Five years later, once the heroin had completely taken over, he put out Smile from the Streets You Hold, an even more experimental (and honestly, barely listenable in parts) record he freely admits was released purely to pay for his addiction. Around this time, I also tracked down a copy of a 1994 interview with Frusciante on eBay, which was only ever broadcast on Dutch TV station VPRO. This film revealed the true extent to which heroin had destroyed Frusciante’s life and talent. And, while it may sound dramatic, as a young fan it really broke my heart. I watched the disc once, then never again. It kind of felt like one of my guitar heroes had died – or was about to.

However, it was probably seeing that low that made the highs so much more special. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, having had an interesting but thankfully brief dalliance with Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro, helped pull Frusciante back from the brink to rejoin the band for 1999’s Californication. And, while the album is still not quite where the band left off with Blood Sugar Sex Magik, it is pretty sensational – particularly when listened to through the prism of Frusciante’s return from a very dark and dangerous place. The first track, Around the World, is as bold and cacophonous a statement as you could hope for in announcing that return. But for me, it’s the second track, Parallel Universe that tells the story so much more beautifully. Opening with a driving bass and muted, plucky guitar strings, the song just about allows Frusciante out of his cage for each chorus, but it’s only after the third that he breaks free for a chaotic, soaring climax. Its a recurring pattern on the record too – and on certain tracks, you can almost feel Frusciante physically and mentally reconnecting with his instrument and his band – made all the easier by the boundless enthusiasm of Flea’s bass and impeccable clatter of Chad Smith’s drums.

In 2001, Frusciante released his third solo record To Record Only Water For Ten Days, his most astute and cohesive attempt at creating his own sound up until that point. Led by a blistering single Going Inside, the record has the rough, unpolished and experimental components that make Frusciante such an intense and fascinating listen, yet somehow the richness of songs like The First Season, Remain, Fallout, In Rime and Moments Have You smooth out those sharp edges just enough to create moments of real beauty (that’s without even acknowledging Ramparts and Murderers, a pair of intricate, ornate instrumentals that are nothing short of sublime). That same year, Frusciante also put out a free internet-only album called From the Sounds Inside, a more introspective, low key selection of songs, but one more step towards a level of songwriting greatness that could never have flourished with the Chilis. In 2002, Frusciante and his bandmates put out their fourth album together, By The Way. It was by no means a bad record, but it was one that helped set a blueprint that would turn the band into a predictable, ridiculous self parody in the years that followed – and ultimately result in the bloated, boring mess that was Stadium Arcadium in 2006. 

It’s not difficult to see where John Frusciante’s attention was at this time though. 2004 saw John back out there as a solo artist with his most melodic and accessible album to date, Shadows Collide with People. Between June 2004 and February 2005, he followed that up with a series of six releases through Record Collection that were as rich, diverse and beautiful as anything he’d ever done. The Will To Death, the first release in that series, was an immensely likeable 12 tracks that showcase John’s optimistic side, while retaining just an ounce of the inner torture that had become part of his signature sound. August brought with it Automatic Writing, a collaboration with future Chilis guitarist Josh Klinghoffer and Fugazi’s Joe Lally under the band name Ataxia. The five epic, swirling, psychedelic songs of that release were much more experimental in tone, and very different to the four-track solo DC EP that followed in September, which offered up simple melodies and a bare, almost acoustic vibe. The next record, October’s Inside of Emptiness, took a more aggressive, cynical turn across 10 tracks, while November’s A Sphere in the Heart of Silence served up seven tracks co-written and performed with Klinghoffer – and emphasised some of the more digital, electronic parts of Frusciante’s sound that would become more prominent in the years that followed. In February though, just to keep us guessing, Frusciante released Curtains, an 11-track, primarily acoustic record that seemed to harken back to some of his earlier solo work.

Since then, Frusciante has continued to put out challenging, fascinating material. If I’m honest, it hasn’t always quite landed with me, but its pretty clear that as a songwriter and musician, Frusciante is concerned only with blazing his own trail. And regardless of my mixed feelings on albums like 2012’s PBX Funicular Intaglio Zone, 2014’s Enclosure and the two Trickfinger albums from 2015 and 2017, you could never accuse any of them of being boring or predictable.

For me though, it’s that 2001 to 2005 period that shines as an illustration of just how brilliant an artist the ‘former Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist’ has become, and how unfair it is that he still has to carry that label. While his old band continues to drag its own name through the dirt with mediocre, stadium-friendly parodies of previous successes, Frusciante continues to be a prolific, versatile, daring musician capable of both intensely poetic, melodic pop and bizarre, avant-garde electronica. But when the day comes to eulogise his contribution to music, what songs will be stitched together to illustrate his career? Well, I doubt very much it will be 1994’s Your Pussy’s Glued to a Building On Fire.

Like I say, I guess it doesn’t really matter in the end. I get to choose between listening to the haunting roar of A Loop (from 2004’s The Will To Death) or the juvenile plop of Hump De Bump (from 2006’s Stadium Arcadium). I just worry that, because of his association with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Frusciante may be almost destined to become nothing more than a moderately well-respected guitarist, rather than the stupendously talented wunderkind I know him to be.

In truth though, he’d probably prefer it that way. But I don’t. So I’ll finish up by offering you a little a career retrospective covering some of the records I’ve mentioned here.

Give it a listen. I’d love to hear what you think.

3 Replies to “Underrated: The tarnished legacy of John Frusciante”

  1. His work with Omar Rodriguez Lopez and The Mars Volta is far better than anything he ever did with RHCP. They worked on each others solo projects, he laid guitarwork on I think 4 Mars Volta albums, and they had their group Ataxia as well.

    1. Hey Trevor, yeah there are a few worthwhile contributions/collaborations out there like the Lopez/Mars Volta, also Bob Forrest and even with Glen Hughes on the soundtrack to Stealth… He keeps himself busy for sure!

  2. He was voted second best guitarist of all time in a British poll a few years ago. I think he more than moderately respected. His association with the RHCP is only tarnished by their arty frat boy attitude which started way before he got there and he gave up on in 92 or so…& the fact that Anthony Kiedas’ main talent for the longest time was being good looking (though John coached him up to be a credible melodicist). But John & Flea form the core of the Chili Peppers’ sound, and when they lock into jam mode it’s some of the more exciting and sublime music you’ll hear. Sure, he’s overshadowed by the RHCP’s stardom/infamy, but that’s just the problem of certain music critics who don’t wanna hear what the RHCP (mostly Flea & John) actually do.

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