August 4th, 2004


an argument for the greatest guitarist of our generation

Python power straight from Monty
Celluloid loves got a John Frusciante

- Red Hot Chili Peppers, "Purple Stain"

I first hear the Chili Peppers sometime in the late 80's. I saw the video for "Knock Me Down" and was attracted to their high energy and, like most people, I'd never heard a bass played quite like that before. The guitar-work in that, however was kind of muted - there's not even a guitar break/solo in the song. In retrospect, this was probably intentioanl since the song was a tribute to their original guitarist Hilell Slovak who died of an overdose. While it's sad that it had to be such a tragic way for him to leave the band, it gave the world the opportunity to hear John Frusciante.

I bought Mother's Milk on a lark after having herad that one song. I wasn't really prepared for what I was getting into. The first track was interesting enough, but a bit contrived with its LA punk samples and Fishbone and John Doe name dropping. But any of you familiar with that record know what the second song is and I'm sure all of you have heard it, their cover of Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground". Frusciante's translation to guitar from Wonder's synthesizers was brilliant and inspired. He displayed a technical bravado while not missing the one thing that most techincal guitarists seem to lose, or never have - soul. It was at that moment I realized how good of a guitarist he was. Two songs later, during the guitar breaks in "Magic Johnson" I uttered my first "holy fuck". I began to understand that this guy had the potential to be a really great guitar player some day. Lots of critics make the obvious reference to Hendrix, which isn't unwarranted, I got that vibe on the basis of the album's first few songs. So I was intrigued that deep in the album was a Hendrix cover, "Fire". It what was probably another intentional dumbing down of the guitar-work, it's somewhat lackluster. It would've required some big friggin ca-HO-nays for this 18 year old kid to try and upstage the master in his own song. But the song just before it, "Stone Cold Bush" proved that he could deftly manage a wah-wah with intricate rhythm and lead work at the frenentic pace with which the Peppers liked to play. For the record, I said "holy fuck" quite a few times as I played that song over and over. This kid didn't just have the potential to be great, he was great, just holding back a lot... or possibly in need of some good direction from a producer.

The Peppers were afforded that luxury with Blood Sugar Sex Magic and laid to rest any doubts that one of the finest rock guitarists was in our midst. The pressure of all the fame, money, and critical acclaim proved too much and Fruciante soon spiraled out of control into a really nasty heroin habit that nearly took his life. He released two solo albums in the mid-90's while Dave Navarro took over Pepper duties for One Hot Minute, both of which were quite horrible. They're interesting from a guitar stand-point and there are a few moments of brilliance, but for the most part Frusciante's creative flair is audibly diminished with his failing health. It would be cynical, but arguable that had he died he would have achieved a cult-guitarist status rivalling Hendrix or Cobain. Thankfully, this didn't happen and he got clean and rejoined his band for 1999's Californication and dispelled any notions that there was nothing but pure genius in this man.

I had the privilege of seeing the Red Hot Chili Peppers play live at the Univeristy of Kentucky Student Center ballroom with a couple hundred other people around the time of Mother's Milk. I count it among one of the best concerts I've ever seen. It's also why I know I'll never see them live again - I just don't think I could stand to see them in an arena. The point of all this is to encourage you to check out Mother's Milk if you're not familiar with it. While it may not be a "land mark" or "touchstone" record like Blood Sugar Sex Magik or Californication it is an amazing record none-the-less in the context of the music being made at that time and as a definitive turning point in the history of a band. It's far from a perfect album, but it's an enthralling listen all the same.
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