By way of a foreword to Acid for the Children, a new memoir by Flea, the irrepressible bassist from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Patti Smith has written a Flea-themed poem. Is it a good poem? Well, it’s by Patti Smith, so in that sense it’s axiomatically good. And if she read it aloud, in her shivering, slowly accelerating, priestly rock-and-roll groan, it would probably sound amazing.
On the page, however, there is imprecision. “Providence assigned him an instrument / that in his hands formed a spectral voice …” I’m not sure spectral—adj., of or like a ghost—is the word I’d use to describe the sound of Flea’s bass. His style is bulbous, prodigious, embodied. His bass lines seem to incarnate some principle of human resilience, of slapstick durability. Bounce into jeopardy; twang back into security; repeat. Thick grooves at Looney Tunes speed. Even when the Chili Peppers were at their worst, their most oafish and party-time elephantine, there was always Flea, head down over his bass, elbows out, doing something interesting.
How did Flea become Flea? Through a stringent and exquisitely calibrated program of parental neglect, street drugs, jazz, karate, Kurt Vonnegut, J. R. R. Tolkien, L.A. punk rock, Fagin-like would-be exploiters, and narrow escapes. “I looked for love in the faces of people I saw on the street,” he writes. On someone with a coarser sensibility, or a less naked and searching spirit, it wouldn’t have worked—these influences, in these doses, would have combined to produce a catastrophe. But Flea, processing or failing to process the chaos, was always going to be Flea.