The Chaotic Elegance of Flea

In his new memoir, Acid for the Children, the Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist exhibits virtuosic vulnerability.

How did Flea become Flea? (Peter Staley)

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.

In an early scene from Acid for the Children, he has an encounter with Walter, his tormented, gifted jazzman of a stepfather. Walter is getting melancholically loaded in the shag-carpeted basement of their home, “sitting on a stool with a bottle of vodka in his hand, tears rolling down his face.” He has something to impart to the preteen Flea. “He gently took my arm and said, ‘I love you, man, I love you so much. You are what’s beautiful, your light is always gonna shine over the evil and meanness in this world. You’re special, man, you have the gift. Dig it, man, dig it.’ He said it slowly and kindly through his boozy tears.”

Born Michael Peter Balzary in Australia in 1962, Flea was propelled by the wreck of his parents’ marriage first to New York and then to L.A. Acid for the Children is, presumably, volume one of his memoirs: It takes you as far as 1983, and the first Red Hot Chili Peppers show at a bar called the Grandia Room. “All that self-destruction,” writes Flea, “all that hopeful love whirling in and around us, something had to give. Death or Life … It was out of our reach, out of any construct. I felt my body being hurled around by the rhythm … I was a conduit, and did not exist as a means to an end.” By this point in the story, having accompanied Flea through many close shaves, strange baptisms, and musical rendings of the veil (“I felt the Hendrix deep inside my little heart”), the reader is completely down with his apocalyptic inner worldview.

Acid for the Children is not an as-told-to, nor is it written “with” someone. These are Flea’s words—excitable, jazzy, regretful, disarming, popping and writhing away in his biological bass zone. Insecurities to the fore: He worries that he may be producing “a thorny jumble of trash.” But he’s actually a lovely writer, with a particular gift for the free-floating and reverberant. He writes in Beat Generation bursts and epiphanies, lifting toward the kind of virtuosic vulnerability and self-exposure associated with the great jazz players.

One unforgettable scene finds the young Flea, having fled the house due to the erratic behavior of Walter, riding the bus home after a long day of karate. Three bandanna’d young men climb on, “straight gangbangers,” giving off a pronounced vibe of chemical disruption. Or as Flea puts it, “high as fuck.” They are potent, stylish, compelling. One of them, in an eerie falsetto, is singing a melody from Parliament’s absurdist rump-shaker “Night of the Thumpasorus Peoples.” “He had a beautifully haunting voice,” writes Flea, “and sang the nonsensical syllables slowly and drawn out, the ghostly high-pitched notes echoing around the empty night bus as it headed up towards Hollywood … Not only did the sound make them appear like they operated in an otherworldly dimension, music took on a meaning that I had not before considered.” So for the domestically disturbed and karate’d-out little Flea, the portal opens, and the bus becomes a vessel of mystery. Of poetry, really. You don’t get this kind of thing, needless to say, in your standard rock memoir.

There’s a sad Flea at the heart of this book, a melancholy and memorious Flea. He writes sweetly of his “underlying sense that something’s wrong with me, that everyone else is clued into a group consciousness from which I’m excluded. Like something in me is broken … Am I the only one who’s fucked up like this? Can I get a witness?” This vein of sorrowful separation runs also through the lyrics of his super-friend and fellow Chili Pepper Anthony Kiedis. While reading Acid for the Children I found myself drawn to the Chili Peppers’ most sadness-embracing album, 1995’s One Hot Minute. “My friends are so depressed / I feel the question / of your loneliness …”

But the deeper you go, the higher you fly, and Flea’s psychedelic quest is unending: soul-expansions during Vipassana meditation, LSD trips at Echo & the Bunnymen shows. Darkness sucks down; Flea fumbles toward the light. Music pours through the universe. Walter, wrapped around his “big German upright bass,” is playing “Cherokee” with some other jazzmen in the family living room; Flea is 8 years old. “They take off and I am stunned, I’m FLOATING, waves of light are surging through all of me, I’m rolling around on the floor laughing.” Years later, he has his mind equally blown by The Germs. “As the first piercing feedback sound of ‘What We Do Is Secret’ flew into my earhole, everything else disappeared … In all its distorted violence, it made me feel warm and not alone.” Flea—elegant nutcase, funk-at-high-pressure bassist, wildly cultured and culturedly wild man—has written a fine memoir. You’ll put down Acid for the Children with your human sympathies expanded; you’ll feel less alone.

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