Smile From the Streets You Hold
By Jay Ruttenberg
If a Red Hot Chili Pepper falls and nobody hears, does he still make a sound? Unfortunately, yes. John Frusciante, who as a teenager held down the Chili Peppers' notoriously unstable guitar post for their commercial breakthrough albums, Mother's Milk and BloodSugarSexMagik, walked out on his fellow cocksockers in 1992, right in the middle of the big payoff. Reportedly unstrung by the band's swelling popularity and then increasingly enthralled by heroin, he all but disappeared, then resurfaced with his eerie 1994 solo debut, Niandra Lades and Usually Just a T-shirt (American). With lines like "I've got blood on my neck from success," the collection of home recordings is clearly the work of a troubled soul.
While on tape the guitarist makes no bones about his decrepit state, in real life he's attempted a half-assed cover-up. In a 1996 interview with the LA New Times, which, oddly, is the sole clip in the press kit for Frusciante's new solo record, Smile From the Streets You Hold, he requested that the writer veil the details of his drug abuse only after spending a hefty chunk of the chat extolling the virtues of smack. "I just decided, 'I'm gonna become a junkie now,' and the next day I was just happy and better," a scrawny, toothless, scabby Frusciante explained in a suite at the infamous Chateau Marmont. "I decided without [heroin], I have no control over what thoughts take over my brain. See, with this, I have control over what I want to think about, and when something comes into my head that is useless to think about, it won't take over. I can get rid of it. I would sit there and think about the way things could have been if I wouldn't have done it this way, the way I didn't do it.
"A lot of people say they feel a wall when a person's on drugs," he added later, "but I have three girls who I love and consider my girls, and one of them came and visited me when I was clean in February, and she called me afterward and said she felt a wall. My head works differently than most people, so consequently drugs affect me differently." Sure, and everyone in prison is innocent.
Smile From the Streets You Hold is both an intimate portrait of an introvert and an unintentional plug for the just-say-no crowd. It opens with a few muffled guitar chords, a cough and sniff, and then a choked wail that stretches into one of Frusciante's longest, most irritating dirges ("Enter a Uh"), and continues in the same vein for nearly an hour. It's an absolute chore to sit through, the musical equivalent of a poet scribbling "pain" on a crumpled piece of paper and calling it a day. With the exception of "A Fall Thru the Ground," a brief, haunting beauty that lays crying guitar, minimal Latin-sounding percussion, and vocals about murdering mama and daddy over a synthesized backdrop, he forsakes structure, melody, and lyrical coherence; what's left is dreary, ugly, empty, dull, and consummately self-indulgent--what will no doubt be both praised and condemned as a "junkie record."
But parts of this album were recorded before Frusciante ever joined the Chili Peppers, much less shot up. And besides, with such a wide variety of music being made under the influence--compare Johnny Thunders to Shannon Hoon to Gram Parsons to Kurt Cobain--to blame the drug for the album's wretchedness would be to give it far more credit than it deserves.
The Chili Peppers did their share of work for the dubious muse; Frusciante's predecessor, Hillel Slovak, died of an overdose, scaring singer Anthony Kiedis straight. Often viewed as the quintessential Los Angeles band, the Chili Peppers approached substance abuse in true Hollywood fashion: shoot up but don't spoil the uplift mofo party plan, unless it's for a watered-down Betty Ford hit like "Under the Bridge." As Kiedis cleaned up, Frusciante must've looked like a smart recruit: a sober kid who'd honed his skills by locking himself in his bedroom for hours at a time to jam along with Red Hot Chili Peppers records.
Frusciante's playing reflected both his musical influences--which also included Zappa and Hendrix--and his extreme preference for solitude. He'd balance temperamental bursts with a subtle touch previously unheard in the work of the Chili Peppers--a band that starred bass and vocals while frequently relegating guitar to spare tire. That the Chili Peppers peaked during his tenure is, in retrospect, no coincidence: hits like "The Power of Equality" and "Breaking the Girl" owe as much to Frusciante's understated contributions as to Flea's much-lauded bass work. For the young guitarist, though, success was too hot to handle, and he abandoned the group just in time to get airbrushed off its Rolling Stone cover. The Chili Peppers worked their way through several more guitarists, eventually settling on Jane's Addiction's flamboyant Dave Navarro, but never managed to resurrect the introvert/extrovert dynamic they had with Frusciante.
Smile From the Streets You Hold, while obviously weirder than anything in the Chili Peppers' frat-frenzy repertoire, is actually a far less interesting manifestation of Frusciante's idiosyncrasies. As countless musicians have discovered upon leaving groups to embark on solo careers, it often takes an opposing force to make one's own music sing. Even sober, without the Chili Peppers Frusciante might well have turned out to be just another addled loner babbling to himself.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album cover/ John Frusciante photo by American Recordings.