Flea on life before the Chili Peppers: 'I grew up running around naked'

The bassist’s new autobiography lifts the lid on a difficult, violent childhood and a conflicted relationship with Anthony Kiedis

In his new memoir, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea recalls a Halloween night of genuine horror. At 13, he was trick-or-treating with friends when word spread through his neighborhood that a madman was firing a gun randomly in the street. The terrified kids scattered to find safety in their homes, but when Flea approached his parents’ house he noticed that all the front windows had been blown out and debris strewn all over the lawn. Once inside, he found his step-father, Walter, with blood smeared over his face and torso, a smoking pistol dangling by his side. “He was the lunatic they were all talking about,” Flea recalled. “It was terrifying and shameful.”

And it wasn’t the first time something like that happened. “Walter would get drunk and something would trigger him and he would freak out and smash everything in the house,” Flea said. “At times, a gun would come out.”

After the Halloween incident, the cops came and arrested Walter. After he went through the system and returned home, he apologized to Flea and his mom profusely. “And then,” said Flea, “the pattern would repeat.”

Making sense of events like this wound up driving nearly the entire narrative of Flea’s harrowing – but, at times also, hilarious – memoir, titled Acid for the Children. It’s overwhelmingly focused on his formative years, broken by short fast-forwards to his time with the Chili Peppers. Some of the Peppers’ vignettes deal with the band’s own traumas, including Flea’s guilt over the heroin-related death of the band’s early guitarist Hillel Slovak at just 26. But the main part of the book ends with their very first live show.

Flea in his younger years
Flea in his younger years. Photograph: Courtesy of the author

Not that this was Flea’s original game plan. “I thought I would just write about the band because who would be arrogant enough to think anyone would care about my childhood?” he said.

But, given the amount of violence, drug use and sometimes useful adventure in his past, this clearly wasn’t just any childhood. “Eventually, I became entranced with the idea of getting under the narrative, to find out the ‘why’ of my early life,” he said.

To capture the fractured nature of it, Flea divided his book into brief, blunt chapters, in the process creating a rhythm for his prose as curt and distinct as his bass playing. The first part of the story centers on impressionistic perceptions from his first four years of life in Melbourne, Australia, where he was born Michael Peter Balzary. When he was five, his father’s work necessitated the family move to Rye, a northern suburb of New York City. By the time he was seven, Flea’s parents divorced and his father moved back to Australia, causing the boy to feel abandoned and unmoored. Things became even more unstable when his mother remarried to a troubled jazz musician, Walter Urban Jr (now deceased). Immediately, Walter moved the family (including Flea’s older sister, Karyn) to his parents’ house where they lived together in the basement. Though Flea paints his stepfather as an unkempt, odd and violent man, he believes his mother was drawn to his bohemian sensibility. “She had grown up in this really straight Australia, where things went by the rules of the 1950s,” he said. By contrast, “Walter did drugs and played jazz and had all kinds of ethnicities hanging out. It was a chance for her to go into New York City and liberate herself.”

After a few wild years on the east coast, the family relocated to the gnarlier parts of Hollywood and, by 11, a barely supervised Flea began to smoke pot every day. The cover of the book boasts a picture of him at 12 smoking a joint. By that time, Flea had acquired his nickname, based on his fidgety nature and diminutive stature. The latter contributed to an already serious inferiority complex. From early childhood, Flea writes that he had “an undying sense that something was wrong with me, that everyone else is clued into a group consciousness from which I am excluded”.

This belief, along with his unstructured home life, led him to yearn for a brotherhood of friends to serve as a surrogate family. Most of the kids he found were fellow scamps who enabled his knack for getting into scrapes, which ranged from petty theft to crashing cars. Drugs became another bond. Flea began shooting speed regularly, which didn’t help his attention deficit disorder tendencies or his emotional advancement. On the other hand, he believes he got a lot out of his experiments with hallucinogens. One chapter begins with the line “LSD was good to me”.

Flea. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist

“For someone like me, who was running crazy in the street, the drug got me to access my subconscious, to develop introspection,” he said.

Flea admits he overperformed on that front, a tendency exacerbated by his desire to escape the violence at home. At the same time, his stepfather’s role as a serious musician and artist had a positive effect on him, providing a living example of the power and beauty of music. “When I saw him and his musician buddies set up in the living room to play bebop with such emotion and physicality, it changed my life forever,” he said.

The combination of the muscularity of music and Flea’s wild character contributed to his later emphasis on nudity and primitivism in the Chili Peppers’ presentation. “I grew up running around naked,” said Flea. “There’s a freedom inherent in it, a rebelliousness, that I find beautiful.”

The band’s eager display of their bodies gave them a homoerotic frisson from the start. But for Flea there was a serious message behind it, rooted in his past. In a chapter of the book titled Men Don’t Kiss Men he recalls how hurt he felt at the age of six when his birth father admonished him for wanting a kiss. It seeded a will in him to rebel against the restrictive nature of male identity. Early in their career, the Chili Peppers did so in a daring way by posing for the Los Angeles-based gay porn magazine In Touch. “I felt honored that they wanted us in the magazine,” Flea said. “The gay community in Los Angeles were the first ones to really embrace the Chili Peppers.”

In conversation, Flea revealed that he had gay experiences of his own growing up, episodes he wrote about at length in an early version of the book. But, he wound up taking all that out. “I didn’t want it to be sensationalized,” he explained. “To me, it wasn’t a big deal. I was experimenting and it turns out, ‘hey, I’m not gay’. So, it’s not really my story.”

Anthony Kiedis and Flea
Anthony Kiedis and Flea. Photograph: Courtesy of Fabulosfab

More central to Flea’s story is his deep, and complicated, relationship with the Chili Peppers’ singer, Anthony Kiedis. In the book, he calls Anthony “the missing link I never considered”. “He was unlike anyone I had ever met,” Flea said. “Among my friends, I was the guy who was always trying to do something that would freak people out. Then I met Anthony and he matched me step for step. We got up to all kinds of crazy shit.”

In the memoir, Flea expresses an undimmed awe for Anthony but he also calls him controlling. Still, he’s vague on details. Considering that Flea also writes about forever wanting Anthony’s approval, one wonders if he censored his writing to stay on the singer’s good side. Flea admits there’s something to that, but he is willing to discuss one key issue between them. “He doesn’t accept that I’m different and that things that excite me may not excite him,” Flea said. “He’s looking to be the alpha.”

He also admitted that Anthony’s many years of drug abuse (which the singer wrote about in his own memoir, Scar Tissue, published in 2004) infuriated him. “It’s painful and scary and sad,” said Flea. “Because the rationale of someone who’s a drug addict is disingenuous and hollow and misguided.”

He said he hasn’t read Anthony’s memoir (“I might feel hurt and I don’t want to walk into a rehearsal room feeling upset about something”). And, he said, Anthony hasn’t read his. As it happens, Flea devoted as much of his book to the band’s late guitarist Slovak, as he did to their living singer. One of the most wrenching sections finds Flea beating himself up over his handling of Slovak’s addiction. “I was so angry at him,” he said. “For a long time, I kicked myself that I didn’t know how to be there for him in a way that I could have been. It’s a hard thing.”

Ultimately, Flea said, he found everything about writing the book hard. “I went through so much to get it to be honest about what shaped me,” he said. “That’s what this is about: a yearning to know who I am.”

  • Acid for the Children is released on 5 November


Jim Farber

The GuardianTramp

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