In mid 1987, I began work with The Red Hot Chili Peppers on their third album.
The first day we started recording at Capitol Studios was a milestone of epic proportions for myself and the band. This was far more than just our first day in the studio- being at Capitol designated closure for us.
Up until this moment, it was as if we had been festering in a dank, dark dungeon. Suddenly, a mighty, unseen hand had burst through the gates of our prison and thrust us into the warm and beautiful light of day.
A series of tempestuous and mind boggling incidents had swathed a path through the preceding months, slowly crescendoing to this long awaited and sanctified moment. Like a conquistador silently giving thanks to God on discovering a new world, I offered my heart felt gratitude for having come to this end and for arriving at this beginning.
The crescendo began it’s faint and distant trajectory in the office of Michael Barackman at EMI America Records. It was there that he presented me with three initial demos for the band’s upcoming record.
Over the course of a few minor conversations with Barackman, the crescendo proceeded to grow with a measured, stealthy consistency. It suddenly ramped up and hit a momentary peak at the instant I found myself in a plane heading to my first encounter with the Chili Peppers.
I was going to see the Chili Peppers perform at Tipitina’s in New Orleans. The following day, I would travel with them to Dallas in their van. I’d see them perform in Dallas and finally, I’d fly home. The idea was for us to get to know one another and see if we could stomach the idea of working together.
Prior to getting on my flight, I received the potentially daunting news that my competition for this project was none other than Mick Jones from The Clash. Yikes. In spite of this information, I, the young(er) upstart, buckled my seat belt and braced up for my date with destiny.
Once the plane landed in New Orleans, I went by taxi to Tipitina’s. Next to the club, there was what appeared to be a bus depot which was lit in spectral green light. For some reason, I became so confused by this apparition, that I spent the next 15 minutes looking for the entrance to Tipitina’s (even though it was in front of me the entire time).
Somehow, this confusion gradually strengthened my resolve. In an atypical expression of bravado, I cast aside my customary protective layer of introversion, and strode confidently into the venue.
The Chili Peppers were onstage, performing their set at full tilt, wearing nothing but their underwear.
My jaw didn’t hit the ground, but my mind went agape. The place was a gyrating, sweltering sea of bodies. The band played a blistering and boisterous set, after which, they returned for the obligatory encore wearing athletic socks stretched over their genitals. Watching this group of strapping young satyrs leap about the stage in such a state of undress, I was as smitten as a straight, record producer could possibly be.
The following morning, we raced through the Louisiana backwoods to their next venue in Dallas. As we pitched to and fro in their speeding, malodorous and sweat crusted van, the band and I bonded. It was on this maiden voyage that Anthony Kiedis bestowed upon me the moniker of “Swinehorn”.
Early into the journey, I noticed that Hillel Slovak had an enormous bottle of Nyquil which had opened in his bag and saturated all his clothing. It seemed odd that he had such a large quantity of cough medicine when he wasn’t even coughing.
The van broke down somewhere in the swampy depths of the bayou. Time was wasting but their tour manager managed to have the broken van towed to a nearby barn. This barn was on property belonging to an enclave of jovial Cajuns. I immediately noticed that each one of these men were missing digits and/or limbs. They explained to us that they had been relieved of their respective missing body parts at one time or another, by a local threshing machine. For as much havoc as it had wreaked upon them, they spoke of this threshing machine with reverence, as if it was a regional deity.
While the van was being repaired, one of the Acadian elders produced a black case. He opened this case and pulled out an accordion whereupon, he began to play and sing Creole folk songs. Suddenly, everything around us started to dissolve into a haze.
We watched the older man sway and gently cradle his instrument like it was a woman while he performed French songs from another era. His accompaniment was the occasional rattle and clank of tools which were slowly bringing the Chili Peppers’ van back to life.
This was one of the most surreal and other-worldly experiences I’d ever had in my life and I vowed to never forget any of it.
A week or so later, I was getting on another plane- this time, from JFK to LAX. On my arrival in Los Angeles, pre production with the Chili Peppers would commence and eventually, we’d start recording. The crescendo had gradually begun to gain intensity.
This was going to be my first solo production with an American band. Apart from a few projects with lesser known Canadian bands, I had done nothing to really distinguish myself. It was a big step for me, but I was just happy to be working.
I had no illusions that this project would somehow make me a rich record producer. I was working with one of EMI’s lowest echelon artists and I knew it. The project wasn’t earmarked for success, in fact, it was probably going to be the Chili Peppers’ last record for EMI. I was still a kid. All I cared about was being in a recording studio. I was thrilled.
There was a precondition I had agreed to before getting on the plane to Los Angeles. EMI wouldn’t let us begin recording until I provided them with finished demos of all the entire album. Once this precondition was satisfied, the brass at EMI would then decide whether or not to green light us. As the band had only three songs, this was a potentially daunting task. A massive amount of work was looming on the horizon.
Another small detail was becoming far more worrisome.
During a random conversation about the band, Lindy Goetz (the Chili Peppers’ manager) had very casually mentioned that a few of the guys had a “drug problem”. He brought this up in such a cavalier manner (and dropped it so expediently), that I didn’t give the matter a second thought. I simply assumed that Lindy was referring to little more than some dalliances with marijuana, perhaps a line or two of cocaine.
On my arrival at LAX, I quickly discovered what Lindy had meant by a “drug problem”. I was met at the baggage claim by Jack Irons and Flea. Within a minute of us meeting, Jack informed me that Anthony Kiedis and Hillel were both heroin addicts.
While Hillel’s habit was “manageable”, Anthony’s habit had been raging out of control. In addition, no one had seen him for a few days. Which, apparently, was normal.
I internally took stock of the situation.
This was new and unexpected. I was at a loss regarding whether I could handle it or not. The handful of people I knew in New York who used heroin were very discreet. I would occasionally hear through the grapevine about people with raging addictions, but I never met any of them. These were legendary figures, many of them luminaries in the arts. Some had been shooting dope for decades, perpetually walking the razor’s edge between life and death.
Every so often, one of them would OD.
I’d never worked with anyone in a band who was an addict. Never even considered the possibility. All of a sudden, I was going to be working with a band which boasted not one addict, but two.
Talk about being thrown into the deep end of the pool. This brought a whole new level of cognitive dissonance into an already dissonant situation.
Upon being confronted with this reality, a different producer might have turned around and gone straight back to New York. I, however, was cut from different cloth. There was something disturbingly compelling about the situation, endearingly pathetic and far too melodramatic for me to resist.
Therefore, in spite of being completely stunned, I displayed no reaction to the information Jack presented me with. Instead, I threw my bags into the trunk of his car. Jack then drove me to the Oakwood Apartments in Burbank, which was to be my new residence for the next few months. In my wildest dreams, I never imagined how long I would be living there or what was about to come.
The flimsy fabric of the following month unraveled with a grim purposefulness. The underlying crescendo, which had just surged to a fever pitch, began to plateau ever so slightly.
The Chili Peppers had worked on more songs since their first demo. However, they had about 5 finished structures and needed to record about 11-13 songs in total.
None of these new structures had any vocal parts, apart from the initial three I’d heard about a month and a half ago (one of those being a cover of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” by Bob Dylan). This was because Anthony wasn’t writing vocal parts or coming to band rehearsals. Instead, he was living with his girlfriend at her mother’s house, where they spent all day having sex and shooting heroin.
If this wasn’t enough, I made another unexpected discovery. EMI America were less than fond of the Chili Peppers.
I began hearing about some EMI executives who considered it a personal crusade to utterly demolish any hope the Chili Peppers had for success. For this reason, Lindy had tried several times to get the Chili Peppers out of their contract with EMI. Each time he tried to walk, he was refused.
It was as if someone was trying to turn the Chili Peppers’ contract with EMI into a prison sentence. They wanted to see the band languish at EMI America, wither and eventually, die.
In part, this was because the Chili Peppers represented something these twisted, frustrated old guard executives couldn’t understand and consequently, despised. At that time, popular music was a flavorless melange of formula rock, watered down R&B, anemic pop and hair metal bands. Hiphop was only starting to make waves on the West Coast and was still more popular back east. “Appetite For Destruction” had just come out and people still didn’t know what to make of it.
Generally, no one on the West Coast made or understood music which was raw. Back in the mid-1980’s, everyone had big sounding reverbs on their records and even bigger shoulder pads in their jackets.
The Chili Peppers were standard-bearers for a new underground of West Coast counter culture. They were gritty and had crazy tattoos. They were into surfing, skateboarding, basketball, sex, drugs, Black Flag and P-Funk. They came from nice middle-class families but they grew up playing in the filth of Hollywood’s dark underbelly. They had seen unbelievable things, lived through unspeakable horrors and wore it all proudly on their sleeves. There wasn’t another band that sounded even remotely like them.
The Chili Peppers were loud, abrasive, insane, real and unmanageable. Their existence defied the traditional illusion of a placid, laid back Southern California and laid bare a far more disturbing reality.
They were a brood of little monsters who could only have been spawned in the charnel pit that is Hollywood.
This scared the living daylights out of those white bread, washed out, coke snorting West Coast music business executives who liked their jobs safe and their music safer. They were used to dominating and controlling their artists through fear and bribery. The Chili Peppers were one band which couldn’t be dictated to or dominated. They stood in unrelenting opposition to a music business which was hell bent on snuffing the creativity out of the creatives.
The Chili Peppers couldn’t be dominated because they were too crazy to be scared of anything. No one at the record company had anything that they wanted or needed. They couldn’t be incentivized or threatened. After what they’d lived through, everything else seemed tame by comparison.
Naturally, the Chili Peppers did their best to aggravate this situation. A very short time after being signed, they managed to alienate virtually everyone who worked at EMI Records. They did this merely by being themselves.
The band had decided that it would be in their collective best interest to get the attention of everyone at EMI. They decided to achieve this by waiting until a major A&R meeting was in progress. They headed to EMI and ran straight into the building. All four of them rushed past security into the conference room where the A&R meeting was taking place. They leaped onto the boardroom table and did a spontaneous tribal dance for about a minute in complete silence. Stark naked.
And then, as quickly as they had run into the room, they ran back out again.
This was how The Red Hot Chili Peppers decided to get the attention of everyone at EMI Records.
Coincidentally, this was also when the movement began within EMI America to see the Chili Peppers’ heads on pikes.
The band were rehearsing out of a tiny songwriting studio at the EMI Records building on Sunset Blvd. The building was a depressing, nondescript little reddish brown structure which was dwarfed by the immense, weed infested parking lot it sat upon. The whole thing was torn down a few years ago and has since become the site of a DSW outlet.
We would show up at EMI every day after 5pm (which, coincidentally, was when everyone else had left the building). In order to get to the studio, we’d have to walk through the main part of the building, which was where most of the offices were located. From the offices, we’d pass through the mail room and from the mail room, into the studio.
The guys in the mail room were about the only EMI employees who had any real passion for (or interest in) music. Of course, EMI wasn’t exactly a brain trust of executive/ A&R talent at that point. In fact, it was one of the most tepid record labels in the country and under constant threat of being absorbed into one of the other associated labels in it’s parent company.
The mail room was the most entertaining part of the entire building. The mail room staff had intercepted a lot of unusual correspondence and posted it onto a bulletin board. This was an assortment of some of the most insane, incomprehensible (and mainly, handwritten) letters I had ever seen. These letters were written either by people who were trying to contact EMI artists or wanted someone at the company to read their psychotic lyrics and record their psychotic songs. My favorites were the letters from Japanese schoolgirls (most of which were written to David Bowie. One such letter, was addressed to Bowie at “EMI Record” on “San Set Bluebird”.).
The band was rehearsing daily, but Anthony was AWOL. Every day, there would be word that he was coming to the studio, but by the evening, he still would still be a no-show. After a few weeks, it was clear that this was having a terrible effect on the rest of the band. One evening, I went to a gig at Raji’s and ran into Flea. He was so distraught that he walked up, put his arms around me and burst into tears.
I began calling Anthony every day in an effort to get him to the rehearsal studio. One evening, after about two weeks of phone calls and pleading, he finally showed up.
Anthony shuffled into the studio holding a bag of candy, his face a pockmarked, sickly shade of green. His band clamored around him in veneration, as if he was some god from another world on a day trip to their planet.
After Anthony had been sitting for a few minutes, he stood up and proceeded to the bathroom where he threw up. From there, he went out into the parking lot, got into his girlfriend’s car and drove away.
Once again, the crescendo continued to ramp up with a singular sense of purpose and a life all it’s own.
One day, Lindy and I were in his car, sitting in the middle of a North Hollywood intersection. Suddenly, a look of utter despair coupled with unmitigated horror flashed across his face. It appeared as if he was staring blindly into an infinite black abyss. In a hollow, empty voice, he said “I don’t know what to do. I just don’t know what to do.”
Everything was beginning to crumble around us and it was time to step things up. We somehow got Anthony to leave his girlfriend’s mom’s house and to stay at Lindy’s apartment for a few days. He even stayed with me at the Oakwood for a night. All the while, I kept talking to him about what he was doing. I asked him if he really wanted to live and to do something truly great or if he wanted to give up and die. The answer was always the same- he wanted to do his best.
One of Anthony’s friends loaned him a car. Another gave him a boom box so he could listen to the songs we’d begun demoing and begin writing his vocal parts. These all seemed like steps in the right direction. He even came to another rehearsal.
Then, one day, Anthony disappeared again. Later, he showed up and said that he’d lost the car his friend had loaned him. It didn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out what had happened. Every heroin dealer in Los Angeles knew Anthony. If he didn’t go to them, they would always flock to him.
Anthony was still taking heroin and he wasn’t writing any vocal parts. His behavior was beginning to feel more and more like a massive insult to everyone who cared about him.
By this point, his band had lost complete faith in him. I was reaching my breaking point.
The crescendo, which had running concurrently with the lives of everyone on the project, came to a raging and mighty peak one warm spring evening. Anthony was scheduled to come to the studio, present some ideas he had been working on and hopefully, record them.
Anthony did come to the studio that evening. He even came with lyrics. However, the lyrics he brought had been written 2 years previously for an unreleased Chili Peppers song called “Millionaires for Hunger”. He said that he thought he could make them work with the new song we had been demoing.
You could feel a pregnancy in the reverberations of Anthony’s final utterance. His words echoed and rang throughout every molecule in the room in the loudest, most offensive manner imaginable. They sat hanging in the air, ridiculing and mocking every one of us who’d been working so hard to bring this project to fruition.
I couldn’t have imagined anything more humiliating to the rest of the band. I saw the expressions on their faces and felt their hurt- it was overwhelming. All they wanted was their vocalist back from the merciless death grip of his heroin addiction. They had so much love for Anthony that they would have done or given anything just to see him well again.
Even though Anthony was aware of this, he came into their work space and completely disrespected his band. After everything we’d all been through, this was simply too much.
At that precise moment, I exploded in an uncontrollable rage. I started shouting at the top of my lungs and verbally conjoined Anthony’s drug use with some kind of sexual union involving his mother.
Anthony stood there, completely stunned. Clearly, he hadn’t prepared for anyone to express their feelings to him. He began to splutter defensively, at which point I told him to get out of the studio. I told him that he was fired. From his own band.
The air resonated from the force of this pronouncement. Anthony turned around and walked out of the studio in shock. Flea, who’d witnessed the entire debacle, stammered, “You can’t do that”. I looked him straight in the face and said, “I just did”.
And that was it. I had kicked Anthony out of The Red Hot Chili Peppers. Now, we were truly in the wilderness. We had a bunch of demos with no vocals, no one to vocalize on them and no back up plan. Everyone (myself included) knew that Anthony was the man for the job, but he was in no shape to do it.
The crescendo which had been gradually escalating, simultaneously peaked and idled.
Our next course of action was to find a replacement. The word went out all over Hollywood that The Red Hot Chili Peppers were auditioning vocalists. People (and demo tapes) began pouring out of the woodwork like insects.
The band took an interest in one potential candidate named Ron Young. Ron was an outstanding singer, but completely wrong for the Chili Peppers. Nonetheless, everyone in the band was excited about him as the new prospect. Lindy loved him because his lyrics were about cars and girls and he felt that those topics sold records.
We brought Ron into the studio to record his ideas on some of the demos we’d done. This wound up being so awful that midway through the session, I had to go outside for air.
Some of the songs we’d been demoing had working titles. One of the songs had the working title “James Brown’s Sphincter”. Ron had actually written lyrics for this song about James Brown’s sphincter. He even threw in the line “Poppa’s got a brand new bag” (which gave it an entirely new meaning).
Suffice it to say, things didn’t end well, but they did end. Ron didn’t last the afternoon.
While this was transpiring, Anthony had gone home to Michigan, moved in with his mom and cleaned the heroin out of his system. Shortly after Ron’s vocal session, Lindy received a message that Anthony was completely clean, he was in good shape and wanted to come back.
Whatever the issues had been, Anthony was the vocalist for The Red Hot Chili Peppers. He had a unique sound and a unique approach. He had a remarkable presence and he wasn’t replaceable- not by anyone.
Without Anthony, the band would have not been the Chili Peppers anymore.
Anthony returned, strong, healthy and grateful for the second chance. He started writing vocal parts and immediately fell into a creative roll. Every vocal part he came up with was an absolutely impeccable compliment to the new band songs. It was marvelous to see how he worked and how much he’d changed. Inside of a month, he transformed from a self-absorbed, self-destructive junkie into a brilliant creative partner.
Anthony’s presence brought new life to the band and a vitality I hadn’t seen in them previously. All of a sudden, they were on top of the world. They had gotten their wish- their brother had returned to them.
Finally, we could complete the demos for EMI. Anthony’s vocals were recorded in a few days and the tracks were subsequently mixed.
Everything was going great. I had helped this band literally pull themselves through hell and out the other side. There were finished demos to play for the executives from EMI, exactly as I’d been instructed. All of this would finally get us into the recording studio.
It was Wednesday. We could meet with the EMI head honchos, play them our demos and book time at Capitol Studios for the following Monday. After this, I planned to enjoy a weekend of relaxing television. It was a slam dunk.
At this point, meeting with EMI was a mere technicality, but one we had to endure. It didn’t matter- the demos were great and the higher ups were going to love them. We weren’t crescendoing anymore- we were coasting.
Lindy and I were scheduled to meet with EMI on Thursday evening. Only one of the top brass was coming down to the studio to hear the record. Our guest was Neil Portnow- Vice President of A&R at EMI America.
When Portnow arrived, we ushered him into the tiny recording studio. Once he was situated and comfortable, JB, the EMI house engineer began playing our demos for the third Chili Peppers’ record.
Portnow sat impassively in his chair and listened to the entire record without so much as a peep. After we’d finished playing everything, he silently got up to leave.
Lindy and I looked at one another, dumbfounded. What had just happened? We had done everything that had been asked of us. We were ready to go into the studio with these songs. The band were chomping at the bit. Everything hinged on this meeting.
However, the man who stood between us and the chance to start recording was reacting in the worst possible way to what he’d just heard.
Horror and panic began to stir up a sickening brew in my gut. In an instant, I realized what was happening. Neil Portnow didn’t like it because he didn’t get it. And he didn’t get it because he’d made up his mind about it long before he showed up to listen.
Apparently, Portnow was part of the EMI cabal who were contriving to drive the Chili Peppers out of the music business and into packing groceries at Ralph’s. We had been screwed.
Lindy and I followed Portnow out into the parking lot. “Well, what do you think?”, Lindy asked.
“We’ll talk about it tomorrow.” was Neil’s response.
But you just heard the entire record. Let’s talk about it now. What do you think?
Portnow stopped and stared at us, coolly. “We’ll talk about it tomorrow”.
At that instant, Lindy and I became incredulous. We had been laboring over this project for months. We had dealt with drug problems, band members flipping out, untold melodrama. We had come through it all and we had persevered.
We had fulfilled our obligations and had all our ducks in a row. Band morale was at an all time high, studio time was booked at Capitol starting in four days. And now, this. Understandably, we were upset.
We both began shouting at Neil Portnow in the EMI Records parking lot. Neil began shouting back at us. This was the mightiest and most tempestuous crescendo yet.
The shouting continued as Portnow got in his car. And then, from within the depths of his car, came the definitive and final word which ended our agitated discourse. “You’re not going into any recording studio unless I say you are”.
With that, Neil Portnow’s car door slammed defiantly. He pulled out of the EMI parking lot and his car roared off into the garishly iridescent Hollywood night. Big, big decrescendo. Dead stop.
It was over. Just like that. This was war- we had lost and they had won. Or, had they?
If we had been in another business, in another city, this could have been the end of the line for us. Our dreams might have been dashed to bits on those craggy rocks which lie in dizzying depths below the ethereal realms where dreamers dare to dream.
Thank goodness, we were in Hollywood. This is a city built on dreams and a veritable cesspool where people regularly abuse their power to satisfy whatever lust they may wish to indulge. The spawning ground of the Chili Peppers inevitably corrupts all who give in to its bewitching embrace. That corruption which had polluted the souls of untold multitudes for decades could also be employed to our benefit. As the song goes, hooray for Hollywood.
Bright and early, the very next morning, Lindy called Jim Mazza. Mazza was the President of Capitol Records and Capitol was the parent company of EMI America. Previous to running a record company, Mazza had been a record producer. He drove a brown Rolls Royce Corniche convertible that Kenny Rogers had bought him one Christmas.
When Lindy got Mazza on the phone, he asked him point-blank why Neil Portnow wasn’t allowing his little band into Capitol Studios for the pittance they’d been given to record. This didn’t seem right, Lindy continued, when Neil Portnow was spending $300,000 on demos for some girl with whom he was having an inappropriate relationship.
In a city which is defined by it’s many degrees of moral corruption, Lindy had effortlessly found Neil Portnow’s Achilles Heel. The information Lindy provided was verified and Mazza’s response was predictable. Lindy claimed that he had to hold the phone away from his ear as Mazza delivered a blistering tirade of expletives at maximum intensity. Big, big breathtaking crescendo.
Immediately after this conversation, things began to move at light speed. Within the hour, we received official approval from EMI America to begin recording. We went into Capitol Studio B the following Monday, as we had originally planned. I wore a suit to proudly display the significance that day had for me.
From there, it took another 4 months for us to complete the project. It was executed in the spirit of brotherhood which The Red Hot Chili Peppers embodied and constructed on a foundation of their unique blend of punk, hiphop, dub, funk and rock.
The record was all about them. Its subtext told a tale of their history together; their drug use, their fascination with sex. Their astonishing ups and their heartbreaking downs.
And, through it all, the record told of how they supported one another as only brothers could who’d grown up together under different roofs.
A continuum of genuine love and warmth flowed between all the participants as the record came together. Once, when Jack was having trouble playing one of the songs, the other three stood in front of the control room glass with their testicles in their hands, waving them at him in solidarity. They were “scroting” him.
At another point toward the end of the recording process, a very appreciative (and serious) Hillel told me that to them, I was like “Steve Martin was to The Beatles”.
The album we made went on to be called “The Uplift Mofo Party Plan”.
“Uplift” sold twice as many records as any of it’s predecessors and gave The Chili Peppers new found cache with EMI. Concurrent with this, all the haters at quietly folded up their tents and disappeared into the scenery.
There was still more drama to come and a death in the process of beginning their next record. This subsequent recording would catapult them to stardom and out of the dismal confines of EMI forever.
Without “The Uplift Mofo Party Plan” (as well as the awe-inspiring crescendos and decrescendos which defined and culminated in it’s creation), history might have known The Red Hot Chili Peppers in an entirely different way.
As for Neil Portnow, that night in the old EMI records’ parking lot was the last time I saw him. He is now the president of NARAS.
With one final breathtaking crescendo, the story ends.