Red Hot Chili Peppers have gone through a number of guitarists over the years, but their longest-tenured and arguably most interesting was John Frusciante, who served two separate stints with the band, from 1988–1992 and from 1998–2009, and then rejoined the band in late 2019 only to see all foreseeable future gigs put on hold by the pandemic. While this latest, third chapter of the “RHCP with John Frusciante” story will have to wait to be told, the thrilling highs and fraught lows of this relationship between band and guitarist easily explain fans’ excitement about the reunion.
The young Frusciante was first locked in as the group’s guitarist after they tested a few stand-ins following the sudden death of original member Hillel Slovak in 1988. As bassist Flea commented in Jeff Apter‘s 2004 book, Fornication: The Red Hot Chili Peppers Story, Fruiscante was “a really talented and knowledgeable musician. He [Frusciante] knows all the shit I don’t know. I basically know nothing about music theory and he’s studied it to death, inside and out. He’s a very disciplined musician—all he cares about are his guitar and his cigarettes.”
However, cracks began to show among the ranks of the Red Hot Chili Peppers after the band’s fifth album, 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik, catapulted them to international rock star status. In addition to increasing issues with drug addiction within the group, the eccentric Frusciante did not take well to their sudden spike in fame. As vocalist Anthony Kiedis explained in his 2004 autobiography, Scar Tissue, “John would say, ‘We’re too popular. I don’t need to be at this level of success. I would just be proud to be playing this music in clubs like you guys were doing two years ago.”
That attitude would come off during the band’s shows in support of the album. The final dates of Frusciante’s first tenure with the Red Hot Chili Peppers were messy. As Kiedis explains in Scar Tissue, “Things deteriorated to the point where John and I didn’t talk on the bus, and if we ran into each other in passing, we wouldn’t even acknowledge each other.” Frusciante was often disconnected from the group and frequently changed the way he played on certain songs, which got under Kiedis’ skin even more.
The divide between the band members at that time was perhaps most clearly apparent during their 1992 stint as the musical guests on Saturday Night Live on February 22, 1992. Frusciante was reportedly on edge the entire evening. He nearly got in a physical altercation with a crew member prior to the broadcast, was vocally annoyed about Madonna ignoring him on set, and otherwise generally withdrew from the group, sequestering himself for much of the night.
Their first of two songs, “Stone Cold Bush”, went relatively well, though Frusciante’s detachment may have been somewhat noticeable. However, what was definitely noticeable to those watching closely was Kiedis kicking the unenthused Frusciante while writhing in his trademark manner [03:33 in the video below].
Red Hot Chili Peppers – “Stone Cold Bush” – SNL 1992
Whether or not the kick was intentional (and whether or not it actually played any roll in what came next), the band’s tensions were visibly amplified on their second song, “Under The Bridge”. As Kiedis explains in Scar Tissue, he worried about the song beforehand, as it was John’s responsibility to both cue him in after he was done with the guitar intro and supply the chorus’ backing vocals, and he wasn’t sure what John might do.
What they got from Frusciante was about what Kiedis may have expected. The guitarist deliberately played arhythmic, slightly dissonant, and marginally out-of-place chords, seemingly intending to confuse Kiedis’ vocals. When it came time for John’s backup vocals, he mustered a shrill howl in place of the written lyrics. In fairness, we wouldn’t hasten to call this an objectively “bad” rendition—it does have its moments of harmonic intrigue courtesy of Frusciante’s aggressively avant-garde playing. But it also features more than enough musical moments to make you cringe. If you watch Kiedis’ body language in the video, you can clearly tell that he’s not amused.
As Kiedis explains in Scar Tissue, “I had no idea what song he was playing or what key he was in. He looked like he was in a different world. We were on live TV in front of millions of people, and it was torture. I started to sing in what I thought was the key, even if it wasn’t the key he was playing in. I felt like I was getting stabbed in the back and hung out to dry in front of all of America while this guy was off in a corner in the shadow, playing some dissonant out-of-tune experiment. I thought he was doing that on purpose, just to fuck with me.”
Watch the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ tension-inflected performance of “Under The Bridge” on SNL on this day in 1992 below:
Red Hot Chili Peppers – “Under The Bridge” – SNL – 1992
The tensions between Kiedis and Frusciante rose rapidly from there. By May of that year, Frusciante had quit the band. He would later rejoin in ’98 after kicking his heroin habit and remain with the band for more than 10 more successful years before once again parting ways—amicably, this time—to pursue a solo career. Touring guitarist Josh Klinghoffer maintained lead guitar duties up until the December 2019 announcement that Frusciante would once again return to the group.
[A version of this story was initially published in 2018]