Why Flea's memoir ends as the Red Hot Chili Peppers begin

By Mark Savage
BBC music reporter

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Flea: "It's very weird to be talking about an autobiography. It's a very vulnerable feeling."

From the very first chapter of his autobiography, Flea makes it clear he won't be telling a story of rock glory.

Being famous, he explains, doesn't count for anything.

Instead, the book is a coming of age tale, depicting a chaotic childhood full of fun, danger, misadventure and mayhem. The band that made him a megastar - The Red Hot Chili Peppers - only swerves into view as it reaches its final pages.

"I thought if I wrote a book about the Chili Peppers, it'd be like cheating," the bassist tells the BBC.

"But if I could write a book about my childhood that could exist on its own merits, without the band, then I deserved to write a book. That was the challenge I set for myself."

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The Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1989 (bottom to top): Anthony Kiedis, John Frusciante, Chad Smith, and Flea

The result is Acid For The Children, a moving and frequently hilarious glimpse into his formative years; from the wreckage of his parents' first marriage and the explosive temper of his step-father; to the years he spent smoking weed, bunking off school and breaking into swimming pools.

Flea thrived on the unpredictability, but felt untethered to the real world.

"I looked for love in the faces of people I saw on the street," he writes.

For people who know his stage persona - mouth pursed, elbows extended, head thrashing over the bass - the vulnerability of his writing may come as a surprise. But Flea emerges as a tender, big-hearted character. Tossed about by the currents of life, he always keeps his head above the water.

Ahead of the book's publication, we caught up with Flea as he was "petting a dog on the head and making a cup of tea" at his home in LA, to examine some of the key passages.

Surviving violence at home

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"The dysfunction and the violence was really scary," says Flea

When Flea was 13, he returned home from trick-or-treating to find a group of kids running down the street in a panic.

"They informed us that a scary man had gone crazy. He was firing a gun into the street and screaming like a crazed animal," he writes.

When he got home, he flung open the front door to warn his parents about the mad man, only to find his step-father, Walter Urban Jr, slumped over a chair "clad only in his underwear, blood smeared about his face and torso, a pistol by his side".

"That stuff was really scary, and it really did traumatise me," Flea tells the BBC about the violence that punctuated his childhood.

"After some of those really traumatic episodes at my house, I would go to school the next day feeling hung over and in a daze, really upset. But when you're a kid, you don't see the forest for the trees. It's just your experience and you're trying to make sense of it.

"So I just waited for that feeling to end, and I'd go play basketball or play in the band and hope for the best. But it was very difficult many a time."

Now 56 and a parent himself, the star says he's put those incidents behind him.

"My parents were too wrapped up in their own pain to see what they were doing wrong," he says.

"Going around holding grudges and resentments saps your spirit so, in a selfish way, for my own personal wellbeing and being the best dad I can, I need to forgive."

Discovering music... and nudity

While home life was turbulent, it had some upsides. Walter was a musician, whose shelves were "weighed down by hundreds of jazz albums"; and the house played host to a rotating cast of artists.

"Bearing witness to these jazz musicians, playing in my house when I was a little kid, absolutely blew my head off," says Flea. "It opened me up to something so rich and so beautiful and so alive and so infinite that it was the most remarkable gift."

Image source, Photograph courtesy of Flea
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Flea in his younger years, when he was known as Michael Balzary

The bohemian lifestyle had its quirks, too.

"It was kind of like a naked house," he recalls. "We'd all walk around naked.

"I have an old friend, a childhood friend, who's like, 'Man, I remember going over to your house and your dad answered the door, and he was naked!'

"He thought that was so wrong, man. He was like, 'This is a lunatic asylum' but for me, when I look back on it, that was the one healthy part of the whole thing."

Books stopped him becoming a drug addict

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Probably not this book, though

With a cover photo that shows Flea, aged 12, smoking a joint, it's clear that the memoir won't shy away from the star's predilection for drugs.

"LSD was good to me," opens one chapter. "For someone like me, who was running crazy in the street, the drug got me to access my subconscious, to develop introspection."

He goes on to describe experiments with cocaine, speed, heroin and MDMA.

Surprisingly, he says it was a love of books that "stopped me from becoming a junkie or completely frying my brain".

"I'm not a really educated person, but I've always found great joy in reading," he tells the BBC. "It's been a guardian angel for me.

"I didn't get a lot of parenting at home, so it gave me a sense of ethics and exposed me to different ways of thinking. So I'd read every night... unless I was too wasted to do it."

He only had one lesson on the bass

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As a child, Flea was a gifted trumpeter

Flea is one of the most influential bassists of his generation, with a syncopated-but-melodic style that combines funk, punk and hard rock.

But he was originally a jazz trumpeter, who only picked up a guitar to help out his friend, Hillel Slovak.

Hillel gave him one lesson, telling him to pluck the strings with two fingers "alternately, like they were walking," and three weeks later, Flea made his stage debut with Anthym.

"I've never been very technical," he explains. "I came at it more from jamming and creating rhythms that were unlike anyone else's. I would be drooling because I was so lost in it."

He says the Chili Peppers approached songwriting in a similar way, prioritising instinct over songcraft, until guitarist John Frusciante joined them for their fourth album, Mother's Milk, in 1988.

"Honestly, our songwriting really went up a level when John joined the band. He had a lyricism in his playing, but he also understood how to structure a song. I really learned a lot from him."

He set up his own music school

Image source, Silverlake Conservatory
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Flea established the school 18 years ago

He may not have studied music formally, but the school marching band played a crucial role in Flea's story.

"For me, a wild-assed street kid, the only reason I showed up to school was to play the trumpet," he says.

But the year he graduated, a new law in California decimated school funding, with arts and music classes the earliest and biggest casualties. So, in 2001, Flea decided to open his own music school, the Silverlake Conservatory.

"Music really saved my life as a kid, so I just wanted there to be a hub for kids to get together and play," he says.

"They talk about school being the 'Three Rs,' - reading, writing and arithmetic, but at our school, we always talk about the 'Three As,' - academics, arts and athletics."

"I meet adults now who are like, 'Hey, when I was 12 years old, I went to your school and it changed my life'. That really means a lot to me."

Anthony Kiedis is his best friend, and biggest antagonist

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Kiedis and Flea set up the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1983

Anthony Kiedis, the Red Hot Chili Peppers' wild-eyed frontman was, Flea says, his "missing link".

"He was unlike anyone I had ever met," he writes. "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".

Their bond was watertight, but the relationship was stormy. Flea recalls one trip to Michigan where the duo started trading insults. "It started out lightly and humorously, but became meaner and more personal, preying on each other's insecurities, doing our best to humiliate and hurt each other," he recalls.

In his own autobiography, Scar Tissue, Kiedis called the relationship with Flea "bizarre and sometimes dangerous". So was the bassist wary of re-opening old wounds?

"I hesitated to write it," the musician admits. "Obviously I want to be respectful to him but this is the story, man.

"When I look back, I can still feel all that pain - but in the end, that's the thing that makes our creative relationship what it is, do you know what I mean?"

The Chili Peppers just wanted to make people laugh

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Flea's book ends in 1983, as the Chili Peppers play their first gig under the name Tony Flow and the Miraculously Majestic Masters of Mayhem.

With just one song in their repertoire (Out In LA), they fill the stage time by dancing to the Jonzun Crew's electro-funk hit Pack Jam.

"When we started the band, everything was about what was funny to us," he explains. "We really loved this song, so we came up with a dance routine in our living room, going, 'This would be so fun!'

"And, you know, it was the most fulfilling experience, artistically, that I'd ever had in my life."

He says that, 36 years later, the band's goals are the same.

"It goes through ups and downs and phases. There's times when it's gruelling work - but when we get those moments where it's hilarious and we're all tingling and laughing, it's the greatest thing in the world."

One last thing...

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A whale, yesterday

Flea didn't want to write a memoir at all. If he'd had his way, the star's first book would have been very different.

"What I'd actually like to write is a fiction book about the life of whales. Like Watership Down, but for whales.

"I've been thinking about it. I was just on a five-day backpacking trip and I was thinking about it the whole time."

Flea's book Acid For The Children is out now.

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