The Red Hot Chili Peppers Should Bring Back the Socks

Rjyan Kidwell (Cex) dives into the Peps’ The Getaway.

There is no overstating the magnetic vibes that emanate from the image of the sweaty young Peps going wild on a funky jam on stage, completely nude but for some used gym socks — socks worn, not on their feet, mind you, where you would think a sock would be worn, but on their penises. More than twenty years have passed, yet that image remains every bit as kinetic and stirring. And, perhaps, necessary… Not Giving a Fuck has seldom since been so merrily cherubic.

Writing about a new Peps without talking about early-’90s Peps is Illmatic levels of difficult in the shadow of 1991’s Bloodsugarsexmagik (x1.5 if you include the Coneheads song, which you should because it was also recorded in Harry Houdini’s mansion). If you haven’t seen Funky Monks, the documentary Flea’s brother-in-law made about the band during the recording of that record, it is in convenient chunks on YouTube and rivals the 2002 Seinfeld doc Comedian for the title of #1 Movie About an Artist’s Process That (If You’re Interested in Craft) Will Make You Fall in Love With Them in Spite of Your Feelings About Their Specific Output. I would call it a “gritty, realistic reboot of This is Spinal Tap,” but its core qualities are humor and charm, and none of those words really convey that.

So now they release their eleventh full-length album, The Getaway. There’s a new producer (Danger Mouse, the enabler of Dungeon Fam OG Cee-Lo’s trip off the deep end) and a new guitarist, but to be frank, the layman will really have to hunt for details of any truly significant variation from the kind of high-gloss Grown-Peppers songs they’ve been recording since 2002’s By the Way. I guess there’s maybe more little fake-orchestra overdubs, and a few vague notes of that recent Daft-Punk Docksiders-disco vibe. Nothing that rises to the level of even mildly surprising. The songs do not lack energy — and it’s an energy clearly scaled to stadium show dimensions — but it’s a containable energy. A stadium will easily contain it. It will not be mistaken for a manifestation of a transcendent force. It is often catchy and assuredly skillfully crafted, for sure, and these are high virtues — but virtues that only need be articulated when describing something mundane. It may not be fair to the individual, industrious Peppers, who have every right to be proud of their work, but diving into the sonic details of this record isn’t going to be anything more than a list, than information. It’s not a story.

Kiedis pulled the full Jim Carrey, but for all the overbearing maturity and measured sensitivity, the shift has never seemed indicative of anything grave going on inside.

And for better and for worse, around the Pep Boys will be forever wound a great ball of electric yarns. You know about this 1985 major-label-funded month-long sleepover party with unlimited cocaine at George Clinton’s house? There’s a grip of stories like that in Scar Tissue, Anthony Kiedis’ 2004 memoir. The idea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers is inextricable from a cycle of anecdotes about slightly self-sabotaging rap-rock prodigies willing themselves into the realm of legend. And at the time of Bloodsugar and the documentary, Kiedis and Flea were in the twilight of the twilight of their twenties — yet their relentless enthusiasm, hyperbolic confidence, uncontainable horniness, earnest New Age pontifications and compulsive shirtlessness all coalesce into an unmistakable manifestation of superhuman youthfulness. So many bands have (briefly) embodied the Dionysian spirit for us, stumbling among the mortals perpetually drunk and high and then instantly so alive on a stage as to confer a physical euphoria upon the crowds that flock to their festivals like raving Maenads. But so few of those bands nailed that part of the myth where Dionysus does all this in the form of an innocent, invincible child. And none of them kept it nailed for as many consecutive years as the Peppies.

But one day they decided to grow up — at least Anthony did. Kiedis could be seen wearing a tie and a shirt; he grew a mustache; he excised the rapping, the “Doo doo dingle zing-a dong bone” scatting, the quick dips into cartoon voices — indeed, every color on his vocal palette save Straight Crooning. The 2007 single “Hump de Bump” — an intentional throwback to 1985’s “American Ghost Dance” — was the last act of real Sex Magik the band performed: an unrepentantly silly island floating in the double-disc dose of maudlin Cali Crooning that is 2006’s Stadium Arcadium. In the Chris Rock-directed video for the song, Kiedis is the only Pepper who maintains any kind of composure for the camera. He doesn’t quite look self-conscious about the silly song or the silly video, but he is consciously not a weinersocks front man — he’s just a man.

Kiedis pulled the full Jim Carrey, but for all the overbearing maturity and measured sensitivity, the shift has never seemed indicative of anything grave going on inside. And The Getaway, while definitely less dour than the past decade of Peppers records, adds little to this story of the savage band of nonconformist, born-to-rock goofbags who escaped their expected fate and became heirs to the Los Angeles Adult Contemporary Rock throne formerly occupied by the Eagles. Maybe Danger Mouse deserves more blame for the brushes-with-Buffet in Getaway’s “Sick Love” and “Feasting on the Flowers,” but the Peppers themselves laid the groundwork that makes that creeping flavor no kind of eyebrow-raiser.

The easiest place to track a transforming Kiedis is with the horniness.

It’s rude as hell to reduce it like this, but I can’t think of any other way to potentially provoke Kiedis’ current take on the band’s big arc. His lyrics have always been more musical than communicative, and while not nearly as nonsensical as people sometimes like to joke, it does take a lot of patience to analyze them. In Funky Monks, Flea praises producer Rick Rubin’s ability to approach their songs without emotion, which is important “especially because we’re so caught up in — we run on pure emotion. That’s what we’re all about.” As much as their post-’90s MO represents a triumph of mature and rational decision-making, excavating meaning from RHCP lyrics remains a task of collecting impressions more than connecting dots.

The easiest place to track a transforming Kiedis is with the horniness. The bare-boner anthems of such ’80s Peppers as “Catholic School Girls Rule” and “Sexy Mexican Maid” became halfway-reflective semi-lamentations a la “Breaking the Girl” and “Scar Tissue” in the ’90s. It seemed the maturing Kiedis felt some guilt over emotional trauma he may have inadvertently inflicted on women who expected more from him than ephemeral erotic encounters — although maybe not so much as to lift any of those individuals above a faceless, interchangeable presence in his own poetic soul-searching. Getaway indicates that this merry-go-round of muses still turns; however, Kiedis keeps his allusions to it relatively modest, although it’s plain that you still can’t ride that ride unless you’re under a certain height (i.e., “Stick ’n’ move you’re living in a quick world/Got a heavy laugh for such a tiny girl/Born into it for sure” or “A May-December might not be so smart/Another lonely superstar to get away inside your car” or “Under my skin and half my age/Hotter than the wax on a saxifrage” or “Standing naked in your kitchen/Feeling free to be alive/Clearly I’m a contradiction/Too young to be my wife,” etc., etc., etc.). And as trite as you might want to call a review of The Getaway that winds down the bumpy road of What Ya Gonna Do When a Rockstar Gets Old, how are you gonna help tracing a line from the effortlessly Neverland aura of the young Lothario to the aristocratic vampire Kiedis who prays for his prey after concluding a meal?

Of course I do not begrudge the Peppers their decision to pull the reins before riding their success off the cliff. It’s an undeniable fact of the music business that at some point you have to let go of the dream that you are an unprecedented brilliance predestined to ascend ever higher. Perfection becomes something that can only be aspired to, not actually embodied — you stop trying to fly into the sun and accept celebrating it merely standing on the ground. You focus on craft and enjoying your vocation in a sustainable way — because it’s either that or death, right? Death from hedonistic self-indulgence or from despairing self-immolation, both sympathetic but eminently impractical reactions to the micromanaged banality that lies on the other side of rockstardom. The Peppers have persevered in the shadow of this reality for a long time — Kiedis has addressed Kurt Cobain in more songs than anybody else on the mic since the Grungelord’s death — but there is another way. A secret way, although it is sitting blatantly there in this pile of smoothed-out tunes about serial boning the not-quite-grown.

Perhaps it’s not fair to expect a band that obsessively identifies as an avatar of The Golden State (and particularly the City of Angels) to temper its Apollonian inclinations, but dutiful, risk-free additions to the discography are doubly disappointing from a group of weirdos who seem to have so little trouble cranking out twenty new songs on a deadline in a studio setting. Apollo, gorgeous god of the Sun and harmony and restraint, is technically also the god of music, although it is well-known that the inventor of the first musical instrument was his annoying younger sibling Hermes, who traded it to Apollo after Hermes was caught stealing all of Apollo’s best cows. Hermes (whose first song, incidentally, was a ribald ditty about their parents having sex) reigns over communication, commerce and deceit. Whilst mere intellectuals such as Nietzsche and Paglia have emphasized the tension between the Apollonian and Dionysian (Apollo and Dionysis were also siblings, by the way), the Hermetic tradition has wound its way quietly through the ages (give or take a Renaissance), collecting and disseminating ancient wisdom describing the nature of the ultimate reality which the other two schools aspire merely to navigate, rather than understand.

To bring it back to Malkuth: previous Apollonian champions the Eagles had a tricky sibling they often quarreled with, too — Steely (MF) Dan, a band that has more in common with the Peppers than you might first think, despite their chilly upstate New York origins. Both are bands comprised of sly, individualistic misfits wielding serious chops who overcame the traumatic overdoses of loved ones and cultivated their own sound over the course of multiple albums for major labels. Oh, and they’re both into writing classy-sounding songs about how it feels to bone young ladies you have no business boning. The Dan was always on some dry, dark shit lyrically, but when they smoothed out, they took it to the next level, doing devilish things with that contrast between the medium and the message. (You’ve probably heard “Peg” at the grocery store!) Kiedis sometimes seems to lean in a devilish direction, but even (or especially) at his darkest he’s always talking about his own precious experiences, and ends up just kinda wistfully letting himself off the hook (“Dark necessities are part of my design” is the hook to The Getaway’s first single, “Dark Necessities”), as you usually do when you fail to take the bird’s-eye-view of your own behavior.

The rap hands. The shrieking and the bleating and the ‘ding dang dong-dong deng-deng dong-dong ding dang.’ Keeping that inside will kill you as surely as any illicit drug will, Anthony.

I do not invoke the infamously erudite Hermetic elders expecting any Peppers to radically enclever themselves, or adopt an uncharacteristic cynicism — I bring them up because resemblance to the Eagles is almost always considered an incurable condition, and while the darkness The Dan let in is a different beast than what lurks underneath Anthony’s floorboards, there’s a common thread: music that is inappropriately humorous. As long as there are new Peppers records, I don’t know what to do besides root for the boys to find the way to channel that unrestrainable spirit we conjure every time we utter their fourfold name. I won’t give up the idea that there can be a new chapter to the legend of the Peppers that doesn’t involve a coast into civility and stability or retreating backwards to naked butts and irresponsible drug use. The Chili Peppers are an original band of original people; they can write an original ending to the rock star story if they can figure out how to somehow re-manifest that gushing white hole of energy from the other side of the struggle to attain rockstardom.

From a Hermetic perspective, the route to realizing this superhuman feat lies in Kiedis leaving this comfortable, croony, insular area he has allowed himself to inhabit over the past decade and bringing the parts of himself he has long plunged into darkness back to the surface. The parts of him that truly frighten both himself and us. You know what I’m talking about: the rap. The rap hands. The shrieking and the bleating and the “ding dang dong-dong deng-deng dong-dong ding dang.” Keeping that inside will kill you as surely as any illicit drug will, Anthony. Pay no heed to those that would mock these things — they only fear these seeming trivialities’ ability to seriously destabilize. Free yourself so you may show us all once again what it is like to be free.

Rjyan Kidwell, aka Cex, is often called the Jackie Robinson of Playing a Laptop on Stage at a Concert. His most recent album Shamaneater is available here. You can follow him on Twitter here.