Rock's Red Hot Chili Peppers Thrive on Mother's Milk

updated 04/16/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/16/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

There's something about live performance that brings out the bizarre in the Red Hot Chili Peppers, a group of punk funksters who, onstage, resemble the very last of the Mohicans on acid. The hyperactive Peppers, who gained fame on a the Los Angeles club circuit for, among other things, singing "Do You Know the Way to San Jose" naked, love to perform. "It's the ultimate release," says lead singer Anthony Kiedis, 27. "I would wither up and turn into an asexual prune if I didn't have the opportunity to express myself onstage."

He needn't worry. Indeed, the group's flair for no-moves-barred live shows got two Peppers busted during an MTV broadcast from Daytona Beach March 16. Drummer Chad Smith, 27, and bassist Michael "Flea" Balzary, 28, face misdemeanor charges of battery, disorderly conduct and solicitation to commit an unnatural act after they allegedly leapt offstage, grabbed a female fan and, according to a group publicist, "sort of spanked her." Contrite but free after posting a $3,000 bond, the two Peppers could face prison sentences if convicted.

Still, the incident has its ironies since, until very recently, the group couldn't seem to get arrested in the music business. And not for lack of trying. A 1988 Beatles parody EP cover, in which the lads were photographed crossing the famous Abbey Road intersection naked, failed to generate even negative publicity. But then, after three weak-selling albums, came last year's Mother's Milk, a jarring collection of ribald rave-ups, to rescue the band from obscurity. Milk, an instant hit among the college crowd and urban hiperati, was so named, says Kiedis, because "it's good for you, it's pure, healthy and intoxicating, and it comes directly from the source." It also features, among other oddities, the signature squealings of former porn star Traci Lords, whom band members seem to regard as a deity. "Traci Lords," guitarist John Frusciante, 19, says, "is just the most beautiful, amazing sex goddess to ever hit the planet."

The Peppers' own pasts are as varied as their muse's is checkered; indeed, founding band members Kiedis and Balzary seem to have been born strange. Kiedis was 11 when he moved to Hollywood from his mother's home in Michigan to be with his divorced father, actor Blackie Dammett. "I never did care for the Midwest," says Kiedis. "I liked making angels in the snow, but that was the extent of it." His life out West was far from angelic. "Pops was the ultimate party man of Sunset Strip," Kiedis says. "He had hair down to his butt, he wore platform shoes and velvet jackets, and every night he was out being lord of the club scene. He was a good dad, and I emulated everything he did." That meant balancing school with an acting career that peaked in 1978, when he was cast as Sylvester Stallone's son in F.I.S.T.

Flea, a classmate from West Hollywood's Fairfax High, had been a child trumpet prodigy until he joined Fear, the notorious L.A. punk band. Nowadays the wiry Flea has his nickname tattooed on his scalp. "In the event of a nuclear holocaust, if my hair falls out, it's like an ID bracelet," he says.

Formed in 1983, the Red Hot Chili Peppers—christened, according to group mythology, after Kiedis discovered "a psychedelic bush in the Hollywood Hills that had band names on it"—were an instant underground success. "There was a cosmic gelling," Kiedis says. "We exploded, and people went crazy for it. We used to have a huge geek following. We were so twisted. We wore clashing clothes and were basically outcasts."

Marginally calmer lives, and wider commercial acceptance, came only after the 1988 death by heroin overdose of Frusciante's predecessor, guitarist Hillel Slovak, and the subsequent departure of drummer Jack Irons, who was replaced last year by Smith. While wary of respectability, Flea, a confessed former drug user, has gone straight and into film work—he plays Michael J. Fox's nasty boss in Back to the Future Part II—and marriage. He and wife Loesha, 20—her name is tattooed above his left nipple—are proud parents of the only little Pepper, Clara, 17 months.

Kiedis, meanwhile, is trying to get over the Christmas breakup of his two-year relationship with actress lone (Say Anything) Skye, whom he worships. "She's one of the most ultimate angelic creatures on earth," he says. "I'll probably miss her for the rest of my life."

There'll be no brooding, though. In lieu of asexual prunedom, Kiedis continues to put his heart into each typically raucous Pepper performance. "We never try to hurt ourselves," he says, "but if I walk offstage bleeding, or I've got a huge bone sticking out of my neck, then I know I've put on a good show."

—Steve Dougherty, Michael Alexander in San Francisco

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