Are the Chili Peppers modern age Beach Boys?
Playing Wednesday and Thursday at Rexall Place, these keyed-up Angelinos are the quintessential modern Golden State rock band. Thanks to a wonderfully raucous cover of Stevie Wonder’s Higher Ground in 1989, they emerged at a time when most of the other Hollywood rock bands sucked, not to put too fine a point on it. The Chilis’ brand of funky punky goodness was part of the antidote to the hair metal of the time. All these years later – especially when hair metal is making a comeback – they’re still considered “alternative” though they sell out arenas, chart hit singles worldwide and are well into middle age. Well played, Red Hot Chili Peppers.
The band is hitting Edmonton again on a tour behind its latest album, I’m With You – yet another record infused with the mysterious magic of the Los Angeles vibe. It’s hard to put your finger on it. Sometimes the “sound” of a certain city is affected as much by the bands that develop there as the other way around. Seattle is a good example. But Los Angeles is a huge, sprawling place that seems to the outside observer to be culturally empty though it’s where most modern American culture is created. Try to find the physical heart of Hollywood and you’ll see nothing but a giant parking garage next to a shopping mall. There are a small number of notable bands that have managed to mythologize the land where dreams were built on a desert, and that’s because they live there – and that’s why the Red Hot Chili Peppers are the new Beach Boys. It’s real.
The band members’ love – or at least a hate-love – for their home town and state becomes clear when you study their past hits, the songs that had the deepest impact on their fans. Obviously many of Chilis’ lyrics are quite silly, frequently relying on rhyme over reason, not that there’s anything wrong with that, yet there are subtle hints throughout their oeuvre for those who like reading deep meaning into everything.
Consider “Give It Away” in 1991, the band’s first big hit beyond Higher Ground. Give what away, you ask? The answer is “It.” But there are lines like “Greedy little people in a sea of distress, keep your more to receive your less” which nicely captures the idea that every hip waiter in LA is working on a screenplay or practising for yet another movie audition.
Four years later, the theme resurfaces on a poignant note in My Friends, who are “so distressed,” and “standing on the brink of emptiness.” Singer Anthony Kiedis adds, “No words I know of to express this emptiness,” though he has clearly found some.
The California angle becomes obvious with 2000’s Californication – not to be confused with the Showtime series starring David Duchovny, though the mood of the album and the show dovetail so well it’s unlikely the band’s lawyers would get upset over it. In the title track, Kiedis pulls back the curtain on the dream factory, “Space may be the final frontier, but it’s made in a Hollywood basement.”
Six years later, the character named Dani California makes an encore appearance in the song of the same name on the 2006 album Stadium Arcadium – having first shown up as “Dani the Girl” standing in line to “see the show tonight” in the 2002 hit By the Way. You saw a lot of this sort of thing outside the Viper Room on Sunset Boulevard. Dani California isn’t quite the “I Wish They All Could Be California Girls” of the modern age. It’s a road tale, supposedly about a rebellious young girl on the run, with its chorus: “California rest in peace, simultaneous release, California show your teeth, she’s my priestess, I’m your priest.” The rampant rhymes obfuscate the metaphor: The song is actually talking to all the poor people from the hinterland drawn to Hollywood for the fulfilment of big dreams that never come true, like perhaps the entire state itself. Such heavy flow for such a fun song. Of course it is possible to read too much into these things.
Despite maturity – both Kiedis and Flea are 50 this year – which you can hear in the most recent music, the Red Hot Chili Peppers remain a fun band. That’s what California is really all about, isn’t it? Not so much the pursuit of happiness – how boring – but the pursuit of fun. The Beach Boys knew it, and the music still holds up, and so does the Red Hot Chili Peppers.