One of Johnny Depp’s lesser known works is a 12 minute documentary entitled Stuff, filmed around 1993, which depicts the squalor inside a friend’s house in the Hollywood Hills. The grainy footage is set to warped, disturbing music the homeowner had made himself. That friend and homeowner was John Frusciante – who, in the year before, had quit the Red Hot Chili Peppers and fallen into life-threatening depression and heroin addiction. Frusciante was the band’s second long-term guitarist, after his predecessor and idol, Hillel Slovak, died from a drug overdose in 1988.
Frusciante was the youngest member of the group, but his obvious gift for songwriting became the greatest asset the band enjoyed. The next couple of years saw Frusciante turn 20, and in 1991 the Peppers released Blood Sugar Sex Magik, the breakthrough record that featured ‘Under the Bridge’ and ‘Give It Away’ – and which has since been described as “the cornerstone of funk rock”. The extreme success and attention they received after BSSM was dealt with by Frusciante in extreme ways and the young virtuoso began to self-medicate and experiment with cocaine, heroin and live dangerously quickly. During the post-album tour, he quit the band and flew back from Japan, unable to deal with fame and attention. The Chilis hired in a replacement guitarist to finish the tour and, upon returning, brought in Dave Navarro replace John.
By 1994, he was on the verge of death – having to rely on injecting heroin into his neck because of the tissue damage down both arms and on his torso. His house burned down, which destroyed his guitars and his recorded material – and although he released two solo albums after RHCP, he admitted after they were for drug money. Flea recalls how he “was absolutely sure John was going to die”. The death of close friend River Phoenix seemed to have little effect but in 1996 he eventually entered rehab. A complete change of lifestyle aided his recovery, after being made more vulnerable by operations to replace teeth and skin grafts down his arms. As the end of the decade approached, he was finally coming back to life. This came at a time where the rest of the band were at a crossroads. Navarro was no Frusciante and their only album with him disappointed fans and critics. When he left in 1998, the band knew they could only reach the same heights with Frusciante involved.
Asking him back was an incredible risk considering his demons, but it proved to be the best decision they ever made. The release of the Californication album the year later marked a return to greatness for the band, with John at the heart of their songwriting. That was followed up with By The Way and then Stadium Arcadium, both of which were also incredibly successful. This was the band at the height of their powers, and even now their sets are dominated by songs from that era. Frusciante left the band once again after the Arcadium tour, in order to focus on his own projects, and was replaced by current guitarist Josh Klinghoffer, a talented musician in his own right. Frusciante has released a wide variety of content in the ten years since he left, working on psychedelic rock, acoustic content, through to electronica.
For interested readers, the Empyrean album is a good place to start. Whilst reclusive, he remains musically active and is good friends with the Chili Peppers. The story of the band cannot be told without recognition of the importance of his guitar playing, his harmonies, his melodies, and his writing. It is rare for musicians who care that much about their creative output to get to the very top, especially in the industry today. Those few artists that can lift those around them to a new level must be listened to, and must be cherished.