The Tragic Real-Life Story Of The Red Hot Chili Peppers

The Red Hot Chili Peppers are one of the more peculiar bands to gain mainstream popularity. The quintessentially Los Angeles outfit started out in 1983, became an important trailblazer for rap rock and funk metal movements, and eventually climbed up the ranks of the biggest rock bands on earth. Notably, they did this all while wrestling with a number of near-insurmountable personal and professional issues that would have destroyed lesser groups. 

For someone who's only familiar with the band's largely upbeat music and their shirtless, rowdy public image, it might be surprising to find out that the history of the Red Hot Chili Peppers is full of tragedy, pain, and even death. When you look under the surface, you'll find that everyone in the group has struggled with their own personal demons, along with a whole host of collective ones. This is the tragic real-life story of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

The death of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' guitarist Hillel Slovak

The Red Hot Chili Peppers most people know are singer Anthony Kiedis, bassist Michael "Flea" Balzary, drummer Chad Smith and... well, whoever happens to play guitar at the time. From John Frusciante to Dave Navarro to John Frusciante (again) to Josh Klinghoffer to a revolving door of lesser known names, guitarists have always been the Peppers' equivalent of Spinal Tap drummers, and while no RHCP axeman has exploded (that we know of), there are plenty of depressing stories to tell about the band members who have wielded the six-string. Arguably, the most tragic one of these is the tale of Hillel Slovak. 

In 1988, LA Times tells us that the 26-year-old Slovak was found lifeless in his apartment. As NME reports, the cause of death was a heroin overdose. Understandably, this shook the rest of the band, since Slovak was not only a founding member of the band (he was there in the beginning, then left for a while and returned to fold in 1984), but also a massive influence on the others. Consequence of Sound notes that Slovak's signature funk-rock style essentially established the band's sound, and Jack Irons, the original drummer, decided to leave the band shortly after his passing. Flea, who Rolling Stone has ranked as the second best bass player in rock history, has even said that he only picked up his famous instrument because Slovak asked him to. 

Flea and the opioid crisis

In 2018, Michael "Flea" Balzary, the fleet-fingered bass artist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, wrote a Time column where he rallied against the opioid crisis. The text came from a very personal place, as Flea had broken his arm while snowboarding, and had to have surgery. While he's grateful to his doctor for fixing the damage so well that his ability to play remained intact, the medical professional also hooked Flea up with two months' worth of Oxycontin. One Oxy per day was enough to kill the pain, but it also turned the bassist into an emotionless, depressed zombie — and the supposed dosage was four pills a day. 

Flea ultimately kept his dosage low and stopped popping pills after a month, but he says he "could have easily gotten another refill." The experience made him realize that the supposedly trustworthy doctors of America prescribe such brain-numbing medication to people from all walks of life, potentially leading to addiction and death, and he told the world about this — along with his own, less than exemplary history with substance abuse, which started when he was a literal child — in an effort to raise awareness of the opioid crisis.

Drummer Chad Smith got on the bad side of Brazilian soccer fans

In 2013, Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith inadvertently painted a target in his back when he accidentally insulted a bunch of famously passionate Brazilian soccer fans. According to TMZ (via Loudwire), Smith was at a drum clinic event when he was given the jersey of a local club, Flamengo. The musician reacted to the gift by waving it around a little, after which he "stuck it down the back of his pants making a wiping motion and turned his tush with its newly affixed tail to the crowd before tossing the jersey back behind him." 

Why Smith decided to fool around with a freshly presented gift this way is anyone's guess, but it's probably fair to say he intended it as a joke. Unfortunately, the crowd took it as a horrible insult, and immediately started booing and even throwing things at him. The whole incident was also caught on tape, and eventually started getting attention on YouTube. Things took a turn for the serious when Flamengo-loving commenters started making threats on the eve of a massive RHCP concert in Rio de Janeiro, promising to avenge their club's honor by hurling stones at the poor drummer — and even threatening his life. 

As Smith is still in the land of the living, it's pretty clear that the South American soccer fans' threats ultimately remained empty. Still, the concert must've been a fun one for the band's security personnel. 

Anthony Kiedis and the real story behind Under the Bridge

"Under the Bridge" is arguably the Red Hot Chili Peppers' most beloved song, and its lyrics are famously about singer Anthony Kiedis' struggle with drug addiction. Still, Ultimate Guitar writes that the true story behind the song is somewhat more complicated than that. "Under the Bridge" depicts a period in time where the freshly drug-free Kiedis felt growing alienation from his still-using band mates and society in general. He sought to deal with this by roaming all around Los Angeles, and ended up developing a fairly... interesting bond with the city: "I felt an unspoken bond between me and my city. I'd spent so much time wandering through the streets of L.A. and hiking through the Hollywood Hills that I sensed there was a nonhuman entity, maybe the spirit of the hills and the city, who had me in her sights and was looking after me."

While this strange state of mind contributed to the general feeling of the song, the darker references came from a very specific and vile memory. In his anguished need to score drugs, he once attempted to "enter gang territory" under a particular bridge (rumored to be the one in MacArthur Park), worming his way in by pretending he was engaged to a sister of a gang member. Understandably, Kiedis ranks this desperate maneuver as one of the worst depths he has ever sunk to.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers and the nasty assault arrest

In 1990, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were wild up-and-comers, and sometimes, their crazy onstage antics got more than a little inappropriate. Such was the case with their MTV-filmed spring break performance in Daytona Beach, which UPI tells us led to half the band getting arrested. During the performance, bassist Flea and drummer Chad Smith decided to kick things up a notch by... leaping off the stage and assaulting an audience member. The band had already whipped itself in a furious state when Flea unexpectedly pounced a female spectator and started spinning her on his shoulders, while Smith joined the fray by pulling her swimming suit aside and slapping her rear. Because this apparently wasn't enough, Flea then got on top of the woman, "asked her to perform a sex act," and then started to simulate said act. 

The shocked and battered woman called for help, and the Peppers were swiftly "escorted away." Smith ended up getting charged with battery, while Flea's list of misdeeds included "battery, disorderly conduct, and solicitation to commit an unnatural and lascivious act."

Chad Smith, serial dumper

Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith prefers the occasional drink and joint instead of hard drugs, and as the Guardian attests, he refers to his childhood as "blue-collar" rather than "tragic." This has helped him to keep his feet (mostly) dry even during the years the rest of the band kept rocking the boat, but that doesn't mean he has no notable weaknesses: In fact, Smith used to be a self-confessed serial relationship-ender. As of 2003, Smith had children with three different women. When a journalist questioned him about this, the drummer grudgingly admitted this particular flaw in his personality: "'I'm the dumper,' he sighs. 'I fall in love easily, but... I get restless. I'll figure it out one day. Can we talk about something else?'"

To be fair, it appears that Smith indeed fulfilled his promise of "figuring it out" in the end. According to Heavy, he married Nancy Mack in 2004. They've been together ever since and have three sons together. 

The half-life of John Frusciante

After John Frusciante left the Red Hot Chili Peppers for the first time in 1992, his life went downhill so fast, it's almost a miracle that he managed to return to the land of the living. As Louder tells us, the guitarist's exit was largely fueled by his desire for creative freedom as opposed to the "performing monkey" act he saw the Red Hot Chili Peppers were becoming, but when he actually left the band, his creativity was soon curbed by depression and, later, all the heroin and cocaine he could get his hands on. He voluntarily embarked on the path of a full-time junkie, with all the nasty trimmings this entailed, to the point that even his friend Flea — who had spent his life around drug users — soon drifted away from him. Even when his friend River Phoenix died of "acute multiple drug intoxication," Frusciante didn't stray from his path. 

In 1998, as the Guardian writes, Frusciante eventually realized that he was marching towards an inevitable death — and after a few false starts, ended his years in the wilderness by going stone cold sober. Later that year, he rejoined the struggling Chili Peppers at Flea's behest. At this point, he had suffered five near-fatal overdoses, and his teeth were so utterly destroyed that the dental bill was $90,000. However, he was undoubtedly back, and stayed with the band until 2009.  

Flea's difficult childhood

It's easy to assume that a man professionally known as Flea didn't have the most conventional of childhoods, but few could believe just how rough things were for young Michael Balzary. According to the Guardian, the Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist basically grew up in one of the seedier episodes of "Breaking Bad." "I was raised in a very violent, alcoholic household," Flea says. His father left the family when he was only six, and his mother and stepfather left the young boy terrified. 

This less than optimal start in life created a snowball effect that took him to some very, very dark places. By the time he was 11, young Flea sought solace from his turbulent home on the streets, where he'd routinely hang out until 4 a.m. In an opinion piece he wrote for Time, the musician says this was also when he started smoking marijuana, and soon enough, started abusing virtually any drug he could get a hold of. He got in trouble with the dealers and the cops alike, and "scary, gun-toting criminals" lurked around him. Overdoses were a part of life, and Flea lost three of his greatest friends before they turned 26. It was a brutal way of life that he couldn't quite shake until he was 31, and he was 40 before he could consider forgiving his parents for the environment they raised (or rather, didn't raise) him in.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers' tumultuous year 1992

In 1992, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were on the cusp of true greatness, only for tensions inside the band to almost tear them apart, according to Diffuser. The band was riding high on the wave of their 1991 smash hit album "Blood Sugar Sex Magik," and superstardom was there for the taking. However, guitar prodigy John Frusciante, who was a relatively recent addition to RHCP, felt uncomfortable with the sudden fame. He started arguing with singer Anthony Kiedis about the direction of the band. "We're too popular," Kiedis remembers Frusciante telling him. "I don't need to be at this level of success. I would just be proud to be playing this music in clubs like you guys were doing two years ago." 

The tensions between the guitarist and the others kept growing, and as the Guardian reports, it didn't exactly help that Kiedis was a recovering addict at the time, while Frusciante was increasingly into drugs. Frusciante botched an important "Saturday Night Live" performance, Kiedis called it intentional sabotage. Things finally came to a head during a trip to Japan, when the "disconnected" six-string maestro unexpectedly informed their manager that he was out. The other Chili Peppers managed to talk him into playing the show they had scheduled that night (it was awful), but after that, Frusciante was gone. His departure was so swift that Rolling Stone had to hastily scrub him off the cover photo of an upcoming issue.

Anthony Kiedis' feud with Mike Patton

Every rock star worth their salt has feuded with a colleague, and LA Weekly says Anthony Kiedis is no exception, and his opponent was Mike Patton, Faith No More's thousand-voiced frontman. In the 1980s, both bands had a similar, funk metal sound, and Faith No More had even played as an opener for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. However, when both bands started breaking big, Kiedis saw Faith No More's video for the song "Epic" and took offense, as he felt Patton was copying his mannerisms. 

Kiedis started taking public potshots at Patton, but when the Faith No More man declined to respond, things calmed down. Unfortunately, the animosity started anew in 1999, when Patton and his other band Mr. Bungle were removed from various festivals, and discovered this was apparently at the behest of Kiedis, who threatened to pull the Peppers out if Patton's men stay in the lineup. Why this happened is anyone's guess, though it's worth noting that Mr. Bungle had an album called "California" coming out at roughly the same time "Californication" was released. Regardless, this prompted Patton to start publicly ripping into Kiedis, and one of his bands, Fantômas, even ruthlessly mocked the Peppers onstage. Fortunately, things seem to have mellowed out. In 2010, Patton said about the feud: "I've no idea what it was about then and I don't know now. But I bet we'd have a warm embrace if we saw each other now."

Their idol, Nick Cave, utterly hates the Red Hot Chili Peppers

Most musicians have their own idols and inspirations, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers are no exception. However, their funky music doesn't immediately hint at the person they place on the highest pedestal of them all: Nick Cave, whose dark, Gothic music and image are pretty much the polar opposite of their own. Yet, the Guardian tells us that the band — and bass player Flea in particular — consider Cave "the greatest living songwriter," and admire his work ethic. 

As it turns out, their ultimate idol doesn't exactly share the sentiment, and Cave appears to outright despise the Red Hot Chili Peppers. According to the Guardian, he dislikes their output so much that he once singled them out as an example of all things bad in modern music, angrily delivering one of the more scathing professional insults in rock history: "I'm forever near a stereo saying, 'What the f*** is this garbage?' And the answer is always the Red Hot Chili Peppers." Harsh. 

The Woolsey Fire delayed their new album and wrecked their community

Many bands have found it difficult to work on their new albums, but when it comes to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, their force majeures have been known to be a little more serious than the usual "the guitarist wandered off again" variety. As Alternative Nation reports, the Peppers were working on their new album in 2018, when their efforts were suddenly halted by the monstrous Woolsey Fire, which LA Times tells us was the most destructive Los Angeles and Ventura County wildfire on record. 

While the house the band was working on was ultimately untouched by the flames, both drummer Chad Smith and singer Anthony Kiedis lived in the Point Dume area, which was badly damaged by the fire, and 70 houses burned down in the community. The band later did their part in rebuilding by playing a benefit show for the victims of the fire at the Hollywood Palladium. 

The death of former drummer D.H. Peligro

On October 29, 2022, seminal punk band Dead Kennedys announced on Twitter that their drummer, D.H. Peligro, was dead. Per Rolling Stone, Peligro was a longtime member of the group, joining the band in 1981. He was 63 years old when he died after having a fall at home and fatally hitting his head on October 28. 

Peligro was the second drummer of the Dead Kennedys, and after the punk group broke up in 1986, he went on to become the second drummer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, as well. He joined the funk rock band in 1988 and wrote three songs with them, which would eventually be published on the band's album "Mother's Milk." However, his RHCP tenure ultimately lasted all of two months due to substance abuse issues. 

As Flea recalled in his Instagram tribute to Peligro, however, the drummer still had a profound influence. "We had so much fun, so much joy, having each other's backs," he wrote as part of his message. "I love you with all my heart. You are the truest rocker, and a crucial part of rhcp history." 

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).