Q: When is a piece of entertainment an act of war?
A: When it comes from California.
* * *
Back in the 1980s I, a young boy living in rural New Hampshire, wanted nothing more than to grow up to be a skateboarding, black-belt rock star who could surf and lift weights at Venice Beach, hanging out with beautiful women like the bikini-clad models in David Lee Roth’s video for “California Girls.”
For a portly, swarthy, black-haired kid with kinky hair, a big nose, and an ethnic-sounding last name nobody could pronounce, these imagers of young Californian kids having an awesome time surrounded by natural beauty and a freedom that seemed to be devoid of any restrictive parental influence, I wondered if I, too, would have a physique like Anthony Kiedis when I turned 18, or maybe 20. Maybe a shock of cool hair, too, like Hillel Slovak on the cover of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ 1987 album, The Uplift Mofo Party Plan. That wasn’t my favorite of the band’s pre-breakthrough albums; I preferred 1989’s Mother’s Milk—the band’s first with John Frusciante on guitar and Chad Smith on drums—or even 1985’s sex-soaked Freaky Styley (why was I listening to stuff like this when I was 9 or 10?)—but The Uplift Mofo Party Plan was still fun with an infectious forward-moving kinetic energy and some absolutely bitchin’ grooves.
Enough to make me want to be a musician and move out to California, where all the cool people seemed to live.
I’m sure that life in the California of the 1970s and 1980s, particularly southern California around Los Angeles, as well as the San Francisco Bay Area, was awesome. But I’m sure it had its downsides, problems that never came through the images on TV or the sounds from the radio. Existence in California seemed to be a never-ending party, a fugue state where one’s sense of self is subsumed to the endless pursuit of spiritual euphoria . . . yet this also seemed like a euphoria with a purpose. Everyone from California, to my young mind, was like this naturally due to the accident of their births, but so many people went to California looking for something.
The nineteenth century had its Gold Rush, but there was another kind of rush to California in the twentieth, where the pursuit of a better life in the economic sense met the pursuit of a better life in the aesthetic—the state has so much natural beauty and lovely weather—and the spiritual—though one could hardly call California a Christian state; perhaps the Spanish founded it as one, but God the Father of Jesus Christ has been long-abandoned in that state.
I did not make it to California. Nor did I make it as a musician. But California was always in my life. Television shows took place in California and made high school look like the land of beautiful freedom; unfortunately, my high school experience was more akin to a four-year stint in prison for the crime of being born. Sports figures like the showtime Lakers left even this Boston Celtics fan’s mouth agape with amazed respect. And most of all the music that made the most impact in my life seemed to be made by Californians. Red Hot Chili Peppers, that long-running punk/funk outfit, were my first true love, but there was also Primus—I devoted countless years of my life learning how to play the bass like Les Claypool; Metallica, whose self-titled 1991 album, affectionately known as the Black Album, spent as much time in my CD player as RHCP’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik and Primus’s Sailing the Seas of Cheese and Pork Soda albums; and later on, Faith No More.
Ah, Faith No More. For my money, they were the most important band to come out of that oh-so fertile late 80s/early 90s period, certainly in terms of influence—once I started dipping into Faith No More’s catalogue, I realized just how many bands of the 90s, 2000s, and 2010s and 20s are still tearing huge chunks off of the FNM legacy, whether they realize it or not. 1992’s Angel Dust is so hyped up as to be overrated, and yet it’s not. The album was fantastic at the time and sounds better and more vital today. The fact that it could have been released today—and given the dismal state of modern rock, probably be considered the album of the decade—only goes to show how little culture has progressed since Faith No More finally called it a day in 1998. Eighteen years later, their 2015 reunion album, Sol Invictus, was fantastic, picking up where 1997’s Album of the Year left of without missing a beat. That’s both a compliment to the music and an indictment of where our culture is today.
I didn’t get deep into Faith No More until high school, when a chance viewing of a rerun of their performance of “Epic” on Saturday Night Live made me realize how awesome that song was. I used to see that surreal video, along with the equally bizarre one for “Falling to Pieces,” all the time on MTV (why was an eight-year-old watching MTV?), and man, I wanted to be Mike Patton. His voice was so cool, his haircut where it was super-long but the sides and back were shaved looked awesome, and he just seemed to be having so much fun. What spastic energy! Like Anthony Kiedis, except he could actually sing. There was also something edgy about Patton, a darkness that did not jibe with the media’s desire to portray the young, pretty, long-haired singer as a teenybopper heartthrob. It was a role Kiedis slid into naturally, but seemed uncomfortable to Patton, who by the next album had decided to wear a shirt more often, cut his hair shorter, wear rings in his eyebrow and nose, and dress like he worked as a mechanic at a local garage. Oh, his music became increasingly more bizarre, running in the opposite direction of 1989’s The Real Thing’s punk/funk-meets-classical-metal.
Perhaps the dark side of California got to him? Patton was from Eureka, after all, only 100 miles south of Oregon. Though still Californian in spirit, that is a world apart from Los Angeles.
Although, I am from New Hampshire—that place might as well be a galaxy apart from L.A., but the power of California reached me all the same.
* * *
Randy Newman loved L.A. in 1983. A mere dozen years later, singers were waxing poetic about how fake the city was, how seedy, and how dangerous. Even the Red Hot Chili Peppers, whose entire lyrical oeuvre appears to be about sex, California, and having sex in California, began to feel the long hangover of the rock n’ roll lifestyle by the time of 1999’s Californication.
Another band also released a seminal, similarly titled album in 1999. Mr. Bungle, Mike Patton’s first band who parlayed Faith No More’s success into a record deal, released its third album, California, shortly after Californication. A masterpiece though it is, California has precious little to do with the state from a lyrical standpoint, mainly because Mr. Bungle is so damn weird it’s hard to tell what, exactly, they’re singing about.
Anthony Kiedis and Mike Patton seemed to lead parallel lives. The two men also had (have?) one of the most entertaining feuds in recent rock n’ roll memory. Look it up for yourself if you have some time to kill. At the very least, watch the first ten minutes of this Mr. Bungle Halloween performance where the band dresses up like the Chili Peppers and plays mocking versions of several of their songs. Rather tastelessly, guitarist Trey Spruance is dressed as the ghost of Hillel Slovak, who died of a heroin overdose in 1988; Mr. Bungle bassist Trey Spruance, decked out as RHCP bassist Flea, mimes shooting himself up with heroin several times, and Patton interjects several references to dangerous illicit substances during the band’s piss-takes of Chili Peppers’ tunes.
The Patton/Kiedis feud allegedly resulted in California’s release date being pushed back to accommodate the Chili Peppers’ Californication. See, in addition to hating each other, the two men’s respective bands shared a record label! There were other issues between them, like Kiedis accusing Patton of mimicking his look, vocal style, and stage moves. The Halloween stunt was in reaction to Anthony Kiedis allegedlydemanding that Mr. Bungle be kicked off of several festivals the two bands were slated to play at.
This, Mr. Bungle members claim, derailed the band’s career to an unrecoverable degree, and resulted in them breaking up in 2000, right when a commercial breakthrough seemed possible. Mr. Bungle, like Faith No More, would get back together in the next century, albeit with Dave Lombardo of Slayer fame replacing Danny Heifitz on drums, Scott Ian from Anthrax playing second guitar alongside Spruance, and saxophonists/keyboardists Clint McKinnon and Theo Lengyel conspicuously absent. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, continued to roll on, and are planning a new album in the year 2022.
We are truly stuck in an endless loop.
* * *
The power of California is so strong, I’m writing about its continuing influence on me at the ripe age of 40. Sometimes I wonder what would have become of me had I packed up and moved west when I was 18 or 20. Some futures are best left unexplored.
Somewhere along the line, though, the candy spilling forth from the California piñata turned into writhing insects. As California goes, so goes the nation. The race riots of the early 1990s, Rodney King and O.J. Simpson, open borders and unchecked immigration, drugs, and gang violence started to take the shine off the Golden State, but it wasn’t until the world changed on September 11, 2001 that the rottenness eating away at California started to truly come to the fore. And given that America is just California plus time, the rottenness eating away at the core of the entire American experience. All the while, California continued to pump out product, reflecting the changing face of that state and in turn changing the face of the nation.
California still holds tremendous sway on the nation’s imagination; hell, the entire world’s. Ask someone from Europe, Africa, or Asia who has never been to the United States. They’re likely to tell you that half of America is black, while the other half is gay; that everyone’s a gangster, and that everyone is packing military-grade weapons.
From whence do these perceptions come?
The word “California” used to evoke images sun-kissed babes on beaches surrounded by muscle-bound rollerskaters . . . skateboarders performing gnarly tricks as an influential punk rock band played in the background . . . white Rolls Royces and bright-red convertibles cruising down Rodeo Drive . . . glam-metal bands thrashing on the Sunset Strip. A vibrant, alluring image. Ask an American now, someone from what your average Golden Stater views as an unwashed sea of unending ignorance, and the images are likely to consist of homeless encampments as big as small towns . . . junkies defecating on city streets while understaffed, overworked, and underappreciated police forces ignore call after call . . entire pockets of the state that might as well be foreign nations with dozens of different languages and cultures existing simultaneously with what used to be America . . . pernicious restrictions on personal liberty.
There is no California sound anymore. No recognizable strains of heavy metal, of singer/songwriter folk, of ska-punk or skate-punk or genre-bending rock n’ roll. The cultural products consists of focus-tested, homogenized, and sterile corporate franchises; cookie-cutter music that almost makes one long for some Sunset Strip sleazery, gangsta rap, or 1960s Laurel Canyon weirdoes; those people were also freaks, but their music was at least good.
California eats and eats and eats, scarfing down the nation’s attention and much of its federal funding, swallowing up entire villages’-worth of people from south of the border, filling itself far beyond the limits of sanity. And as California vomits forth fed-up citizens into more livable states like Idaho, Oregon, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, and Montana, they bring along their locust-like cultural preferences and voting patterns, turning the places they decide to settle into miniature replicas of the hellscape from which they escaped. California’s reign of cool might be over, but its reign of terror rolls on.
People leave the state, and yet others flock to it, seeking to make their fortune in the world of entertainment. California exerts a seductive pull on the nation, a succubus with promises of sensual rewards akin to Satan’s temptation of Christ in the desert. And so many heed the call, believing that man can, in fact, live on bread and bread alone.
Hernan Cortes did not wipe out all vestiges of human sacrifice as he blazed a trail across the American and Mexican west. California still delivers young ones up to its idols. The difference is that the methods have become more subtle, more institutionalized, and more mainstream.
Woe to those who never pay attention.
* * *
Among the biggest mistakes those who claim to oppose the current insanity made is abandoning the cities. Like it or not, cities are where everything happens. Cities have an energy, a buzz, that is impossible to get in rural communities. And it is not just any city. Cities by coasts have a particular frequency, as though picked up by the waves, that gives them an unending sense of propulsion.
Like all things, the energy may be good or ill, and may be harnessed by those who wish to exalt beauty and truth, or those who seek to degrade it. It all depends on where the energy comes from. Whose voice are you listening to, California? What are your works telling us now? And why can you not keep it to yourself?
Why does a gubernatorial recall election in California galvanize the nation’s attention the way a similar event in any other state would not? Why do so many people care about the day-to-day lives of celebrities? Why does everything seem to happen in the Golden State?
Where’s my skateboard?