Tuesday, April 26, 2011

When Mullen Met the Peppers

An Oral/Visual History of The Red Hot Chili Peppers (It Books, $39.99) is simultaneously one of the most wonderful and most horrible music-related books ever published.

First, the good news: This high-end coffee table book is like sex for your eyeballs. As colorful as the personalities who wrote it (in this case, the band with oral history extraordinaire Brendan Mullen), the book hits hard with every page. Armed with hundreds of photos from various eras of the band's long-running career (complete with the expected barrage of bare asses and silly-faced promo shots), Mullen and company present a bulletproof narrative of the group's rise from lowlife LA pranksters to one of the top acts of the international "Alternative" boom of the '90s to their current standing as seasoned music biz survivors. Of course, any true RHCP fan knows there's a great deal of heartbreak and inner turmoil buried beneath the band's tongue-in-cheek (or is that sock-on-cock?) playfulness. Tales of Anthony Kiedis' surrealistically fucked up childhood and the early death of original Peppers guitarist Hillel Slovak offer a sobering balance to the bright photos that consistently stare back at the reader, while later six-stringer John Frustration's wide-eyed glee turns to battle fatigue as he quits the band to begin a (fortunately unsuccessful) crusade to follow his predecessor in opiate-fueled oblivion. Those weren't the only lows: Former Dead Kennedys drummer D.H. Peligro is dropped from the Peppers due to his drug problems, half the band quits as soon as they land a record deal and Gang of Four's Andy Gill castrates the production on their debut album.

Of course, the RHCP story also boasts a shitload of extraordinary victories: Blood Sugar Sex Magik, megastardom, Frusciante's late '90s return and the band's ability to stay alive long after their '80s contemporaries (and most of their '90s peers, for that matter) disappeared. Other highlights include commentary by oft-forgotten drummer Cliff Martinez (the former Weirdos timekeeper who played on the first two RHCP albums), Flea's reminiscence of his time as a member of Fear, utter hilarity courtesy of hapless roadie-turned Thelonious Monster frontman-turned Celebrity Rehab counselor Bob Forrest and a sober Kiedis' bittersweet realization that being clean means he can't smoke a joint with Willie Nelson.

Bottom line? If you're a fan of the Peppers, this book is an essential purchase; if you hate the band, this book will do nothing to change your mind about their music - but it will give you insight into how a gang of talented, deeply flawed human beings somehow managed to become one of the most successful groups in the universe. That is what makes this book so wonderful.

Now, the bad news: Why am I only now writing about a book that's already been in stores for six months? Well, I intentionally delayed getting this thing due to the emotions involved. Brendan Mullen was a good friend and a true mentor who had a profound effect on my life and work. The first thing I noticed when I finally cracked this book open was that Brendan's author bio began "Brendan Mullen was" instead of "Brendan Mullen is." That was a hard one to get through. Nearly two years after Brendan's passing, it's still hard to fathom that he has left the building. This is Brendan's fifth and final book; he wrote the introduction a month before he died. Naturally, that is what makes this book so damn horrible.

Sad reminders aside, I offer my love and thanks to Brendan's partner, Kateri Butler, for finishing this project on his behalf and allowing the rest of us to savor one last creation from a man who truly mastered the art of the oral history. He is missed beyond words.

EMAIL JOEL at gaustenbooks@gmail.com

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