The Red Hot Chili Peppers are one band that aren’t necessarily the first band one thinks of when trying to access the most sincere emotional expressions in rock music. In 1992, the band released the loner anthem and one of Anthony Keidis’ most poignant songs of all time, ‘Under the Bridge’. It acts as a love-letter to his city and the comfort it could bring him amid swirling sobriety following his debilitating drug addiction.
The song was released as part of the California band’s fourth LP, Blood, Sex, Sugar, Magik. The record was full of bombastic moments like ‘Suck My Kiss’ and ‘Give It Away’, which kept the premise of the Chili Peppers funk-rock revolution in front of mind. But it was on the mournful ‘Under the Bridge’ that the band really flexed their muscles. Though the song hinged on loneliness, sadness and alienation, it allowed the band to connect with their audience on a more vulnerable level, the first time the group had really shown this side of themselves.
That vulnerable side was largely pinned on revealing that, contrary to the rock ‘n’ roll tropes of old, drugs were not only an admissible section of the triumvirate (sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll) but were capable of destroying your favourite musicians. The band struggled with drug dependency throughout much of their career, but it was on ‘Under The Bridge’ that Keidis really opened up about the pain and suffering drugs could cause.
Written by Keidis to highlight the loneliness and despondency he felt while struggling with his addiction to heroin. It was an affliction he shared with guitarist John Frusciante, and the pair were clearly bonded by the mutual harrowing experiences. Keidis said the song was inspired by one moment. Keidis arrived at the studio to find both Frusciante and bassist Flea, both supremely high and in an ignorant mood.
That moment he was reminded of a moment he’d rather forget but typified his drug-taking. As his girlfriend wondered where he was, Keidis was taking drugs with gangsters under an L.A. bridge. He recalled, “the loneliness that I was feeling triggered memories of my time with [former girlfriend] Ione and how I’d had this beautiful angel of a girl who was willing to give me all of her love, and instead of embracing that, I was downtown with fucking gangsters shooting speedballs under a bridge.” When Keidis returned from that session, he jotted down a poem that would eventually become the esteemed song. It would never have seen the light of day had Rick Rubin not seen the notebook and pushed Keidis into making it a song.
While Keidis’ song largely hangs on the lonely feeling he had, he was also spurred on to write by the affection he felt form his city. A Los Angeles native, Keidis had spent much of his years rolling around the streets of the city with his father Blackie Dammett, selling drugs to rockers and sneaking into bars while underage. It was perhaps a natural progression that Keidis would eventually start taking heroin. But once heroin was gone and his friends seemingly went with it, the singer turned to his city for comfort. Keidis wrote in his autobiography Scar Tissue: “I felt I had thrown away so much in my life, but I also felt an unspoken bond between me and my city.”
“I’d spent so much time wandering 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. Even if I was a loner in my own band, at least I still felt the presence of the city I lived in.” The city gave him the strength to carry on with his pursuit of happiness.
It’s certainly one of the more intricate moments on the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ canon and is rightly revered as their most emotionally charged song. It’s one of the few moments within the band’s output that we’re provided not only with a searing vision of Keidis’ past, nor his struggles with addiction and sobriety but a song rich in vulnerability, heavy with conscience and delicately balanced on platonic love.