John Frusciante is a guitar-playing legend. A modern hero of the instrument who mixes goth, new wave, post-punk and psychedelia into his funk-driven playing, Frusciante’s style is one of the most easily recognisable in contemporary music. Favouring the subtle tonality of a Fender Stratocaster, Frusciante’s style has influenced legions of subsequent guitar players who have strived to emulate the dexterity and technical skill that sits at the core of his musicianship.
Famously, the 18-year-old Frusciante joined his favourite band, Red Hot Chili Peppers, in 1988, after the tragic death of their original guitarist Hillel Slovak, and appeared on their fourth album, 1989’s Mother’s Milk. It was on their fifth record, 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik, that Frusciante and the band would shine, striving to create a classic out of the tragedy of Slovak’s death. On the record, the band would find their sound, helped by the stellar production of Rick Rubin. Featuring iconic numbers such as ‘Under the Bridge’ and ‘Give It Away’, the band were now world-beaters.
The group’s massive newfound success overwhelmed Frusciante, who was only 20 at the time, and he quit for the first time in 1992. By this point, he had developed a severe heroin addiction and became something of a recluse. During this period of isolation, he released two polarising solo albums, 1994’s Niandra Lades and Usually Just a T-Shirt and 1997’s Smile from the Streets You Hold.
However, it was his reasoning for leaving the band which were slightly unusual. Struggling with all the trappings of being in a world-famous band, he felt that destiny herself was leading him away. Not long into their world tour in support of Blood Sugar Sex Magik, he heard voices in his head telling him “you won’t make it during the tour, you have to go now”.
At this point, Frusciante was growing tired of the aimless hedonism he’d undertaken previously. He explained to Rolling Stone in 2007: “By the age of 20, I started doing it right and looking at it as an artistic expression instead of a way of partying and screwing a bunch of girls. To balance it out, I had to be extra-humble, extra-anti-rock star”.
Things came to a head before the band’s performance at Tokyo’s Club Quattro on May 7th, 1992. Frusciante told Anthony Kiedis, Flea and Chad Smith that he was leaving the band. They managed to convince him to play the Tokyo show, but after that, he was done. He boarded a flight for California the following morning.
“It was just impossible for me to stay in the band any longer,” he told Brian Boxvoort in 1994. “It had come to the point where even though they wanted me in the band, it felt like I was forced out of the band. Not by any members in particular or management in particular, but just the direction it was going”.
He would be replaced by LA’s other guitar hero, Dave Navarro, but as we all know, that would provide the Chili’s with one of their creative low points. 1995’s One Hot Minute, the only album to feature Navarro, is one of the most divisive entries in their back catalogue.
Fast forward to 1998, and the band were on the verge of breaking up after firing Navarro. The story goes that Flea told Kiedis: “The only way I could imagine carrying on is if we got John back in the band”. At this point, Frusciante was living an ascetic lifestyle, was drug-free, and physically healthy. Flea visited him and asked him to rejoin, to which Frusciante replied, sobbing, “Nothing would make me happier in the world”.
The band would return to form with 1999’s masterpiece Californication, and Frusciante’s return would be rejoiced by fans worldwide. As has been proved twice, Red Hot Chili Peppers are half the band they could be when Frusciante is not in the fold.