Rock and Roll Book Club: Flea's 'Acid for the Children'

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Flea's 'Acid for the Children.'
Flea's 'Acid for the Children.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Rock and roll coming-of-age stories are having a hot moment. Last year saw Tegan and Sara's masterful High School as well as Robyn Crawford's moving memoir of her relationship with Whitney Houston, which began when the two women were teens. Flea's memoir Acid for the Children is also a coming-of-age story, but it's not quite as...well, deep.

Sara Quin: "Cameron's indifference to what I'd told him had an unnerving effect. I was uncomfortable that he could accept about me what I couldn't accept about myself."

Robyn Crawford: "Despite our understanding of what religion might say about our love, neither of us expressed any guilt or judgment; we were immersed in getting to know each other."

Flea: "I coulda used a little more nurturing. But hey, what the f--k."

The comparison isn't entirely fair to the Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist, since Acid for the Children is much more introspective than the average music memoir. There's a reason Patti Smith contributed a poem to introduce the volume. There's a punk honesty to Flea's book, which stands as an open window into the kind of headspace you might get into before co-founding a famously raucous, wildly successful pop funk band.

Acid for the Children (the title comes from a song by the Too Free Stooges, as the book's last page helpfully explains) ends with the formation of Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1983, but it begins in Australia. There Michael Peter Balzary was born in Melbourne in 1962. When he was four, his parents moved to New York when his dad took a job at the Australian consulate.

A few years later, Flea's dad moved back to Australia as his mom took up with her guitar teacher, a "heavy-set and sturdy cat in a sixties-style paisley button-up shirt and bell-bottom slacks." The family, including Flea's older sister, moved in with "Wild Walt"...in his parents' house.

Things got a little crazier from there, even after Flea's mom and stepdad acquired their own house. Walt was an alcoholic who would throw furious rages, but he also took Flea on joyfully drunken airplane rides (a bit worrying in retrospect, the author acknowledges) and introduced him to live jazz. The family developed a diverse, music-loving circle of friends, and Flea was entranced by Walt playing passionate bebop on his upright bass.

It took a while for the budding bassist to start playing that instrument, though. The first instrument on which he became accomplished was the trumpet, issued to him in school after the family moved to L.A. in service of Walt's music career. Flea calls the trumpet "the king of instruments," and won a citywide youth competition playing Haydn (or "Hayden," as it's spelled in the book).

Before he picked up the bass, he picked up his best friend Anthony. That would be AK, also known as Anthony Kiedis. (The RHCP singer published his own memoir, Scar Tissue, way back in 2004.) "My relationship with Anthony is something, well...I think if I really understood it, the cosmic energy might leak out," Flea writes. "When I met him, my whole life changed, by virtue of a chemical reaction, of our intensely bonding and oft-dueling natures."

Long before the fast friends started making music together, they got up to all sorts of other shenanigans. They stripped naked, covered each other's bodies in red lipstick, and ran outside to throw some eggs. They stood on top of a Close Encounters of the Third Kind billboard and wagged their penises at passersby. They jumped off of two or three-story buildings into swimming pools, which was "FUN MEGA F--KING FUN" until Kiedis broke his back.

The bass came in Flea's late teens, when future Red Hot Chili Pepper Hillel Slovak invited the author to join his band Anthym. The band, which later changed its name to What Is This, also included future Pepper Jack Irons; Flea would quit that band and join the band FEAR before getting fired from FEAR and rejoining his friends, with Kiedis, to form RHCP. Mike Balzary became Flea when he joined FEAR, picking one of his occasional nicknames because he thought it sounded punk.

If it's easy to miss the introspection in Acid for the Children, it's because the passages of insight are squeezed in among seemingly random observations that include super-short chapters on topics like hobbits ("My Little Homies"), the time he wrote "STYX" on his school notebook without knowing what it meant ("Little Lame-O"), and the debut of the Sony Walkman ("=+=+=+=+=+*******—f--k!______—?>>>>>><<<<<<<+=+=+++====++==+").

Passages that feature observations from Flea's adult self pop up in italics. That's how he includes, for example, his reflections on the 1988 heroin overdose that killed Slovak. It's how he reflects on his lifelong love of basketball (following the autobiographical observation "LOVED TO HOOP!") and how he swears that he and his bandmates had never heard of the preceding group Chilli Willi and the Red Hop Peppers.

As the title suggests, the young Flea did a lot of drugs. He says he's now been sober for 28 years, but during his first 21 years he hit the hard stuff so frequently that the book includes an entire tutorial on how to inject yourself with a solution of cocaine. He admits that he's incredibly lucky to have survived, including having survived the danger of contracting HIV through needle sharing.

Did the drugs lead to some poor decisions? Oh, yes. Flea seems to have constantly been stealing (he and Kiedis worked out a whole system for sneaking baskets of groceries), cheating on his (mostly) devoted girlfriend, and taking his clothes off. ("My public nudity was never aggressive, but in the spirit of the streaking craze of the seventies!") Does he have regrets? Sure, but Acid for the Children is suffused with joy. It's the kind of book about wild parties that reminds you why people have wild parties.

Who's this book for? Fans of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, certainly. Lovers of L.A. as well, especially the happily sun-drenched stupor out of which West Coast punk emerged. Those who want to learn how not to hire a hooker (drive drunk down Sunset Boulevard with a $100 bill hanging out of your pocket), or learn who was the most profound influence on Flea's bass playing. (Perhaps surprisingly, it seems to have been Les Pattinson of Echo & the Bunnymen.)

The book also dips into Flea's acting career, as his FEAR bandmate Lee Ving introduces him to director Penelope Spheeris ("I always had a crush on Penelope"), landing him in the 1984 punk drama Suburbia. The rest is a story for another book, which Flea teases at the end of Acid for the Children. ("Will Tony Flow and the Miraculously Majestic Masters of Mayhem be true to the spirits who gifted them this other worldly opportunity, on stage and in studio??")

Get ready to read on...or don't, whatever. "I had always imagined myself writing a soulful fable of fornicating fauna and I never thought I would write a memoir," he muses, "but a publisher asked me to. Fable later. Sometimes I worry about it sucking, but I don't feel too precious about it, I just write, come what may."

Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Wednesday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

Feb. 5: The Beatles A to Zed: An Alphabetical Mystery Tour by Peter Asher

Feb. 12: Time is Tight: My Life, Note by Note by Booker T. Jones

Feb. 19: London, Reign Over Me: How England's Capital Built Classic Rock by Stephen Tow

Feb. 26: God Save the Queens: The Essential History of Women in Hip-Hop by Kathy Iandoli

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