#401: Red Hot Chili Peppers, "Californication" (1999)

A normal day, just home from school, I’d dumped my backpack in my bedroom and was in a hurry to get to the basement, the unofficial sanctum of my burgeoning pubescence, so I could cram in a few hours of Ocarina of Time on my N64 before dinner. I was thirteen, drumming on my chest as I walked through the house and singing the only way a thirteen-year-old knows how to sing—with earnest—in a voice that can only belong to a thirteen-year-old—a dysphonic collision of pitches and tones reminiscent of a bagpipe in the hands of a boxer.

Dream of CaliForrrnicAationnnnnnn…
Dream of CaliForrni…caaaaaaaa…shunnnnn…

My father, sorting through bills and junk mail at the table, paused and turned to address me. “What did you just say?”

I was guilty of something unknown and quickly looked to defer blame. “It’s a song,” I said. “I didn’t write it.” As if my not writing the words precluded my having said them.

“Do you know what it means?” he asked.

“I don’t know, like, people want to go to California on vacation?” I offered. That was honestly the only thing I could figure, despite the song containing the lyric everybody’s been there and I don’t mean on vacation. Such was my obliviousness.

“It’s saying something about sex,” my father said. “Fornication is a word for sex.” He shook his head. “Don’t let your mother hear you saying it. Or your sister.”

Confused but exhilarated, I continued to the basement, where instead of flipping on the 64 and puzzling through the Water Temple, I popped in the Californication CD, pulled out the booklet, and began listening with new interest. Something about sex…well, sure…with lyrics like hardcore soft porn; young Kentucky girl in a push-up bra; live to love and give good tongue. But where else was sex hidden, and more importantly, what else was hidden with it?


I was ignorant, but not without good reason. Themes of this nature were totally absent from all of my previous experiences with music, as I’d pretty much only listened to—and again, in pretty much the only way you can listen to it, with earnest—Christian rock. Bands with songs titled “Hey You, I Love Your Soul,” “Straight Shooter,” “Superfriend,” “Super Good Feeling,” “Mighty Good Leader,” “Good People,” “Good Stuff,” “Love Liberty Disco,” etc. The message was pretty clear cut: You love Jesus and Jesus loves You and if Everyone would love Jesus then Everything would be totally overflowing with super awesome goodness. Granted, at thirteen I lacked any real perspective on worldly problems and didn’t have much to complain about, myself, but I still recognized that I didn’t feel like I was as good or super or awesome as those bands proclaimed was possible, and given everything I’d ever heard about “the difficult transitional period of the teenage years” I didn’t expect to feel that way any time soon. In fact, I desired this difficult transition, these changes that would happen, were happening, which would introduce a life that wasn’t so clear-cut and clean.

And what I found in Californication wasn’t clear-cut by any means, but instead an increasingly complex intermingling of the forces that compose reality. Sex was definitely present—the songs “Around the World,” “Get on Top,” and “I Like Dirt” practically pulsing with the sexual energy that made RHCP famous—touting the tangible mish-mashing of bodies that set the thirteen-year-old mind a-fervor. But paired with them were songs that presented a visceral pain within that sexual desire. “Scar Tissue” with its broken jaw and waving goodbye to ma and pa and with the birds I share this lonely view. “Emit Remmus” with cuss me out and it’ll feel all right. “Purple Stain” with to finger paint is not a sin / I put my middle finger in / your monthly blood is what I win evoking menstrual flow followed by black and white and red and blue / things that look good on you / and if I scream don’t let me go hearkening a sort of eagerly anticipated love-bruise.

But there was more than sex. There was drugs and addiction with “Otherside,” “Porcelain,” and “This Velvet Glove,” and within that examination a possibility of release from the turmoil through suicide. But what was most powerful was the yearning for understanding, a searching for meaning not only within the self, but as part of the collective conscious. See “Parallel Universe”:  Staring straight up into the sky / Oh my my, a solar system that fits / in your eye…Microcosm. Yet even within this recognition, there was a question, a longing to abandon what is present in hopes of  attaining what is real—see “Easily”:  throw me to the wolves because there’s order in the pack / throw me to the sky because I know I’m coming back. For the first hundred or so listens, I admit I would skip track twelve, “Savior,” simply because the first line, Dusting off your savior…, implied too much of a departure from the world I knew. Eventually I listened and found not a song about separating from Jesus, but resolving a troubled relationship with a father, and as part of that resolution, an embrace of all the good and bad in a manner that allowed true freedom: A butterfly that flaps its wings / affecting almost everything / the more I hear the orchestra / the more I have something to bring / and now I see you in a beautiful / and different light / he’s just a man any damage done / will be alright.

At thirteen, I didn’t know about sex or drugs or rock ‘n roll, hadn’t quite lived long enough to fathom what would be most difficult about becoming a real person in the real world. If anything, the album left me feeling that the looming changes of life would be more complicated than I could even begin to understand. Nonetheless, and perhaps all the more so, it seemed like the stirring doubts and worrisome questions were part and parcel, were in fact necessary for the transition out of youth to begin.


I don’t believe I made a conscious decision to turn away from the relentless opti-posi-simplici-tudes of my Christian-swaddled rocking, but a natural drifting occurred. And I hadn’t initially sought out the Red Hot Chili Peppers because I thought they held answers from beyond the pale veil. What first got my attention was actually an appeal to my very juvenile sensibilities, through the video game-inspired music video for the album’s title track. The video depicts the digitally-rendered band members passing through a series of quasi-Californian trials and tribulations—Kiedis punching a shark in the San Francisco Bay and ramping a convertible through (R)Andy’s iconic donut; Flea dodging murderous lumberjacks felling redwoods and a teenage bride with a baby inside; Frusciante stumbling through sci-fi/soft porn Hollywood basement studios; Smith snowboarding the Golden Gate Bridge—only to plummet through a ripped-wide San Andreas fault onto a subterranean platform where, transforming back to flesh, they receive both a “game over” and an option to proceed to the “next game” to which, before the screen cuts out, they select Yes.

As a kid, I perceived a set of crazy-cool wild adventures that made the music video entertaining, but as an adult, knowing the well-documented real-world hardships the members of RHCP underwent, I can’t help but interpret some connection between the video’s antics and their own transition as a band into a new realm of possibility and understanding. Some crazy shit went down…and we’re still here! What strikes me as most interesting though, is the end of the video/game. GAME OVER it says, not LEVEL COMPLETE. Failure, not success. And yet, the band members appear joyous to be united. And yet, the option for a NEW GAME appears. And yet, they choose Yes. And perhaps that’s the main difference between my Christian rock upbringing and the realm of Californication: the ability to ascribe a super good feeling, not in spite of, but because of the complex criss-cross of pleasure and pain, life and death, self-loathing and self-discovery, not judgment within in a dualistic realm, but appreciation as alternating currents within the same existence. Perhaps Californication presents its own brand of earnestness, not a whitewashing of the past and separation from the present, but a devotion to the complexity of everything and all as necessary constituents for life.

The chorus of the last track on the album, “Road Trippin’,” says, These smiling eyes are just a mirror for the sun. As the song ends, as the album ends, it fades out on an open-ended version of this line: These smiling eyes are just a mirror for…your smiling eyes are just a mirror for… For…for…for… For this and this and this and this. For everything and all.

—Colin Lee