Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Flea Talks About His Wild Childhood In 1970s Hollywood In 'Acid For The Children'


The Red Hot Chili Peppers are known for many things - a wild, thrashing stage presence; performing just about naked; and aggressive, funky bass lines by a man named Flea.


RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS: (Singing) What I got, you got to give it to your mama. What I got, you got to give it to your papa.

CORNISH: Flea is now 57. And like countless rock stars before him, he's written a memoir. But this one's not about Flea the rock star. In fact, the entire book takes place before the Chili Peppers take the stage for the first time. Instead, it's about Flea the child, a kid whose family moves from Australia to the United States when he's just 4 and whose parents separate almost immediately after.

FLEA: My dad was a pretty button-down, straight, square guy - wore a suit and a briefcase, went to work every day. And all of a sudden, my mom takes off with this jazz musician who was a junkie who lived in his parents' basement.

CORNISH: The book is called "Acid For The Children." In it, Flea writes about the day he first saw his new stepdad playing bebop jazz in the living room one Sunday afternoon.

FLEA: When I saw that, I didn't even know what to do. It was a miracle taking place in front of me. I just - you know, I fell and rolled on the floor and laughed. And you know, I could've taken flight and had wings, and it wouldn't have been any more surprising or stunning to me than seeing and hearing and feeling these guys playing that music.

CORNISH: I'm picturing you as this kid rolling around on the floor, having a moment of joy, probably because when you performed in the band, you have a very infectious and joyful and physical presence onstage. But the problem is I can't now tell the listener that this is the beginning of a beautiful musical relationship. Like, that's not what happens. This stepfather is very troubled.

FLEA: He was a pretty scary guy, prone to fits of violence and going into these rages where he would destroy the house. And as a kid, you know, you don't understand this stuff or know how to make sense of it. But I would see him play his instrument in a fury, in an absolute rage - you know, his eyes closed, just, like, in this ether he was propelled into by virtue of his pain. As a kid seeing it, I - though I couldn't intellectualize it, I felt it.

CORNISH: Your family moved to Los Angeles when you were 10. And you basically go, for lack of a better term, feral. You're kind of spending your days jumping from roof to roof in Hollywood...

FLEA: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...And breaking into buildings with your friends. Your hobby is shoplifting. It almost felt like you were describing the life of a runaway.

FLEA: I didn't want to be home. Home was an uncomfortable and scary place. And combined with that, I wasn't watched at all. Like, I just got up in the morning and went out and often didn't come home till 5 o'clock in the morning 'cause I was running around on the streets, hustling and getting into what I could get into. And I found like-minded kids who were also kind of wild in the street. And I think, like, in that yearning I had for the familial comfort and the structure of a loving family, which I wasn't getting, I looked for love in the street. And I really bonded with my friends in a way where I was looking for them to fill that void of family.

CORNISH: But into this moment walks Anthony Kiedis, right? This is...

FLEA: Yeah.


CORNISH: This is...

FLEA: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...Obviously lead singer of the Chili Peppers, someone you call a chosen brother.

FLEA: Yeah.

CORNISH: Tell me about the first time you meet him.

FLEA: The first time I met him, I was at Fairfax High School in Hollywood. And I had this one friend who - we had a kind of an antagonistic relationship. And I had him in a headlock, and I was giving him a noogie (ph). I don't know if you know what a noogie is, but it's when...

CORNISH: Heard of it (laughter).

FLEA: Yeah. You get a kid in a headlock, and you grind your knuckles into the top of their head. And up walks this kid. He's real muscular, and he's got a crew cut. Nobody in 1977 had a crew cut, you know, unless you were an old man with a belt buckle, you know, three inches above your belly button - and glared at me with the meanest face and - lay off him, or I'll kill you - something like that. And that was Anthony Kiedis.

And we just were inseparable. Our friendship kind of waxes and wanes. We're very different people, but here we are...

CORNISH: You're saying waxes and wanes in this very genteel way.

FLEA: Yeah.

CORNISH: In the book, number one, you say betrayal, fear, passive-aggressive emotional blackmail - that was part of your relationship.

FLEA: Yep.

CORNISH: You've spent huge swaths of your friendship in states of distrust and anger.

FLEA: Yep.

CORNISH: And moreover, there is this meta commentary where you have to take a step back from writing. And you describe just the act of beginning to write about your friendship made you pause and walk away from your desk.

FLEA: Yeah, it's true.

CORNISH: What was the fear there?

FLEA: I think it was a fear of being able to write about it or understand it because ours is a relationship that is very brotherly, but we push each other's buttons in ways that are almost like, you know, when you have a troubled relationship with parents even as adults. And...


FLEA: ...You know, you get together for Thanksgiving, and they say one thing that might seem innocuous to someone who's not, you know, familiar with your relationship. But to you, it crushes your heart and sends you into a raw, vulnerable frenzy. We have that kind of relationship.

CORNISH: You write about him in a way that you don't write about your own mother.

FLEA: It's true. It's true. My relationship with Anthony - you know, I've spent a lot more time with him. I've shared a lot more affection with him. And as much as we don't see eye to eye, there's, like, this energy between us that always puts us together.

CORNISH: Has he read this book?


CORNISH: Nervous?

FLEA: Yes. I'm nervous for him to read it. And you know, he wrote a book, and I've never read his book. And he wrote his book 15 years ago or something, and I've never read it. And I see this guy constantly.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

FLEA: I mean, we played a show last night. I'm seeing him in an hour for a screening of a documentary we made, you know? And I've never read it because I'm scared to read it.


FLEA: Yeah.

CORNISH: Well, you talk so much about your family, leaving behind this father in Australia, essentially. He went back to Australia. And he was the stern one and the scheduler and the rules guy. And then...

FLEA: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...You had the stepfather who's the wild and free but also volatile and violent one. Have you merged those experiences - meaning, like, what kind of father do you think you are as a result?

FLEA: I think I improve as a father over time. I think at my worst, I've had the bad elements of both of those guys. And at my best, I'm thoughtful, kind, present, understanding, energetic and a bottomless pit of love who sees the sun rise and set every time his kids walks into the room.

CORNISH: And your childhood - have you forgiven folks who - I don't know - maybe didn't allow you to have a full one?

FLEA: Yeah, absolutely. I have. And you know, my stepfather passed away. And you know, I sat with him and forgave him one day for everything. And to be honest, I think he was so high and blacked out doing a lot of that stuff that he didn't - he was like, oh, man, that means so much, man, you know? You know, he's an old jazz guy, you know? But I don't know that he really understood what I was forgiving him for, but I know that he loved me.

And you know, people love how they know how, you know? You know, we - people - you know, I think about - I learned later that he had been, you know, horrifically abused by his parents and the amount that he was able to love me was, you know, light-years ahead of what he got, you know? And so in retrospect, I'm grateful for what he was able to give me and that, you know - and I do forgive, and I've really come to terms with that stuff.

CORNISH: Well, Flea, thank you for sharing your story, this part of your life, so frankly and talking about the book with us. We really appreciate it.

FLEA: Thank you, Audie.

CORNISH: Flea's new memoir - it's titled "Acid For The Children." It's out now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.