In junior high, that truncated Red Hot Chili Peppers star patch sewn on the small pocket of a Jansport backpack was a sign to stir silent nods and glimpses of recognition in hallways during recess and lunch. They were the authors of the “Special Secret Song,” purveyors of the secret sauce, the first to rap/scat about fucking so fast that the parents never knew. But the funk got funky, the punk co-opted, and after only a couple wearings the sock stunt stank of mildew and moldy cheese and they knew it. So they revamped their party-rap-rebel-rousing-pussy-lickin’ ways. On By the Way their attempt to be earnest amounts to nothing more than Anthony Kiedis’s pitiful whine (as if oral sex weren’t already meaning enough); they try space effects and violins, they try to, gasp, harmonize. The L.A. quartet that once ruled my junior high world with elaborate tats and one gyrating Kiedis nipple is now . . . a wannabe boy band. They may as well be *RHCP.
“By the Way,” the first and only barely listenable track on the album, is a virtual poo-poo platter of styles that the Chili Peppers have dabbled in over the years. Flea gets his deep slappin’ bass on. Anthony Kiedis spits phrases that sound something like “oh-ah Christian and a milk shake, oh-ah kissin’ and a moocheck” —completely unintelligible couplets that are more existentially appealing than his actual “poetry” because at the very least you get to play free association. Sometimes he’s soft and slow and singing (off-key, always) and sometimes his rap penetrates the wailing echo of his atonal chorus.
Either way, Kiedis’s lyrics are absolutely baffling. It’s as if he picked up a rhyming dictionary and arbitrarily strung some phrases together. “Black jack/Dope dick/Pawn shop/Quick pick/Kiss that dyke/I know you want to hold one/Not on strike/But I’m about to bowl one/Bite that Mic/I know you never stole one/Girls that like a story/So I told one,” he wails. Yeah, how ’bout a story that isn’t so fragmented it makes T.S. Eliot jealous? Is Kiedis saying that he wants to have a lesbian love affair in Vegas while bowling the perfect game only to sell the trophy to a toothless pawnbroker in hopes of scoring some dope to inject in his cock? Everybody loves their own BO, but not everyone is inspired to write a song about it.
In 1991 the Chili Peppers hit the top 10 with their enigmatic “Under the Bridge,” a truly divergent, heartfelt ballad about heroin, desperation, and downtown desolation. Kiedis had something in that greasy hair, those rocker-worn sad eyes crying without tears—an air of emotion. It pulled a heartstring. And the Chili Peppers were launched from frat bay to the oceans of adult contemporary and the bedrooms of suburban teenage girls. They could never go back—Kiedis’s barking evolved into the whimper of a hungry castrated beagle.
“Throw Away Your Television” shows signs of life in Chad Smith’s jungle-swing drumming and Flea’s maniacal bumping. But come on, who wants a cultural lecture about TV-watching from a band whose only hope of record sales is pimping their wares on MTV2 and VH1 through commercials, not even actual rotation? In “The Zephyr Song,” Kiedis’s magic pen and testicle-less vocals are joined by some orchestral-humming/snake-slaughtering backup, which adds oomph to lyrical gems like “Rebel and a liberator/Find a way to be a skater/Rev it up to levitate her.” The songs on this album are as formulaic and repetitive as O-Town, but the Chili Peppers cop the war-hero attitude like sheer survival is justification enough. They also suck at harmony. It all sounds like a listless allergic reaction.
“We should get naked and hurl our bodies into bodies of water . . . we should eat watermelon at a feverish pitch and smear it all over ourselves . . . we should subtly ogle members of the opposite sex in their bathing suits . . . we should have dirty feet.”—From Flea’s Diary on the RHCP Web site. This is the kind of sentiment missing from By the Way. The kind of loosey-goosey, sunshine-soaked, Puck-induced delirious ideas that insist on not only getting your feet wet but getting them summer dirty. The kind of dirty the Peppers used to be.