When you're 23 years old, it's all about smoking dope out of an empty beer can, having sex in the backseat of your car, and watching Soul Train the next morning with a hammer-to-the-forehead hangover. At least, it would've been for me, if I had actually owned my own automobile.
That period of my life was spent hitch hiking through an obstacle course of dysfunction. I'm still not sure how I ever made it to the age of 24 after a critical mass of epileptic seizures, pot busts, a rehab stint/intervention and the requisite teary-eyed confessional on Oprah.
Twenty-three years old and headed for Hell--something had to give. I wisely chose alcohol and haven't emptied a bottle since. This unfamiliar transition to clarity helped me finally figure out that everybody on Soul Train had been lip-syncing. It was heartbreaking to realize that so many of my heroes were fakin' the funk. Someone had to course-correct this shit. Who would have thought that a gang of four punk rock kids from Southern California would finally bring the grime back to prime time?
December of 1985: We booked the Red Hot Chili Peppers to play at the Theatre Gallery in Deep Ellum. These four kids weren't faking anything. Sure, they were grabbing at little chunks of hip-hop, psychedelic, metal, Dr. Suess books and elements of punk rock. Somehow they threw it all together and created a sound that was all their own.
The dirty tour van pulled up at around one in the afternoon. A few minutes later, Anthony Kiedis and Flea (also both 23 years old at the time) asked me if I would take them somewhere cheap to get something to eat. We were all pretty broke, so we ended up just taking the van out to my Mom's house in North Dallas to go make Kraft macaroni and cheese. (I'm a real badass when it comes to boiling water, yo.)
Flea was cracking up while going through my family's photo albums and Anthony was out doing back flips on the trampoline in our back yard. Both took a quick shower, I twisted a fat doob and we were good to go again.
On the way back downtown, we stopped by the old Bill's Records location in North Dallas. Anthony and Flea totally fell in love with the place.
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Bill Wisener (Bill's Records): "When they came in the store, Anthony was wearing this furry jock strap and Flea had on a leather jacket that had tin cups sewn onto the shoulders. They started digging around underneath the tables and found this old red, white and blue skirt. I told Anthony that he could have it; that he probably needed it because it was supposed to get really cold that night. I also gave him a cassette tape of Songs in the Key of Life. I heard that Anthony wore that skirt onstage every night for years afterward."
Steve Shein (Theatre Gallery manager/security): "December 10, 1985, seems like yesterday. I got down to TG early that day around noon. Several skater kids were cruising around the front of the club, and when I started to go in, they flocked to the door. They all wanted to know when they could buy tickets. I asked Russ if we were selling tickets and he said, 'What the fuck? Why not?' I set up the box office and called in the kids. After 10 minutes, 15 tickets were gone. One kid went to find a phone (nobody had cell phones yet) so he could tell his friends to come up and get tickets. This went on all day. By five o'clock I had sold over 200 tickets. I took a short break and walked to Theo's Diner, had a grilled cheese and lemonade (all I could afford), then headed back. I had only been gone an hour, and as I came around the corner, was excited to see a crowd stretching from TG halfway down Commerce to Adair's. To see all these people lined up for a show like this in Deep Ellum at that time was truly amazing."
Kids were piling in from all over the DFW area; word-of-mouth on the street was that this band was onto something truly different. I can't remember the last time an unknown group had generated so much anticipation before a debut performance in Dallas. Tuesday night in Deep Ellum was usually a ghost town. By sundown, this was already shaping up to be the biggest show we had ever done at Theatre Gallery.
Amy Curnutt (Dallas model/fan): "That night, my friends and I piled into my Mom's car; each of us pitching in dollar bills until we had five bucks and were able to buy enough gas to get to Dallas from North Richland Hills. I was 16 years old at the time. That was back when the Chili Peppers were super cool. It was edgy and fun. That night, we hung out at the Clown Ramp before the show, then came down to Deep Ellum; that's what we always did. We sat in front and hung out with all of the skateboarders."
David Williams (Decadent Dub Team): "There was no music scene to speak of in Denton in '85; just my bands, and Brave Combo, and all the UNT jazzers--that was it. We had to drive in to Dallas for every show. Spent a lot of that time period dropping acid and skating the hills of the TWU campus with Matt Miller and Jeff Robinson (who turned me on to RHCP); they were two of the finest artists to come out of Dallas. [Miller and Robinson both painted murals on the inside walls of the original Prophet Bar.] It seems quaint now, how urgent the RHCP sound was there for a minute. Andy Gill produced the first record; George Clinton did the album they were touring behind in '85. The show at Theatre Gallery was really good. Hillel Slovak was still their guitar player, which was nice. But look what their success caused: so much lame copycat punk-funk."
Russ Hobbs: "They came on the scene as this great marriage of rock and soul and funk, way before the whole rap-core thing ever happened. The Chili Peppers were totally ahead of their time. On Freaky Styley, Anthony started singing with more of a melodic style. George Clinton really brought that in him as a vocalist."
Bill Wisener: "I went down to the show with Kevin Keepers, a local DJ who was one of my employees. At the time, I remember hanging out with you and Edie Brickell in the gallery up front before the doors opened. Once it started, I had never seen a show with that much energy; it was freezing cold and the band was all naked and jumping around all over the place."
Steve Shein: "When the doors opened that night it was nuts. All the kids bee-lined it to the front of the stage while all the college kids and adults went straight to El Barco for drinks. Trey the bartender was wearing a tuxedo that night. Beat Orgy opened with a good set that got the crowd fired up. Just before the RHCP went on, I went to the backstage area where I found Anthony Kiedis in his red, white and blue skirt staring out at the crowd. He looked at me and said, 'Man this is great! I didn't think any one knew us here'. Then he laughed and said 'This is gonna kick ass', and trust me, it did."
Since there weren't any bands in town that sounded weird enough to work as an opening act, the skeleton crew of Theatre Gallery employees and a handful of musicians formed a one-off band called Beat Orgy. Jim Heath and I were playing guitar, Pat MaKanna (The Trees) played bass, and David Mabry (Homespun Remedies/End Over End) played drums. Russ Hobbs and Heath were the singers. There were at least ten people onstage, including Brandon Aly from New Bohemians and Bob Watson from Shallow Reign. Shit was pretty wild.
Jim Heath (Rev. Horton Heat): "When we did the Beat Orgy gig opening up for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, it was kind of cool that in the middle of it all. I got to sing 'Folsom Prison Blues'. That was really the beginning of Reverend Horton Heat, because that song convinced Russell Hobbs to give me my first solo gig at the new Prophet Bar."
Russ Hobbs: "Anthony and Flea were standing in front of us while we were doing the Beat Orgy thing. It was kind of intimidating to see them right there. I'm glad we had all made friends earlier that afternoon. (Laughs.) We were just goofin' off, you know. But it was all fun. The Prophet Bar had just opened across the street, and they came over and hung out with us upstairs before the show. [Hobbs and I lived in a loft space above Prophet at the time.] Anthony had this tattoo of an Indian, and we were using this same Indian image on the very first poster we ever made for the club; so we kind of bonded over that. They really fit our scene, we were kindred spirits."
The Chili Pepper's set list that night was all over the place. "Police Helicopter" had the braver audience members diving on top of each other. "American Ghost Dance" and "Yertle the Turtle" (with impromptu lyrics lifted from the theme from Shaft) were both hilarious and uplifting. A cover of "(Let Me Stand Next to Your) Fire" was totally off the chain; Slovak was just killin' the Hendrix guitar tone. Flea was thumping his shit like Bootsy Collins on a jumbo speedball. Original drummer Cliff Martinez was rock solid behind the kit the whole set.
Damon Heltzen (Dallas-based photographer): "The Red Hot Chili Peppers show at Theatre Gallery was a beautiful musical turning point in my life. We got to take our records and make them come alive. That LA sound was right in front of us, we were feeling the energy they were conveying. Imagine being sweated on and kicked in the face by Flea. I was rockin', he was definitely rockin'. Neither one of us cared. This memory will live in my mind, heart and soul for as long as I live. The skinheads were there, along with punkers, skaters, post-preps and even a homeless guy or two bumming cigarettes and beer. The show was a magical evening that will live for me forever!"
The band's guarantee was $1,200. Half of that I had already sent in as a security deposit, so the balance due was 600 bucks. It was the most money we had ever paid a band up until that point; it was also the most they had ever made for a single show outside Los Angeles. I was waiting for the band backstage after they finished their last encore. By this time, they were wearing nothing but two pairs of athletic socks between the four of them.
You can guess where each of the single socks went.
Bill Wisener: "After the show, you guys were all standing around backstage, and they were still naked except for the tube socks. You were paying them and they divided it all up among each other and stashed it in their socks. They just whipped 'em off, stuffed their money inside, and then put them right back on. I couldn't believe how cold it was that night, and they were naked almost the whole time."
Steve Shein: "My favorite memory took place after the show. I stood and watched as hundreds of smiling kids left, many clutching new RHCP t-shirts--I still have mine. Great music, with no fights or arrests, just a truly memorable performance. I'm glad I had a part to play in it."
Russell Hobbs: "That was one of the first road shows that put us on the map. Theatre Gallery really started to turn a corner that night. We had been kind of this underground art gallery/performance space during most of '85, then both the Chili Peppers show and that Bad Brains gig on their 'I Against I' tour sort of took the venue to the next level."
The Red Hot Chili Peppers were also at the start of a positive trajectory. What had begun as four kids jamming in their garage would eventually turn into an amazing live act that headlined Woodstock and Lollaplaooza. Over the next twenty years, they would go on to sell 50 million records worldwide. Their days of playing in nightclubs and art galleries are long over. Or you would think, anyway.
Sometimes you're just in the right place at the right time.
In November of 2006, I was working at the Roxy Theatre in Los Angeles. Microsoft had rented the venue for a private, invitation-only event to roll out their new Zune mp3 player. The Red Hot Chili Peppers played for a capacity crowd of 425 people. It was great to see them playing in an intimate setting once again.
Before the show, I ran into Flea warming up backstage. He startled the shit out of me by saying, "Hey, I know you! Dallas, right? You took us to your Mom's house so we could go take a shower before our show at that art gallery." He then brought me back upstairs to the dressing room to find Anthony.
"Hey, look who it is!" said the shirtless bassist. "Remember this guy?"
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There was an awkward pause as Kiedis temporarily drew a blank.
"I took you guys to a record store in Dallas back in 1985," I reminded him.
Then the light bulb went off: "Yeah! Bill's Records. He gave me that Stevie Wonder tape!"
And just like my old vinyl copy of Freaky Styley, another odd melodic revolution would turn and come full circle.