When I was a kid, I wanted very much to be a rock star. As I hit my teens I bought lots of music and read lots of rock journalism. I watched MTV. And when I was about 20, in 1989, I picked up the bass because a friend of mine and I wanted to record some stuff and both of us played guitar. Hit this place called Albert’s Pawn, off S. Carrolton in New Orleans, and as I sat there with this unbalanced, blonde wood-colored four-string Gibson Grabber bass in my lap I’ll never forget the words of the guy behind the counter: “You sound like you got a feel for that thing. Maybe you should get it.” This man’s smooth salesmanship and people skills got the Grabber in my hands and my feet out the door.
Of course, when you start with a new instrument, you have to have a role model. Someone to look up to, and who can provide a starting point on this amazing journey you’re undertaking. At the time, you see, the baddest cat playing bass on the planet was Flea Balzary of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. One of the songs they had out then was this cover of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Higher Ground’. The bass line was this slappy thing that sounded so simple to my naïve ears. ‘Wow,’ I thought, ‘I can do that.’ So I sat there one afternoon with the bass and tried to figure out ‘Higher Ground’. I tried to coordinate the thumb and the finger for the alternating slapping- and popping motion. Sadly I must confess, even after nearly a quarter century I still can’t play it. It’s actually kind of tricky.
So, I think it’s safe to say I’m a fan of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I saw them play in New Orleans, that same year I picked up the bass. Flea was this shirtless, sweaty, green-mohawked ball of fury on the stage, the band tore it up song after song after song, and when a bunch of people nearly toppled a pipe organ security cut the power. Everyone had to leave, but it was a hell of a show. These guys played with a lot of passion, like they really cared about entertaining people and giving them a good experience. Many early Chili Peppers songs in fact are full of these odes to brotherhood, or to peace and understanding. You really get the impression from the first four or five recordings they did that they really did want everyone to go to the higher ground, and they were willing to help us get there. There’s some real positive energy in those early days.
I know it’s not just me that feels this. Israeli activist Tali Shapiro was also inspired by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I know that she was, because she said so in the letter she sent to the band asking them not to play Tel Aviv this September. She gave some very good reasons why they shouldn’t be doing this, and I agree with her. Now, the original guitar player in the band, Hillel Slovak, was born in Israel. For those who don’t know, Slovak died in the mid-1980s due to a heroin overdose. Like Flea, Hillel Slovak too was an inspired player and the architect of many of their early ideas. When you have a friend that dies, particularly someone you’ve played with, you have strong memories of that person. I’ve had it happen to me. So, I can respect that in their recent video announcement confirming the Tel Aviv gig they would mention their fallen band-mate and friend, inferring that this was one of the things that motivated them to do it. Of course, I’m sure the bigger motivation was the check they’re picking up from Shuki Weiss, the Israeli promoter, but let’s not be cynical for a minute here.
There’s this other Red Hot Chili Peppers song from that same recording as ‘Higher Ground’, written by the band after Hillel Slovak’s death, called ‘Knock Me Down’. Doing an interview at the time Anthony Kiedis talked about his motivations for writing the lyrics, and he said he wished that someone had knocked Slovak off his self-absorbed, self-destructive perch of heroin addiction. And that’s some useful advice for anyone, really. It’s possible that Kiedis and Flea Balzary don’t really know that much about Israel, or what happens in the Occupied Territories. And, maybe they know but don’t care. They must surely know by now this was a controversial decision on their part, though. Somewhere in the West Bank or Gaza there’s a kid who would probably love to get a chance to play bass in a band, inspired as I was by watching Flea do it, but of course that’s not going to happen as there’s no way he’ll be able to attend the show. But hey, if the band doesn’t care to learn why so many people are upset with them for picking up this gig why worry about what happens in the corners of the region that aren’t the nightclubs and the bright lights of the White City?
I doubt that Flea or Anthony Kiedis or anyone else associated with the Chili Peppers is going to read this, and at this point it does seem like they’ve made up their minds on Tel Aviv. But personally, I think they’re wrong in acting as unpaid corporate spokesmen for Israel’s white-washing campaign. The band has a reputation that goes back decades for being one that people of all races, creeds, colors, genders, and just every other group that you can think of that ends with an ‘s’ can find a space to get into. But, somehow in all those songs about friendship and goodwill they forgot to find room for Palestinians, and learned to turn a blind eye to racism and exclusionary state policies when it suits their purposes.
So, I’m going to knock the Red Hot Chili Peppers down. They’re not bigger than life, and apparently can’t see the hypocrisy in what they’re doing here. There’s still time to tell Shuki Weiss to go find some puppet shows to spend his money on instead of making themselves into the puppets, willing or no. My hope is that they will change their minds and cancel the Tel Aviv gig. Then, maybe we can all sail on to the higher ground.