By HARRY CLARKE
WITH all due respect respect to Mick Balzary, the Australian father of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ superstar bass player, Flea, I have to disagree with assertions he made earlier this year in email correspondence with the Caller.
I’d asked whether Mick agreed or, even better, could confirm, that the lead single from the Chili Peppers’ newly released album was a reference to natural disasters recently experienced Down Under.
“I doubt very much that ‘Black Summer’ relates to Australia,” Mick (pictured) wrote.
“Words to the Peppers songs are in the main written by Anthony Kiedis. Don’t dream anything up.”
I’ve been dreaming about Red Hot Chili Peppers music for a long time, ever since my older brothers first loaded the songs ‘Otherside’ and ‘Scar Tissue’ onto their Winamp MP3 player in about 1999.
So it was just a tad crushing to be so swiftly shut down by the father of a band member I’ve idolised since childhood. Mick Balzary even signed off the email by imploring, in capital letters, “PLEASE DO NOT MAKE THINGS UP!”.
But then, in a follow up phone call with Mick, he said “if you think you know more, then go for it”.
So I am.
And it’s not just ‘Black Summer’ which connects the Californian funk rock kings to regional, Outback and Indigenous Australia.
Going right back to when Flea was a child, there are enough links between the band and our sunburnt country to justify a whole feature article.
Being NAIDOC Week, and because this week the Chili Peppers announced a national tour of Australia scheduled to begin in January next year, the time for that article is now.
The kid from Victoria becomes an international rock star
Flea was born Michael Peter Balzary in Melbourne on October 16, 1962. His father, Mick Balzary Snr, said of that day: “It was so bloody hot you could fry a bloody egg on the sidewalk, mate!”.
Flea was aged just four when Mick Snr moved the family to the United States after he landed a job with the Australian customs office, based in New York.
His parents parted ways while overseas. Mick Balzary moved back home, his mother partnered with a Big Apple jazz musician, and the rest is history. Flea has gone on to become one of the world’s most renowned bass guitar players, ever.
In his memoir titled ‘Acid for the Children’, Flea wrote effusively of the connection he’s maintained with Australia and particularly its natural beauty:
Everything is more alive there, the food, the wildlife, the ocean. But its feels foreboding, like every beautiful thing has a meanness to it that will kill you, take you down, leave you as dusty as bones. When I walk in its bush trails, I'm uplifted and intoxicated by the smells, the silent and watchful animals, yet always alert that I could be killed by some kind of spidersnakemonster, or have my throat slit by a lunatic zapped by too much of that bright light, too much space and time to let his maniac mind wheels spin. A gorgeous, rejuvenating, friendly, terrifying, poisonous place. Is it cursed? The disenfranchised and ethically cleansed aboriginal people put a whammy on white, retaliation for genocide and years of systematic abuse? I always feel an umbilical connection to my birthland. It's a pillar of my life, no matter how long I'm away. My first four years shaped me profoundly, yet early childhood is a funny dream and murky memories hard to decipher. Australia's openness and dirt roads, the smell of eucalyptus forests, kangaroos dozing lazily in secret shady spots snapped to alert wakefulness by the sound of me and my dog crunching through the trail. Ahh, the taste of meat pie from the local baker, tomato sauce dripping from its warm flaky crust. My homeland's colors and feelings are etched deeply into who I am.
Lamenting the Australian bushfires
Despite the idea being shot down by Flea’s dad, there’s no doubt in my mind that ‘Black Summer’, in far more than title alone, is a reference by singer-songwriter Anthony Keidis to the devastating bushfires which raged across Australia’s east during the summer of 2019 and 2020.
The timing fits perfectly.
It was mid December of 2019 when the Chili Peppers announced the bombshell that the band’s seminal guitarist, John Frusciante, had rejoined the band following a decade-long departure.
Band members have said that ‘Black Summer’ was one of the first songs they began writing after Frusciante rejoined.
The confronting images of bushfires ripping down the Queensland, New South Wales and Victorian coastlines would have been blaring on Anthony Kiedis’s television just as he began putting pen to paper.
I believe these lyrics are the result:
“A lazy rain am I… The the skies refuse to cry. Cremation takes its piece of your supply… the night is dressed like noon… platypus are a few, the secret life of roo…”
C’mon. You can’t tell me those lyrics aren’t Anthony Kiedis lamenting the months of devastation in Australia, which have become known as the “Black Summer” bushfires.
An ode to Aboriginal Australians
While the potential references to Australia in ‘Black Summer’ are metaphoric, there’s another Chili Peppers song which pays tribute to the land Down Under in a far more literal sense.
‘Walkabout’ was released on the band’s 1995 album One Hot Minute. It clearly refers to the traditional rite of passage for young Aboriginal Australian males, to live in the wilderness for a long period as they transition into manhood.
Have a listen to this funky number:
RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS – Walkabout
I think I'll go on a walkabout And find out what it's all about And that ain't hard Just me and my own two feet In the heat I've got myself to meet A detective of perspective I need to try and get a bigger eye, open wide Blood wood flowers in my gaze Walkabout in a sunny daze To me now On a walkabout You could do it in the city You could do it in a zone You could do it in the desert You could do the unknown On a walkabout High desert skies, are what I spy So fly, you've got to wonder why The stingrays must be fat this year Moving slow in my lowest gear The digeridoo original, man with a dream I believe the Aborigine On a walkabout You could do it with a shuffle You could do it with a stroll You could do it with a stride You could do the unknown On a walkabout A walk could cure almost all my blues Bare feet or in my two shoes One, two I think I'll go on a walkabout Find out what it's all about, can't hurt to try Use your legs to rock it wide Take a ride to the other side
David Gulpilil, what an awesome dude
Back to Flea, the Australian-born bass guitar god who declares an “umbilical connection” to his home country.
When the iconic Indigenous actor, David Dhalatnghu Gulpilil, passed away in November last year, Flea was among a star studded list of international celebrities who expressed their condolences on social media.
And his tribute was perhaps the most heartfelt.
“Anyone who knows me, knows Walkabout is my favourite movie ever made,” Flea wrote on Instagram.
“We were just watching another amazing performance by David Dalaithngu in The Last Wave, the night before last.
“His performances are part of who I am, they’ve had a profound effect, opening me up to the mystical, the invisible world.
“What an awesome dude.”
Cleansing rain in the Gulf country
The tiny coastal Queensland town of Karumba in the Gulf of Carpentaria was put on the map in the 1940s when it was used by the RAAF during World War II as an aircraft fuelling and maintenance base.
Fast forward a few decades and Anthony Kiedis put Karumba on the map again – for Chili Peppers fans at least – when he penned the song Animal Bar on the 2006 album Stadium Arcadium.
“There is actually a bar called the Animal Bar and it’s in Northern Australia and it’s a tiny, one road dirt town where they don’t get rain for 10 months,” Kiedis said.
“At the end of that 10 months everybody in the town is basically on the verge of death because there’s been no f***ing rain, and the first drops of rain start to fall and it really does kind of rebirth you. It just comes and washes everything away.”
Flea’s father, Mick Balzary, apparently wasn’t aware of the Karumba anecdote, telling the Caller “I don’t think they have ever been to Karumba. Maybe you mean Currumbin on the Gold Coast. So it (the song Animal Bar) was not inspired by a visit that did not occur”.
RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS – Animal Bar
Kiedis’s salute to Karumba is well known among locals, despite only vague recollections of him ever having visited.
“I think it was in the 80s or the 90s when they were here,” said Kyra Hill, a long time Karumba resident, frequent patron of the Animal Bar and one time employee at the venue.
“At one stage we thought that it was taken from Shane Howard’s song about Karumba, because it’s basically about rain.
“All of us know the feeling you get when it finally rains. It’s a totally different feeling you get here.”
The Animal Bar, she said, had a colourful history as a drinking hole for drunken sailors who came in to “unwind” after months out in the Gulf angling from fishing trawlers.
“When the fishing started big time in the 1960s, the fishermen lived hard and worked hard,” she said.
“The only way you could get here into Karumba was by dirt road. You had to be a certain type of breed to come here. You come in from sea with a pocket full of money after not seeing anybody else, and the people played hard.
“There were concrete floors so you could hose it off in the morning.
“Up until 20 years ago you could come in and drink until you fell down because you’d been out at sea and everyone understood. It was about the release of being out at sea for six weeks, working hard 24 hours a day, and the Animal Bar was the place to unwind.”
Asked about the Chili Peppers song, Hill said locals appreciated the nod from Kiedis, but weren’t holding their breath until the band came and performed the song for the community.
“We’ve got our 150th anniversary celebration next year, celebrating 150 years since Karumba was gazetted, and we’re not expecting the Red Hot Chili Peppers to come over and play for us,” she said.
“I’ve tried to reach out but it didn’t go anywhere.”
Commentary by Anthony Kiedis about the inspiration for Animal Bar
Flea’s spiritual home away from home
It’s undoubtedly just a coincidence that the Red Hot Chili Peppers chose NAIDOC Week to announce their Australian tour, but the band’s myriad other links to First Nations Australians and the Aussie outback surely are not.
In light of Flea’s romantic descriptions of how he was shaped by his early childhood in Victoria, I asked his father Mick about that period during the 1960s.
“Michael at the time was a young boy playing with others. No different,” Mick said.
“He broke his arm one Saturday because I told him to get off the garage roof and play on the swings.
“He did so, falling off and breaking his arm. I took him to the Box Hill hospital and when asked how he broke his arm he said his Dad did it.”
No doubt Flea will take some time away from the band’s national tour next year to spend time with his relatives and father, who live on the south coast of NSW.
“He has a house near me, we spend a lot of time together when he is in Australia, albeit it being short,” Mick said.
Asked whether he’s proud of what his son has gone on to achieve since those early days in suburban Melbourne, Mick said “I’m pleased at what he has achieved – he has become a very well known celebrity and has done a lot for the poor people of LA”.
The Chili Peppers will perform in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Perth during their Australian tour.
The Caller calls on the band to venture further afield, to the beating heart of the country that’s inspired all those iconic lyrics.