Under The Bridge: the hidden meaning of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ ballad

In the common imaginary, Red Hot Chili Peppers on 90s are a mix of muscles and hedonism, George Clinton’s black music caught in a passionate embrace with rock and Los Angeles hardcore: a devil’s groove where four rowdy bodies could dance, hardened by the excesses and the ink of eccentric tattoos.

There is a documentary, Funky Monks, which immortalizes three months of intense recordings for what will be the album of their consecration: Blood Sugar Sex Magik. The location is the Mansion, a vintage residence with sinister atmospheres and 10 rooms in the heart of Lauren Canyon (California, of course). People like Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie and Mick Jagger stayed In that house. The film alternates moments of recording, gags, discussions about spirits and ghosts (even Slipknot’s singer Corey Taylor devoted a part of his book to such events, after having also recorded in the same place) and a music appeal that we could almost define sculptural.

There are, however, about four minutes of the footage that seem to almost move away from the rest of the movie; they show the frontman, Anthony Kiedis, reaching a laundry room at night time. His style is not the typical mix between Henry Rollins and Iggy Pop that he usually shows off, he remains in a semi-closeup, his hair collected and his gaze thoughtful, somewhat concealed by eyeglasses with large lenses. It seems he wants to take this opportunity to speak privately with the spectator, as if the latter had accompanied him there in order to have a chat. It’s the instant that Anthony starts talking about one of the two singles that will have a huge impact at the mainstream level. Under The Bridge is then revealed, disclosing itself as one of the petals of the artwork, a fragile ballad that impregnates the last five years of the frontman’s life. The dependence had not only taken away one of his best friends, the founding guitarist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers Hillel Slovak, but also his own dignity. Even forced to look for a dose under a suburban bridge, controlled by a Mexican gang, pretending to be the boyfriend of Mario’s sister, his habitual drug dealer.

But the true content of the song is not drug itself, or the eleventh trace of Blood Sugar Sex Magik would be just another piece in a common mosaic of degradation and vice that is part of the clichés of the industry. In the composition, the city is not a mere theatre of events, but the only real confidante and partner of the author. It ‘s the place that shows itself in front of the deep solitude of the subject which, given its problems, is alienated in himself and cannot find an understanding outside of his eyes. The naked man before his metropolis, his only real friend. The ending is the point where the climax really captures the potential of the songwriting, with that almost angelic choir liberating for the song and for the writer, who fortunately sees now far away than bridge, both emotionally and temporally.

The exact location of the structure was never revealed by the singer: when they asked him directly in an interview with Rolling Stones on 1992, he answered vaguely, intentionally, in order to avoid emulations. Although several articles tried to shed light on the particular architectural element, listing four possible candidates, among announcements and denials, until now no one managed to find out which bridge Kiedis referred to. Most probably the author disseminated multiple clues and references, mixing reality and thoughts with that touch of poetry that will keep the mystery alive forever.

But in this story there is more than a bridge. The second is just defined metaphorically. It’s John Frusciante: 21-years old at that time, catapulted into a band of member ten years older than him in average, John was not only the element that stably replaced Hillel, but he even gave a new gear to Red Hot sound, avoiding to lose radio appeal, in fact increasing it on the right measure. And it is John the one who elaborated the first musical piece from the lyrics of Anthony, initially skeptical of the fact that such an intimate consideration could become a song. In this song, Frusciante shows to have an innate gift that probably no other guitarist ever had at those levels: the intuition, the empathy, the best understanding towards the ideas of his companions.

In short time the guitarist builds the perfect sound dress for the mood of the song and, to do so, invokes two of his greatest heroes: David Bowie and Mark Bolan. He declared that, for the intro, he was inspired by the incipit of Andy Warhol, one of Hunky Dory‘s most lo-fi pieces, while the idea of the suspended note was a tribute to T. Rex’ Rip Off (a name, a suggestion), from the immortal Electric Warrior. The anecdote is narrated in a live in Amsterdam in 2001, during the brief and intimate tour that the artist starts in order to promote his To Record Only Water for Ten Days, between a track change and a sip from the bottle. The musician, laughing, exaggerates to the point that he defines it plagiarism, but he knows well that this was not the case: the notes are different and the way they hold together the whole structure is almost a prodigy. His mother Gail Haworth Bruno is in the choirs, the ones in the end that we already mentioned, the hardest ones to sing for Kiedis.

There are two versions of Under the Bridge video, both shot by the cult director Gus Van Sant, who was also the official photographer during the writing session in the Mansion. The concept reflects many points previously discussed, in both movies Anthony ends his performance embracing his own body, the silhouettes of the musicians alternate in a deep sense of unity and Frusciante opens and closes the artistic doors of the movie, placed on a pedestal as a precious trophy with a rather elusive soul.

John Frusciante in Under The Bridge

Images and music destined to enter the pop culture of the 90s through the main door. There will be many mentioning the song, starting from the funny parody made by “Weird Al” Yankovic in Bedrock Anthem‘s video, moving to Santana’s cover with Andy Vargas voice, up to The Big Bang Theory celebration (with the performance of the actors).

Today, more than twenty-five years after the release of the single, Under the Bridge is a classic of its generation, with the bitter sweet taste of a consideration that, from above, flies over the scent of the inner demons that can no longer approach you, but they keep watching. The presence of the song is not always granted on today’s live performances, the song alternates often with two other intense (but less famous) ballads of the same period like Soul to Squeeze and I Could Have Lied. And if you ask a fan to choose his favorite, he might actually surprise you. But what probably would make everybody agree is the best version ever made out of that song: among several memorable songs, the execution that took place on 2005 at ReAct Now: Music & Relief, a show that collected many known artists to raise funds for the victims of Katrina hurricane, the band sings in acoustic version: between unprecedented harmonizations and a pathos that flows through strings.

“Sometimes, out of really horrible things come really beautiful things”, Kiedis says. And maybe he wasn’t just referring to the reason why they were there.

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