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

It’s the 90s and Red Hot Chili Peppers are a captivating mix of muscles and hedonism, like George Clinton’s Funkadelic caught in a passionate embrace with rock and the Los Angeles hardcore scene: a devilish groove, punctuated with four flailing bodies hardened by excess and covered in ink.

There is a documentary, Funky Monks, which immortalises three months of intense recordings for what would be their coming-of-age album, 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). A true rock n’ roll house, it has placed host to the likes of Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie and Mick Jagger. The film alternates between moments of recording, jokes, discussions about the paranormal (something which Slipknot’s singer Corey Taylor also mentions in his book, after having also recorded in the same place) and has a musical appeal that we could almost define as spiritual in itself.

There are, however, about four minutes of the footage that seem to almost move away from the rest of the movie. In them, the frontman, Anthony Kiedis, visits a laundry room in the middle of the night. He isn’t the usual mix of Henry Rollins and Iggy Pop, instead appearing close-up, his hair unkempt, wearing a thoughtful gaze that is, somewhat concealed by thick-rimmed glasses. It seems as if he wants to take this opportunity to speak privately with the spectator, as if the latter had accompanied him there for a chat. It’s in this instant that Anthony starts talking about one of the two singles that will have a huge impact at mainstream level. It is here that he reveals Under The Bridge, a delicate petal on the flower, a fragile ballad that has consumed the last five years of the frontman’s life. This dependence on the song has not only taken away one of his best friends, the founding guitarist of Red Hot Chili Peppers, Hillel Slovak, but has also snatched away his own dignity. He has plumbed the depths of desperation, forced to score his latest fix under a suburban bridge controlled by a Mexican gang, pretending to be the boyfriend his regular dealer’s sister.

But the true content of the song is not drugs themselves, or else the eleventh track of Blood Sugar Sex Magik would have become yet another piece of the mosaic of degradation and vice that makes up one of the industry’s well-worn clichés. In the song, the city is not a mere theatre of events, but the only real confidante and partner of the author. It is a place that reveals itself before the deep solitude that lies in the eyes of the subject, who has alienated himself through his own struggles and is struggling to find any solace beyond what lies before his eyes. The naked man stands before his metropolis, his only real friend. The ending is the point where the climax really captures the potential of the song writing, with an almost angelic choir liberating the song and the writer, who can now see further than the bridge, both emotionally and temporally.

Kiedis never revealed the exact location of the bridge. When he was asked outright in an interview with Rolling Stone in 1992, he intentionally answered vaguely, in order to avoid imitations. Although several articles have since tried to shed light on its whereabouts, with four possible candidates for the bridge being commonly referenced, no one has yet managed to provide a definitive answer. It is likely that Kiedis locked the answer away in a tangle of multiple clues and references, mixing reality and thoughts with a touch of poetry that will keep the mystery alive forever.

But in this story, there is more than one bridge. The second is a metaphorical structure in the form of John Frusciante, a 21-year-old who was catapulted into a band made up of musicians a decade older. John was not only the replacement for Hillel, but the one to find new momentum for the Red Hot sound, increasing the band’s appeal without losing its hardcore fans. It was Frusciante, in fact, who extracted the first piece of music from the lyrics of Kiedis, who was initially sceptical as to whether such an intimate confession could even become a song. In this song, Frusciante shows that he has an innate gift that few other guitarists have ever had at this level: intuition, empathy, and a natural understanding of the ideas of his bandmates.

In just a short time, the guitarist built the perfect sound for the mood of the song, invoking two of his greatest heroes as he did so: David Bowie and Mark Bolan. He has said that, for the intro, he was inspired by the opening 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, from the immortal Electric Warrior. This is all revealed in Amsterdam in 2001, during a brief, intimate tour to promote his album, To Record Only Water for Ten Days, in between songs and a sip from a bottle. He goes so far as to define the song as plagiarism, but he knows full well that this is not the case: the notes are different and the way they hold together is prodigious. His mother, Gail Haworth Bruno, can be heard in the choir at the end of the song – the hardest part for Kiedis to sing.

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 of the points above; in both videos, Anthony ends his performance embracing himself, the silhouettes of the musicians alternate in a deep sense of unity and Frusciante opens and closes the artistic doors of the movie, standing on a pedestal like a trophy, bearing an elusive soul.

Frusciante_under_the_bridge
John Frusciante in Under The Bridge

These images and the music itself were destined to enter into 90s pop culture. There are a great many references to the song, from the parody written by “Weird Al” Yankovic in Bedrock Anthem‘s video, to Santana’s cover with Andy Vargas, and The Big Bang Theory’s comic genius.

Today, more than twenty-five years after the release of the single, Under the Bridge is a classic of its generation, full of the bittersweet taste of a song that still haunts the singer with its demons. The song is not a permanent fixture in today’s live performances, often alternating with two other intense (but less famous) ballads of the same period, Soul to Squeeze and I Could Have Lied. And if you ask a fan to choose their favourite, they might surprise you. But the one thing that they would probably agree on is that the best version of the song took place in 2005 at ReAct Now: Music & Relief, a show that brought together many well-known artists to raise funds for the victims of Hurricane Katrina hurricane. The band performs an acoustic version with deeper harmonisations and a pathos that flows through the strings.

“Sometimes, out of really horrible things come really beautiful things”, Kiedis can be heard to say. Perhaps he wasn’t just referring to the reason they were there.

Rating: 5.0/5. From 1 vote.
Please wait...

Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.