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Scar Tissue: How Red Hot Chili Peppers Healed Their Wounds On A Classic Song
Warner Music
In Depth

Scar Tissue: How Red Hot Chili Peppers Healed Their Wounds On A Classic Song

Embracing sobriety and the return of guitarist John Frusciante, Red Hot Chili Peppers worked up one of their greatest songs, Scar Tissue.

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Bearing in mind frontman Anthony Kiedis later titled his 2004 memoir after the song, it’s reasonable to assume that Red Hot Chili Peppers’ second US Top 10 hit, Scar Tissue, has retained a special place in the band’s collective heart. After all, it’s as much a recognition of survival as it is anything else from one of rock’s longest-running bands. Here’s the story of how the Chili Peppers overcame addiction and reunited with their virtuoso guitar hero to create a landmark song.

Listen to the best of Red Hot Chili Peppers here.

The backstory: “It comes dusting down from outer space”

First released as the lead single for the Los Angeles quartet’s multi-platinum seventh album, Californication, the easily digestible and highly radio-friendly Scar Tissue quickly ascended the Billboard Hot 100 in the early summer of 1999, and it’s since been described as sounding “as mellow as California cruising on a summer day” by American Songwriter. Yet, while there’s no denying the song’s superficially balmy vibe, its lyrics carried an undertow of pain and grief which was all too personal for Anthony Kiedis and his bandmates.

The Chili Peppers had risen to mainstream prominence after Kiedis had addressed the death of the group’s original guitarist, Hillel Slovak, and his own recurring drug usage on the band’s signature hit, Under The Bridge, in 1991. However, while Slovak’s death had sparked Kiedis into getting clean, substance-related issues still plagued the Chili Peppers throughout the next decade. Heroin use forced Slovak’s replacement, John Frusciante, to quit the band despite the multi-platinum success of their fifth album, 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik, while Kiedis’ relapse after five years of sobriety caused a delay in the release of their follow-up, 1995’s One Hot Minute, made with guitarist – and former Jane’s Addiction mainstay – Dave Navarro.

While Kiedis didn’t refer directly to drug addiction in Scar Tissue, it was nevertheless clear that much of the song’s lyrics related to substance use and the rock’n’roll lifestyle, with lines such as “Blood loss in a bathroom stall/A Southern girl with a scarlet drawl” hinting at excess taken to self-destructive levels. Indeed, the song’s memorable refrain, “With the birds, I’ll share this lonely view”, sounded like a metaphor for the solitary life of the long-term addict.

However, Kiedis – who was again about to embrace sobriety when Californication was recorded – also recalled that Scar Tissue related to his group’s collective sense of humour.

“Scar Tissue was another song where you open up the top of your head and it comes dusting down from outer space,” the singer wrote in his memoir. “[Producer] Rick Rubin and I had been talking about sarcasm a lot. Rick had read a theory that it was an incredibly detrimental form of humour that depresses the spirit of its proponents. We had been such sarcastic dicks that we vowed to try to be funny without using sarcasm as a crutch. I guess I was also thinking of Dave Navarro, who was the King Of Sarcasm, faster and sharper than the average bear.”

The recording: “It was a playful, happy-to-be-alive, phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes vibe”

In addition to Kiedis’ return to sobriety, the Chili Peppers were also able to welcome a newly clean John Frusciante back into the fold prior to the making of Californication. His melodic riffs and memorable slide guitar filigree on Scar Tissue soon made it plain that the band would now be veering away from the darker, psych-tinged sound they had pursued on One Hot Minute. However, as Frusciante recalled during a 2023 interview with Rick Rubin, on the latter’s Broken Record podcast, the special sound he achieved on Scar Tissue came about because his guitar was just fractionally out of tune.

“You have notes in between what the normal 12 notes that we all use,” the guitarist revealed. “And there’s a lot of expression in there by using these notes that are in between, if they’re exactly in between in a precise kind of way. So I guess [on Scar Tissue] I was out of tune in a way that really worked, because that doesn’t sound out of tune to me!”

He added: “It wasn’t done consciously… I guess one of my strings was a little out of tune, and it sounded good so nobody ever said [anything].”

Certainly, the melodies Frusciante created sounded perfect to both Rubin and the remaining Chili Peppers, with Kiedis, bassist Flea and drummer Chad Smith more than happy to add their parts from thereon in. Indeed, the moment when Scar Tissue first came together remains especially memorable for Kiedis.

“All those ideas were in the air when John started playing this guitar riff,” the singer recalled in his memoir. “And I immediately knew what the song was about. It was a playful, happy-to-be-alive, phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes vibe. I ran outside with my handheld tape recorder and, with that music playing in the background, started singing the entire chorus to the song.”

The release and legacy: “One of the best chili peppers songs – and a grammy winner”

Following Scar Tissue’s release as a single, on 25 May 1999, the wider public also embraced the song’s mellow, mainstream rock sound, sending it racing to No.9 on the Billboard Hot 100, on the way to picking up a Grammy Award for Best Rock Song in 2000. It was also instrumental in launching the multi-platinum success of Californication, with the album moving over seven million copies in the US alone, spurred on by two more of the best Red Hot Chili Peppers songs, Otherside and the album’s anthemic title track. In fact, such is Scar Tissue’s evergreen appeal that it remains an FM radio staple and a regular feature of the Chili Peppers’ live set to this day – and its primary lyricist remains rightly proud of it, too.

“I’ll never forget looking up at the sky above that garage, out toward Griffith Park, with the birds flying overhead, and getting a dose of [Richard Bach’s self-realization novel] Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” Anthony Kiedis enthused in his memoir. “I really did have the point of view of those birds, feeling like an eternal outsider.”

Find out where Red Hot Chili Peppers rank among the best 90s musicians.

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