Why Niandra LaDes and Usually Just A T-Shirt by John Frusciante Is Still Brilliant
In 1995 one of my best friends asked me to drive him to the airport. Since he had a nicer car and the airport was out of town, I drove him in that. Another mutual friend joined. His trip was an extended stay in South America where he had chased his college freshman sweetheart, so he was not planning to be back for a long time, and as such bequeathed us the remainder of his weed stash. After dropping him off we decided to take the long way home, twisting our way through Des Moines and its outlying areas. We were young, free and high as fuck. Somewhere in our journeys through human cemeteries, industrial graveyards and parks and lakes we started going through the cassettes in the car. One was labeled Beastie Boys/John Frusciante, and although we had never heard of the latter, the Beastie Boys was a definite go. Then at some point the tape flipped and so baffled and entranced were we, that it was several songs before we were even able to share our amazement and befuddlement at what was happening to our ears and minds.
For the next few years I worshiped that album. It was so profoundly brilliant and different, while also technically simple, that I never tired of it, even after listening to it repeatedly. I would borrow my friends four track cassette recorders and attempt to replicate that sound and that feeling, and attempt which never bore success. Yet it was where I cut my teeth in the recording and writing process and its inspiration as a piece of audio art was massive in my own musical formation.
In March 1994, when the album came out on Rick Rubin’s Def Jam Records, Frusciante had terminated his role in the Red Hot Chili Peppers and was living in severe disorder with a profound heroin habit. However he maintains that the album, despite its baffling surrealism, was made before his addiction took over his life. With the exception of Running Away Into You, the album was recorded during 1991–92 on the Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magic tour.
“I wrote [the record] because I was in a really big place in my head — it was a huge, spiritual place telling me what to do. As long as I’m obeying those forces, it’s always going to be meaningful. I could be playing guitar and I could say ‘Play something that sucks,’ and if I’m in that place, it’s gonna be great. And it has nothing to do with me, except in ways that can’t be understood.”
in 1997, two years after I first heard John’s first solo album, I found out that he was going to be playing in a place an hour away from where I lived. I did not own a car and the weather was pretty nasty, so hitchhiking was not an option, so I eventually talked my mom into taking me to a college town bar to see a junkie play strange songs. And as it turned out, we both had a great time. John was just recovering from his addiction and he stood on the stage like he was there to haunt it. He seemed too far gone and broken to have even made it up there, but when his brilliant guitar playing began, followed by the existential caterwauling of his emotionally overloaded vocals, he came right to life. I cannot recall all of the details of that night. I remember ‘Your Smile Is A Rifle’ and Nirvana’s ‘Moist Vagina’ from the setlist. It was part of some touring funk thing called NutFest. Yet although I cannot remember the details, I can remember the feeling vividly. I can remember tears of what I think were joy. When I recall that night to memory I am not flooded with scenes and sounds and facts, but with a more pure sense of abandonment, bliss and longing.
Frusciante released a second album, Smile From the Streets You Hold, earlier that same year, reportedly for drug money. While the album does not have the purity and innocence of Niandra, it does still carry a sense of internal crisis, desperation and self-abandonment that could be felt in the first album. It is not even close to its predecessor, yet it is still a much better album than what RHCP or most mainstream rock in general were doing at the time, by light years. It is harsh and incomplete, but it is also honest and apologetic in a tragically authentic way.
After this Frusciante sobered up and continued recording solo albums, and while they are definitely interesting albums, none of them have the emotional/spiritual force of the first few. They are tame by the standards of Niandra and Smile, and do not carry the same sense of bizarre, tragic immediacy.
I continued enjoying Niandra and giving his new albums a chance. During my years in retail I found that most people could not tolerate the vocals for long, so if I had some browsers straggling too casually for too long, I would throw the album on to quicken their purchase or departure so I could sneak down to the basement and sneak a toke. Before long he rejoined RHCP and I was initially impressed. Yet after a few more albums that received heavy rotation everywhere all of the time managed to suck all of the life out of that bands music for me. And even though none of his more recent works has ever touched me the way his early stuff did, I still cherish all of that great music from his early period both solo and with RHCP, and am glad he finally got out of the latter (hopefully) for good.
“I’m forever near a stereo saying, ‘What the fuck is this garbage?’ And the answer is always the Red Hot Chili Peppers.” -Nick Cave
Before I get into why the album is still brilliant, let me comment briefly on some specific songs.
As Can Be — The opening track begins with a frenzied string blitzkrieg, a loose weave of crisis melodies, and then sort of settles into a vulgar love song once the lyrics kick in, with lead guitars winding throughout like frantic bumble bees carrying streamers.
My Smile Is A Rifle — What begins as an experiment in melancholy quickly evolves into an even deeper musical misanthropy, like a lost coffin rocking in the waves of an alien ocean. The opening lyrics, in contrast is a message of strange silver linings. The vocals descend into utter madness and one cannot be sure if he is being playful of making a cry for help. The pitch shifting, screeching and squealing is the vocal opposite of American Idol, removing all flash and skill and replacing it with pure emotional dadaism.
Head (Beach Arab) — Combining harp-like melodies below frantically picked notes soaring over brilliantly sophmoric solos, the song blazes a path through you before you can figure out what it has evoked in you.
Big Takeover — This Ren Faire rendition of the Bad Brains classic manages to use frenzied layers to make up for the lack of pace of the original, and in doing so becomes its own song, just as powerful as the original.
Curtains — The image of curtains suggested in the title befits the surrealist drama of this simple piano/vocal ballad. Its absurdist lyrics make sense on a level that cannot be comprehended outside of the context of the music and album as a whole. Building throughout, the song almost becomes a standard Daniel Johnston rocker, before twinkling out in a sprinkle of high piano notes.
Running Away Into You — This is one of the most brilliant pieces of music ever committed to recording. A tale of lust and love and longing and everything in between, it uses reverse tracks, loops, speed and pitch shifts and a bunch of other audio novelties to paint a portrait of desire through a chaotic kaleidoscope of symbolic sounds for the emotional highs and lows of romance.
Mascara — Essentially a standard acoustic rocker from the onset, the song later takes on a far stranger shape of a circus sideshow, and continues to twist back and forth between the two feelings that leaves you a bit discombobulated like riding the aural Tea Cups at a musical amusement park. Eventually ending with a lyric about underwear full of blood and a pretty guitar outro.
Been Insane — This song is kind of a baseline for the entire Niandra LaDes half of the album. A multi-layer acoustic rocker with elements of both standard rock alternating against Syd Barrett surreality.
Skin Blues — An instrumental showcase of soaring stringed sonics. The closest my own experiments ever came to Frusciante level are a really cheap version of this.
Your Pussy’s Glued To A Building On Fire — The most inappropriate lullabye ever written, or the most colorful love song ever penned? Both. And more. Highly suggestive gives way to the overall contextual frameworks and becomes highly evocative of a range of emotional and spiritual longings instead. So good, it actually is repeated in a different but similar version right after the first concludes. “YOU LITTLE DUCK HOUSE!!!!”
Blood On My Neck From Success — This is the song Kurt Cobain would likely wished he had wrote himself. The confession of a musician coming to terms with the ugliness and hypocrisy of creative fame, it is all threadbare and barely manages to hold itself together, which is exactly how John was feeling at the time. Yet no amount of saying that in straightforward terms could ever explain it like this song.
Ten to Butter Blood Voodoo — The final song from the first half of the Niandra LaDes portion feels lost and far away. It is like the Flaming Lips, if Wayne Coyne became a manic depressive guitar god who ditched the rest of his band and decided to write a song that said ‘fuck you’ to his whole life.
The tracks from here on belong to the second part of the album, Usually Nothing But A T-Shirt. The songs themselves vary in length, complexity or any other binding codes. They are listed only by their track numbers, and where vocals are employed, it is rarely with any credence to the traditions of singing. Where there are discernible lyrics, they bend and break into fragile poems never meant to be read by anyone else. These are snapshots of the unanswered questions inside the mind of a young artist and shaman. They are delicate, beautiful and at times eerily creepy. These songs blend together to form a sort of meditation on the elasticity of human emotions, or as a spiritual seance to call up the inner truths we are most afraid of. I will not go into a track-by-track analysis because they are not meant to be taken that way, and there is more to be said of them as a whole than as individual pieces. Which is how Frusciante intended the whole album.
So then why is this album just as poignant today as when it was first conceived, and maybe even more so? As I have explained in the past, we are a society living only on the surface of our own reality, rapidly consuming explicit messages while denying the underlying implicit information that underlies them. Niandra LaDes and Usually Nothing But A T-Shirt is a refutation of this shallow view of reality. It eschews literal interpretation. Its explicit presentation is meaningless collection of low quality noise. An attempt to understand the work on any kind of empirical basis would only render it more confusing and meaningless. It defies the literalism of our scientistically materialist culture.
Today’s popular music is all show and no substance, comparatively. Any attempts to day to be so wrecklessly experimental would be done in the sterile setting of academic aesthetics, based on preconceived forms and pieced together with the precision of mathematical axioms. No artist would dare be brave enough, even in the case that they were inclined, to make such a messy piece of art. It’s beauty is not just in it’s imperfection, but in its seeming ignorance that attempting to make a perfect piece of art is something that should be taken seriously by the artist.
Our culture is steeped in a dogma of technical precision and direct messages. Niandra LaDes and Usually Just A T-Shirt is the opposite of the values underlying our society. It caters to nothing, begs nobody’s approval and only says anything to those willing to work out the interpretations for themselves. While our society on the surface spoon feeds us bite sized truths, this album makes you wiggle out every little illumination on your own, but never promises to reveal any final answers about itself. It is not what it is. It is the unique experience of everyone who listens to it. It is tarot deck of audio archetypes for the emotional and spiritual truths that give us each our own meaning and purpose in life. It is musical shamanism lovingly and painstakingly delivered from the depths of one mans psyche. It is monumental work of art and a forgiving and fragile childhood-like heresy of the unexamined dogmas we hold dear.
Little duck house, indeed.