Song Of The Week: Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Under The Bridge”

Smells like pre-teen spirit.
Smells like pre-teen spirit.

Technically, I’m the same generation as my older brother; we’re siblings born of the same parents in roughly the same era.  Culturally, we’re of separate generations: he was born in the 70’s, I was born in the 80’s.  He’s in a nameless, transitional group; I’m squarely in the “Millennial/Gen Y” set.  I’d love to say these markers had no bearing on our development, but I’d be totally wrong.  In two of the most important ways, my brother and I are of different generations:

1) Technology.  The internet/email/instant messaging/piracy exploded when I was in high school.  It didn’t really snare his peers until college and after.  In other words, while I talked to my friends on AIM, I was also writing my brother letters.  Actual letters.  His friends (now, also my friends) are still internet novices.  I recently gave one a tutorial on how to “share” something on Facebook (full disclosure: it was my music).  Another doesn’t know what Reddit is.  Obviously, not everyone’s like me or my brother or our friends.  My point is, a handful of years is a technological generation and, in our case, an important one.

2) Music.  While my brother was a decade younger than Gen X, he was a teenager when grunge and alt-rock (read: “96X Music”) became popular.  It is one of my greatest  disappointments that I was always too young to appreciate that music as it happened.  I experienced it (in a way that this series will catalog), but I didn’t appreciate it until years later.  When I was in high school.  And LFO was popular.

This is me, trying to pick up the pieces.

Volume 1: Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Under the Bridge
This single popped in the summer of 1992.  In the pre-Nevermind purgatory that was 1991–and in the promise of spring ’92–I wish I’d been a cool kid with a skateboard and a shelf full of RHCP cassettes.  I wish I’d been a teenager in a parking lot with long hair like Anthony Kiedis.  I wish I’d known, at least abstractly, what a junkie was, enough to pretend to “feel” this song.

Instead, I was a child at a summertime day-camp.  I was making fun of girls, running fast, distrusting authority figures (insert “were you six or twenty-six?” joke here).

Camp had periods, like school: music at 8AM, gym at 9AM, etc.  After swimming (2PM?), my tiny crew scurried to arts and crafts.  Every day we walked into A&C, the counselors (whom I remember as 30 but were probably 18) had a boombox playing in the corner of the room. And every day, “Under the Bridge” was on.  I didn’t know anything about music or the radio.  I just knew that this song was on that boombox at the exact same time every day and that the counselors dug it.  To this day, if I hear “Under The Bridge,” I smell play-doh.

There are probably better, more important, and more interesting songs on Volume 1 than “Under The Bridge” (e.g. “Smells Like Teen Spirit”).  But I wanted to start here, because even though I’m (at best) a casual RHCP fan, this song has been a musical touchstone for me ever since I walked into Lausanne summer camp.

At age 11, I picked up a bass because I knew no other bassists.  I thought, “if I learn bass, I will be in a dozen bands.”  “Under The Bridge” was the first song I learned.  “Under the Bridge” is to novice bassists what “Stairway to Heaven” is for novice guitarists–everyone learns it.  It’s famous, it’s fun to play, it sounds impressive, but it’s not difficult to learn.

Within a year, those bands never formed and I’d picked up my brother’s guitar.  One of the first songs I learned was “Under The Bridge.”  Again, John Frusciante’s guitar work in “Under the Bridge” isn’t complex, but it’s beautiful, vibrant, and distinct.  It was the first time I borrowed a friend’s amp and tried (and failed) to duplicate a guitar tone.  I watched the video and wanted to mimic Frusciante.  His guitar sounded cool, but watching him play it also looked cool.  Same with Flea.  “Under The Bridge” taught me that music is a visual medium, too (a lesson further learned every time I saw Stone Gossard*).

A few years after that, my interest in recording and producing picked up and (not coincidentally) I read a lot about Rick Rubin. I read about the making of Blood Sugar Sex Magik.  I read that Rubin didn’t like some of the older songs the band brought in and encouraged Kiedis to create something new, to actually write from a more immediate and honest place. How they put this poem to music in the studio, and that became their first and biggest hit. How he pushed the band outside their comfort zone, to do something newer, more urgent, and more immediate.  How to create lightning in a bottle.

It’s been over twenty years since “Under The Bridge” played on camp counselor boomboxes in the summer of 1992.  Throughout the 90’s, 96X spun more and more RHCP hits, and “Under the Bridge” became the breakthrough song that everyone appreciates but nobody ever plays (you know, “too obvious”).  They’ve remained popular, relevant, and (perhaps most importantly) together, and they’re still one of the biggest bands on earth. And I’m still a guy who only owns a few dozen songs and not one full record.

But “Under The Bridge” today doesn’t sound like a relic from an alt-rock era.  It doesn’t sound dated the way so many grunge hits do.  In 2013, it just sounds like a good song.  It sounds like a band flirting with this very moment for several years and finally breaking through.  It sounds inspired.  And every time I hear it, I think of the countless Rubin interviews I’ve read, and how much they’ve taught me about writing and recording new music.  And I remember how, ever since I picked up a guitar, I’ve wanted to play like John Frusciante: melodic, tight, song-serving.  And I remember the first song I learned on any guitar, playing along with Flea’s bass lines, making up my own fills during the “under the bridge downtown…” coda.  I listen to “Under The Bridge” and love it, not because it’s always been my favorite song by a favorite band, but because it grew up with me.

I can still smell the play-doh.

(*Notice my guitar heroes were never Jimmy Page, Eddie Van Halen, Slash, or any other paragons of shredding.  All I ever wanted was to be a great rhythm guitar player.  So my favorites were guys like Stone Gossard, John Frusciante, Mike Campbell, George Harrison, etc: overqualified rhythm players, understated/melodic/song-serving lead players.  I still get too much pleasure watching a virtuosic guitarist simply strum chords and pick a few fills.)


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