Johnny Depp, River Phoenix, LSD guru Timothy Leary, and a fire that almost destroyed the source materials – the production of John Frusciante's first solo album featured many famed figures and unusual events. When Niandra LaDes and Usually Just a T-Shirt came out in 1994, Frusciante was 24, reclusive, addicted to drugs and painting pictures in his home. At the start of the '90s he had been playing lead guitar in one of the biggest bands in the world, Red Hot Chili Peppers. How did the record get made, and what is the love story behind it? KulttuuriCocktail interviews Toni Oswald, John Frusciante's partner at the time. Parts of this story haven't been told in public until now.
Thank God I found you
Beautiful talking well it was to me
Do you see? There's no more me
I'm happy as can be
– John Frusciante
I like to read books by these clever people, but the music tractates make me cringe. It's like reading someone droning on and on about their pet cat. I just can't get into it, no matter how many italicized lyrics quotes these highbrow pop essayists put in.
– Jantso Jokelin
Some people find nothing as boring as talking about their dreams or finding hidden meanings in them. I am not one of them. The impetus behind this article is a dream I had, in which an old man holding a blowtorch told me to look into the background of John Frusciante's first solo album, Niandra LaDes and Usually Just a T-Shirt. I woke up determined to get to work on it.
Niandra LaDes has been with me since I was 14. I bought it in a record store in Oulu, from an ornery shopkeeper who told me it was weird and not very good. Whatever, I thought to myself.
On the cover is a photograph of Frusciante in drag. The sleeves have lyrics in messy handwriting, written on stained and singed pieces of paper. On the back, the dedication "For Toni Lovingly, Niandra LaDes." Who's Toni, I wondered.
It's too easy for a critic to describe something as having "cult status". I frequently come across writing about "underrated" "cult albums" having a "mystical aura", and these phrases are certainly used with abandon about Niandra LaDes.
I don't know what place Frusciante's debut really has in the history of music, or what people think about it. All I can say is that Niandra LaDes means a lot to me. And as for the characterisation of it by the shopkeeper in Oulu, it definitely is strange.
When I got to my room and played it, I got my first glimpses of the subconscious, sex, depression, insanity and drugs. Niandra LaDes was a secret passageway I took, like Alice, into Frusciante's wacky wonderland.
After my dream I decided to look up Toni, who Frusciante had dedicated the record to. I didn't contact Frusciante himself, because he doesn't generally give interviews, and anyway, I'm too much of a fan. I was afraid of ruining the magic if I got close to him, or screwed up an interview. Fandom is fragile.
A meeting of twins
When Toni Oswald and John Frusciante first met each other, they were twenty-year olds introduced by mutual acquaintances. Frusciante was the wunderkind guitar player of the newly popular rock group Red Hot Chili Peppers, capable of playing along with Zappa's or Hendrix's most complex works.
Oswald had recently moved to Los Angeles from Houston, Texas. She had a background in dance, theatre and performance art. At school she had played flute. She particularly admired the dance choreography in Bob Fosse's films. She recalls their meeting:
— It's hard to put into words what was going on between us. It was like looking into the face of someone and seeing yourself. I think that was a huge thing for both of us as it gave us the sense that we weren't alone anymore. There was someone else on the planet that understood how we felt about being alive, which is actually quite rare.
It wasn't just a romantic encounter, but a discovery of spiritual siblinghood. On one of their first nights together Frusciante played her Genesis's Foxtrot (1972) on vinyl:
— Listening to it, I had a vision about us as long ago sibling twins, so I reckon it was all there in the first moments. That song is a good representation of our feelings and dreams at that time, especially from a cosmic point of view.
Frusciante was living a double life artistically. His day job was writing music and playing in Red Hot Chili Peppers, which was preparing for what would be its breakthrough album. Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991) ended up selling 13 million copies, and most of its best known music was by Frusciante.
His other side was practically a hermit, rebelling against the commercialisation of art, giant venues and screaming fans. He read Nietzsche, Aleister Crowley and William S. Burroughs, watched Marx brothers movies and painted. He often listened to Captain Beefheart records.
This balancing act between two artistic personas made Frusciante seek support in Oswald, who saw in her boyfriend something more than a commercially successful and increasingly famous guitar player.
As a little girl, Oswald would study the covers of her mother's records for hours as she listened to them. There, by the record collection, she came to feel a connection with the musicians, who led a life outside normal society and were able to elevate pain and sorrow into beauty. This is the kind of artist Frusciante was, although on the stage he was mostly seen as a young, wild, technical virtuoso.
The couple began to wear each other's clothes and live in a kind of symbiosis. They drank red wine, painted, wrote in notebooks and smoked pot. On a Red Hot Chili Peppers tour they'd lock themselves in a hotel room and play music together, Oswald on flute and Frusciante on clarinet.
— I think both me and John have a very heightened sense of the spirit world and it is something that we connected on from the get go without even saying much about it. It was just an understanding. I'm pretty sure most people thought we were a couple of kooks most of time, John in particular, but for us, these things were and are real. We had the feeling that this world is a very small part of consciousness and were okay riding the fringes of that. In fact we enjoyed riding that line. The thing that changed after meeting him, was that I could express all of those things without someone thinking I was totally bonkers. There was never any shame in expressing all parts of ourselves. We were celebrating freedom and creativity.
Frusciante was becoming more and more alienated from his successful band and the world of popular music. He had a hard time getting his head around sales of millions of records and life on the road. Frusciante demanded that Oswald follow him on tour, despite rule number one of the band having been "No girlfriends on tour".
In 1992, before a concert in Japan, Frusciante announced that he was leaving Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Marcel Duchamp and the art of forgetting yourself
Oswald and Frusciante shared an admiration for the French artist Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp (1887–1968) was important to them not just because of his infamous urinal and other objects of art, but due to his inspiring attitude to life.
— Duchamp is someone I admire not only as an artist but also as a person. In my eyes, he seemed to have had a very healthy relationship to life and he always inspires me to "get out of myself", to not take myself too seriously, and to look at life from a somewhat absurdist and fun point of view. All of my favorite people have a healthy dose of self-deprecation. I work very hard at the craft of writing, at the craft of music making, but I also don't take myself too seriously either because who wants to be around a self involved egomaniac when all is said in done. When I am making music, or writing or painting, the best work comes when I disappear and something else takes over and comes through me. That's when there is no more me.
Duchamp's feminine alter ego Rrose Selavy (a play on the French phrase "eros, c’est la vie") was the inspiration for the title and cover art of Frusciante's album. Niandra LaDes became Frusciante's alter ego; on the front cover she is pictured standing on a beach. The clothes worn are Oswald's, with the exception of the overcoat.
— I guess the name, Usually Just a T-shirt, came from me — when we were apart we would wear each other's clothes; he called me from tour after he received a box of my clothes to wear and asked what I would wear with these orange plaid pants and I said, "Usually just a t-shirt."
Along with Duchamp, they were influenced by a little girl by the name of Clara Balzary, the daughter of Red Hot Chili Peppers's bass player, Flea. She was four years old when Niandra LaDes came out.
— Clara was the only kid we hung out with. We loved her whole approach to life because she reminded us of what it was to be a child, to see the world with innocence and that level of imagination. John drew on the walls of our house in Laurel Canyon the words, "Be Lazy," because it had been something she'd said us at some point and we realized she was saying: it's not always about "doing," sometimes it's important to "just be." We thought that was just genius, and it's something I still think about and try to practice.
River Phoenix's toilet paper earplugs
Apart from painting and experimenting with gender roles, Frusciante spent the early '90s smoking pot and recording songs on a four-track Tascam in his room. He wasn't planning to do anything further with them. It would take a number of events before they became the material for Niandra LaDes and Usually Just a T-Shirt.
Frusciante said of this period: "Pot put me in a position where I could walk far away from my playing and hear it in the second person. It helped me step away from myself. I stopped seeing the guitar as a thing I'm holding in my hands and started seeing it as a thing that's at one with outer space and nothingness."
According to Oswald, Frusciante's inspiration for his taping experiments and decision not to release them was a '70s album by The Residents called Not Available. The idea was to record an album, lock it away, and only publish it when the members of the group had forgotten about it. Frusciante wanted to do the same with his songs: they'd remain in his personal archive forever, or at least until his death.
Oswald sat next to Frusciante for almost all the taping sessions, drawing or just listening to him play. He'd always record late at night, after the sounds from the street had quieted and any friends staying with them had gone to bed.
The words came out of dreams, visions, and the stream of consciousness.
Sometimes Frusciante would ask Oswald to sing or speak on his tapes. Oswald's performance ended up on two tracks on the album. For the first of these, Oswald picked out volumes from the bookshelf, including Patti Smith's Witt (1973) and Allen Ginsberg's The Gates of Wrath (1973) and picked out words from them to sing in a sort of cut-up, on the spot.
On another occasion Oswald had been drawing at the kitchen table with a friend of hers.
— He asked if we would come do something on top of the music vocally. He orchestrated everything, telling us to make certain noises, or talk about different things. Like, "Make a noise like a cat", or "Say words that you like", and he then collaged it all together in real time on the 4-track.
Oswald was present on two occasions when Frusciante recorded with actor River Phoenix (Joaquin Phoenix's elder brother) in 1992. On one of them, Well I've Been, Frusciante told Phoenix to improvise something, mid-evening. He took the microphone and performed spoken word on the spot.
Height Down came about in Phoenix's hotel room at The Argyle on Sunset Boulevard. Oswald and Frusciante lived at the top of the hill it lead to.
— I remember them getting the lyrics together then, possibly they wrote the music too. It was recorded on another night at our house. They were up super late and I had an audition the next morning. River was so sweet and concerned about them being too loud for me to sleep (our bedroom was in a loft that overlooked the living room, so you could hear everything from down below), so at one point he came upstairs and made me earplugs out of toilet paper so I wouldn't hear them. It really didn't work very well [laughs]. He was very sweet and thoughtful in that way though.
Frusciante put his songs together onto a tape he'd listen to in the car with Oswald, or play to visiting friends. He was encouraged to take the material to a record label by Gibby Haynes of Butthole Surfers, and ultimately got in touch with Rick Rubin who agreed to put it out.
"Kill pigs by letting them become shits peanuts"
Frusciante began to add heroin to his consumption of cannabis. He would get high and paint gigantic pictures, and write furiously in his notebooks. The tape recorder and his guitar were given less attention.
The drugs gave him energy and inspiration at first, but after a few months he started to lose control. They worsened his depression. Then came hallucinations, prompting phone calls to his friends where he'd tell them the cat was inside his head or that he had snakes in his eye. Isolating himself from the world, he'd sit on the roof of his house on the Hollywood hills and wage war on "ghosts". The isolation wasn't just social: he wore full-body protection — goggles, a ski mask, sweatpants tucked into socks — no skin exposed anywhere. "You couldn't get into me on any level", is how Frusciante later described his state at the time.
— John thought that if we had a place in New York I could have a little distance from him because it was making me so sad to see him on drugs. It just made it worse, because then I was worried about him all the time, but all the way across the country. We would talk every day on the phone and usually were only apart no more than three weeks at a time, either he would come to New York and stay there with me or I would go to LA.
One time after being away for a few weeks, Oswald came home to a disturbing sight: the walls were painted over with cryptic phrases, the floor was littered with empty wine bottles, paintings, junk, used syringes — everything just strewn across the place. On the wall it said "Kill pigs by letting them become shits peanuts" and "My eye hurts", in red paint.
— It was a perfectly normal house, put together and clean when I left.
The wall paintings and general chaos can be seen in a short film, Stuff (1993), made by Johnny Depp and Gibby Haynes. They'd spent a day with Frusciante, who was in a painting frenzy. It made such an impression on Depp that he decided to come back to film the pictures, and the chaos. Near the end of the film, Timothy Leary turns up.
— Leary came up there because Johnny Depp knew him and went and got him. I thought he was great. John did too. He was really into John's music when we played Niandra for him.
House on fire
A few months after Stuff was filmed, the house burnt down. Oswald was in New York at the time. The fire started in the room where Frusciante did his painting, with spray cans, oil paints and turpentine bottles on the floor. The heat of the blaze caused the glass on a sliding door leading to the balcony to blow out, and the sound woke up Frusciante. He ran out and told the neighbours to call the fire department.
— Almost all the paintings burned, along with books, our notebooks and all kinds of stuff. Two William Burroughs paintings were lost. Amazingly all of John's 4-track cassette recordings were completely unharmed. It was like the fire passed over them! He took the tapes with him when he flew to New York the next day to see me. All of his guitars were okay too, but then someone went up there after the fire and stole them.
In Your Pussy Is Glued to a Building on Fire, a track on Niandra LaDes, Frusciante sings about painting and a house on fire. The half sung, half screamed lyrics are like a premonition of the chaos and destruction that would take place before the album ultimately got published.
Frusciante got to work, putting the tapes into a publishable form. Oswald helped with suggestions for titles and the cover art. The album came out in 1994 to a somewhat muted reaction.
The two songs with River Phoenix, who had died of an overdose the previous year, were cut from the record at the demand of his parents. Frusciante would release them later on his second solo album.
Freedom and creativity
Nobel Prize-winning economist Bengt Holmström said in an interview with Helsingin Sanomat on 15.7.2018, "People think that creativity comes from freedom. That's a fundamental misunderstanding. Creativity comes from obstacles, limitations and questions."
Holmström's claim about the incompatibility of creativity and freedom contradicts the idea behind Frusciante's album. According to Oswald, Frusciante's freedom came from having no aim in mind.
— John wanted to be as free as possible in his music. Finding freedom was the most important thing for him.
In an interview after the album came out, Frusciante said he'd given no thought to anyone ever hearing it.
— I was just closing my eyes and swirling around, like ten thoughts at once, and going places with no conscious thoughts at all. (Interview in Guitar World, 1995)
To Oswald, Niandra LaDes is about love on two levels: the love between the two of them, and a cosmic love letter to the world, transmitted through John Frusciante.
— It's for everyone alive who has felt pain and sorrow and trauma, but still believes in love and magic. The album will always have a safe and special place inside my heart and soul because when I listen to it is not only John's soul speaking, but my own soul speaking to me. That is what truly great art does: it speaks to us on the deepest levels of our being. Holds a mirror up to our own selves. I honestly don't think there is another piece of music like it.
Toni Oswald and John Frusciante broke up in 1997. Oswald had quit drugs the year before; Frusciante would do the same in 1998. They both continue to make art.
Thanks: Toni Oswald, Anni Emilia Kajula and the salesperson of the record store Diskeri in Oulu who was working there in 1994.
Translation by Sam Hardwick