Life on the Other Side of Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll
It just happened again. I read a news story about Flea playing the national anthem as a bass solo at Kobe’s final game with the Lakers and I went nuts. Every time I’m reminded that the Red Hot Chili Peppers exist, I lose my mind. It’s been a frequent occurence lately. They’re about to release a new record and the promo machine is gearing up.
25 years ago, when I worked at Epic, I had a fucked up experience with the Chili Peppers. The incident was about a 3 on the 1-10 scale of sexual harassment in the music business of the 80s and 90s, and I never consciously thought it was that big a deal. I wasn’t even aware of how intensely I hated them until a couple of months ago, when the kid that works the desk at my gym played “Can’t Stop.” I was furious; I felt like my blood had been replaced with a million small bombs and that all of them were about to explode. I threw my weights to the floor mid-rep and pounded to the desk. Just before I screamed the only words I could come up with — NO. MORE. RED. HOT. CHILI. PEPPERS. — I realized I had to leave. I knew I’d be unable to restrain myself if I had to hear Anthony sing “mop tops are happy when they feed you” or “can’t stop, addicted to the shindig, chop top, he says I’m gonna win big.” When I calmed down, I thought about how overblown my reaction was, and allowed for the first time that maybe I didn’t hate them simply because they suck.
I heard stories about the Chili Peppers and the way they treated women long before Anthony was convicted of sexual battery and indecent exposure in 1989 and Chad and Flea were arrested for lascivious behavior, battery and disorderly conduct in 1990. No one in the music industry really gave a shit — as their legal issues made headlines, they left EMI, and every label wanted to sign them. Including Epic. I was horrified.
At first I refused to even go to a meeting with the band. The A&R guy was a friend, though, and after an hour of talking about it, I reluctantly agreed to attend. At the meeting, I did a credible impression of a person who didn’t think the Chili Peppers were assholes or that their music was completely fucking horrible; I talked enthusiastically about strategy, artist development and press campaigns, and I presented ideas on further establishing their image. None of them involved wearing socks on their dicks.
Afterwards, I took two of the Chili Peppers to the storage room where we kept the box sets and CDs. As we looked in the cabinet, they pressed up against me and told me about all of the ways we could make a super sexy sandwich.
At first I thought they were joking. When I realized they weren’t, I ran from the storage room to my office, where I closed my door, sat down at my desk, and cried. I was humiliated and weirdly ashamed, and embarrassed that I was humiliated and weirdly ashamed. There was far worse going on in the music industry at the time, and I thought I was a badass. Being a victim didn’t fit my self-perception.
When the Chili Peppers’ then-manager knocked on my door a few minutes later, I stopped crying and let him in. He offered an apology that sounded memorized; it was one he’d obviously offered many times before. The A&R guy apologized after the Chili Peppers left, and I decided to get over it. I told myself that I knew what I was getting into when I started working in the music business. I was used to the shit that happened late at night, when I was wasted in Boston and hanging out at gigs, hotels, and after show parties. I wasn’t cool with any of it, but I accepted it, and even though the incident with the Chili Peppers took place when I was a stone cold sober executive at a major label, doing my job at my office at 2:00 in the afternoon, I decided to accept that, too. It was just the way things were.
Most of the women I know who worked in the music business in the late 80s and early 90s put up with sexual harrassment. We didn’t talk about it to our friends, for the most part, and not many of us took any action. We were ashamed or afraid or didn’t think we’d be believed. We thought we’d be blamed, or worse, we blamed ourselves. We didn’t want to be perceived as weak, and we thought that in order to succeed, we just had to put up with it. Sexual harrassment came along with working in the music industry — it was an everyday reality — and a lot of us didn’t even realize that anything was wrong. Most of the reasons we kept quiet may never stop being reasons — shame and fear aren’t going to go away — but at least we know now when we’re being harrassed.
I started writing this post in January, just after Amber Coffman tweeted about Heathcliff Berru, and just before I heard “Can’t Stop” at the gym. The incident with the Chili Peppers wasn’t all that bad in comparison to what other women have experienced, and even what I’ve experienced myself. I didn’t understand why my recent response was so extreme until this weekend, when I talked to people I was close to at Epic. One was my boss. I discovered that I never told him what happened, and with the exception of two close friends, I never told anyone else. That’s what disturbs me most.
I’m inspired by Amber and the other women who stepped forward about their experiences with Heathcliff Berru. Thank you to Beth Martinez, Jackie Fox, Kesha, Dee Barnes, Lauren Mayberry and all of the others who’ve claimed their voices and talked, tweeted, and posted their stories about sexual harrassment and assault.
Fuck the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the misogynistic culture of the music industry that kept me from speaking up in 1991. I wish I had. I’m not naive enough to think it would have made much of a difference, but if it kept just one person from having to hear “Californication,” it would have been a start.