June 25, 1988 – Hillel Slovak (Red Hot Chili Peppers) was born on April 13, 1962 in Haifa, Israel. His family, holocaust survivors, emigrated to America when Hillel was four settling in Queens, New York, then in 1967 relocated to Southern California.
As a child, Slovak developed an interest in art, and would often spend time painting with his mother, Esther. He attended Laurel Elementary School in West Hollywood and Bancroft Jr. High School in Hollywood, where he met future bandmates Jack Irons and Michael “Flea” Balzary. Slovak received his first guitar at age 13 as a bar mitzvah present, and would often play the instrument into the late hours of the night. During this time, he was highly influenced by hard rock music such as Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Kiss.
As a freshman at Fairfax High School, Slovak formed a band with Irons on drums and two other high school friends, Alain Johannes and Todd Strassman. They called their band Chain Reaction, then changed the name to Anthem after their first gig. After one of the group’s shows, Slovak met audience member Anthony Kiedis, and invited him to his house for a snack. Kiedis later described the experience in his autobiography Scar Tissue: “Within a few minutes of hanging out with Hillel, I sensed that he was absolutely different from most of the people I’d spent time with…He understood a lot about music, he was a great visual artist, and he had a sense of self and a calm about him that were just riveting.” Slovak, Kiedis and Flea became best friends and often used LSD, heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine recreationally.
The original bassist for Anthem, which renamed to Anthym, was deemed unsatisfactory, so Slovak began teaching Flea to play bass. Following several months of commitment to the instrument, Flea developed proficiency and a strong musical chemistry with Slovak. When Strassman saw Flea playing Anthym songs on his equipment he quit the band, with Flea quickly replacing him. Shortly afterwards Anthym entered a local Battle of the Bands contest and won second place. Anthym started to play at local nightclubs, despite the fact that the members were all underage. After graduating from high school, the band changed their name to What Is This?. Flea left Anthym around this time to accept an offer of playing bass in the prominent L.A. punk band Fear. What Is This? continued on and performed many shows along the California coast.
They next dubbed themselves “Tony Flow and the Miraculously Majestic Masters of Mayhem”, before changing to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Slovak, Flea, Kiedis, and Irons started Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1982, which became popular in the Los Angeles area, playing various shows around the city.
However, Slovak quit the band to focus on What is This?, a side project which had gotten a record deal, leaving the Red Hot Chili Peppers to record their debut album without him. He rejoined the Chili Peppers in 1985, and recorded the albums Freaky Styley and The Uplift Mofo Party Plan with the band.
Hillel’s work was one of the major contributing factors to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ early sound. He was also a huge influence on a young John Frusciante, who would later replace him as guitarist in the band.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers quickly gathered a following in L.A. with a high-energy stage act that caused quite a stir when the bandmembers would hit the stage in nothing but a sock strategically covering a certain part of their anatomy. But on a darker note, it was around this time that Slovak began to experiment with heroin. After Slovak and Irons decided to return to the Peppers full-time, the result became the 1985 George Clinton-produced Freaky Styley.
While it didn’t exactly storm the charts, the album and its subsequent tour made the Peppers popular with the alternative/college rock crowd. 1987 saw the Peppers issue their best and most focused work, Uplift Mofo Party Plan, which inched the band even closer to mainstream success, as the album appeared on the lower reaches of the Billboard album chart.
What should have been an exciting time for Slovak and the band turned to tragedy on June 25, 1988, when Slovak died from a heroin overdose. Devastated, the band contemplated disbanding, but Kiedis and Flea decided to carry on (Irons opted to bow out) — with Slovak-disciple John Frusciante filling the late guitarist’s shoes, and another newcomer, Chad Smith, taking over the drum spot. 1989’s Mother’s Milk was dedicated to Slovak and included one of his paintings as part of the album artwork (as well as one of the last tracks Slovak ever recorded with the Peppers — an incendiary cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire”). He was 26.
The album was a surprise hit, which led to the band becoming one of rock’s top dogs by the ’90s. Slovak was also the subject of the Peppers songs “Knock Me Down” (from Mother’s Milk) and “My Lovely Man” (off 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik), while the 1994 odds and ends release Out in L.A. collected early Peppers demos, many of which prominently featured the guitar wizardry of Slovak. Hillel Slovak’s younger brother, James, published the book Behind the Sun: The Diary and Art of Hillel Slovak in 1999 and accepted the honors in 2012, when the band was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
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