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When Hillel Slovak died in 1988 after spending his last couple of years in a heroin haze, everyone knew the Red Hot Chili Peppers' guitarist wouldn't be easy to replace. But when the Peppers chose as his successor a seventeen-year-old punk from Chatsworth, California, named John Frusciante, the reaction was more than just mild skepticism. Some longtime fans were downright insulted.

After all, how could this Southern California valley boy ever measure up to funk-rock guitar god Slovak? Many fans wanted to know. Not only was Frusciante nearly a decade younger than the rest of the Chili Peppers, but his only rock 'n' roll job worth mentioning up to this point was a whopping two-week stint in the recently deceased L.A. band Thelonious Monster.

For his part, Frusciante says he never fretted about living up to Slovak's lofty rep. "I could never fill Hillel's shoes," admits the guitarist in a telephone interview from his manager's office in L.A. "He was one fourth of what started this band, the whole concept of the band and the whole direction of it."

The now-nineteen-year-old Frusciante says he was offered nothing less than an equal partnership in the Peppers by singer Anthony Kiedis and bassist Flea. (Drummer Jack Irons, devastated by Slovak's death, quit the band and was replaced by Chad Smith.) "When I joined, they told me that I was now one fourth of this band," says the guitarist, who punctuates nearly every sentence with a long drag on a cigarette. "They let me know my opinions were equally as important as theirs, even though they'd been in the band for five years and I was just joining. They wanted my influence in their music to make it grow."

The band's confidence in the precocious funkateer was well placed. The newest Pepper's playing has meshed seamlessly with the group's hyperkinetic punk-funk. You could argue that the guitarist fits in so well because his performing has such eerie similarities to Slovak's. In fact, if it weren't for Frusciante's name on the liner notes of the group's latest album, Mother's Milk, you'd swear Slovak had been booked for an earthly return engagement to record the LP.

Frusciante says he's nothing but flattered that his frenzied solos and rhythmic scratching bear more than a passing resemblance to Slovak's psychedelized guitar work. "I take any comparisons as a compliment because his playing was . . . very personalized," notes Frusciante. "It was his style. But I would hope that the similarities between my playing and his playing have more to do with the emotions we put into our guitars as opposed to me playing certain notes that he would play."

But Frusciante wasn't hired just because the specter of Slovak seemed to be infused in his riffing. "I think the band hired me because I already embraced their same philosophies," theorizes the guitarist. "I always liked the band because their musical style wasn't one musical style, and that's the way I've always listened to music. I enjoy sitting down at my house and listening to Igor Stravinsky and then listening to Bad Brains and then listening to John Coltrane and then listening to the Germs and then listening to Tom Jones and then listening to Miles Davis."

Frusciante quickly found he had more in common with the band than just a schizo-phonic taste in music. They also shared an affinity for divey pool halls, the L.A. Lakers and the videos of porn starlet Traci Lords. Like the rest of the Chili Peppers, the guitarist also freely admits to having an exhibitionist streak. This explains why he doesn't even blush when taking the stage during the band's notorious encores clad in nothing but strategically placed tube socks.

It's no wonder that Frusciante is totally in sync with the sex-funk shenanigans of the Peppers. He's been a disciple of the band since the very beginning. "When I was younger, I didn't have any money, but I used to spend whatever money I did have on tickets to their shows, for myself and whatever friends didn't have any money," recalls the guitarist a little wistfully. "Sometimes I spent as much as 100 bucks on tickets. Even then I thought they were the greatest band in the world and that they could add beauty to anyone's life."

Other than the Chili Peppers, Frusciante didn't have much interest in L.A.'s slag heap of hard-core bands. He did, however, take a shine to the slightly whacked-out Los Angelenos Thelonious Monster and eventually won himself a spot in their line-up. Kiedis happened to be hanging out at the guitarist's audition for that band, and--in a scenario right out of every musician's fantasies--the Chili Peppers' singer offered Frusciante a place in his band on the same day he was hired by the Monster.

"Thelonious Monster was a really great band, but the Chili Peppers are what I feel to be the greatest band in the world," asserts the guitarist. "That's why I joined them as opposed to the Monster." As a favor to the members of the Monster, who were mighty miffed about his bowing out, Frusciante agreed to stick around until the band hooked up with another guitarist.

Only a few months after being picked by the Peppers, Frusciante and his new bandmates rushed into the studio to record last year's bone-crunching Mother's Milk. Largely on the strength of the boss cover of Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground," this record recently went gold, a sales level that past Chili Pepper discs didn't even come close to.

The band is about ready to begin work on its new LP, which Frusciante promises will be "a million times funkier, harder and more melodic than Mother's Milk." From the way the guitarist talks, making this "extremist album" will also be an exercise in male bonding for the metal-funksters.

"With Mother's Milk, there was a certain excitement in the fact that it was four guys who had never played together making music together," explains Frusciante. "But there's a greater beauty in writing music with people that you've been playing with for a long period of time. You have sort of an ESP that you didn't have before. So on our next album, we'll be a lot more like a four-headed monster as opposed to just four guys playing. We'll be just one big cosmic swirl of psychedelic unity."

The Red Hot Chili Peppers will perform at the Mesa Amphitheatre on Friday, June 1. Show time is 8 p.m.


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John Blanco