The cause of death of founding member Hillel Slovak

Hillel Slovak was a child of immigrants, born on April 13, 1963 in Haifa, Israel, as the son of two Holocaust survivors. The family emigrated in 1967, first to New York City, then Los Angeles. Even as a small boy, the future guitarist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers showed a striking passion for music and art. He often painted with his mother Esther and developed his artistic talent in the process. Eventually, his parents gave him his first guitar for his Bar Mitzvah. Slovak never stopped playing at all. He regularly sat in his childhood room with the instrument until late at night, listening to Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Kiss.

School played a minor role. At the same time, Bancroft Junior High School was a fateful place for the young Hillel Slovak. There he met Jack Irons and Michael Balzary. Balzary could never sit still, he was always on the move and played the class clown. He would never give up the nickname Flea again.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers in Chicago, October 26, 1985.

The early years of the Red Hot Chili Peppers

As a freshman at Fairfax High School, Slovak formed the band Anthym with Jack Irons on drums. One evening, Anthony Kiedis stood in the audience at an Anthym show, thrilled by what he saw on stage. After the concert, Slovak and Kiedis talked intensively, about music and art. Kiedis later recalled his first meeting with Hillel Slovak in his biography Scar Tissue: “After a few minutes of spending time with Hillel, I sensed that he was completely different from most people I spent time with. He knew a lot about music, he was a great artist and he had a sense of self and a calmness about him that was just captivating.”

Kiedis, Slovak and Flea became best friends – not just with each other, but also with LSD, heroin and cocaine. At the same time, Slovak taught Flea to play the bass. After numerous line-up changes and several bands, Hillel Slovak, Flea, Anthony Kiedis and Jack Irons decided to make music together in 1982. They found inspiration primarily in the band Defunkt, who played a strange mix of punk, funk and other musical styles. It took Slovak and his fellow musicians just six months to make a name for themselves in the Los Angeles club scene as the Red Hot Chili Peppers. They even moved into a house together, always accompanied by considerable drug use.

More and more drugs

Parallel to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Slovak’s old band continued to exist, which has now changed to What Is This? had renamed. While Flea left another band called Fear to concentrate more on the Red Hot Chili Peppers, things went exactly the other way around for Hillel Slovak. Despite a newly acquired record contract with EMI, he left the Chili Peppers. What Is This? had also landed a contract, which made the decision for Slovak just a formality. In the early days, the band with Flea, Anthony Kiedis and Jack Irons was more of a side project for the busy Israeli.

Jack Sherman replaced him on guitar. At the same time, Cliff Martinez took over the drums from Jack Irons. A development that was met with little enthusiasm, particularly by Flea. He was sure that the musical connection with Hillel Slovak was incomparable and could not simply be filled by another guitarist.

A unique connection

However, the discontent did not last long. While recording the What Is This? album, Slovak became dissatisfied with the band and asked to return to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Anthony Kiedis would give up his first-born child so that Slovak could get back on board, according to Flea’s recollection of the conversation with the singer. They recorded the band’s second album “Freaky Styley” together. Jack Irons also returned a little later.

What gave the Red Hot Chili Peppers musical impetus, dragged them further and further into the abyss in relation to their drug use. To record “Freaky Styley” they spent a long time in Detroit, always in the company of and under the influence of various substances. Flea later recalled: “It started to get ugly and I stopped enjoying it. Our communication became very unhealthy.” Anthony Kiedis eventually became so addicted to heroin that he was largely absent while working on the album. At the same time, Slovak danced around the studio like a madman, coked up and wearing flashy clothes.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers in January 1987.

Hillel Slovak’s Addiction

Before the Chili Peppers’ third album, The Uplift Mofo Party Plan, Anthony Kiedis checked into rehab and returned to Los Angeles to record. Hillel Slovak recorded his memories of the production in his diary: “It was so much fun. I’m so extremely proud of everyone’s work – it’s sometimes brilliant.” Slovak himself was the subject of numerous lyrics on the album, such as “Skinny Sweaty Man”.

In contrast to Kiedis, Hillel Slovak was much better able to keep his heroin addiction a secret from those around him. The band, family and friends were more concerned about the frontman than the guitarist, who he somehow managed to stay in the shadows with his drinking. But even the best game of hide-and-seek couldn’t be successful forever. On the “Freaky Styley” tour, Slovak’s health deteriorated noticeably. He couldn’t even do the usual wrestling sessions with Flea for fun – he was simply too weak to be able to defend himself. A roadie from the band then contacted Slovak’s brother James to tell him of his concerns. Up until that point, James Slovak had never known that his brother was a junkie.

Before the European tour for The Uplift Mofo Party Plan, both Kiedis and Slovak wanted to give sobriety a serious chance, but touring life was too much of an obstacle for both of them. This time, the symptoms of Slovak’s addiction were much more visible than those of Anthony Kiedis. The situation worsened to the point where he was eventually no longer able to play the guitar. The band therefore performed one show without a guitarist, which is why Slovak was replaced by DeWayne McKnight for a few shows. Kiedis pleaded with Slovak to seek professional help, but the realization never came.

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The lonely death

When the Red Hot Chili Peppers returned home from Europe, Hillel Slovak further isolated himself from those around him. He no longer painted, played the guitar or wrote in his diary. On June 24, 1988, he called his brother. He had great difficulty resisting heroin, even though he had a desire to get clean, Slovak said on the phone. It was the last time Slovak spoke to anyone. His band members had previously tried in vain to reach him. On June 27, 1988, police found Hillel Slovak dead in his apartment. The coroner’s office found that he had died of a heroin overdose on June 25th.

Slovak was buried at Mount Sinai Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles. Anthony Kiedis left town earlier because he couldn’t bear to attend the funeral. Although the news of his friend’s death came as a shock, he did not immediately stop his own heroin use. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that friends convinced him to go back to rehab and visit Hillel Slovak’s grave. The visit to the cemetery was the final step for Kiedis to give up heroin completely. Jack Irons had more difficulty dealing with Slovak’s death. He left the Red Hot Chili Peppers to no longer be a part of something that resulted in his friend’s death. In the aftermath of his exit, Irons suffered from severe depression. However, Flea and Kiedis decided to continue making music. A short time later, Chad Smith and John Frusciante joined the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

John Frusciante live 2007 – here with the Red Hot Chili Peppers
John Frusciante live 2007

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