Truth be told, Blood Sugar Sex Magik is not my all-time favorite album, no matter how you slice it. It’s not my desert island album — that’s my autographed copy of Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model. It’s not the album I always turn to when I’m feeling really bad (Jeff Buckley, Grace) or really good (Pulp, His & Hers) or really mellow (the Verve, Urban Hymns) or really punchy (Pixies, Doolittle) or really angry (PJ Harvey, Rid of Me). It’s not the best workout album in my catalog (tie: the Go-Go’s Greatest and the Streets Original Pirate Material), the best make out album (duh — everybody makes out to Portishead or Nina Simone), or the best road trip album (Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville). I went for years not being able to locate the cassette I bought in high school before breaking down and purchasing the CD. These days, it’s in rare rotation in my stereo.
But the best music sticks with us because it helps contextualize our pasts — is as much about timing and experience as it is about rhythm and sound — and because of this, Blood Sugar Sex Magik is the most important album I own. In one funked-out, fucked up, diabolical swoop, Blood Sugar Sex Magik reconfigured my relationship to music, to myself, to my culture and identity, to my race and class. Were it not for this album, I may not have attended the college I eventually chose; may not have ended up on my career path; may not have developed into a rock critic at all. This is hyperbole, yes. This is also the truth. For all intents and purposes, Blood Sugar Sex Magik changed my life.
A certain degree of self-restraint prevents me from delving into a tirade on my personal history, but I will indulge in painting some broad historical strokes. Remember, if you can/will, the early ’90s. It is the L.A. Riots, George Bush Sr., economic recession, Gulf War, Gen X, “potatoe”. It is the last flickers of the Golden Age of hip-hop before gangsta rap, copyright law, and a series of lawsuits over explicit lyrics flatten the genre (some say, for good). It’s the days when rock stations are changing their formats to accommodate the upswing of “alternative” into the mainstream. As the music distribution channels demonstrated, American culture continued on its seemingly ceaseless path of becoming more factionalized.
Things fall apart, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers come, like expert tailors, to sew it together. Together at that point for nearly a decade, and just off the high of their well-regarded album, 1989’s Mother’s Milk, Blood Sugar Sex Magik emerged just in time to be carried along by youth culture’s widespread re-fascination with the offbeat, the slacker-chic, and the underdog heroes. In 1991, grunge was assuming its crown, and two singles — “Under the Bridge” and “Give It Away” — made RHCP heirs to the throne. These four L.A. boys, with cocks in socks, long hair, and tattooed torsos, were a mother’s worst rock ‘n’ roll nightmare and a teenage rockstar dream.
But lo, Blood Sugar Sex Magik was no grunge rock album. It was a crazy-wack-funky freakout that could keep stoners and skaters and alternateens and jocks together in the same room, treating one another civilly while getting stoopid with dance. It was a poetic, politically aware joke: nothing but fun, and sex, and tricked-out limericks until you listened; then it suddenly was about race, and drugs, and the environment, and losing people, and losing yourself; until you zoomed out, then it was just a silly, rhythmic party all over again. It was a rock-rap album that puts whatever shit is out there now to shame — the album that convinced wary friends of color that it was OK for me, a black girl, to listen to “modern rock”, the only “rap” album any of my white friends owned. What we needed in our sectionalized corners of culture was the funk. What RHCP had was the funk.
Where the funk begins is with Flea, who mastered the bass as a preacher does the Holy Book and who, Lord, took my high school ass to church. On tracks like “If You Have to Ask” and “Mellowship Slinky in B Major”, his bass slides about on slaphappy jams; it’s fuzzed out and dingy, sticky and hot. John Frusciante carries this on with his nimble, cotton-pickin’ guitar, which can switch between power chords and pop-hop in a heartbeat; Chad Smith hammers those beats home, solidly, determinedly, on his kit. And then, of course, there’s Anthony Kiedis — snaggle-toothed madman spitting out rhymes, tongue twisting and trilling, cooing on a goofy falsetto or mocking a monster tone. Though this sonic theme forms the core of their sound, the Chili Peppers also play headbanger anthems like “Righteous and the Wicked” and “Suck My Kiss”, which send booty-shaking listeners suddenly careening into one another, fighting the good fight. A minute later, again, moods will shift, to the conscience-sing-a-longs of “Breaking the Girl” or “Under the Bridge”. This album is a wild headtrip and a schizophrenic’s delight.
Still, the album is remarkably cohesive — and largely because the damn thing is so friggin’ dirty. Eight minutes of “Sir Psycho Sexy” will turn RHCP’s young listeners into quivering masses of hormonal jello. Oversexed lines sneak their way into “Apache Rose Peacock”; “Blood Sugar Sex Magik”, simply, sounds like fucking. Even the purest virgin comes away from Blood Sugar Sex Magik with a degree of sexual maturity; even the slickest playa can learn a couple of new moves. Blood sugar crazy, they had it — sex magik, sex magik.
My infatuation with the Chili Peppers began and ended with this album: though I eventually collected all their previous recordings, none have become as meaningful as this; though I listened to their subsequent, more acclaimed material, nothing has resonated since. My search for comparable agitators ended when my local darlings Botfly dissolved before hitting it big time, and my friend Zach stole my copy of Infectious Grooves’ The Plague That Makes Your Booty Move. Probably better that way — my record collection currently harbors a visceral aversion to just about anything describable as horny punk. Still, Blood Sugar Sex Magik was certainly my aural gateway drug, smashing to bits who I thought I was and what I thought I had to listen to. Red Hot Chili Peppers were giving it away, and what they got, I had to get and put it in me.