November 20, 2018

The Red Hot Chili Peppers heat up the Holyland

The Red Hot Chili Peppers made their first visit to Israel on Sept. 10, but the band member who stole the show wasn’t even onstage. Hillel Slovak – the group’s Israeli-American guitarist and co-founder – died tragically of a heroin overdose in 1988, but his presence was felt throughout every moment of the raucous performance in Tel Aviv.

“Hillel had his own brand of Israeli funk,” Flea, the band’s gap-toothed, perpetually bare-chested bassist told the crowd of 50,000 at Yarkon Park. “To come here tonight, and to think of him, is truly a dream. We’ll never forget this night as long as we live.”

Slovak was born in Haifa in 1962 to a Polish mother and Yugoslavian father, both Holocaust survivors. Five years later, the family emigrated to the United States – first to the New York borough of Queens, then the Fairfax area of Los Angeles. Slovak first picked up an electric guitar after receiving the instrument as a bar mitzvah gift.

The teenager soon became a virtuoso – the Chili Peppers would base many of their early songs around Slovak’s hard-driving riffs – and in 1983 founded the now-legendary band with high school friends Flea (aka Michael Balzary), singer Anthony Kiedis and drummer Jack Irons.

With the exception of Irons, all of the band members struggled with drug abuse – including heroin, LSD, cocaine and methamphetamines – but only Slovak would pay the ultimate price. The shock of the guitarist’s death led Irons to leave the group, which ultimately replaced him with its present drummer Chad Smith.

Slovak is interred in Mount Sinai cemetery in the Hollywood Hills. In April of this year, he was posthumously inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with the rest of the group – his brother James accepting the honor on his behalf.

During the performance, the Chili Peppers and their fans paid tribute to the guitarist. “Hillel, we love you” flashed across the giant onstage screens as fans wielding the signs were caught on camera. As he launched into the 1999 hit “Around the World,” Keidis dedicated the song to Slovak’s hometown: “This jam is for Haifa!”

“They told a story about how in the band’s early days, Hillel visited Israel and came back so invigorated,” said Scott Piro, a public relations professional from Philadelphia who immigrated to Israel three years ago. “They went on and on about how amazing his trip was, and how since then they had all wanted to come to Israel.”

Despite attempts to dissuade the band from performing in Israel and calling for boycotts of the Jewish state, the Chili Peppers were not deterred. In fact, they have a YouTube video announcing their Tel Aviv stop. Flea gushed, “We’ve always had a great love for Israel… We are so excited to go there.”

Israel was the last stop on their European tour. On the day of their arrival to the Holy Land, Flea posted “Yay!!” on his Facebook page and their fun began. Traveling the country they took time to float in the Dead Sea and to visit the Western Wall.

“They were also so appreciative,” said Piro, 42. “They said so many times how thankful they were that we were there. They must have thanked the crowd at least ten times.”

The performance kicked off with “Monarchy of Roses,” the opening track from the band’s last studio album “I’m With You.” Fan favorites were the drug-addiction lament “Under the Bridge” and “Californication,” the title track from the five-times-platinum 1999 album of the same name. On both, thousands of exhilirated fans – some under 10 years old  – sang along to every word. The encore concluded with a boisterous rendition of “Give It Away,” the pounding 1991 single that gave the group its first number-one hit.

Slovak is not the only Jewish musician to have earned a spot with the Chili Peppers. Irons and former guitarist Arik Marshall (both L.A. natives) are also Jewish, as is their current guitarist, Josh Klinghoffer – a distant relative of Leon Klinghoffer, the 69-year-old wheelchair-bound passenger murdered in the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro.

For Flea and Kiedis – the two founding members still with the group – Slovak’s memory seems to have left them with an undeniable affinity for his homeland, making their performance a homecoming of sorts.

“Good night, Tel Aviv,” Kiedis told the enraptured crowd before exiting the stage. “We love you! And your families, too!”

Karen Springer is a Los Angeles-based writer, and a former speechwriter for Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the United States, as well as a former editor at OLAM Magazine.

Oren Kessler is a Tel Aviv-based freelance journalist, formerly with Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post.