All the life that lay ahead of us

Flea’s Acid for the Children beautifully evokes the endless possibility, discovery and danger of childhood, with a particular poignancy in these times of coronavirus lockdown.

“Thank you for reading my childhood.”

These words of gratitude come from Flea, towards the end of his memoir Acid for the Children. Beautifully written, the author’s innate sweetness and goodness of heart shines through from each page. No matter how crazy or depraved the antics he describes. This book has been a lovely companion during these early weeks of coronavirus lockdown. I didn’t want this book to end.

Flea is the bassist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, yet his book ends just as the band forms. Instead, Acid for the Children gifts us the story of Flea’s childhood and teenage years.

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Flea was born in Australia as Michael Peter Balzary, moving to the US when he was still very young (first to New York state, then settling in LA from age 10). As the stability of Flea’s family life crumbles, he embarks on a journey through friendship, music, artistic expression, drug experimentation, death-defying high jinks and a general rejection of conventional society.

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The most affecting parts of the book come as Flea and his friends run wild through 1970s and early 1980s Hollywood. As he becomes a teen, the pace and intensity of Flea’s life  escalates dramatically. He lives a life with no permanent home, no rest and no peace of mind. But no matter how formless or deranged his days, reading remains a constant, an everyday meditative escape. He writes:

“Through all this insanity, I never stopped reading. […] Crucial to my sense of self was the sanity, moral guidance and intellectual stimulation I got from books. The sanctuary that well-crafted novels provided reset me to a healthy state. […] It expanded the world beyond my underground Hollywood cocoon.”

Enjoy the weightless beauty

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Flea vividly depicts life inside this “underground Hollywood cocoon”, a melting pot of LA punks, artists and oddballs. I love his description of how he and his friends would regularly top off a night’s gigging or nightclubbing by driving around in search of apartment blocks with swimming pools.  He revels in the “romantic memory” of clambering over fences for “that three a.m. stealth swim in someone else’s pool”.* This was not a rowdy or destructive trespass:

“The perfect nightcap, the ultimate in luxury. We never got caught, we never got kicked out, we never did anything weird. We just appeared and disappeared from those dark smoggy nights and enjoyed the weightless beauty.”

Flea’s description crystallises those perfect moments of youth that seem eternal both as they unfold and in recollection:

“…sneaking into that pool in the dead of night, silently diving into the deep end, feeling everything relax, seeing the other bodies underwater joyful and dolphinlike, heads emerging from the water with peaceful, happy grins… […] That kind of togetherness we had then, our friends, that sense of exploration and the wonder of all the life that lay ahead of us, it was so beautiful.”

All the life that lay ahead of us

This “sense of exploration and the wonder of all the life that lay ahead of us” is a crucial part of youth. I can’t help but worry that this is being robbed from today’s children and teenagers, housebound in these times of social isolation. Dr Xand van Tulleken puts it well in his recent appearance on the Adam Buxton podcast:

“Kids think they don’t want to go to school, but actually kids love school, they just don’t like necessarily doing work. Kids think they don’t want exams, but those are an essential rite of passage that people need, and so your kids are literally changing their identities of who they are and what journey they are planning to go on, their entire future that was mapped out pretty clearly is now just a void.”

This void is all too real. For example, in a short interview with the Guardian, Sukhdip Nagra, an A-Level student from Leicester, talks about the disruptive impact of being denied these rites of passage:

“Everyone was scared on the last few days of sixth form, with lots of people self-isolating. We were told on Wednesday that we had two days to say goodbye; it felt rushed. We don’t know what’s going to happen next or when we’ll see each other.”

Stronger and kinder than ever

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But as disruptive as these times might be, I am sure that youth will find a way. As Flea’s book reminds us, children are eternally resilient, adaptable and resourceful. This is as true now as ever.

Over the past week or so, on my daily Government-permitted walks in the early morning, I’ve taken heart from the small signs of children’s undimmed creativity and playfulness dotted about the streets. Windows abound with lovely drawings of rainbows and smiling faces drawn by housebound children. I was particularly struck by an elaborate hopscotch game, chalked on the pavement (the picture above shows only a third of this massive and intricate game, which also involves a pebble-throwing target element). Children’s imaginations are as vibrant, creative and free as ever. They can deal with this. Life will continue.

At the end of Acid for the Children, Flea states his own belief that children can weather the most testing times:

“Because your childhood beat you around and left you in pain doesn’t mean that you’ll continue the cycle. Let your hurt be the source of the greatest compassion, the deepest love and understanding. You can do anything. Walk through it, don’t numb or hide. […] For years and years, I made the mistake of trying to run away, before I learned to surrender, accept my pain as a blessing, trust in the love, and let it change me. You will come out the other side stronger and kinder than ever.”

It’s only apt that Flea’s book has also introduced me to the perfect piece of music for these times: Eric Dolphy’s God Bless the Child.** Amen.

Here’s to all the life that lies ahead of us.

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FOONOTES

* It seems only apt to mention REM’s Nightswimming, here, a lovely song from their Automatic for the People album.

** Eric Dolphy’s God Bless the Child can be found on his incredible The Illinois Concert album.

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