The Meaning Behind the Addictive Song “Under the Bridge” by Red Hot Chili Peppers

In 2022, the Los Angeles-born rock band Red Hot Chili Peppers released two albums, Unlimited Love and Return of the Dream Canteen. On the first album, the song”Black Summer,” has become yet another hit in their robust catalog. But it’s the band’s 1991 hit, “Under the Bridge,” from their impactful album Blood Sugar Sex Magik that made the Red Hot Chili Peppers what they are today.

Videos by American Songwriter

Formed in 1982, the band is known for its core four members—singer Anthony Kiedis, bassist Flea, guitarist John Frusciante and drummer Chad Smith. And it’s their single, “Under the Bridge,” with its meaning about a life wrapped up in drugs, that elevated them.

The Bridge

To date, no one actually knows which bridge Kiedis is referencing in the song. He’s given some details, but ultimately he’s failed to disclose the exact location.

Kiedis has revealed it’s located in downtown L.A. Sleuths like Mark Haskell Smith, have made claims that the bridge is located in the city’s MacArthur Park. Others claim that can’t be true since Kiedis has said it’s under a freeway. Some have postured it’s in Belmont Tunnel, near MacArthur Park and the Interstate Highway 10 overpass.

[RELATED: 5 Deep Cuts From Red Hot Chili Peppers That You Should Be Listening To]

But no one but Kiedis can be sure. He didn’t even give the answer in his 2004 biography, Scar Tissue.

The Moms

While the meaning of the song is largely a sad one about drug use and wasted time, one of the most positive stories to come from “Under the Bridge” is that Frusciante’s mom and some of her friends are singing on the big choral arrangement at the end of the song. The song, which was produced by iconic artist Rick Rubin, needed something extra, so the guitarist asked his mom and her friend, who were both in a choir, for help. Indeed, Gail Frusciante and her friends are listed in the credits.

Yes, one of the most emotional, laid-bare, destructive songs of the ’90s has a rock guitarist god’s mom killing it on the vocals.

The Poem

The song would have never come to be if it wasn’t for Rubin, who helped launch Def Jam in New York City and who famously worked with groups like Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys. He worked closely with RHCP and produced Blood Sugar Sex Magik. In many ways, Rubin, known for bridging rock and rap, was perfect for the crossover southern Los Angeles group.

One day when Rubin was visiting Kiedis, he discovered a poem the frontman had written, titled “Under the Bridge.” In it, Kiedis talks about drug use and loneliness. Rubin thought it was beautiful and knew it had to be a song. So, Kiedis apprehensively brought it to the band and sang it. Bassist Flea and Frusciante then began tinkering with their instruments until they got a start. Kiedis didn’t think the song would work, feeling it was too sad and emotional. But his instincts there were wrong.

Frusciante was inspired by Jimi Hendrix and his song “Little Wing” on the opening guitar part, which remains practically sacred when it comes to rock riffs. By the time the band moved into the recording studio owned by Rubin, known as “the Mansion,” to work on and complete Blood Sugar Sex Magik, “Under the Bridge” was complete.

The Drugs

At its core, the poem Rubin found talked about Kiedis’ drug use and the loneliness he was experiencing. The song’s most famous line is likely, Sometimes I feel like my only friend / Is the city I live in / The City of Angels / Lonely as I am / Together we cry. That sense of disconnection from all people, yet remaining still in tune with the larger space around you is a very poignant thought. Mix that with the heightened isolation that comes from drug use and you have a song with great drama.

Writing in Scar Tissues, Kiedis talks about what he lost during that time, particularly his relationship with his former girlfriend, actress Ione Skye. He wrote, “I’d had this beautiful angel of a girl who was willing to give me all of her love, and instead of embracing that, I was downtown with fucking gangsters shooting speedballs under a bridge.”

[RELATED: Red Hot Chili Peppers Play Eddie Van Halen Tribute Song Live for the First Time]

In the end, Kiedis got sober. He chose the music and his bandmates, that “place,” which he sings about in the chorus: I don’t ever want to feel / Like I did that day / Take me to the place I love. Truly, the time he spent addicted to drugs was some of the lowest moments, if not the lowest moments of his life. He even writes in the biography that he lied about being engaged to a gang member’s sister in order to gain access to a drug house to score.

The Release

The band released “Give It Away” as the first track from their 1991 Blood Sugar Sex Magik and as record executives were wondering what to release next, they went to see RHCP in concert.

When “Under the Bridge” was set to start, Kiedis missed his cue, but amazingly, the audience began to sing the song. After the show, he apologized to the execs but they were overjoyed. If the crowd knew the song so well, that was the next single. Despite any doubts, the song was a hit. Rubin was right when he saw that poem. The song spent 26 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100. And the recording went platinum.

The Legacy

The music video for the song was directed by Gus Van Sant, who would later direct movies like Good Will Hunting. Van Sant knew Flea from their work together on the film My Own Private Idaho.

“Under the Bridge” has been cited in several areas of pop culture, including a lyric sample from esteemed rapper Mos Def on his 1999 Black on Both Sides album, in which he sings, The city I live in is beautiful Brooklyn. Six years earlier, “Weird Al” Yankovic referenced the song in “Bedrock Anthem.”

In the end, the song has two lives (much like Kiedis). The beautiful artful side with the brilliant guitar riff and melodic hooks and the drug-addled life of addiction side—the toxins sweating out of every pour. And the salvation that can come afterward. If you’re lucky.

Photo by Scott Gries/Getty Images

Leave a Reply

50 Cent Announces Tour Celebrating 20th Anniversary of ‘Get Rich Or Die Tryin’