I remember standing in Target, looking at the back of some U2 CD. I wondered why “Vertigo,” a track on the U218 Singles greatest hits album, appeared here as well. Sure, it’s a good song, but do we need it twice? Why would I buy this?

This is the clearest example I have of the fact that—and I knew this back then—I had no idea what an album was. It was a kind of epiphany for me that artists could only put out so much music at a time. It turned out they did not usually go back after having produced a few dozen songs and arbitrarily group them onto different CDs. I was probably eleven.

I remember riding in the passenger seat of the 2005 Honda Pilot sometime before freshman year of high school when Thomas turned and said we needed to get me into some new music.

“Okay. Cool,” I said. I had nothing to lose. I probably could have used some guidance finding new music because I had been more or less content with what I heard on American Idol. He changed the CD in the player to a mix he had created. A blank disc marked only by the letters “RHCP” in Sharpie.

It began with two chords, back and forth. At first, kind of distant and arid, but approaching, swelling with a torrent of snare hits until… well, I can’t transcribe the music nor the experience of hearing it for the first time. It was something like this.

Though “Can’t Stop” doesn’t come until almost halfway through the album By the Way, it felt like it belonged right then in that moment. The long crescendo to something unexpected and exciting. I could try to talk more technically or theoretically about why the track works as an opener, but I wasn’t thinking about it too hard back then, and the artists probably weren’t either, if you know how they, historically, have approached their music-making. The song just sounds like the beginning of something.

My experience with this album was, more or less, the model for how I consumed music for the next three years. First of all, I mean I consumed music almost exclusively from the Red Hot Chili Peppers for three years. If you think I’m exaggerating, talk to any of my friends from high school. They know this. They may nod sadly, their faces downcast, but they’ll tell you. But what also I mean is I listened to them piece by piece. A few songs at a time, maybe from the same era, maybe not, I ripped the audio from YouTube videos onto my MP3 player. I wasn’t interested in consuming each album as a whole—why would I be? I didn’t know the songs were intended to be heard in a certain order until Thomas pointed it out to me (you could argue, and many critics have, that the Red Hot Chili Peppers didn’t know this either, but that’s a different essay).

By the time I actually sat down to listen to any of their albums all the way through, I had already heard most of the songs in a variety of contexts and formed associations with them different from what I was maybe supposed to. Again, “Can’t Stop” was not created to be an album opener, but I can’t stop thinking that it must be. And consider my bewilderment when I learned that “Californication” was not actually the seventh track on the eponymous album as it was on the mix CD Thomas had made. (Track 07 on an album always just has a certain feel, y’know? Very different from 06).

Probably the most egregious example is that “Hard to Concentrate,” one of the Chili Peppers’ most mature, emotionally sincere songs by that time, the closing track on the first “album” I loved, the very lyrics that Cotter quoted in his best-man speech at my very wedding, is buried near the beginning of the second disc of Stadium Arcadium. Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it of bittersweet endings and new beginnings.

These days, I don’t listen to them much anymore. It’s not really that I got sick of them—although 2016’s The Getaway was maybe a nail in a coffin—I went to college and realized how much bigger the world of music was (though I didn’t retire the rubber Red Hot Chili Peppers bracelet until the summer after my junior year, and only because I was painting). I don’t have them on my all-encompassing Spotify playlist of my favorite artists anymore, and if you asked me who my say, ten, favorite artists are, I might not mention them. It’s just hard for me to know how something that was so, maybe excessively, important to me upwards of five years ago fits in with the music and art I like now, or who I am, more broadly speaking.

I do know that I can still jam out to many of their songs when they feel like they belong in that moment, and I remembered just a few weeks ago that, since the CD changer in my car stopped working several years ago, that mix CD has been trapped inside.

ENDNOTE: For those of you are interested (I can think of maybe two people), the tracklist is below. It’s not written down anywhere else. This is an important piece of history.

  1. “Can’t Stop”
  2. “By the Way”
  3. “Animal Bar”
  4. “Strip My Mind”
  5. “So Much I”
  6. “Charlie”
  7. “Californication”
  8. “Warlocks”
  9. “Torture Me”
  10. “Snow”
  11. “Slow Cheetah”
  12. “Tell Me Baby”
  13. “Wet Sand”
  14. “Dani California”
  15. “Especially in Michigan”
  16. “Otherside”
  17. “Hard to Concentrate”

You can listen for yourself here.

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