Story behind the song
Kiedis wrote much of the song's lyrics during a period when he felt distraught and emotionally drained. He had maintained sobriety for roughly three years and felt distanced from his bandmates. While the group worked on "Blood Sugar Sex Magik," Frusciante and Flea often smoked marijuana together, ignoring Kiedis, who felt that Frusciante was "no longer in [his] world." Driving home after rehearsal in April 1991, Kiedis thought of his heroin and cocaine addiction during his relationship with former girlfriend Ione Skye: "the loneliness that I was feeling triggered memories of my time with Ione and how 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."
Kiedis' feelings of alienation from his bandmates led him to feel that the city of Los Angeles was his only companion: "I felt an unspoken bond between me and my city. I'd spent so much time wandering through the streets of L.A. and hiking through the Hollywood Hills that I sensed there was a nonhuman entity, maybe the spirit of the hills and the city, who had me in her sights and was looking after me." The lines "Sometimes I feel like / My only friend / Is the city I live in / The City of Angels / Lonely as I am / Together we cry" show a direct link to Kiedis' isolation and sense of susceptibility. Despite these emotions, Kiedis believed that his life was better without drugs, telling Rolling Stone that "no matter how sad or lonely I got, things were a million percent better than they were two years earlier when I was using drugs all the time. There was no comparison." The optimistic ideology gave birth to the chorus of the song: "I don't ever want to feel / Like I did that day / Take me to the place I love", the place he loves being his bandmates, friends, and family.
One of the most notable verses in the song discusses the harsh effects of drugs, their role in destroying many of Kiedis' relationships, and their impact on his happiness. Based on one of Kiedis' experiences, the verse of "Under the Bridge" illustrates his efforts to enter gang territory under a bridge to purchase drugs. Kiedis pretended that a sister of one of the gang members was his fiancee to be permitted inside. Although he successfully acquired the drugs, Kiedis considers this moment to be one of the worst of his life as it demonstrated the level to which he was willing to sink in order to feed his addiction. Kiedis refuses to acknowledge the location of the bridge, though he notes that it is in downtown Los Angeles. Using clues provided by Kiedis in previous interviews and in his autobiography Scar Tissue, writer Mark Haskell Smith concluded that the bridge that inspired the song was located in the city's MacArthur Park.
MacArthur Park bridge. Photo by Mark Haskell Smith.
Official music video
The music video for "Under the Bridge" was directed by Gus Van Sant.
The video was shot on the streets of Los Angeles and in a studio soundstage. It begins with Frusciante standing alone on a pedestal wearing a red-and-white-striped collared shirt, brown khaki pants, brown shoes, and a purple, green and multicolored chullo, with white stitched wolves in the middle. He plays guitar behind the backdrop of a desert and an inverted cloudy sky. His shadow is projected on the left and right of where he stands. Frusciante's then-girlfriend, Toni Oswald, selected his clothes that day. Frusciante remembers Van Sant's surprised, though favorable, reaction: "when I got [to the studio] Gus Van Sant was just looking at me and going 'God I'm so glad you wore that hat. I'm so glad you wore that shirt. Oh! Those pants are so great I'm so glad you wore those'". The video marks a significant shift in Frusciante's on-camera behavior; he no longer wished to jump around fervently as he had done in the band's prior music videos.
As Kiedis begins to sing, he appears on camera bathed in purple light with blue fluorescent stars as a backdrop, surrounded by clouds. As the camera pans closer, an image of the skyline of Van Sant's home city, Portland, is superimposed from his chin downwards. Flea and Chad Smith are then placed into the image while playing their instruments. Van Sant wanted to superimpose to be a notable component in the overall theme of the video; the idea came from a project he worked on with novelist William S. Burroughs. The scenes in the studio are coupled with scenes of Kiedis walking the streets of L.A., wearing a white T-shirt with "To Hell And Back" printed on the front; as he walks, the camera focuses on various people. He can, at various points in the video, be seen standing in front of the Belmont Tunnel before its closure. This, according to Kiedis, was vital; he felt that the studio portion alone would not convey enough emotion: "the first time we shot it was all in a studio and that didn't seem to capture everything we needed to capture. It needed more; it needed to be combined with an outdoor, streets-of-Los-Angeles thing". Towards the end, Kiedis is seen running down the Los Angeles River channel in slow motion; the background is a nuclear explosion (the "Baker" shot of Operation Crossroads). The video ends with various superimposed images of the band, followed by Frusciante playing alone on a pedestal — this time with an inverted shot of the ocean as the sky.
MTV placed the "Under the Bridge" video on heavy rotation. At the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards, the Red Hot Chili Peppers led the nominations, which included the categories of "Best Video", "Best Group", and "Best Direction". "Under the Bridge" won the group "Breakthrough Video" and "Viewers Choice Best Video."
Under The Bridge - Live 1992 Saturday Night Live"Under the Bridge" at Rock am Ring 2016.