Toni Oswald is a girl on the fringes. A native of Houston, Texas, she became well known in the eighties as a performance artist in the art/punk review, Theatre Carnivale and as the other half of adored guitarist John Frusciante, formerly of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Now living in a cozy, bohemian home nestled at the foot of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, Toni makes music with her partner Max Davies, and devotes her time to the pursuit of art without artifice. I enjoyed a winter’s day in front of the fire with Toni, and while Max stoked the flames, Toni illuminated the room.
“My mom dated a lot of musicians, some of them quite famous. She had fantastic taste in music. When she was pregnant with me she played (Jimi Hendrix’s) Are You Experienced?”
As a teen, Toni got into punk and new wave. Exene Cervenka and Siouxsie Sioux made a huge impression. Houston couldn’t hold her, and at eighteen, she moved to Los Angeles.
“I was ready to go! I thought about going to New York, because I was into theatre. But I met a guy, and he was moving to LA. That changed everything. I visited a couple of times before I moved, and I saw a very early Jane’s Addiction at the Lhasa Club in 1985. I also saw Guns n’ Roses at the Troubadour. There was this converging scene – rock and metal and punk and goth. That was the most fun thing about LA then. There were so many clubs and scenes – you could satisfy so much. I graduated on a Friday and left on Sunday.”
Her goal was to do theatre. Mainstream culture bored her, but Los Angeles provided many creative outlets for the Texan firecracker. She got a job as a go-go dancer at John Sidel and Matt Dike’s club, Powertools.
“We’d dance on platforms in Day-Glo costumes and body paint. Matt Dike was one of the first DJs to mix hip-hop, dance and rock. The girl who made the dancer’s costumes was Jennifer Bruce, Anthony Kiedis's girlfriend. She made clothes for the likes of George Clinton.”
Powertools was such a success that the owners opened another club, Red Square, in the Variety Art’s Centre downtown. An old, beautiful theatre, the venue had once seen vaudeville acts in the thirties and forties. Toni adored the ambience, and when performance artist Steven Holman and his wife Hillary saw it, they loved it too. They started Theatre Carnivale in the same building.
“I did Theatre Carnivale for about three years. It was quite successful, a cult da-da-esque kind of thing.”
A wild mix of comedy, theatre, vaudeville and surrealism, Theatre Carnviale sat comfortably aside Red Square, allowing Toni to explore all facets of art and theatre.
Toni modeled for Jennifer Bruce, whose boyfriend Anthony and his band were regular Theatre Carnivale-goers.
Before the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s rise to stardom, Toni was close friends with Hillel Slovak, RHCP's original guitarist. Their bond was broken when Hillel started injecting heroin.
“I did acid in high school, but I wasn’t that interested in drugs, and I was very frightened of heroin. I stopped hanging out with Hillel. I couldn’t take it. I thought he was going to die. He got sober, and came back into my life, and then fell off the wagon and died. It devastated me. That really fucked my head up. I was twenty years old. I walked around in a bubble for months, wondering what the fuck happened?”
Toni carried the burden of guilt along with her grief. She felt she’d abandoned him when he needed help.
“My generation grew up watching the tragedies of the sixties, knowing (heroin) could kill you, but romanticizing it. Nico, Lou Reed… You know it’s dangerous, but there’s something about that arrogance of youth. Hillel’s death was a huge catalyst for me (later) staying with John when he went down that path.”
Five months after Hillel died, Toni turned twenty-one. She celebrated with a get-together at hangout du jour, Small’s bar. Anthony Kiedis came along, and brought his new guitarist, John Frusciante with him. Two years Toni’s junior, she found John arrogant, but cute. She made an impression on him too. He told his friends he’d met a girl with a smile to light up the sky.
“He just seemed different, which proved to be accurate in a great way. They were making Blood Sugar Sex Magic a little while later and I went to a party at the house where they were recording. That night Rick Rubin introduced us properly.”
A couple of weeks later, Toni was in a play with Manny Chevrolet of the Too Free Stooges. She played a nurse who’d wipe Manny’s brow and dance with him and Dick Rude. On the phone one night, Manny asked her why she didn’t have a boyfriend.
“Who can I set you up with?” he asked. “Who do you like?”
“Well, someone I’d like to get to know better is John.”
Manny called John, who immediately called Toni. They talked for two hours, then despite the fact that he was sick with the flu, he invited her over.
“I went over there. He was playing the third Velvet Underground album and sitting on the couch with a hot toddy. I stayed three days. We went to the first Lollapalooza together that weekend. Then he went away to on a press tour. When he got back I moved in and we were together for six years.”
They moved into the Hollywood Hills, and set up a creative universe for two. They had separate wings – John had his musical world and Toni had her studio where wrote, painted and experimented with film.
Meanwhile, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were now massively famous. Having come from the small LA funk/punk scene, international stardom was unexpected, and disconcerting. John struggled with the hysteria and falseness of fame. It took a toll, and raised serious questions about life and art.
“The media was so intense. All of a sudden that intrusion came into our lives, telling (John) who he was. After every show there was somebody wanting to ask him questions. It was so fascinating watching people from Rolling Stone come to our house. They’d interview him in the living room and I could hear them. I was always blown away by what would end up in the magazine. They would turn each guy into a character and sell that image.”
The pressure was too much. Their private world was constantly being invaded by people wanting a piece of the Chili Pepper’s progressively reclusive guitarist.
Though the band had a “no girlfriends on the road” policy, it was revised for Toni, because after two weeks without her, John refused to continue unless she joined him. They couldn’t stand to be apart, and with Toni there, John had a buffer against the machine that the band had become part of. They toured America, Europe and later Japan.
“I gave up my theatre to go on tour with him. I kind of sublimated my identity. We were joined at the hip for many years, but it was difficult for me. I felt like something was missing, but I was willing to support him. I totally quit acting and theatre; I couldn’t really do that if I was going to travel.”
The media were obsessed with the John and the band. Soon, forgetting himself became an impossible struggle. The couple were trying to become good artists, but there was too much white noise. They looked for ways to tune it out.
“When you’re trying to make art you’re trying to get out of yourself. You’re trying to make yourself disappear, so you can get the source coming through you, to create.”
They smoked pot and drank red wine, which was enough to see John through the delirium of road life, but not enough to keep him in the band.
Before they had left for Japan, a friend who John had looked forward to making music with died. This, coupled with the disillusionment he was experiencing, caused him to reach his breaking point. Finally, in Japan, John quit the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Though it was what he felt he needed to do, he was depressed, and began to withdraw into himself. He made a conscious decision to use heroin, which left Toni deeply conflicted.
“After Hillel died, devastation coated the scene. People were trying to get sober, get their shit together. But then time passed, people forgot, things changed. When I met John I was doing a lot of theatre, and was together. I had a lot of hope. We basically just hung out, drew, wrote. He’d play music and I’d sing. He had his own story, which I can’t tell, it’s his story – but a lot of heartbreak – drugs were something he found comfort in. Drugs numbed the pain. So he started using. “
He dabbled at first, but by the summer, using became less of a choice and more of a need.
“I was crying all the time. At first I fought him. It was devastating. All my friends were using heroin. John was the love of my life. There was no way I was going to leave him. And there was no way I could stay in the relationship sober. Impossible.”
Things started to go haywire. After an electrical fire totaled their home, Toni and John moved into an apartment in New York. They divided their time between there and the Chateau Marmont in LA, and John’s drug use escalated.
For a long time, he lived in close proximity to death, producing haunting, transcendental music that confused the mainstream and thrilled the underground. But for those living on planet Earth, it was painful to watch his physical deterioration.
In 1994, John released his first solo work, Niandra LaDes, featuring cover art from an experimental film Toni was making called Desert In The Shape. Shot in the early days of their relationship, it starred Toni and John, and featured Matt Polish and Flea’s daughter, Clara Balzary.
Eventually the relationship faltered. They had become more like brother and sister than partners. Though the break up was mutual, it was devastating. Having been through so much at such a young age, Toni found herself unsteady on her own, battling an addiction that didn’t seem as important in the eyes of others as John’s. She had drifted so far away from her goals that she struggled to find a path back.
“Looking back, I realize my identity was very strong, but I felt beat down. Society worships fame and success. When we were doing drugs, everyone was always calling, worrying about John. Our mutual friends seemed more concerned about him. Granted, he was way more out of control, but I was dying. His death bed took precedence.”
They stayed in each other’s lives, as close friends. John moved into a house in Silverlake that Toni found, and she continued to worry.
“At that time, the responsibility was solely on me. Is he eating? Who’s he hanging out with? Are weirdoes at his house doing his drugs? When is this going to end?”
It was hard to let go, but Toni found hope in art. She focused on recovery and music, recording as The Diary of Ic Explura, a name given to her by John. Incorporating fantasy, letters, drawings, collage and prose, the project consumed a decade of Toni’s life, seeing her transform again, into a stronger and more confident artist.
She got back into acting, appearing in Adaptation, Jackpot and Deadwood, among other theatre and film projects. She also worked in fashion, running the office of fashion label Jovovich-Hawk.
Part One of The Diary of Ic Explura, A Love Letter to the Transformer, was released in 2004. Josh Klinghoffer, also of RHCP, worked on the album. Toni's influences run the gamut from experimental jazz and poetry, to Brian Eno and David Bowie.
The project was re-mastered by Max Davies in 2011 and re-released in 2011, along with Part Two. When Toni met Max in Los Angeles they’d synced creatively and wanted to work together on music. Secretly though, they secretly had designs on each other. When they both found themselves single, they quickly fell in love.
“Max is the other love of my life. I never loved anybody the way I loved John, until Max.”
Spending time in their company is a lesson in artistic compatibility. Their home is a sanctuary and their regard for each other is evident.
Moving out of Los Angeles helped her let go of regret, and re-connect with nature. Having witnessed the damage fame can do, she is grateful for her life, and experiences.
“Our society is so dysfunctional we worship all these things like money, power, fame, influence and we don’t worship interconnection between people. Fame is a place – it’s an act of revenge. I’m gonna get really good at this thing and get super famous, and all these people will love me, so you have to love me now. But it doesn’t work that way. Your parents still wont get you. The American Dream is a lie.”
Today, Toni is philosophical about her wild youth, and at peace with her wonderful present. The Diary of Ic Explura is available now on bandcamp.com. She is working on a new book of poetry, and is involved with the summer writing program at Naropa’s Jack Kerouac’s School of
Disembodied Poetics. Toni and Max perform regularly with their friends around Boulder, CO, and this New Year’s Eve will be performing with poet Anne Waldman at the Poetry Project in New York.
A life-long vintage shopper, her fashion sensibility was sparked by Joan Crawford and the stars of the thirties. In 2010, Toni started her online store, Moonchild Vintage.
“Max and I have a new music project called PAN - Poetry Audio Network. At this point in my life I am looking for ways to merge with something that is bigger than me and away from commerce and being product-oriented. We are killing the planet with our need to consume and make money. Living a simple life and unplugging from the insanity of society feels right to me, and that is the direction we are heading in with PAN.”
Life now is about green juice and bringing the inner beauty out. She remains friends with John, but speaks more regularly to his wife, Swahili Blonde drummer and vocalist, Nicole Turley.
Today, Toni has no regrets.
“We’re just here to experience this consciousness and work with it. There are no bad choices. There’s only the path you’re on. I feel like everything is a process to expand and evolve as a conscious being. To me, art and creativity are about finding freedom in this life.”