When Louis Mathieu and I went on a class field trip to the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens, I took the school bus and he took his motorcycle.
When I found out that this 50-year-old, rough-talking, tanned and tattooed classmate of mine had been the road manager for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, it didn’t shock me whatsoever. As I’ve gotten to know him over the last year, I’ve learned that his winding career path has taught him it’s never too late to change how you feel, what you believe or where you would like to be in life.
The first time I had a class with him, we were studying American literature in one of Royce Hall’s historic first-floor classrooms. Louis forgoes the all-too-common laptop for a crossword puzzle and sits in the front row every class, ready to engage in every discussion.
Louis isn’t a huge guy; he stands about 5 feet, 7 inches tall. I’ve never seen him in anything but a mesh trucker hat, motorcycle boots and a tattered tour shirt. Colorful tattoos cover most of his visible skin, and he has the word “OZZY” inscribed in black ink across his knuckles, something he did as a bet.
This ex-roadie knows that his life has been uniquely shaped by his experiences working alongside some of rock music’s most legendary acts. As he sits in college classrooms, his focus is on understanding other students’ experiences and gaining new perspective by discussing and engaging in classrooms.
“I suppose that I’ve seen a few things, and I’ve been to a few places, and I have lived a really big life. I’ve lived an experience that not many people have lived,” he said. “Now I’m getting to experience all of these other realities.”
In 1989, when he was my age – 21 years old – he was deep in the Los Angeles music scene and was a decade away from managing the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Thirty years, two kids and scores of gigs later, Louis is on his way to receiving a degree in American literature and culture.
But, while Louis is only in his second year on campus, this is hardly the first time he has been here.
Louis grew up in the neighborhoods between Hollywood and Beverly Hills. The first time Louis came to UCLA was in 1979 when he was 11 years old and was visiting his sister attending school here. His sister, whom he described as a child prodigy, had come to study psychology when she was 15 years old.
When Louis was 15 years old, he had been struggling in school for years and became habitually truant. That year, in 1983, he came back to UCLA to take the California High School Proficiency Examination, which proves that a student has learned the basic high school curriculum. The proficiency exam, which he passed, enabled him to drop out of Beverly Hills High School.
“It was enough to just get out of high school and keep the truancy officers and the police officers off my back,” he said. “Because that’s where I was going next: juvenile hall.”
By the mid-1980s, Louis became interested in the punk scene blossoming around Los Angeles and would arrive at shows early to carry gear for the bands so he could get in for free. This soon got him a job working as a roadie with bands such as Bad Religion, The Weirdos, Thelonious Monster and the Circle Jerks.
“There was this network of bands at that time. I would just hop from band to band depending on who, when and where,” he said.
He recalls working a show in 1986 when the Red Hot Chili Peppers played with Guns N’ Roses in Ackerman Union at UCLA. The same year, when he was just 18 years old, Louis began working as a drum technician with the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
“We toured together. We did this ‘Best of The West Tour.’ It was Thelonious Monster, Fishbone and the Chili Peppers, and the crew really liked me and I could hang,” he said. “If I could put up with Thelonious Monster, I could put up with anything because those guys were notoriously difficult.”
Louis said that at the time he recognized he was experiencing something special – being involved with the Red Hot Chili Peppers at such a young age – but that it takes hindsight to realize how truly exceptional this historic moment was. He said he thinks his perspective is unique because he has lived within an iconic musical era.
“While you’re doing it, you don’t have that sense of history so much because you’re just kind of busy being in your moment,” he said. “It gives me some perspective and some understanding of the passage of time. You’re in an era, you move through eras.”
He came back to UCLA in 1992 for the MTV Video Music Awards, which were hosted in Pauley Pavilion. The Red Hot Chili Peppers played a set on the same bill as Eric Clapton, Nirvana and Pearl Jam, and took home three awards.
His own rise within the Red Hot Chili Peppers hierarchy paralleled the band’s meteoric rise to fame. Louis said he was conscious of this experience and appreciative of the opportunities it was affording him. He fondly recalls being able to travel the world and earn a wage that would have been unimaginable for most high school dropouts.
“It’s hard to not sort of feel a sense of ownership or pride. We were doing it together, it was happening to my friends, and was also happening to me. We were going from being in a van to a U-Haul to a tour bus,” he said. “You are aware of this rise. You just feel incredibly fortunate and lucky. You just pinch yourself all the time.”
After a decade on the road with the Chili Peppers, Louis had been working his way up within the organization, and in 1998 was promoted to road manager. Louis said he was a fit for the position because he had known the band members personally for such a long time, and was given the position because they wanted to assist his family.
“I just had a kid and those guys wanted to support me and my new family, so they gave me a shot at the brass ring,” he said. “They were like, ‘All right kid, we know you have never done this before but get in there and see if you can do it.’”
A year later, in 1999, the group released “Californication,” which went on be its most commercially successful album, selling 16 million copies worldwide and peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard 200. During this time, Louis said he spent every day with the group and at certain times, was living with the band members.
His tenure at the helm, however, would not last. He said family problems and an impending divorce began to affect his ability to manage the group, as his personal and professional lives had become completely enmeshed. He was fired as the Chili Peppers’ tour manager in 2004.
“My personal life was starting to crumble and leak into my professional life,” he said. “I have a 7-year-old and a 4-year-old and I’m on tour all the time and I’m stressed out and I’ve been doing this every day, I’ve never had a day off. There were no days off when you worked with the Red Hot Chili Peppers.”
Louis said the lack of communication between him and the band compounded with his stagnant income. Resentment began to fester.
“When you’re that close to people, a lot of resentment can build up. I didn’t have a raise for a few years. I’m watching these guys make millions of dollars a week,” he said. “Granted, I was making more money than any kid who didn’t finish high school should hope to make, but there just seemed to be this sort of inequity.”
Louis said the experience of being fired from his job while going through a divorce blindsided him, and that the lifestyle change threw him into a year of depression. He was able to overcome this low point by building an authentic relationship with his children, which he said was impossible while he was managing the Chili Peppers. Louis said he has come to realize how important fatherhood has been for his personal growth, as he had no relationship with his own father.
“At the time, of course, it was crushing and I couldn’t quite understand it, but it all became really clear as I developed a relationship with my kids – as I would be coaching my son’s Little League team,” he said. “I didn’t have a father. Had I continued doing what I was doing, I would have missed being a parent.”
He went back to the music industry in the late 2000s, managing tours for artists such as Courtney Love and Gnarls Barkley. He said that at the time he returned to this line of work because he needed to make money and already had a reputation in the music industry that could get him jobs.
“You become known as a guy who can deal with difficult people. That’s your game. Then you start to realize your heart really isn’t in it,” he said. “You’re just sort of a mercenary at this point. You have no personal relationship with these people.”
Louis’ second stint in the music industry ended abruptly in 2012 when he was hit by a car while riding his motorcycle, and soon after the accident, his division at Capitol Records was closed. This accident put him on disability benefits for a year and to pay for medical expenses he sold his rock memorabilia, such as a Kurt Cobain guitar neck and gold records. He said selling these items was cleansing and helped him to move on from his past in the music industry.
“It felt really nice to let all that stuff go,” he said.
The trauma from the accident led to another period of depression, and once his injuries healed, he was not interested in returning to work for bands. His love of motorcycles remained strong despite this low point, and he got a job working as a mechanic in a friend’s motorcycle shop.
During this time, Louis was convinced by a woman he was dating to go back to school. He said receiving her help with financial aid and registration was invaluable and was what enabled him to enter academia for the first time in 35 years. Louis enrolled in Glendale Community College in 2015.
“She had faith in me. She’s like, ‘You’re smart and I think you’d be good at this and you’re burnt out. What have you got to lose?’” he said. “I showed up and I did the work, I got the results and I got good grades. People helped me.”
Louis took a history of rock music class his first semester at GCC, and soon had the professor and other students asking him questions about the topics they were learning. He said he offered an insight into life on the road, the recording studio process and other day-to-day aspects of a successful touring rock group.
“I got an A, predictably,” he said. “If I didn’t, there would have been something very wrong.” Louis said his return to school began slowly. He started in remedial general education courses before progressing further to studying English. He said he had to relearn things – like algebra and sentence structure – that he hadn’t studied in more than three decades, and said he owes an enormous debt of gratitude to the professors who helped him.
Louis earned a 3.7 GPA at community college and got into UCLA and UC Berkeley. He said he remained dedicated to transferring and continues to be dedicated to completing his bachelor’s degree as an example for his children.
“I want to show them that when you start something, you finish something, and you try your hardest even when you don’t necessarily have a plan,” he said. “You just do it because you said you were going to.”
Sitting in classrooms for the first time in 35 years, Louis’ biggest challenge is remaining open-minded. He said he thinks older people are often unable to engage with younger people, and that being in college classrooms helps him understand the perspective of people who are his children’s ages.
“I’ve been older than a lot of my professors, so it’s about being teachable,” he said. “It’s about not being so world-weary or cynical, but being open to another perspective.”
Louis stressed that what has enabled him to find happiness throughout his life is an ability to be flexible, pivot and rededicate his life to something new.
“The ability to pivot is about allowing yourself to be open to other experiences and not be so married to one thing,” he said. “Sometimes it’s just about taking the journey and believing. Martin Luther King (Jr.) used to say, ‘Faith is like taking the first step when you can’t even see the top of the staircase.’ It’s that same concept. I’ll just try something different to see where it leads me.”