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The Meaning of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “By The Way”

Released at the commercial peak of their career following the international success of Californication (1999), the Red Hot Chili Peppers 2002 album By The Way was massively successful, receiving widespread acclaim from both fans and critics alike.

The single and title track “By The Way” led the charge, released in advance of the album in June 2002, and subsequently becoming yet another international hit for the group. “Can’t Stop” was another huge hit from this album.

“By The Way” Lyrics Meaning

With lyrics penned by frontman Anthony Kiedis, “By The Way” captures many of the themes present on the rest of the album, classic RHCP themes such as relationships, drug addiction, music, and how it all ties together.

What makes “By The Way” such a hit, aside from the impeccable shredding and melody-building by guitarist John Frusciante, is the way that Kiedis delivers autobiographical lyrics in a way that feels universal and relatable.

Let’s highlight some of the lyrics to “By The Way” and see the picture that Kiedis painted.


“Standing in line to see the show tonight / And there’s a light on, heavy glow”

We picture a crowd of people waiting to get into a concert venue. The heavy glow of the marquee on the theater is above the crowd, emanating into the night sky.

“By the way, I tried to say / I’d be there waiting for”

Reminding someone, a past lover, that you said you would still be there for them.

“Dani, the girl, is singing songs to me / Beneath the marquee, overload”

This is the first appearance of the name “Dani” in the Red Hot Chili Peppers discography. She would appear again as the subject of the song “Dani California” on the following album, Stadium Arcadium (2006).

In a video uploaded to YouTube in 2021, Kiedis mentions how “Dani California” is also the same girl from the song “Californication,” but he didn’t realize it until much later.

Anthony Kiedis Discusses “Dani the girl”

Verse One

Kiedis uses some abstract and somewhat jarring imagery in the verses, which serve to depict the narrator’s disjointed mental state, but don’t have too much concrete meaning.

“Steak knife, card shark”

This is an oddly threatening image. We picture a master poker player holding a steak knife. Perhaps with a maniacal grin.

“Con job, boot cut”

Another nonsensical image, this time combining the act of conning someone, or fooling them out of their money, with boot cut jeans.

“Skin that flick, she’s such a little DJ”

This image is either highly sexual, referring to a “skin flick,” or a pornographic film, with a woman who spins like a DJ. Or, it refers to literally skinning her, and she’s a fan of music who likes to share her tastes with people.

“Get there quick by street but not the freeway”

A play on words, meaning the only way to achieve something quickly is to do it the “street way.” And it certainly won’t be free. Whether this cost is monetary or something more existential, like the soul, is up to interpretation.

“Turn that trick to make a little leeway”

This is a direct reference to prostitution, as “turning a trick” is slang for exchanging sex for drugs or money.

“Beat that nic, but not the way that we play”

A reference to the Beatnik generation. Kiedis says while he may not explicitly be a beatnik, he’s certainly against the establishment in his own way, which is in line with their philosophies.

“Dogtown, blood bath”

Dogtown is a nickname for the Ocean Park neighborhood of Santa Monica, California. Famous for being one of the birthplaces of modern skateboarding, as documented in the films Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001) and Lords of Dogtown (2005).

Blood bath refers to death and destruction. So, essentially, Kiedis juxtaposes the freedom of skateboarding with an image of massacre, suggesting trouble in paradise.

“Rib cage, soft tail”

A soft tail is a type of motorcycle that has a triangular swing arm that hides the exhaust tubes. With the going themes on the song, he could be referencing a fictional motorcycle accident that led to a broken rib cage.

Verse Two

The second verse features just as much abstract imagery as the first, and we are further shown the underground lifestyle of the narrator and his current or ex-lover Dani California.

“Black jack, dope dick”

Another gambling reference to start the second verse. This time paired with the sensation of “dope dick,” which is not being able to perform sexually due to opioid abuse.

“Pawn shop, quick pick”

He’s at a pawn shop, and then he’s playing the lotto.

“Kiss that dyke, I know you want to hold one”

Kiedis may be referring to Dani again here, perhaps calling her a lesbian. He encourages her to kiss the “dyke”, which is sometimes seen as derogatory term for a masculine lesbian.

As we know, 2002 was a much different time, and it’s likely that if the song were written today, Kiedis would have found a way to use something other than “dyke.”

“Not on strike but I’m about to bowl one”

A double meaning reference to both bowling and of being on strike at work. Followed by a reference to smoking a bowl. Probably a bowl of cannabis, but it could be a reference to anything that gets smoked out of a pipe.

“Bite that mic, I know you never stole one”

This person never stole a microphone.

“Girls that like a story, so I told one”

He’s trying to attract women, so he’s making up stories.

“Song bird, main line”

This is a possible direct reference to “Scar Tissue,” with it’s lyrics about sharing a lonely view with the birds while high on heroin. Or, he could just be referring to himself, the singer of the band, as a songbird who also injects drugs into the “main line.”

“Cash back, hard top”

Getting cash back, driving away in a car with a hard top.

“By The Way” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers is a fun song that also touches upon some dark themes. That description boils down to the essence of what this band seeks to do with their music, making “By The Way” one of their signature songs, encompassing the whole of their style into one banging song.

Watch the video for “By The Way” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers below.

Red Hot Chili Peppers – “By The Way” (Music Video)