“I would rather quit while I was ahead. There’s no need in overstaying your welcome”.
– River Phoenix.
It was the night of the 31st October, 1993 on a West Hollywood street outside The Viper Room. Around 1am, the stage door of the club opened. Actor River Phoenix, most famous for roles in films such as Explorers (1985), Stand By Me (1986), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and My Own Private Idaho (1991), was carried out of the club by his film actress girlfriend, Samantha Mathis and Phoenix’s younger brother, Joaquin (aka Leaf) Phoenix. River Phoenix’s younger sister, Rain Phoenix followed.
Many present at The Viper Room that night had thought River Phoenix was drunk, but as the night air hit him, River Phoenix fell to the ground and began to have a violent seizure. Some reports suggest that the seizures started inside the club, where Johnny Depp, co-owner of The Viper Room, was playing guitar on stage with Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers on bass and Gibby Haynes of The Butthole Surfers on vocals, together with other assorted members of Depp’s short-lived band P. River Phoenix, an accomplished guitarist, was due to join them on stage for a jam later that night. The Viper Room’s doorman had previously ordered River Phoenix’s friends to take him outside earlier on during the night. There are many stories surrounding what happened prior to the actor being taken out onto the pavement. Some say he was shouting and vomiting inside the club and in one particular newspaper report, he was said to have screamed “I’m gonna die dude” as his entourage took him outside.
As River Phoenix began to have his first seizure, the doorman shouted, “Do something, call 911!” to which his brother looked back and yelled, “He’s fine, he’s fine, he’s fine”. Following the first seizure, there was a pregnant pause and then a second seizure. By this point, River Phoenix’s eyes were rolling back into his head, he was shaking violently and his arms were shaking around. Leaf Phoenix rang for an ambulance but was already unable to determine whether his brother was breathing.
In total, River Phoenix had five seizures outside the club, arms flailing and head banging on the pavement. Rain Phoenix laid on top of her brother in an attempt to suppress the movements. Following the final seizure, River Phoenix went still. His sister laid next to him on the pavement, lifted up his shirt, rubbed his stomach and said, “Can you hear me, can you hear me …?” She attempted to give him mouth to mouth resuscitation.
By the time the ambulance arrived, River Phoenix had no pulse, was not breathing and up close, his complexion was dark blue. Basic life support was given but it was already too late. River Phoenix was loaded into the ambulance. As it was preparing to pull away, Flea, who had abruptly left the stage after news of the events unfolding outside had filtered through the club, ran outside and tried to climb in the back of the ambulance but was told to sit in the front. River Phoenix was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Further unsuccessful resuscitation attempts were made. River Phoenix was pronounced dead at 1.51am PST on the morning of October 31st, 1993. He was just 23 years old.
The following day, The Viper Room became a makeshift shrine to the actor, with fans and mourners leaving flowers, pictures and candles on the pavement as well as graffiti messages on the walls of the club. A sign was solemnly placed at the club’s window, reading: “With much respect and love to River and his family, The Viper Room is temporarily closed. Our heartfelt condolences to all his family, friends and loved ones. He will be missed”. The club remained closed for a week. Each year on the anniversary of River Phoenix’s death, Johnny Depp would close the club in respect until selling his share in 2004.
River Phoenix’s autopsy, signed November 15th, 1993, reads, under the second ‘Opinion’: “Toxicology studies showed high concentrations of morphine and cocaine in the blood, as well as other substances in smaller concentrations”. The cause of death was stated as “acute multiple drug intoxication”.
During his lifetime, River Phoenix’s image had been squeaky clean, something that he continuously moaned about in interviews. This image of River Phoenix stems from his reputation as firstly a child star and then a ‘teen sensation’ and his public dedication to many social, political, humanitarian and dietary interests that were not always popular during the 1980’s and early 1990’s. His death caused much media interest, with some circles calling him “The James Dean of our time”, making comparisons between the youth and sudden deaths of both actors.
Amongst the many tributes made to River Phoenix, he has inspired a large number of songs, many of which have been written by his musician friends. Despite his reputation as a truly gifted actor, River Phoenix had actually wanted to be a full time musician. He had his own band, Aleka’s Attic, and loved to spend time with bands such as Red Hot Chili Peppers, who all became close personal friends after he and Flea met when they were both cast in My Own Private Idaho.
It is no wonder then, that the Red Hot Chili Peppers have recorded a number of tributes to River Phoenix, notably the song Transcending from 1995’s One Hot Minute album, which includes lyrics such as “Smartest fucker I’ve ever met” and “I called you a hippie, you said ‘Fuck off’”.
Whilst he was still alive, the Red Hot Chili Peppers dedicated a whole verse of one of their biggest hits, Give It Away, from the album Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991), to the actor. The verse reads: “There’s a river, born to be a giver, Keep you warm, won’t let you shiver, His heart is never gonna whither”.
Another artist profoundly affected by the death of his close friend was Michael Stipe of REM, who was so devastated by the loss that he could not write songs for five months afterwards. After his recovery, REM made the album Monster (1994) which the band dedicated to River Phoenix. Monster featured the single Bang and Blame, which had backing vocals performed by Rain Phoenix. Following the death of his friend, Stipe bought the rights to Aleka’s Attic’s recordings from Island Records, which River Phoenix had under contract.
Incidentally, whilst River Phoenix laid dying outside The Viper Room, Johnny Depp, Flea and co were playing a song entitled Michael Stipe.
Rufus Wainwright was another friend of the actor deeply affected by his death. His debut album Rufus Wainwright (1998), written over a period of several years, included the song Matinee Idol. Matinee Idol is about the rise and fall of an entertainment figure and was directly inspired by River Phoenix’s death. Set to a 1920’s cabaret style musical backing, the lyrics of the song tell of River Phoenix laying dead on West Sunset Boulevard as the angels come down for the actor:
“Still so beautiful as the angels
As the angels came down from on high
So sweet and so soft
So charmingly daft
So young was the matinee idol
Lips of crimson slightly open
As the flash and all fame put to rest”.