I was sixteen when River collapsed on that sidewalk. Stoned at a Halloween party, vacant-eyed on the couch, the news report brought me back. They said he died mysteriously. They said he’d been acting strangely, my friend said, “homeboy couldn’t handle his shit.” I left soon after. My preteen crush dwindled years before, replaced by sex, drugs and rock-n-roll. His death brought me back. Twenty-plus years later, with the world imploding, the oceans dying and government forces armed to the teeth, River Phoenix’s death still haunts me.
It’s kind of hard to understand. I LOATH HOLLYWOOD. The trendies, the hypocrites, the go-greeners with mile-long mansions, private jets and seven car garages. River was different, more than just some nature boy, some pampered celebrity. He went against the establishment and challenged the status quo. He warned against Hollywood propaganda, and in one of his last interviews, stated that, “the world is ruled by a tri-lateral, massive, multi-national corporate link up which is the true government above us all.” River was one of us. River was awake.
We all know the story. Halloween night in 1993, River Phoenix collapsed outside of the Viper Room in West Hollywood from a massive drug overdose. The autopsy report showed 8x the lethal amount of cocaine in his body and 4x the lethal amount of heroin. He was 23. The media cashed in as the 911 call from Joaquin played on repeat and headlines like, RIVER’S EDGE graced magazine covers. I’ll never forget walking into the grocery store and seeing that picture of him in his coffin. Exposed and exploited, the headline ran, THIS IS WHAT DRUGS WILL DO. It’ll never go away. Anytime I do an image search for River, there it is, that purple coffin with the pink carnation.
But I still can’t put my finger on it, my weird celebrity obsession, my Marilyn Monroe, my James Dean, my silver screen sweetheart. Guess I’ll always be a fan, even when I’m old and gray his beauty will never seize to amaze me, but something else is there, not just his pretty face, something darker. Pain, abuse, anger, resentment—his signature scowl summed up his life story. From his early childhood with The Children of God (a religious sex cult) to supporting his entire family before the age of 16 in an industry he hated, River had every reason to use drugs. Still, something else is there. As with everything these days, I question the official story. I question what actually happened that Halloween night and look to the shadows for answers.
How does someone like River, the clean-living, anti-Hollywood, animal-rights activist end up convulsing for ten minutes on Sunset Strip outside of The Viper Room? All Hallows Eve, a full moon shining overhead, witches and goblins walking passed, stepping over him while his brother argues with the doorman and his sister sits on his stomach…such a strange scene. Eight times the lethal amount of cocaine? Four times the lethal amount of heroin? In the words of Gus Van Sant, “nobody takes that much drugs without expecting to die.” According to one of the many versions of what went down that night, River was handed a plastic blue cup and told to, “drink this, it’ll make you feel fabulous.” Sounds like something straight out of the movies doesn’t it? River’s good friend, actor/director William Richert recently made the comment, “it’s almost as if the devil killed River.” I tend to agree.
More on my obsession with River later, but for now I’ll leave you with an intriguing anagram:
VIPER HEROIN X
“You were like my own James Byron Dean, Private Idaho was my East of Eden, hit me like a stone when I heard you passed on Halloween.” (Grant Lee Buffalo’s song, Halloween)