River’s last night alive reads like a Scooby-Doo ending – depending on the narrator, each version is different. How is it that River could be surrounded by friends and loved ones in a room packed with people, yet no one has an exact account of what when down? I imagine most everyone at The Viper Room that night was too drunk or high to remember what really happened, but before getting in to my working theory, let’s cut through the lies and wade through the bull.
“I’m gonna die dude!”
The version of River shouting, “I’m gonna die dude!” while being carried past the Viper Room stage is nonsense. By that point, I suspect he was too sick to say (let alone shout) much of anything.
“No paparazzi, I want anonymity!”
This also rules out the, “No paparazzi, I want anonymity,” quote he allegedly said on the sidewalk. Once outside, he immediately collapsed into violent convulsions for nearly ten minutes. I doubt he was able to make such a profound last statement in between one of his many fits. These might be insignificant details, but it just goes to show how the media manipulated the story into a ridiculous urban legend.
And then we have accounts of River stumbling around drunk and acting ‘strangely’. Some versions have him partying in the hotel room snorting cocaine, smoking weed, drinking champagne and dancing by himself in the middle of the room. This seems unlikely given that no alcohol was found in his system according to the toxicology report. Here’s what Joaquin Phoenix had to say about that night in Movieline magazine:
“I’ve heard stuff about how the night River died he was partying and all that, it’s so untrue. That night we were together. He was just playing guitar. He wanted to show me a new song, and… I wanted to go out to see Flea play, because I’d never seen him play before. River wanted to go home, just hang out, play guitar. I was the one who wanted to go out, and he was just making sure to take care of me, but some guy who claims he was best friends with River comes out, I don’t know who the fuck he is, neither does anyone else, claiming all this bullshit. That is why I’ve been reluctant to share anything.”
And then there’s this guy: Bob Forrest
(Singer for Thelonious Monster and star of Celebrity Rehab)
Forrest released his new memoir, Running With Monsters, in October of 2013, the month marking the 20th anniversary of River’s death. He promoted the book by claiming he was at the Viper Room the night River died and had new insight into what happened. Forrest claims he saw River and John Frusciante arrive together at the Viper Room, alleging they stumbled in and began passing around cocaine.
“River was obviously wasted…” he states.
He also claims that River later tapped him on the shoulder and said,
“Bob, I don’t feel so good, I think I’m OD’ing.”
I buy that as much as I buy the anonymity quote. It appears that Forrest is just another vulture attempting to sell a book and cash in on River’s death. From what I’ve heard, River liked to drink. If he intended on letting loose that night and getting wasted, as Forrest claims, you’d think he would have started with the champagne that was delivered to his room earlier.
In a 1993 article by The Independent, a young woman named, Heather McDougal, claimed to have been a regular at the Viper Room. Here’s how she described that night:
“I got here about 11:45 and it was a completely different crowd from usual. A lot of heavy-core rock types. It was a very weird feeling. I saw River Phoenix standing over there, by the mirror, with some people. Hanging out, having a good time. At that point, at least, he didn’t look abnormal. People say, ‘Oh, he was acting weird,’ because they want it to be that way.”
The Disgruntled Musician Theory
River showed up with his guitar that night but was told by Flea that he wouldn’t be able to join them on stage. Upset, River went to the bathroom with either John Frusciante, or one of his drug friends, and snorted some high-grade Persian Brown heroin. He immediately suffered a reaction and shouted something like, “What the fuck is this?” Someone gave him a Valium to calm him down and then River stumbled around for a little while longer, threw up on himself at the table, and was finally taken outside where he collapsed. Although I have yet to read it, and probably never will, this is apparently the angle that Gavin Edwards pushed in his book, Last Night at the Viper Room, also released in October of 2013. It’s interesting to note that Edwards is a contributing writer for Rolling Throne magazine.
River didn’t need the Viper Room to play his guitar, but it’s a good way to end a book, an easy way out, another way to slander his name and forfeit the truth for mass consumption. After all, no one wants to be labeled a kooky conspiracy theorist.
During an interview with Gavin Edwards, director William Richert (who played Bob in My Own Private Idaho) gave his account of what Samantha Mathis told him back in 1993. Mathis, like Joaquin, said that River didn’t want to go that night. She offered to take Joaquin and Rain for him since Joaquin was still underage. River changed his mind at the last minute and ran to meet them at the elevator. According to Richert, after reaching the club, Mathis said John Frusciante approached their table, offered River a plastic blue cup and said, “drink this, it’ll make you feel fabulous.” River drank it down and suffered an immediate reaction. His neck bulged, his back twitched, and he complained, “something’s wrong.” He then vomited at the table and asked to be taken outside. Richert goes on to say that Mathis later changed her story. (http://www.williamrichert.com/jimmy-reardon.html)
In 1994, Peter Bogdanovich gave an interview stating that Mathis had told him that after they arrived, River went outside with John Frusciante. Mathis later went outside to check on him, saw they were having a heated discussion, and went back inside. When she saw him again he had a drink in his hand and fell sick shortly after.
Both accounts are given through the grapevine and seem to contradict each other, but Mathis, like most everyone else, refuses to talk to the press about that fateful night. I suspect the truth lies somewhere in the middle, but I think it’s safe to assume that somebody slipped something in his drink.
River hadn’t planned on going to the Viper Room that night, but felt pressured by his younger brother and sister who had just arrived from Florida to audition for John Boorman’s film, Safe Passage. Fully aware of how things might play out, he refrained from drinking and planned on staying sober. His personal assistant Abby Rude remembers that, before leaving the hotel room, River turned around and asked him a question (though John Glatt’s book, Lost in Hollywood, fails to provide what that question was.)
“I saw something in his eyes that I’d never seen before,” Rude remembered. “He had this intense look in his eyes…it was the last time I ever saw him alive.”
River and his entourage arrived at Jason London’s house in the Hollywood Hills for a Halloween party where Leonardo DiCaprio is said to have seen him. DiCaprio, in separate interviews, described River as looking really pale, and also, to have been wearing a mask, though the type of mask was unspecified. Which is it? Was he pale or was he wearing a mask? They left the party shortly after and arrived at the Viper Room at around 12:20am. River met up with John Frusciante who was, most likely, shocked to see him there. The two friends went outside to talk. Forrest claims they arrived together, which is probably when they went back inside.
In the interview with Gavin Edwards, Richert claims that Mathis said after River was told he wouldn’t be able to join them on stage, he resigned to singing and playing his guitar at the table. I wonder what song he planned on singing that night. What new song had he wanted to show his brother? My gut tells me it was Soul Removal. Picture it. River shows up at his own death party, he knows about the plan, is wise to the plot, and intends on calling them all out as he belts out his new song. He drinks some water to clear his voice of his recent cold. Something’s wrong. Meanwhile, Johnny Depp’s band “P” takes the stage and begins their set with the song, “Michael Stipe,” an eerie tune with uncanny lyrics:
The murderless helping hands are all on stage–Depp, Flea, Gibby Haynes, Frusciante—while River convulses outside in a ritualistic soul removal. His safe passage complete. His brother and sister scarred for life. His mother looking on from the other side of the two-way mirror.