River Phoenix was remembered best for his movies, particularly his incandescent work in “Stand by Me” and “My Own Private Idaho.” But what he really wanted was to be a musician. He poured his free time and money into his rock band, Aleka’s Attic, and his favorite times were with other musicians: playing with them, or just being with them. “River loved nothing better than hanging around the Chili Peppers,” said one friend of his. “I remember how happy he was when he was with the Peppers. His beaming face said to me, ’This is where I want to be.'”
After he died — twenty years ago this month — the musical world was full of tributes to him, both by friends grappling with their loss and by people who didn’t know him but mourned his absence anyway. Here are 10 of the best ’90s songs that name-check River or otherwise evoke him:
1. Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Transcending”
Flea and River were both in the cast of “My Own Private Idaho” and bonded during the shoot with long after-hours jam sessions. The night of River’s fatal overdose at the Viper Room nightclub in Hollywood, Flea rode in the ambulance to the hospital with him. This song, found on the One Hot Minute album (1995), is the bassist’s tribute to his friend, with lyrics that include “Smartest fucker I ever met” and “I called you hippie, you said fuck off.”
2. R.E.M., “Bang and Blame”
Michael Stipe was so shattered by the death of his close friend River, he found himself unable to write songs for five months. When he recovered, R.E.M. made the classic Monster (1994), which they dedicated to River; the single “Bang and Blame” had backing vocals by his sister, Rain Phoenix. (Behind the scenes, Stipe bought the rights to the Aleka’s Attic recordings from Island Records, which had River under contract but had never released an album.)
3. P, “Michael Stipe”
This band was a sloppy collaboration between Johnny Depp (the actor and majority owner of the Viper Room), Gibby Haynes (the lead singer of the Butthole Surfers), and whoever else they could get to sit in with them. This song, about celebrity and feeling out of place at glitzy parties in Hollywood, mentioned River by name: “I finally talked to Michael Stipe/ But I didn’t get to see his car/ Him and River Phoenix/ Were leaving on the road tomorrow.” Spookily, P was playing a set that included this song while River Phoenix was thrashing on the sidewalk outside the Viper Room, unsuccessfully fighting for his life.
4. Butthole Surfers, “Pepper”
This slurry, hypnotic song, the Surfers’ one bona fide hit (it hit #1 on Billboard’s Hot Modern Rock Tracks chart in 1996) doesn’t mention River by name, but with its morbid lyrics — “They were all in love with dyin’, they were drinkin’ from a fountain/ That was pouring like an avalanche, coming down the mountain” — it evoked the sense of River’s death being preordained, as if he were the central character of an American tragedy.
5. The Wallflowers, “One Headlight”
River’s death came when the Viper Room had been open just two and a half months. The club shut down for more than a week; when it reopened, the Wallflowers, Jakob Dylan’s band, ended up playing the club regularly. In 1997, three years after River’s death, the Wallflowers had this monster hit, with elliptical lyrics about trying to find a way to escape from grief and an inevitable death.
6. Belinda Carlisle, “California”
Not released as a single in the United States, but a 1997 hit in England, this song evokes the superficial nature of celebrity and the imaginary connections fans can make for themselves with famous people, and then cuts through any abstraction with genuine grief: “I remember I was in the tanning salon/ When I heard that River Phoenix was gone.”
7. Counting Crows, “A Long December”
A song about being sad and lonely in Hollywood. After Counting Crows’ blockbuster first album, lead singer Adam Duritz relocated from Berkeley to Hollywood (with some encouragement from Johnny Depp) and hung out at the Viper Room a lot, sometimes even tending bar. This song of L.A. disconnection (on their less successful second album, 1996’s Recovering the Satellites) captures the mood of many of River’s mourning friends.
8. Rufus Wainwright, “Matinee Idol”
For his 1998 debut album, singer-songwriter Wainwright and producer Jon Brion recorded 56 songs over a period of two years and then chose the best 12. (A fine example of old-school record-company excess.) “Matinee Idol,” inspired by River’s death, made the cut: a music-hall ballad in the style of Kurt Weill, featuring wisdom such as, “Whomever has looked at beauty is marked out already by death.” One late night, when Wainwright and Joaquin Phoenix were taking turns playing songs for each other, Wainwright says the actor offered to sing it — the offer, probably wisely, was declined.
9. Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Give It Away”
This hit funk jam, written and released in 1991 while River was alive, has a whole verse of tribute to the band’s friend, rapped by Anthony Kiedis: “There’s a River, born to be a giver/ Keep you warm, won’t let you shiver/ His heart is never gonna wither.”
10. R.E.M., “Electrolite”
A lullaby for the twentieth century, Michael Stipe stands perched in the Hollywood Hills at night, watching the lights of Los Angeles covering the land beneath him like a blanket of stars, singing an elegy for everything that has befallen famous people he never knew, famous people he befriended, and the entire world.
Gavin Edwards is the author of the new book Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind (It/HarperCollins).