River Phoenix: Young Man River
River Phoenix died of a drug-induced heart failure of the age of 23 leaving so much potential unrealized. Two years prior to his death, Phoenix seemed to have a long career ahead of him. Movieline contributor Michael Angeli met the young actor in the swamps of Florida to discuss his unusual upbringing and life as a Hollywood hippie. The interview made for a trippy cover story in the magazine’s September 1991 issue.
Charlotte. Shit. I’m still in Charlotte, a connection city in a ganglia of connection cities that form the gray matter of the South. Two airline attendants are standing over me, trying to get me to respond to the last boarding call for the flight to Shreveport. When I wave them off, they apologize and order me back to sleep with honeydew drawls. Los Angeles has made me soft; I needed a mission. And now I know where I’m going, alright, and it isn’t to Shreveport. And it isn’t up the river to the red-filtered, tribal horror of Colonel Kurtz. Down–I’m going down to Florida, a jungle of commerce, retirees, mockingbirds, Cubans, Baptists, elusive Kennedys, hurricanes and gentrified Disney characters. I’m going to Gainesville to have a picnic with River Phoenix–nature boy, teen idol, renegade.
Sauntering, wild-in-the-streets River, the child Joni Mitchell never had, the son Norman Schwarzkopf hoped he never would. An outing with River in his adoptive hometown of Gainesville, where the picnic ants might be crocodiles, and where there’s a better than even chance we won’t be feasting on swordfish tacos.
“When River was nine years old,” his publicist has explained to me, “he caught his first fish. It flopped about a on a rock for a while, then died. Right then and there, River had this vision that he had killed a fellow living thing. He cried for three days straight and vowed never to eat meat or fish again.” Boarding the flight to Gainesville, I’m wondering what it must’ve been like for River the first time he ever mowed the lawn.
Gainesville is your basic college town. Some disenchanted conquistador tossed his copy of Summa theologica into a swamp and the University of Florida bubbled up from the cattails, Burt Reynolds and all. They keep the heads on their shrimp at Gainesville’s most popular sushi bar, where I’ve gone to escape the Florida humidity that envelops you like a sleeping bag. I’m doing my best to avoid eye contact while I go through the background material I have on River: Strong performances in four films–Stand by Me, Running on Empty, The Mosquito Coast, and the last of the Indiana Jones trilogy. One stinker as a headliner–A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon. One walk-through in a supporting role–I Love You to Death. Plays a Vietnam-era marine in the fall release of Dogfight. Latest effort sounds most intriguing–the role of a male hustler in Gus Van Sant Jr.’s My Own Private Idaho.
Parents were ’60s flower children who dropped out to become missionaries for The Children of God in Venezuela and the Caribbean Islands. The father, John, and his wife, Arlyn, christened their five children after generic items you’d find on the “Family Feud” tote board if the subject were Emerson: River, Liberty, Rainbow, Leaf, and Summer. Strict Vegetarians. Family became disillusioned with secular transgressions of David Berg, the C of G’s spiritual leader, and left the church, which in turn left them destitute, high and dry in South America. Family changed surname to Phoenix, embarked on new life that centered around getting back stateside where the children would become movie stars.
At this point, I’m jolted out of the skimming mode by a passage detailing the Phoenix children’s education: “None of them has even been allowed to attend school–they’ve been tutored at home to keep them away from the negative influences of peer pressure.” Was the poor kid raised by the Keebler elves or just domineering parents masquerading as flower children? Jimmy Connors, Brooke Shields, and Patti Davis survived domineering parents. Jesus, Hamlet, and Hitler didn’t fare as well. Which way did River fall?
“Once you get to meet him, it’ll probably be alright,” one of his people has told me, in the unconvincing voice of someone thinking out loud. But I’m reading too many paragraphs about River’s individuality, paragraphs in which the writer, perhaps under River’s spell, spouts the kind of philosophy you’d expect from Nietzsche looped on Ecstasy. Wrote one beguiled journalist: “His determined awareness makes him the intelligent woman’s hope of what the new generation of men will be like in the 21st century–a combination of strength and sensitivity.” Whew. At least I have the rest of the day to determine who I’ll be sharing a picnic basket with–Bambi or one of the Boys From Brazil.
At 12:45 a.m., back at my Holiday Inn, I finally get a call. The guy on the other end identifies himself as Sky, River’s brother, which immediately throws me, since I was under the impression that River’s parents hadn’t covered that realm yet. Sky wants to know if I’m crashed out for the night; if I’m not, I could meet him, and possibly River, at the place called the Club Demolition.
“I’ll be wearing a T-shirt. And I have a beard,” Sky offers. Fine. While I’m trolling for clothes, something I read at the sushi bar resurfaces: “One of my beliefs is about harmlessness to animals. I don’t believe in eating meat or using any animal by-products or contributing to suppressing animals,” said River. Not wanting to get off on the wrong foot, I lace up my cloth Jack Purcells, knock down a can of Cuban iced coffee, and climb into my rented Plymouth.
The business district of Gainesville resembles something like an Indian bead belt. One long stretch of boulevard, diminishing in density at either end, the center colored by student chow houses. Club Demolition lies on the northern end. At the door, the cover is four bucks or whatever you can give, all proceeds going to the feminist women’s health center.
The inside of Club Demolition embraces the ’60s milieu. Basement club house decor–a beat-up, oval shaped bar, behind which an unfed-looking man wearing a chocolate leather beret serves fruit juices and sparkling soda. No liquor license yet, but the absence of spirits is hardly missed. The musty, redolent aroma of pot, rotted jeans and body sweat kicks my ass back 20 years. I immediately give up on locating Sky (if, indeed, there is a Sky), because the place is packed, and beards and T-shirts are everywhere.
I sidle up to the bar and plunk down a dollar fifty for the last cranberry sparkler, figuring this Sky guy will make himself known to me while I listen to the jazz band. They’re called Fromage and they’re about as tight as a limbo contest. A tall young man with an anxious smile skips through the loitering crowd at the front door and slides into the spot next to me, immediately striking up a passionate exchange with the leather-headed barkeep.
“Hey, man, sorry about last night. I’m totally tapped out, yeah?” The bartender commiserates with a sentimental nod. There’s a perishable quality rimming the Asiatic shape of the young man’s eyes. A small crop of pimples invades the feathery growth of facial hair around the jaws, not yet coarsened by shaving. For the life of me, I can’t decide if it’s River. All I’ve seen of him was in dated films or teen magazine spreads where his appearance was burnished into an idyllic conception of youth, and this man has burst from his adolescence, like Li’l Abner popping buttons on a shirt borrowed from the Beaver. He might be just a celebrity look-alike who parties at night and pounds together crates for air conditioning parts by day. His tank top is right from the bottom of the hamper; his attitude is innocent hophead in a police lineup. If this is River, the image of Bambi on weak knees surrounded by forest creatures in cloth shoes is going fast.
The boy-man asks for a cranberry sparkler. The bartender motions at my bottle with a reproachful wrinkle of his eyebrows. “Last one.”
“It’s cool. Listen, I’m supposed to meet this guy here, if anybody asks for me.”
“Yeah. And who the hell are you?” the bartender rags him. When I finally identify myself, the corners of River’s mouth jump for a millisecond, as he points to my wrist.
“I was looking at that thing and thinking, huh, that’s no Gainesville watch. Glad you could make it.”
River and I chat for a while about how much the club reminds me of the places I used to hang out in a long time ago.
“Yeah, weird, isn’t it? A lot of miniature yous walking around.” Then, inexplicably, River asks me what I do in Los Angeles. “You don’t act, do you? Don’t you just hate acting?”
Before I can plumb the meaning of this observation, River is pushing me towards the band area. His presence here in Club Demolition seems about as significant as a Wednesday in May. No pointing or whispering, and none of the emphatic denial-syndrome of Movietown, either.
“Sometimes I’ll hear stuff like, ‘Hey, man, where’s your skateboard, dude,’ from people who think I’m Christian Slater. Shit like that. But this place is generally very cool. We played here.” River is referring to his band, Aleka’s Attic, in which he’s a lead singer. I’ve dutifully listened to the one cut they have on a benefit album, “Tame Yourself,” (the monies going to People For The Ethical Treatment of Animals), and while they’ll never be described as “the seminal band from the Sun Belt,” the approach is serious enough. River passes around photos of Aleka’s Attic’s latest stint, a three-month tour of clubs and colleges on the East Coast.
“Listen, man, I feel really awful about you having to come down here on an airplane to risk your life to talk to me. I wouldn’t do it,” River confesses. When I report that my wife is happy, since at her urging I’ve mailed in for the American Express automatic flight insurance, a sudden wave of gloom all but topples him. He touches my shoulder. “Wow, that’s a drag.”
I point to one of the photos that depicts River covering his face as a man wraps his arm around River’s shoulder, buddy to buddy.
“I think he was a drug dealer. Brutal tour. Brutal tour.”
“I was supposed to meet your brother here–”
“Oh, Sky. Yeah, he’s not really my brother. I mean, he wants to be and I’ve known him since I was three, so I guess he is my brother, really. Anyway, it works out well with him posing as my brother. He sort of runs interference, like the whole picnic thing. Look, I’m sorry about the five-hour limit and all, but I need an out for jerks. But I can see by the way things are going that this is probably gonna be alright. You want another glass of juice?”
Later, walking back to the deadbeat Plymouth in the dark, I’m trying to sort out the proposed agenda, which appears fraught with small print and subtext. I’m invited to River’s house in the city tomorrow, where we might have the picnic. Or, I might possibly sit in on an Aleka’s Attic recording session if I make it out to River’s farm. The whole process has a scratch-off game quality to it: if the word “jerk” appears under the silver wax before the happy face does, then I jump on the next flight to Charlotte for a connection back to L.A.
The following morning, River wants to sleep in–as in “don’t call me until 11:30.” I give him until 11:45, figuring that after last night’s funkathon at Demolition, he might be inclined to loiter in the shower. When he answers, he is guarded, and there is an accusatory hollowness rumbling on the line.
“Michael,” River nearly hisses.
“Yeah, River. So, are we a couple of picnicking fools?”
“I thought you were supposed to call at 11:30.” This does not bode well. A punctual River.
“Yeah, well, I thought you could use the extra 15 minutes. Sorry.” But he wants to know why I called him at 9:30. I specifically didn’t call him at 9:30. After some figuring we have the whole mess debugged. No, I didn’t call him at 9:30, but the other Michael, the photographer, who finally hit town in the middle of the night, did.
“Wow,” says River. “When you called that early and told me you just got in a few hours ago, I was sure you were fucking with my head or something. Anyway, your friend probably thinks I’m a snarling bulldog.”
We’re sitting in an enclosed porch that runs the length of the two-story, Reconstruction era house River rents. Two canaries use the tops of our heads as temporal vistas in their revolving bird world, which, by the design of River and his live-in companion, Suzanne Solgot, includes the entire porch. This is the first chance I’ve had to actually talk to River, and I want to know, for starters, what the hell all this hornbook ‘n’ hearth education and lapsed Children of Godders business is about. But it’s hard to get serious with the tickling claws of a canary running over the bridge of my nose.
“So, were you guys Banana Republic moonies, or what?”
“Oh, my God, no,” River stretches out his legs and chuckles at them. “It was honest to goodness missionary work my parents were doing. They were archbishops of South America, just before we broke from the church. What happened was, my dad started finding out stuff, getting into top secret categories, like that the leader was involved in fraud, a big hypocrite, and this group wasn’t as wholesome as they led people to believe. I’d rather not even mention the name of the group, simply because I’d rather not lend credence to them by doing so. One day my parents just said, ‘We’re outta here.’
“But it was a great stepping stone. I learned to play guitar there–my sister Rain [short for Rainbow] and I got interested in entertaining, performing. It was a neat time growing up in Venezuela in the late ’70s–Carter. I remember hearing news about hostages. Where was that?”
“You’re kidding. The Olympics were held in Iran?”
“Oh, no, no, you must be thinking of the 1972 Olympics, and Munich,” I correct him, referring to the attack on the Olympic Village in which members of the Israeli wrestling team were murdered by Palestinian terrorists. River would’ve been two years old at the time. Living not in a hut on a South American beach but in Madras, Oregon, his birthplace. The words to James Brown’s “Don’t Be a Dropout” make a wicked loop through my brain.
“So somehow your family managed to leave South America.”
“Well, first my sister Rain and I did a lot of singing in the streets,” River explains. “Then we met this doctor who used to be a pop star in Spain. He had a recording studio in Orlando, Florida, and he told us we could come out whenever we wanted to. We got his number, showed it to my dad. We had no money. So a priest got us on this old Tonka freighter that carried Tonka toys. We were stowaways. The crew discovered us halfway home– my mom was pregnant, all of us running around, four kids. They threw a big birthday party for my brother, gave us all these damaged Tonka toys–it was a blast.”
Through the screen door, I can see Suzanne approaching. When she reaches the screen, she presses her T-shirt up against it.
“Can you read what it says on my shirt, Riv?” she asks, in no particular hurry to come in. “Hi, baby. What’s it say?”
“It says,” she reads, straightening the shirt over her chest, ” ‘Damn the rules. It’s the feeling that counts. You play all twelve notes in your solo anyway’–John Coltrane.” She says “hi” to the photographer and me, and then says to River, “Don’t let them sit on the bird shit.”
Suzanne steps in, an attractive 26-year-old whose non-aligned good cheer could crumble a hardened bunker. River’s slouch disappears and he brightens. Honeypie Ice Cream, the male canary, lands on my knee. When he takes off, he leaves a small, army-green legacy on my pants.
“It’s best if you let it dry and then just flick it off,” Suzanne suggests.
River excuses himself for a moment, and when he comes back, his face is covered with a dry, face-tightening application of white cream– Marcel Marceau at a Grateful Dead Concert. Wearing his skin mask, he elaborates further on the family’s exodus from South America.
“When we finally made it to Florida, we stayed with my grandparents for a while, then moved to central Florida. My sister and I pursued our interest in music, playing in talent shows and fairs. My dad was doing carpentry work, my mom was working for some community service agency.”
“And what about school?”
“We went to school,” he insists. When I recount the articles claiming that his parents kept the children out of school, River’s mouth goes Macaulay-Culkin-via-Edward-Munch incredulous.
“Bullshit. Besides, any good family would teach their children at home, above and beyond school. And as far as ‘having our careers thrust upon us,’ that’s bullshit, too. We wanted to make it, we all wanted to be entertainers and our parents did whatever they could do to help us.”
What evidently helped the most was mother Arlyn’s schoolgirl friendship with Penny Marshall back in the Bronx. After recognizing Marshall on an episode of “Laverne & Shirley,” Arlyn wrote to Paramount studios about her kids.
“They answered, yeah, we’d be happy to see your children. If you’re ever out in California, by all means, look us up, but don’t make a special trip. And so, of course, we just threw everything into the old station wagon and drove out to Burbank. We had a shitty little apartment in North Hollywood. No kids were allowed so we had to hide in the closet when the landlady came around to inspect the place.”
The female canary, which unaccountably has no name, is using the screen door as an obstacle course, clanging her way up the mesh, but getting hung up in the protective grate.
“No! Don’t do that!” River scolds her, and damned if she doesn’t listen.
“So you did the TV commercial schlepp, I bet.”
“We schlepped forever in LA.,” River nods, with a vigilant eye on the canary. “Moved every three months, being evicted regularly for late rent, for kids, for whatever. We just kept it so we’d rather be poor than owe anybody money. So we didn’t have any debts, but we had no money whatsoever–it was just day to day. Biggest problem was, I was terrible for commercials–I couldn’t smile on cue. And I’m terrible with pictures, too.” This last remark is loudly directed at Michael the photographer, who’s busy setting up lights. “I hate it. Bank right,” River leans slyly into the imaginary camera. “Bank left. I don’t want a bunch of makeup artists pimping me.”
“Hey, River,” Michael dishes it back, “I told Warren Beatty I was coming to see you.”
“What’d he say?”
“He said, ‘Yeah, River Phoenix. I like the guy. What is he, 40 now?'”
“I’m very glamorous, aren’t I?” says River. Actually, his shirttails look like used hankies. And the hair, over which the birds are jousting for airspace, is in need of a comb.
Sensing that having his picture taken carries with it the agony of the sinner before his confessor, I ask permission to browse, which River appreciatively grants. The house has a wonderfully nostalgic flophouse quality, with furniture moved to accommodate temporary sleeping arrangements. A sheeted mattress is surrounded by the clutter of books and empty plates. The staircase, finished with an early-American bannister, leads to nowhere. Positioned in the middle of the dining room is a leather examination table with a toilet seat-shaped collar fixed to one end. In the midst of wall tapestries and house plants, it cuts a queer apparition. It seems Suzanne is studying to become a massage therapist.
“I use it to perform on friends,” says Suzanne, who met River three years ago at a party. “But until I get my license, I can’t really charge anyone.”
“When we first met,” she continues, now talking about River, “he seemed really sweet and gentle. At least he’s getting some hair now. When I met him he didn’t have any hair.” Suzanne is a self-possessed, independent sort. In fact, she points to a virtual emblem of her independence–an empty suitcase propped in the comer of the room. “I got it as a present for my 18th birthday.”
Suzanne tells me she left her adoptive parents in Michigan and came south for school. Since she’s so independent of her family, I ask her about the symbiotic relationship River’s supposed to have with his.
“The family’s really close-knit–but he’s used to spending a lot of time away from them, and me as well. Because I’m in school, I can’t really travel that much with him. It sucks and it kinda doesn’t suck. Because it gives us space.” When the issue of Little Rivers comes up, a private grin is aimed at the guitar music in the other room.
“It’s funny you should ask–because I’m ovulating right this minute.”
Out on the bird-porch, River is plucking an immaculate Ovation guitar, the rich man’s acoustic, doing a yeoman’s job on The Beatles’ “Blackbird.” I bring up the family discussion with him.
“It’s all fabric for the imagination of the press–and if it sells, then that’s the slop they pick. Sure, my family’s close and when I was growing up we were all we had. [But] I haven’t talked to my dad in a couple of months–he’s out of the country. My parents are on vacation, I drove them away. They took the hint and bought the tickets. They were heading in the Central America direction.”
By mid-afternoon, the phantom Sky finally shows. With a maturated Brooklyn accent and a Smith Brothers black beard, he proffers a cooler filled with vegetarian sandwiches and mineral water. River unwraps a plastic pouch and sprinkles what looks like grass onto rolling paper.
“Smoking herbs. I’m trying to quit cigarettes. Don’t ask me if this is helping. Anyway, so, yeah, my family’s important to me. I think what’s happened is that I’ve grown up enough so that my anxiety attacks have matured beyond the meaning of life’ teenage trauma stuff. One day you just wake up and you feel your age. After the last tour, I woke up and it was like, ‘Wow, I feel 20.’ What a fucking relief.”