Last night at the Viper Room




River Phoenix was just 23 years old when he died following an overdose of heroin and cocaine. He died on the pavement outside Johnny Depp’s Viper Room club on Halloween 1993. I was only 13 at the time and along with several of my classmates, did not take news of his death well. Being so young we hadn’t even seen his films but he was our misunderstood pretty-boy pin up who loved animals and wanted to save the rainforests. “R.I.P RIVER” we tippex-ed on our pencil cases.

Over 20 years on, his memory has faded though his devastatingly short life still holds intrigue for many of us. In his book, Gavin Edwards has brilliantly documented the troubled young actor’s life. We follow him from an unconventional childhood brought up by his hippy parents in a religious cult. He never went to school and the family moved around a lot throughout the U.S and Latin America. Later on during interviews, River would tell many different versions of his early years but it was largely understood that he was sexually active/abused in the cult and carried the burden of family breadwinner from an impossibly young age – encouraged to busk, beg and even scavenge to feed his parents and siblings.


This beautiful, blonde boy sang and played guitar on the streets and was soon noticed and began attending Hollywood auditions. This led initially to TV ads and small roles and an upswing in the Phoenix clan’s finances. His first big break came in the film Stand By Me. Although he went on to be Oscar nominated for his part in Running On Empty, Stand By Me is thought to be the jewel in River’s screen legacy.

What I wasn’t aware of before reading this book was that River’s true love was music. He had his own band – Aleka’s Attic and he hung out with the Zappa family, R.E.M’s Michael Stipe and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Some of whom were amongst the bad company he kept that led him to dark places. His drink and drug use escalating around the time he filmed his role as a narcoleptic, street hustler in, perhaps his most popular movie – My Own Private Idaho alongside Keanu Reeves.


It’s interesting to read throughout this book how River’s private substance abuse and alcoholism was in direct contradiction to his teen idol, tree-hugging, do-gooding public persona. Sometimes he was the vegan poster boy for animal rights and environmentalism, sometimes he just liked to get drunk and high. Sadly for all, the latter became his predominant personality and he met an untimely and undignified end outside Depp’s party room for celebrities in West Hollywood.

Edwards writes with just the right tone, respectful, admiring and non-judgemental but fully acknowledging what led to this tragedy. Some of the anecdotes from River’s peers and acquaintances are gushing and often improbable. Many unaware of his destructive private life, many with memories clouded by time, perspective and drugs.

This is a really good book for River and Hollywood fans. It’s full of insights, icons, 1990s cultural history and was a genuinely fascinating read.

FACT: An anagram of River Phoenix is VIPER HEROIN X (spooky!)


Notes on the author – Gavin Edwards:

  • Contributing editor for Rolling Stone magazine
  • Author of eight books
  • Lives in LA with his wife and two sons


One thought on “Last night at the Viper Room

  1. Really nice review of the book! I also read it just recently and I think is very well-written and very informative. I’m happy to have had the opportunity to see River’s life from an objective perspective. I first saw River Phoenix’s name mentioned in an article about Keanu Reeves (my other favourite actor) and took an interest in him. And shortly after that, he became my favourite actor. It’s incredible how, 20 years after his passing, he still affects people in such way. I think Last Night At The Viper Room is an excellent guide for anyone who wants to know more about River’s life and the Hollywood culture back in the 80s/90s.

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