River Phoenix: Young Man River
Far from Hollywood, amid frogs, snakes, canaries, and potheads, our intrepid reporter encounters the elusive irreducible River Phoenix.
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 pet 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, Cuhans, 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, Rain-bow, 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, hut 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), be-cause 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 hare 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."