MOVIELINE SEPTEMBER 1991
Young Man River
by Michael Angeli
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 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 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 Extasy. 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 I 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 make himself known to while I listen to the 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 slides into the spot next 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 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 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 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 then 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-Edvard-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 L.A.," 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 corner 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."
. . .
Don't follow River if you're walking the streets with him. The body is ambulatory while the mind backtracks. He has led us, after a short time that includes a silent interlude of meditation under a "Walk" sign, to a small town square like the one in Back to the Future. When we finally make it into an espresso bar, I'm gently instructed not to mention the name of the place when I write about it and to order low acidic coffee.
We are discussing drugs with the unmistakable nostalgia of deal-a-meal people talking about desserts. River recalls the Children of God sermons from the years in South America.
"We heard Janis shot airplane glue into her veins the night she died, that's the kind of stuff the pastor would tell us. 'Cocaine- the devil's dandruff.' I think I might wait till I'm 70 and then do it all at once. Just stay ultra-healthy till I'm 70 and then just go, 'Waaaaaaa-ooooo!"
Michael the photographer and I share a few somewhat hyperbolic tales involving LSD.
"Yes, the Lord is very prevalent and real, isn't he, boys?" says River, who carries his own psychotropic lore.
"I've copped back some weird earplay about me and acid and I just thought it was a joke - I thought they weren't being serious. I thought it was this reverse psychology thing to get information out of someone-'I heard you took acid.' I would just laugh. It would frighten the hell out of me to be a creature walking around in the '90s taking acid.
"Acid doesn't really supply you with any answers. I grew up talking to people your age. My best friends, since I was 8, were your age. And I've heard every acid trip in the world. And I've been there. I've really been totally, completely able to understand and comprehend the experience-to the point where I've been stimulated vicariously. The thing is, right now, why throw a curve on life?"
River stops dead in his tracks to mull something over, then picks up the trail again. "I tell ya what. That's actually not such a bad rumor to have going around about you..."
By the time my carrot cake arrives, River's assailing his memory banks like a kid trying to kick open his own locker, unable to come up with the name of his favorite television journalist.
"The thing to do," Michael the photographer suggests, "is to go through the alphabet very slowly and you'll come up with the first letter of his last name:' River gives it a whirl, but it's like throwing water on a drowning man. "No," he sighs. "No, I've already passed it:'
"Then put it out of your mind and tell me about this Gus Van Sant film," I suggest.
"Gus Van Sant is a beautiful person. Every day of my life since I've finished My Own Private Idaho, at some point in the day, I find the conversation somehow goes back to that film because it was such a great experience. I just start getting all joyous about it and start blabbing about it, so... but if you can believe it, there's a project out there that I feel just as strongly about, even though there's a good chance I might not be involved."
He's talking about the Robert Redford project A River Runs Through It.
"It's a great script. Just the best script that I've read that's come out of Hollywood in a long time. I auditioned - me and about a thousand other guys. It was a nice audition and I haven't auditioned in a while. I thought I'd be nervous...you guys don't smoke do you?"
The Redford project has River in a lather. His eyes sweep the room for smoke, someone to bum a cigarette from. Eventually, he relents and buys a pack, smoking one with guilty little puffs aimed up at the place where the name of his favorite TV journalist has yet to materialize.
"I had a really good talk, good meeting with Redford but I think he's gonna find the guy. The guy who just is that image-that Montana mountain boy, fly fisherman image. That's what I think he should do. I believe so strongly in it, I just want the best guy for it. If I get it, great. If I don't, I wasn't right for it."
It was the reverse scenario when River was approached for the lead as the smooth killer in A Kiss Before Dying, eventually played by Matt Dillon.
"I just don't have the cool in me to do that role. They came back eight times to try and get me to do it. Too many chances and too much money. They kept coming back, I kept saying no, no, no, and they went up, up, up, with the money. BILL MOYERS!" River shouts, the relief in his exhale almost palpable as he continues. "It was a really good script but I just didn't want to do a remake, unless I knew it was gonna be better - and I just didn't believe in the character:'
An hour later we're at a Thai restaurant on the outskirts of town. River is holding court. "Martin Scorsese would've sicked the goodfellas on Julia Phillips. That's why she spared him. He's well-connected, he has the power, believe me. I bet, if he wanted to, he could hire the National Guard." Our table is loud and full. A trumpet player who will be laying down a horn track on the Aleka's Attic demo tape sits next to Suzanne, who can't stay long - her class on "Nutrition in the '90s" is tonight. The lead singer from Fromage has joined us after having spent an afternoon with another friend of River's who injested magic mushrooms.
"Yeah, and knowing him, you guys had one giant meaning of life seminar," River says, rolling his eyes.
"It got hairy," the singer concedes. "He kept saying, 'Why are there road signs? Why do books have pages? A silk shirt is really shit from a worm.' " We're all cracking up, but River's mood seems to be giving him some trouble; there is an unfocused melancholy in his stare, an indolent resignation in the slouch that even Suzanne can't seem to snap him out of. "When he's mad, he can get pretty crazy," Suzanne remarked back at the house. But he doesn't seem mad, just sad. Then he hears the rumor about a Japanese businessman who wants to take his Van Gogh to the grave with him, and he all but falls out of his chair, in what we have come to regard as the patented River-you-could-drive-a-semi-through-his-mouth look of astonishment.
"Oh, well I think that man should be kissed silly until he gives it up!"
"That's one way to do it."
"No, that's the best way to do it," River admonishes me. "Love conquers all. Even the assholes that don't want it."
Some of us are still hungry; more dishes are ordered.
"Eat slowly-it's better for you," River coaches, then orders another Thai beer in Spanish. Spanish, River tells us, was his first language, growing up in Venezuela.
"It's uncanny how closely your life mirrors the storyline in Mosquito Coast," I point out, "right down to the corrupt clergyman."
"Yeah...ironic, isn't it? Paul Theroux didn't steal my life story. I just misplaced it. Needless to say, I was very comfortable with the material."
After dinner, I'm alone with River for the first time as we make the half-hour ride out to the Phoenix family farm. It's a straight shot and a dogleg out into the uplands, a fertile stretch of swamp ooze and softwood forests separating the eastern and western coastal plains. After the Macbeth-type gloom that lingered over River during dinner, I can't get that scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen's driving through the night with her psychotic brother out of my head. River, however, is a pleasant surprise, rallying into a warm, engaging companion. With a snowstorm of fireflies spiraling into the windshield, he unwinds, leaving the Brando-as-Zapata-as-Hamlet veil back at Bohn Thai. We're bantering over the highs and lows of his short career, starting with Stand by Me.
"It was a great film, but I had nothing to do with it. At that time in my life, I was not responsible enough for my craft to feel as though I could represent it and feel comfortable - and I was very insecure. I mean, at that time I was going through puberty and I was hurting really bad. When I watch it, it's one of the true performances for anyone of that age, or any age, for that matter. Yeah, I liked it. I thought it was very honest."
We move on to A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon, which had River as a teenage Tom Jones in a sputtering comedy whose self-absorption nears black hole status.
"It was confused in itself, but it depends. If it was taken on its own, and you didn't see Stand by Me or Mosquito Coast, I don't know how you would take it. As far as people I've talked to, general America loves the hell out of it."
By the time we reach the ranch, somewhere out in a blue-black residential forest, we're back to talking about the Redford film. If you want the role badly enough, you grab the bull by the horns and pursue it, I maintain. River shakes his head. "No. I won't. I just won't. I just can't. With Bob, you gotta trust the intuition of the director and know that he had the clear picture and if you fit, it's natural. But to force it is egotism to some degree. It's like, sure, you can do a great job, but you're better off trusting the decision to the creator of the film. I'm just happy to see the film being made and I think, in this case, the way it's gone so far, who knows what'll happen - but it'll be a better film because of me not being in it. We are now entering the premises."
After numbers are punched in on a security pad, a gate swings open to a rutted, mud and roots driveway, most of it obscured by swamp fog. Rain is on the way.
"One of the things that was introduced to me," River continues softly as we head inside, "at an early stage in life was to try to make stuff happen. But nothing ever worked that way for me. What I learned on my own was that to try and play God with your life will wrack your brain and your nervous system, and mess up your natural direction in the course that's already there...But look-I just don't want to read about me being made into a basket case because of my work. It's self-pity that I hate. I mean, it comes with the territory. An actor with any conviction goes the extra mile- but of course you're gonna suffer damage to your brain.
"You gotta just be as neutral as possible so that only the work is what you read. Otherwise you can see it in certain grade actors' performances - it might be a great performance, but you can actually see the on-set tension in their work, and that, to me, is like fool's gold. It's a hard lesson to learn, but you have to trust time and space as it is, with or without you. Then you give everything what it deserves, and there's no pressure."
The guest house of the Phoenix family ranch has been converted into an apartment/recording studio. The band is in the middle of putting together a demo tape (River has a recording deal in the works with Island Records), under the stewardship of a temperamental engineer named Blake.
"He's a ballbreaker, but if we did it alone we'd have nine songs done in a year. I've been using you guys as an excuse for some time off," River warns Michael and me, which explains the arctic handshake from Blake as we enter the studio.
River's running up and down the stairs from the engineer's studio to the sound booth, where he's conducting the trumpet player, to ensure the right tempo. The music has an Osterized Police/XTC/Byrds blend, at once nimble and plodding. The vocals, supplied by River and his sister Rain, are ethereal and boneless, and made all the more so by the weak self-affirmation of octave harmonies. By the fifth run-through, the horn player's got his licks down. Outside, an electrical storm fires up the landscape like a crack of light flooding in from heaven's door.
"Aleka," River explains, "is the spirit of the group. This room," he points at the crisscrossing rafters, "is Aleka's Attic. Aleka was an imaginary creature who wrote poetry and music and gave up its spirit for the band."
Later, the lights have been turned down and the crowd is gathered around a TV set. "Feel like watching a movie?" River asks, wrapping his arm around my shoulder. The gang around the set includes the two Joshes-Josh, the bass player, and Josh, the drummer-Bill, the horn player and Rain, wearing an "Ugly Americans" T -shirt, plus Blake and the singer from Fromage.
Two and half hours later we have seen a sound-and-edit work print of My Own Private Idaho, a gorgeous film. River and Keanu Reeves play male prostitutes in a kind of Watt and Murphy's Excellent Adventure. The character River plays, hopelessly in love with the Keanu Reeves character, is searching for his mother in a valueless wasteland of "dates" and betrayal. The grainy, choppy quality of the tape and the occasionally garbled sound does nothing to diminish the impact of River's performance. In his first real role as a young man, he blows me away.
On the way back to town, I can't get the movie out of my head. I feel a vicarious guilt as I look out at the thousands of frogs allover the interstate. You can hear them pop under the tires.
. . .
When he jumps into the Plymouth the following morning, River is wearing the same threadbare print shirt hanging out of the same migrant worker pants he wore the previous day.
"Jesus, River, you slept in your goddamn clothes." "No, man-I slept in a blanket of warm flesh."
Blake has called for a vocal session out at the ranch, and River wants me to see the place by daylight. Halfway there, River's cranked up with Lennon's "Imagine" playing on the radio.
"The fucking asshole who shot Lennon is in some Mafia prison, can you believe it? John Lennon was bumped off because of his pro-environment stand. If John Lennon said, 'Turn off your televisions now guys, we'll save electricity for two days straight: fucking three million people instantly in America would've done it. If John Lennon would've said, 'Please,' over the airwaves, 'please don't vote for Ronald Reagan'-you're telling me that three million people going in to vote for their president wouldn't have been canceled out?" River takes a deep, cleansing breath of the air rushing in from the windows. As we get closer, the fertile peat and weed rot odor fills the car.
"It's the gators," River smiles. The ranch by day is overwrought with the buzz and croak of living creatures, a terrestrial arc of biology.
"You wanna see a gator?" River asks. Hell, yeah. 'Take a dip out there," he grins, pointing to the swamp beyond the wire fence running off into the landscape. The swimming pool, a stark blue rise in the flats of a meadow, is littered with dead frogs who've blindly hopped from the underbrush in the middle of the night. The frog population takes a beating in the ecosystem down here.
At the end of the recording session, we're standing in a circle, having beers in front of the main house. Blake is moaning about the band. "We'll never whip these guys into shape." Told that the Beatles did their first album in a matter of a few days, River scoffs, "Yeah, and what was that? like, 'She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah.'" Then there's a momentary silence broken only by the random chirping of crickets.
"Hey, River, I was waiting for you to kiss Keanu, there was such build-up," Blake teases, alluding to a scene in last night's film.
"But I didn't, man. You happy that I didn't? Don't you feel so much more comfortable being around me now, 'cause I'm a macho stud, right?"
"No. You're still a wuss, Riv. Good shot of you guys pullin' up to town on the bike, though."
"Cool, huh, Blake? Was I studly enough for you?"
What has stayed with me from the film are time-lapse shots of clouds-" It's like putting a York Peppermint Patty on your heart, isn't it?" River remarked last night. But more indelible than that was the utterly broken, busted-up spirit of River's character, which, he said, was inspired by "heavily researching" Werner Herzog's Stroszek.
"We shot a lot of that stuff early in the morning. So I wouldn't wake up until the last minute, and I wouldn't be fully awake until like five takes into the shot. There was one point, man, it was Seattle in the cold, I actually was feeling anxious to not be this person."
Just as River is saying this, Blake suddenly leaps backwards. In the middle of our circle, coiled in the grass, is a black swamp snake. We all scatter, except River, who does a little capriole/powwow around the terrified snake: "Spiderman, Spiderman-no one knows who you are!"
In the car as we head out later, River is hanging out of the back window, guiding me out of the yard. He doesn't want us to run over the snake.
"Straight back-straight back-all the way, straight back. STRAIGHT BACK!"
"You've got it."
"Sure, you frogicidal maniac!" River hollers, possibly serious.
. . .
The Velvet Underground's banana album whines in a place called The Hardback, while the bass player in the house band, The Moles, tunes his guitar. River is calculating my time, concluding I've got plenty to spare before my flight departs. A studious-looking guy sitting in the comer table near us keeps eyeing River, who is taking one last wade through his stream of consciousness.
"I feel like quail."
"Is that on the menu?"
"No, no-Quayle. The veep. I love Quayle," River whispers, "and I love Bush. I love bush, literally."
"If you're feeling insecure about being in a movie about gays, forget it."
"First of all, the picture's not really about gays," says River. "Second of all, I don't like, have any real hang-ups." Despite three days of snakes, frogs, and canaries, and despite the Lennon conspiracy theory, I believe him.
We're eating ice cream sandwiches and deciding who should be on the world's biggest pricks list. Somebody mentions Joel Schumacher.
"The Grinch," River proclaims, "is the biggest prick. I can't help it. I love Dr. Seuss."
"You know, he did an adult book once," I tell River, who is fascinated.
"For late bloomers?"
"He also did a film," a student from a table in the corner chimes in. "Great guy, great film. I think it was called The Eighty-Eight Magic Fingers of Dr. Twilliger. 'Course, I was tripping my balls off, first time I saw it." The kid pauses, eyes River. "Hey, I've seen you around, somewhere. Do you know Brigitte?"
"Know of her," River grins. "I don't know her. Maybe I better."
"That can't be it, then." The young man thinks for a moment, then it hits him, like a flash of Florida lightning.
"I know. I met you through the bass player in... what was the name of his group?"
"That's it," the young man agrees, "Aleka's Attic. How you doin'?"
"Haven't changed a bit:' River answers peacefully, then assures me, one last time, that I have eternity before my plane leaves. Happiness takes hold of his face.
"Hey, if you miss it, it was meant to be, right?"
The text on this page & MOVIELINE SEPTEMBER 1991