Saturday, September 17, 2016

River Phoenix - I Don't Want to Stand Where He Died

It's hard to choose just one person as a the symbol or voice of a generation.  For Generation X, many say it was Kurt Cobain, many others say it was River Phoenix.  Strangely, Kurt and River died within just five months of each other.  Gen Xers barely had time to grieve River when we heard the news of Kurt.  I distinctly remember walking between classes in high school, the weight of the books in my backpack heavy on my shoulders, staring up at a pale blue sky and thinking how unreal it was that they were both gone.  River was 23 when he took his last breath.

We were in town a week ago for my husband's 20th high school reunion, sitting in the driveway of his parents' house in a suburb of L.A., he was ready to drive our rental car to Sunset Boulevard where we had planned for a long time to go where River Phoenix experienced his last day in 1993.  As we set up the GPS with the address for the Viper Room, I realized I didn't want to make that journey.  I realized that I don't want to be near the place on the sidewalk where River passed away, at least not for now.  So instead, the next day, I decided to scramble for a window seat on the plane going back home and to think of River on the journey.   Instead of Sunset Boulevard, it was the Pacific Ocean, and lapping beaches, and sandy mountains covered in Redwoods.   So much of River's history took place from Southern to Northern California, it made sense to remember him this way.

People say there was something about him, that there was this bright spark in his soul.  He had this extra large portion of kindness and gentleness that radiated from him.  This is how I picture him leaving this earth: ascending quickly from the crowded shores of L.A. and then more slowly over open blue waters looking down at a thousand circling fish, watching the L.A. haze diffuse into the peaceful fog that hangs over the Pacific, and then realizing for the first time, he was utterly free of everything.

River was, by all accounts, Generation X.  He was born in 1970, right in the middle of the first wave and the second wave of X. The first time I ever saw him was on VHS in my 4th grade classroom.  Our teacher had us watch Stand By Me. It seems strange now -- 4th graders watching an R-rated movie in our classroom, a script full of so many heavy subjects, but we were a generation that grew up fast.

I mentioned River at my husband's reunion while catching up with people at Roxanne's - an Old Hollywood style bar in Long Beach. People would have to pause to remember who he was for a moment, or they would mention that no one talks about River Phoenix much anymore.

Whether we are still alive, or whether we have gone to the other side, whether we find ourselves at our high school reunions or are sending a message online to an old best friend that we grew up with, we don't want to be forgotten. 

As our flight came near its end, I looked down on the mountains of Northern California.  I felt a world away from Southern California, and a lifetime away from that day in 1993 when we lost River.

As the decades go by, I hope that he is never forgotten, I hope the bright spark within him is always remembered.  He was an animal rights, political, and environmental activist.  I imagine that his hope was (and is) that the things he was passionate about are never forgotten.

As I was getting ready for the trip, I read Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind by Gavin Edwards. Going through these pages made it clear there was a lot of suffering in River's life.  It sounds like, as he grew older, he took movie roles mainly just to pay the bills to take care of his family, that he wanted out of the business, that he wanted to pursue music instead.  Edwards shows how River left a mark on pop culture and on Hollywood, I'll add that he left an enormous mark on Generation X.  Even if Xers have to pause a moment to remember him, they remember him.

Given that River had quintessentially Boomer parents, this led, as it often does, to a quintessential Gen X experience.  Sadly, the package that came with this Gen X experience for many was growing up far too fast, and sometimes, living far too fast, and dying far too young.

Sometimes, when I'm in LA, I look around at the way the palm trees lean silent in front of the sunsets, as cool evening breezes flow above the heat rising from the concrete, and think about the way Hollywood makes people, and then breaks them.  

As one of the Orthodox priests officiating at the funeral of my husband's family matriarch in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery last year said,

"Nothing is forever, 
especially not Hollywood."  

No doubt that's true about this world, that nothing is forever; it's something Gen X knew innately even before we watched R-rated movies as fourth graders, it's something we felt intensely the day we lost River.

(c) 2016 - all photos and writing by Chloe Koffas - all rights reserved.