Remembering River Phoenix: The Musician

RiverPhoenixI knew River Phoenix did his own guitar playing and singing in the movie “The Thing Called Love” before I knew River Phoenix and his sister, Rain, had a band: Aleka’s Attic. I feel kind of dumb about that.

But maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. River Phoenix was best known for his acting. But he was also a musician. A real one.

Aleka’s Attic had a development deal with Island Records. They contributed a song, “Too Many Colors,” to the Gus Van Zant-directed “My Own Private Idaho.” Another Aleka’s Attic song, “Across the Way” was featured on a PETA benefit album, “Tame Yourself,” released in 1989. The band did some touring in the United States. They never, however, released a full-length album, though a full-length album was in the works when River Phoenix died.

It’s difficult to find much of Aleka’s Attic’s music out there. But their music is out there. I found it. I like it. I like it a lot.

I wish there were an Aleka’s Attic CD. A real album, with liner notes. I would read the liner notes, then pop the CD in the CD player in my car next time I run errands. I would listen to their music for months. I want to add Aleka’s Attic’s songs to my iTunes and Spotify playlists. I want to immerse. It’s what I always want from the music I love most: total immersion. Deliverance, even.

When River Phoenix died in 1993, I had seen only a handful of his movies. Still, I was head over heels in love – in lust – in thrall – with River Phoenix. He was hot, sure. But River was more than hot. River was something else.

I was not, in 1993, in the habit of watching TV news, and the internet was not yet a household reality. I did not hear about River’s death until the Monday following Halloween weekend. I heard by word of mouth. When the news reached me, I felt sick and bereft. I was not the only person who felt that way.

I found the movie “The Thing Called Love” after River was gone. The movie, directed by Peter Bogdanovich, is about aspiring songwriters in Nashville, Tennessee. It’s a quirky, heartfelt, and funny story that moves at its own pace. It’s not a star vehicle for any of the actors in the film; it’s a true ensemble effort.

As a singer and a songwriter myself, I found the portrayal of musicians in “The Thing Called Love” completely believable. The film became not only one of my favorites of River’s, but also one of my all-time favorite films. To date, I have watched it more times than I can remember. (And counting.)

Once I had verified that River did all his own guitar playing and singing in “The Thing Called Love” and, that he even wrote one of the songs he performs in it, “Lone Star State of Mine”: I knew he was a real musician. But still, I had yet to hear of Aleka’s Attic. I had heard something, somewhere, about River Phoenix having a band. But a lot of actors had bands in the 1990s.

I would not discover River’s and his sister Rain’s band until much later, when I had a fast internet connection in my own home. When I found Aleka’s Attic on the web, I spent several hours listening to and watching River in action with his band. And then all I could say was: “Duh. No wonder.”

No wonder he comes off like a natural singer, guitarist, and songwriter in “The Thing Called Love.” He is one. And no wonder I was always drawn to more than just his good looks, because: I’m a sucker for musicians. Especially musicians with a heart. And well, River Phoenix had that going for him, too. His support for causes such as animal rights and the protection of the environment is well-documented. He was also known for exercising his own right to lie to reporters during interviews. However, if you read interviews with River Phoenix, regardless of whether he is lying or telling the truth, he never manages to hide the fact that he has a heart.

I like to think that if I had known about Aleka’s Attic when River Phoenix was alive, I would have been open to hearing and loving them and their music. Because when I listen to the band now, they remind me of bands I would go see on the college music scene. Super creative. Not afraid to collaborate. Not afraid to let more than one person shine. Able to wax both ambitious and unorthodox with the music. Lyrics that you want to puzzle apart, trying to find meaning. The kind of band where maybe I would have been friends with some of the people in it, if they had lived in my town. Aleka’s Attic has that kind of vibe. I’m so glad River Phoenix was in a band with that kind of vibe.

And I still want a real CD to listen to in my car. Dammit.

Rest in Peace River Phoenix: August 23, 1970 – October 31, 1993