Relaunch of Viper Room Includes Tasteless River Phoenix Tributes

New wall art at the Viper Room by Louis Carreon
New wall art at the Viper Room by Louis Carreon
Courtesy of the Viper Room

The Sunset Strip has had its struggles, what with the demise of hair metal, the House of Blues, and parking for less than $10.

So we don't blame venues for trying hard to get your business. The Viper Room, however, might have gone too far.

With onetime co-owner Johnny Depp long gone, the venue celebrated a "relaunch" recently. We weren't there so we're not exactly sure how the place has been improved. We do know that its ownership team has been remixed.

What was unsettling about the affair was the offering of a drink called "the Phoenix," named after River Phoenix, which a publicist for the club says was basically a Moscow mule made with tequila by Casamigos, the company co-owned by George Clooney.

The spirit maker was a onetime sponsor, so it's not a sure thing "the Phoenix" will be on the club's permanent drink menu, we were told, but there's "a good chance" it will indeed be immortalized over ice, the spokeswoman said.

If that's not enough to remind you that you're entering some sort of morbid Disneyland of the night each time you step inside the Viper, there's always the street art of Keith Haring acolyte Louis Carreon, which includes a big "R.I.P. River Phoenix" on the ceiling.

The club's publicist and a representative for the artist both say the "tribute" was Carreon's idea.

In any case, it lets you know in no uncertain terms that this is the place where River Phoenix essentially surrendered his beautiful corpse after accidentally overdosing on a cocaine-heroin speedball on Halloween night in 1993.

Publicity material describes the art as "a one of a kind mural, paying homage to the Viper Room’s glory days ... "

We're surprised there's not a chalk outline of the place where Phoenix's body was scooped up by the paramedics who took him to Cedars Sinai Medical Center, where he was formally pronounced. 

The club could start a new tourist destination — the Walk of Shame.

But Phoenix's death was no joke. It was horrible. And sobering. It should make any rational person want to run away from such scenery, not toward it. Here's what former L.A. Weekly editor Sarah Fenske wrote in a review of the biography of Phoenix, Last Night at the Viper Room:

These days, you can find audio online of his brother Joaquin Phoenix's desperate 911 call, and even if you are the sort of looky-loo who's riveted by such horrible things, it will still break your heart. The ambulance rushed River Phoenix to Cedars-Sinai, but he'd already been in full cardiac arrest for 20 minutes. In less than an hour, he was pronounced dead.

It's a terribly sad ending, and parts of his life weren't all that much happier. 

Sure, hard partying is celebrated on the Strip. The band the Hollywood Vampires — including, yes, one Johnny Depp — is practically an all-star tribute to lives lost to the promise of the never-ending night.

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But their version is served up more as a cautionary tale, through tracks like "My Dead Drunk Friends."

The Vampires are named for co-founder Alice Cooper's early 1970s drinking club at the Rainbow Bar & Grill. There, a cubby-house would contain the alcoholic virus shared by the likes of Harry Nilsson, Marc Bolan and Keith Moon.

If they let you go upstairs at the Rainbow to take a peek (the place is preserved with almost Smithsonian-like reverence), you'll see a plaque that declares you're just outside the "Lair of the Hollywood Vampires," where Cooper presided as president and Lennon was a member.

That's all. No need to use neon lights. Legendary just is. You might have eaten downstairs a million times and never known it was there.

The new-and-improved Viper, meanwhile, is being billed in publicity material as "an adult playground for young musicians, Hollywood’s elite, and industry insiders.

"Famous acts that have graced the Viper Room stage include Jonny Cash, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Courtney Love," the material says. "Viper Room offers a one-of-a-kind live music nightlife experience."

We just hope they don't start selling "River Died Here" T-shirts.


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