This month, the infamous Viper Room turns 25. Over two and a half decades, this small Sunset club has inspired a lot of emotions in a lot of people, for very different reasons. Indeed, a recent change in land ownership left a cloud of uncertainty hanging over it. The odds are good that it will survive, though. After all, it’s already been through so much and thrived.
Lest we forget, it was here in October ’93, a mere couple of months after it first opened its doors under a new name, that tragedy struck and River Phoenix died, putting the words “Viper Room” into the world’s collective mouths for quite horrible reasons. It wasn’t the best of launches, but the owners and staff dusted themselves off and boldly marched on. On one hand, dark tourism and apathy helped. On the other, the momentum co-owner Johnny Depp and his team had built was unstoppable.
The brief history then: The space had been through a few names, including Filthy McNasty’s and the Central, before reopening as the Viper Room in 1993 thanks to Depp, co-owner Anthony Fox and beat poet Chuck E. Weiss. When Fox disappeared in 2004, Depp relinquished ownership, and the Viper Room passed into the hands of Blackhawk Capital Partners. It changed owners many times over the years, most recently landing with Darin Feinstein.
The Viper Room was back in the news over the past couple of months when it emerged that landowners Fifth Gear had sold four commercial properties on the Sunset Strip, including the Viper, for $80 million. The buyer is listed as 8850 Sunset LLC, and it left locals wondering whether the venue would survive. Popular opinion is that nobody pays $80 million to keep a small club and neighboring liquor store the way they are. Current partner Roxie Amoroso isn’t worried.
“They don’t have any bearing on the club itself,” she says. “I was there a week ago, and we’re working on a festival for spring of 2019. It’s going to be out of this world. We’re booked well into next year.”
Amoroso has worked with the Viper for about three years — only a fraction of its lifespan. She has, however, been attending shows and hanging out there for much longer. She has a firm grasp of the celebrated room’s history, and where she wants to take it going forward.
“The unique thing about the Viper Room is that it’s almost like a time warp,” she says. “When you walk through the door off of Sunset, you come into this very dark, very still room that is almost unchanged. There’s just nothing like it. The bands want to play there. Altogether, with the downstairs lounge, the capacity is around 200. In any other venue, it would be difficult to get the high-caliber bands to perform there that we do. I’m not sure what the components of the secret sauce are, but it’s unique in every possible way.”
Love it and its Sunset Strip sleaze ‘n’ swagger, or loathe it for the nostalgia-soaked decor and stories, there is something special about the Viper Room — a mystique that’s difficult to pin down. There are a million ingredients, including the fact that, rare for a small club, it has curtains that stay closed during stage setup.
“You don’t even notice how rad that is until you go into another venue and you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, small venues don’t have a curtain,’” she says. “I’m actually having a curtain installed in the Beauty Bar [Amoroso’s new bar in Las Vegas] because I’m so used to the Viper Room.”
Recalling the best sets that she has witnessed at the Viper, Amoroso doesn’t have to go back farther than a recent show by the reformed Dead Boys, which she says “blew the roof off the place.” That said, she has strong memories of the first time she set foot in the venue.
“The first time I ever went there was for a Supersuckers show,” she says. “I was 22, and I remember not being able to believe how good the sound was. I was in a booth with the cast of Jackass — this is way before I had any association with the venue.”
Mention the Viper Room around town, and many people will immediately associate it with former booker (and DJ) Dayle Gloria, the "Queen of the Sunset Strip," who started working there in ’99 and helped build its reputation. Indeed, she was responsible for Pussycat Dolls and Metal Shop (later Metal School, later Steel Panther) getting their start on the Viper stage.
"I worked tooth and nail to get big people to play there," Gloria says. "I started there as a promoter in ’99. When there was no more Johnny, I had to go on what I could do. I was booking people who had talent and deserved a shot. That’s why I hated the pay-to-play shit."
Three years after leaving the Viper, Gloria understandably has mixed feelings about it. But still, she maintains that there's something magic about the room.
"You see people having drinks and having fun, and when I put a good song on they’re screaming and dancing," she says. "All of a sudden the band is ready to go on, the sound guy makes the announcement, and then the curtain goes up — there’s just nothing like it, especially when I know that I booked it. All these people are having fun because I know what I’m doing. It was hard to leave. Really hard. It’s magic in those rooms. That’s why I tried to buy it for so many years."
The stories are legion, with the likes of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and Johnny Cash performing there over the years. Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan jammed with Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, John Taylor of Duran Duran and fellow Guns man Matt Sorum at the Viper, and that evolved into a full-fledged band, The Neurotic Outsiders.
“I had just gotten sober and didn’t know if I could play music again,” McKagan says. “Literally didn’t know. Steve Jones called and asked if I would do a show with John Taylor and Matt Sorum. We played a bunch of cool covers. It was great, and the Viper Room manager at the time, Sal [Jenco], asked if we wanted to play regularly. There was nothing like that at that time: 1995, ’96. Playing with Steve is a special thing.”
Corey Parks of Nashville Pussy, Die Hunns and many more, played the Viper Room doorwoman in a 1999 movie called Desperate But Not Serious. In real life, she recalls angering Dayle Gloria by disobeying orders and breathing fire.
"Dayle booked my band Die Hunns, with my husband, Duane Peters, and she said, ‘Corey, you can’t blow fire. The floors have fucking been done, we got a new sound system,’" Parks says. "My policy with the fire was to always turn to the leader of the band. I asked Duane and he said, ‘We’re doing the fire.’ Last song, I go to do the fire and then the soundman is slicing through the crowd trying to get me. He reaches out and slips in oil. Then I blew a fucking huge fireball right in the middle of the thing, and they closed the curtains on us. It was fucking brilliant, and Dayle’s like, ‘You’re never going to play here again.’ She was so fucking pissed. When Dayle barred you, she didn’t give a fuck who you were. You were fucking done. Dayle’s old-school, dude. That’s why I like her and why I respect her."
Frank Meyer of The Streetwalkin' Cheetahs and, more recently, James Williamson & the Pink Hearts, remembers going to the club when it was called the Central to see Chuck E. Weiss and the Goddamn Liars perform, way before he played there himself.
"Chuck introduced me to his fantastic slide player, a guy named JJ, who started giving me lessons," Meyer says. "Chuck then started making me homemade mixtapes of obscure blues to educate li’l ol’ me. Each cassette tape represented a city and was filled with blues music from that city. I traded him Rolling Stones bootlegs in exchange. Almost 30 years later, I still frequent the club and play there with my band The Streetwalkin’ Cheetahs, now famously rechristened. It’s still a great room with excellent sound, and is very friendly to local up-and-coming bands, which I always thought was really cool."
Eagles of Death Metal's Jesse Hughes recalls playing a monthlong residency at the Viper a couple of years ago with his Boots Electric project. He says the experience inspired him to write his next two albums.
"I actually think the Viper Room’s critically important, right now especially," Hughes says. "The way I see it is there’s an almost generational attempt to obliterate the iconic architectural and cultural things in our show business world, and to me the Viper Room seems like a defiant middle finger up to the developers, skyscrapers and high-rise makers. Which is so rock & roll, it’s beyond belief. It’s also a venue on the Sunset Strip that still plays rock & roll, and you don’t have to pay to play. It’s almost the people’s venue."
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Artist Louis Carreon is responsible for the mural that decorates the main hallway. The art caused some controversy when it was originally unveiled, as it incorporates a tribute to River Phoenix.
"I lived across the street, so the new owners hit me up and asked me if I wanted to paint the hallway," Carreon says. "They let me do what I wanted to do. So I figured that I’m from here and know the lineage, and the roots of the Viper Room, so I went to the Hunter S. Thompson grab. That just seemed right for me. I chose to grab Hunter S. Thompson and Johnny Depp, and the 'Rest in Peace River Phoenix,' to tie in to the times. As a contemporary painter, I think that’s my job. Back then, there was a backlash — a writer from a magazine said it was classless, but the Viper Room didn’t tell me to do anything. I did that."
Again, the new landowners have thrown a bit of doubt over the future of the Viper Room, but the current owners are convinced that the future remains bright. There’s an unannounced anniversary show to plan, which they promise will be epic, though they can’t reveal details yet. It’s business as usual over there, and Amoroso believes that the Viper Room’s best days are ahead of it:
“I think once the entire globe has an opportunity to understand what the Viper Room brand is about, people will be excited.”