Brian Libby

 

River and Elliott: Remembering two troubled princes of 1990s Portland

River Phoenix and Elliott Smith brushed Portland and maybe Portland brushed them

There’s a name you keep repeating
You’ve got nothing better to do

— Elliott Smith, “Alphabet Town”

From James Dean to Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain to Heath Ledger, we have immortalized a constellation of famous artists—especially musicians and actors—who died young and, then, through a combination of their talent and the public’s grief, lived on. Robbed of the futures we imagined for them, yet frozen in time and thus never to suffer the indignities of aging or late-career artistic mediocrity, their luminosity—and our love for them—intensifies as if in proportion to the tragedy.

Portland and Oregon haven’t traditionally produced a lot of bold-type names that have endured in the international pop zeitgeist. Far from America’s entertainment capitols, this is arguably a place where talents are nurtured, not where one becomes a full-fledged star. The most high-profile artists, such as the great abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko or Simpsons creator Matt Groening, have tended to move on and live their career-defining creative moments elsewhere. Yet even if their time here is fleeting, sometimes these artists don’t just remain culturally relevant long after their deaths but also come to represent something essential about a particular time in the city.

Last month brought reminders of two such one-time Oregonians and what they left behind. October 21 was the 15th anniversary of musician Elliott Smith’s death, at the age of 34 in 2003, while Halloween brought the 25th anniversary of actor River Phoenix’s death, at the age of 23 in 1993. They died a decade apart, but each moment of mortality came in Los Angeles, and the two sites are less than nine miles away from each other: Phoenix outside West Hollywood’s Viper Room club after an accidental overdose, and Smith by stabbing at his home in Silver Lake (a presumed suicide but never officially determined).

Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho

The coincidences don’t end there. River Phoenix and Elliott Smith were born within a year of each other: Smith in Nebraska (he was raised until age 14 in Texas) and Phoenix in Madras, Oregon (raised mostly in Florida). Each arguably made his most famous work in collaboration with director Gus Van Sant. Phoenix co-starred (along with Keanu Reeves) in Van Sant’s 1991 film My Own Private Idaho and Smith was nominated for an Academy Award for the song “Miss Misery,” on the soundtrack to Van Sant’s 1998 film Good Will Hunting. Each struggled with drug abuse, which in different ways led to each artist’s untimely death. River Phoenix and Elliott Smith presumably never met, yet each is a kind of fleeting prince of ’90s Portland, and their work acts as time capsule and talisman for the days many locals now look to longingly: a grittier, more affordable and off-the-radar city that predated Portlandia, a succession of swooning New York Times stories, and an ensuing wave of tourism and gentrification.

Like Rothko, neither stayed here for good. But also like Rothko and many of the city’s other most famous sons and daughters, Phoenix and Smith were transplants to the city who saw Portland with fresh eyes. Like rain clouds that give way to bright sunlight almost daily for much of the year, each artist’s Portland-based work is personal and often deeply melancholic, yet also joyful, lyrical and instinctual. It’s not always pretty, yet we are drawn to their work again and again.

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