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.

By the time Phoenix signed on to star in My Own Private Idaho, he had long since become a star, thanks to such minor Hollywood classics as 1986’s Oregon-filmed Stand by Me and 1988’s Running on Empty, the latter of which brought him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. But Idaho, the third in Van Sant’s trilogy of Portland-set films (preceded by 1986’s Mala Noche and 1989’s Drugstore Cowboy), would become the role of Phoenix’s career and the standout classic in its director’s now decades-long portfolio.

While Drugstore was initially a greater critical success for Van Sant, winning Best Film and Best Director from the National Society of Film Critics in 1989, Idaho is somehow the film that endures in public imagination and as a lasting artistic achievement. Besides being a landmark of gay cinema, casting two young Hollywood heartthrobs as lovers, it also turned out to be Van Sant’s most cinematically ambitious effort.

The premise of My Own Private Idaho is audacious if not a little crazy. The film is a loose interpretation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I and Part II—the story of a delinquent, debauchery-loving prince planning to shed his skin and embrace his more virtuous monarchical destiny—transposed to the realm of contemporary Portland street hustlers. As legend has it, Phoenix and Reeves spent nights on the streets of Old Town researching their roles by hanging out with the city’s young street denizens, some of whom would enjoy supporting roles in the film.

Phoenix plays a hustler named Mike with a handicap—narcolepsy drops him off to sleep in any moment of stress. We first watch him collapse in sleep by the side of a rural highway, his possessions and even his shoes stripped from him as he slumbers; then he collapses in the middle of turning a trick, carried out of a rich woman’s house by his fellow hustlers and left slumped against a tree. Reeves’s young Prince Hal figure, Scott (in this case a Portland mayor’s son), is along for the ride as part brotherly companion, part lover. Yet this quirky Shakespearean tale is also bookended by and interwoven with a larger quest, played out under the limitless skies and golden hues of the eastern Oregon landscape, as Phoenix’s Mike searches fruitlessly for his long-lost mother: to the Idaho of his youth, to Italy, and finally back to Portland.

The original poster for My Own Private Idaho

Part of what makes My Own Private Idaho so great is how Van Sant conjures indelible cinematic moments: time-lapse footage of clouds rolling over the Oregon landscape; symbolic slow-motion shots of salmon (Mike’s spirit-animal; Phoenix even wears a salmon-colored jacket) fighting their way upstream; and even an entire house falling from the sky onto the highway. It’s dazzling cinema that makes both rural and urban Oregon its muse like perhaps no other movie. That Van Sant has gone on to make several Hollywood movies that overdose on schmaltz and are short on cinematic eye candy, and few if any great works of art (the Cannes winner Elephant and the Matt Damon/Casey Affleck vehicle Gerry perhaps being exceptions) only makes Idaho all the more special in his oeuvre. In fact, it’s as if Van Sant refuses to enter Idaho-like territory. Consider, for example, that his last film, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot—a profile of cartoonist John Callahan starring River Phoenix’s brother, Joaquin, which is set in Portland and another story of a lonely man’s longing for his mother—was shot in Los Angeles. Suffice to say, there are no houses falling onto the highway.

At least unofficially, My Own Private Idaho owes as much to Phoenix as Van Sant—and not just as it relates to the acting. After all, River Phoenix didn’t just act in Idaho; he reportedly was able to alter the script and his character. The draft that Van Sant brought to the actors didn’t include romance between their two lead characters, but by the time production was complete, Idaho’s most touching moment was a campfire embrace wherein Mike declares his love for Reeves’s Scott. Phoenix is at his zenith here as an actor, a marvel of delicacy, communicating a blend of easy cool and endearing vulnerability.

Both Phoenix and Reeves came to the Idaho cast with something to prove: that they could be serious dramatic actors. To a large extent it worked for both. While Reeves has never been considered a master thespian, his roles in blockbuster franchises like The Matrix and even the more recent John Wick movies have cemented his place in movie history. And for Phoenix, post-Idaho there was no longer any doubt that the child actor we’d seen in Explorers and the angst-ridden teen of The Mosquito Coast (not to mention a memorable “Family Ties” guest-starring turn) had graduated to leading roles with the charisma, looks and vulnerability of a budding superstar. Would it be going too far to say he was the James Dean of his time? Maybe. But the comparison is not ludicrous.

Of course longevity was not to be for Phoenix. Within 25 months of Idaho’s release, his story ended, just like Mike’s, collapsed on the pavement—in this case on a Hollywood sidewalk rather than Highway 216, and sadly, not simply asleep for a few minutes. The brother with him that night, Joachin Phoenix, would go on to enjoy the long acting career River never got.

A house near Southeast Division Street where Smith lived in the early ’90s. Photo: Brian Libby

The year of Idaho’s release was also a turning point for Elliott Smith. In 1991 he had just returned to Portland after four years at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, and promptly formed the band Heatmiser with three musician friends. Over the ensuing years, Heatmiser would become a fixture at celebrated indie-rock clubs like the X-Ray Café and La Luna, while also recording albums like 1993’s Dead Air and 1994’s Cop and Speeder that infused punk energy with melodicism. The band was part of a broader indie rock scene that included Pond, Crackerbash, The Spinanes, The Dandy Warhols and Quasi.

After Nirvana’s breakout success, both indie and major labels began combing Portland clubs looking for the next grunge sensation. And what was grunge but punk with a little more melody and a flannel shirt? Heatmiser received enough attention that a major label, Virgin Records, eventually came calling. But by that time Smith was ready to venture out on his own, breaking up Heatmiser just as they’d made the big time. As the singer-songwriter explained in a later interview, he had grown tired of screaming all the time as a member of a loud rock band. And besides, by that time Smith was gaining notice for a series of stripped-down solo albums with little more than voice and an acoustic guitar. To the astonishment of many, they sounded less like punk or grunge and more like Simon & Garfunkel or Nick Drake. Smith’s solo debut, 1994’s Roman Candle, was released at the height of the grunge era but also just nine months before Kurt Cobain’s suicide, essentially prefiguring (and perhaps even giving birth to) the emo-core wave that would in time follow grunge.

In the four years between Roman Candle’s release and Smith’s leap to international fame with the Oscar nomination for “Miss Misery,” local audiences who had feasted on loud guitars and pounding punk rhythms filled Portland clubs for his solo acoustic shows, trading chaotic mosh pits for stillness and pin-drop quiet. Not only was there the wistful simplicity of Smith’s voice and acoustic guitar. It was also how the singer-songwriter bared his soul in his lyrics. Though some songs were inspired by others’ lives, it was clear that for the sensitive, often-depressed Smith, music was a confessional and a lifeline. Yet in his almost Lennon-McCartney like gift for melody, even his sad songs feel uplifting.

The cover of Smith’s 1997 album Either/Or

In those early Elliott Smith albums recorded here, through his 1997 masterwork Either/Or (his last for indie label Kill Rock Stars before signing with the mammoth Dreamworks and leaving Portland for New York), the singer-songwriter also painted a cinematic if melancholy picture of the city. You can almost feel the gray wintertime skies in songs like “Alameda,” as he sings:

You walk down Alameda
Looking at the cracks in the sidewalk
Thinking about your friends
How you maintain all them in
A constant state of suspense

For your own protection
Over their affection
Nobody broke your heart
You broke your own because you can’t
Finish what you start

When the Oscar nomination for “Miss Misery” came, Smith’s life changed overnight. If that new audience and international media attention meant exponentially greater album sales and the end of his penny-pinching way of life—staying in nice hotels on tour instead of sleeping in the van or on some stranger’s floor, not to mention no longer moonlighting as a drywall contractor by day—it also isolated Elliott from his community of not-so-affluent friends and musicians still sleeping on those floors. This time in his life was also accompanied by increasing drug abuse and greater depressions. Perhaps Smith new that despite overwhelmingly positive reviews for albums like XO and Figure 8 as well as a worldwide audience of admirers (he was particularly smitten when a musical hero, Elvis Costello, attended a London show), DreamWorks saw its Smith signing as essentially an investment that didn’t quite pay off because he wasn’t the megastar they envisioned.

Inside the Southeast Portland house where Smith recorded his debut solo album, 1994’s Roman Candle. Photo: Brian Libby

Like Cobain, Smith also retained that nagging Gen X rocker’s worry that he’d sold out. Maybe today a young fan who falls in love with Figure 8 doesn’t care that it was recorded for DreamWorks instead of Kill Rock Stars. After all, going to a major label gave Smith a bigger palette of instruments and fellow musicians to work and record with. Yet for Smith, the decision wasn’t without impact. In “King’s Crossing,” one of Smith’s best posthumously-released songs, he sings, “The method acting that pays my bills/keeps the fat man feeding in Beverly Hills.”

Particularly in the couple of years before his 2003 death, Smith was a shell of his former self, consuming cocktails of heroin, crack and prescription drugs. At times onstage, he even had to abort songs halfway through because he couldn’t remember his own lyrics. Yet Smith was also in those final months showing signs of recovery and renewal, which enabled the superlative album he was working on when he died. Songs on the magnificent From a Basement on the Hill (including “King’s Crossing”) exhibit a layered richness of sound that goes beyond what he recorded in Portland a few years earlier. Yet it all screeched to a halt in Silver Lake—whether inevitably, as some observers maintained, or out of the blue.

Today I can’t look at certain places in Portland and Oregon without thinking of them.

For River Phoenix and My Own Private Idaho, there is the Elk statue downtown on Southwest Main Street between Chapman and Lownsdale squares, where early in the film Scott cradles a sleeping Mike in his arms. There is also the stretch of Broadway downtown near the Benson Hotel where the duo cruise the street on Scott’s motorcycle, handsomely and heroically, like cinema’s sunglasses-masked successors to The Wild One and Easy Rider. And perhaps most of all, there is a lonely stretch of Highway 216, east of the Cascades and not far from the tiny town of Tygh Valley, where River Phoenix begins and ends the movie, succumbing to narcoleptic seizure. Last year my partner and I found the coordinates online and made a pilgrimage. To get there you drive white-knuckled through a series of hairpin turns through a small Deschutes River gorge, and then suddenly you come onto a plateau where the road seems to unfold forever.

Highway 216 near Tygh Valley, Oregon, where My Own Private Idaho begins and ends with River Phoenix asleep on the side of the road. Photo: Brian Libby

If one seeks vestiges of Elliott Smith’s Portland, it’s not just the venues where he took the stage (one of which, La Luna, is now a café of the same name), but also, if you know where to look, one of the many Southeast Portland houses where he lived and recorded. Roman Candle, for instance, was recorded in a home on Southeast Taylor Street that recently was listed for rent. (And yes, I admittedly took a tour.) Smith also lived in another Southeast Portland house, off Division Street, that prompted him to sometimes spend late nights hanging out on a bench in the rose gardens of Ladd’s Addition; the documentary Heaven Adores You includes a long shot looking down over the neighborhood. In “St. Ides Heaven,” he writes

Everything is exactly right
When I walk around here drunk every night
With an open container from 7-11

Division Street itself also wound up inspiring a lyric in “Punch and Judy” (on Either/Or), albeit not exactly an ideal marketing tagline:

Driving around up and down Division Street
I used to like it here
It just bums me out to remember

Every time I listen to “Punch and Judy,” that line makes me wonder what Smith would have made of gentrified Division Street now, with its canyon of condos and string of popular restaurants. It’s a phenomenon that has swept most close-in east side neighborhoods—precisely the formerly cheap old houses he and his friends used to inhabit.

Even so, to absorb the work of Smith (especially his early records) and Phoenix (particularly My Own Private Idaho) is to make a nostalgic return to ‘90s Portland. And yet, through the power of these works and these two princes’ immense talent, their work also transcends that time capsule. Even if their tragically early deaths don’t guarantee them true artistic immortality, the more Portland changes, the more their works resonate.

2 Responses. Have your say.

  1. Beautiful piece Brian. Thank you for writing it and helping us remember those 90’s yeasty times. Who would have thought, living through them, they’d bring nostalgia now.

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