Michael Stipe, Flea, and Rain Phoenix Remember River Phoenix on What Would Be His 50th Birthday
In honor of River’s birthday, his sister Rain reveals two new Aleka’s Attic tracks with the vinyl release of Alone U Elope.
In 1991, Aleka’s Attic—the band that included River Phoenix and his little sister Rain—hit the road in an RV for what would be the last tour since forming a few years earlier in the siblings’ hometown of Gainesville, FL, and it was a special moment in time. “There was this camaraderie of all being together and traveling, then getting to play music every night and noticing how much tighter we would get as a band by the end of the tour,” remembers Rain. “I was a teenager, so just having that experience of what would become my entire life—music—was an eye-opener.”
Barely nineteen, the experience was life changing for Rain. Just two years later, she would lose her brother River, who died on October 31, 1993 at the age of twenty-three—but the music of Aleka’s Attic was still there. A few years after River’s death, Rain revisited the band’s music—at least an album’s worth of tracks—before filing them away and revisiting it twenty-five years later.
To commemorate what would have been River’s fiftieth birthday on August 23, Rain is sharing two previously unreleased Aleka’s Attic tracks, “Alone U Elope” and “2×4,” via LaunchLeft, a label and podcast she started in 2018. Pre-sale on the limited edition vinyl and official merch begins the same day. The two song single entitled Alone U Elope features two of River’s close friends—Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea on bass and Dermot Mulroney on cello. Earlier this year, LaunchLeft kicked off River’s birthday celebration with the Launched Artist Digital Singles Series, featuring new artists’ (with a six-degree connection to River) singles every two weeks. Bookended by his sisters, the campaign began began with Liberty Phoenix’s band Capes’ song “Looking Out for Me” on Mother’s Day and finished the week before his birthday with his sister Summer’s debut single, “Tiempo.”
Formed in 1987, Aleka’s Attic was a fictional tale based around a character dreamed up by River—a poet and a philosopher of sorts. Aleka had a secret society of artists that met in his attic, and after he passes away, some kids find his writings and continue to keep his spirit alive by sharing his work. “In a way, that’s how I see the release,” says Rain. “A new generation of kids can find his writings in Aleka’s Attic.”
Both Alone U Elope tracks were originally recorded in Florida in early 1993. “Alone U Elope” was written later than most of the other tracks and is described by Rain as more of a pop ballad. “The lyrics are really poetic, and there’s something about it that feels like it’s kind of duet-y with he and I, more gentle and melancholy,” she says. “2×4” is the more uptempo side of the single: “River’s vocal is just amazing on it, especially at the end,” says Rain. “And I love Flea’s bass on it. It’s so groovy. It makes me dance every time I hear it.”
“His fans are some of the most gentle, loving people. If you look at their social media posts and read what they have to say, they’ve followed his ethos. They’re all like little love bugs. It’s so sweet.” —Rain Phoenix
Adding bass to both tracks felt organic for Flea, who was grateful to honor River, Rain, and their music. “I didn’t even question it,” he says. “All the time me and River jammed and spent time sitting and talking about stuff, it just felt natural. What was really a trip for me was when I was putting my bass on the recordings inside my garage. Hearing him play and singing in the quiet, alone in the dark, really affected me. It was just this flood of emotion, and all those memories coming back in such a visceral way, so it was really nice to open that back up.”
Flea, who initially met River in the late ’80s, admits his first impression of Phoenix was completely off. “When I met River, I was like ‘OK, here’s this hippie kid’—and I’m a rocker, I didn’t like hippies. It was silly, but when I became close to River, and we ended up really bonding and spending all this time together, it went on to become this beautiful relationship.”
The two later connected when they both starred in Gus Van Sant’s esoteric drifter drama My Own Private Idaho in 1991. Flea remembers being the inexperienced actor on set and not knowing anyone, which River immediately sensed and was sympathetic to. “River was the kind of person that whenever he saw someone who he thought might be feeling a little uncomfortable and out of sorts, he went to make sure they were doing good,” says Flea.
From that point on, the two had bonded, and Flea says River changed his life. “I didn’t know that people who were that kind and generous in spirit and thoughtful existed,” says Flea. “I’d never met anyone like that before who was close to me that didn’t, at one point, try to exploit me or use my vulnerabilities against me, or tease the fucked up parts of me and judge me. He changed my life forever in that way.”
Following Phoenix’s death in 1993, the RHCPs dedicated “Transcending,” the final track from their 1995 release One Hot Minute, to those they lost, namely River. Flea later laid down bass on the Aleka’s Attic’s track “Note to a Friend” off a 1996 benefit compilation called In Defense of Animals, Vol. 2.
River’s art was merely an extension of his core beliefs and principles he lived by. Deeper down, Phoenix was wholeheartedly empathetic—he cared about people, animals, and the earth. “He was the kind of person that really got a big picture in a deeply spiritual way, which I was incapable of getting at the time,” says Flea. “If there was someone acting like a real asshole, or being insensitive, I’d be like, ‘Fuck that,’ and River would be like, ‘Well, hold on a second, that person is in a lot of pain, let’s look at why they’re acting this way.’ That kind of thinking really affected me, and I got a much bigger picture than I was accustomed to getting.”
“I didn’t know that people who were that kind and generous in spirit and thoughtful existed. I’d never met anyone who didn’t try to exploit me or use my vulnerabilities against me or tease the fucked up parts of me and judge me. He changed my life forever in that way.” —Flea
This sensitivity is something Rain believes is attracting a younger generation of fans to her brother today. “His fans are some of the most gentle, loving people,” she says. “If you look at their [social media] posts and read what they have to say, they’ve followed his ethos. They care about the environment, the animals, humanity. They’re all like little love bugs. It’s so sweet. It’s wild to think that River and Earth Day turn fifty in 2020 because he has so many new fans that are in the Stand By Me age group! I feel an extra sense of responsibility to these kids. I can’t imagine being a younger person these days, I know they must be struggling with so much anxiety and fear. I hope his memory and what he stood for can be a source of inspiration and motivate them into action.”
Releasing Alone U Elope was not easy for Rain. It’s taken her twenty-five years to feel comfortable sharing the music she made with her brother, finally dropping “In the Corner Dunce” in 2018, followed by the 2019 double single Time Gone, which includes the tracks “Where I’d Gone” and “Scales & Fishtails.” Although there’s technically an album’s worth of songs, Rain says River was reluctant to release anything until he felt good about it, which is why she’s erring on the side of caution in releasing tracks—much less an entire album—at this time. Since River was in the process of creating something that was never completed, Rain says she wants to do what would most honor him and what he was doing musically.
“Of course everybody wants to hear everything, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he would’ve wanted that,” says Rain. “For all I know, there were going to be ten more songs. To assume that this was an album is in itself a pretty huge assumption. I want what does get out to be something that we both would be proud of and would match his sensibility. The fact that he’s no longer here means I have to be doubly sure. Even when I do it in micro doses, I have to honor his particularness.”
Released along with the vinyl will be a sprawling collection of new Aleka’s Attic merchandise, including a “lost in motion” poster by Irish abstract artist Jack Coulter, a vintage t-shirt designs by the Aleka’s former bassist Josh McKay, and striking new merch designed by LaunchLeft’s own animator/graphic designer Chris Tucci, who also created the lyric video for “Alone U Elope.” Rain will repurpose her “River” tees to include her brother’s handwritten quote “Run to the Rescue with Love and Peace Will Follow”—the same words brother Joaquin quoted during his Oscar acceptance speech earlier this year—on the back. Further reinforcing Phoenix’s environmentalism, the shirts are also made from recycled materials. The Aleka’s Attic store opens at 8:23 a.m. PST on 8/23.
The vinyl’s cover features an image of Phoenix and his messily braided hair, a photograph taken by River’s close friend Michael Stipe, the result of a road trip they took to Georgia. Driving from Nashville to Athens along with Rain and friends to see Natalie Merchant play, Stipe remembers that it was hot, and River’s long hair was hanging all around his face, so they braided it using pieces of masking tape. When they finally reached Athens, Stipe called artist Jeremey Ayers over to his house to give River a haircut in the backyard. The end result was a bowl cut.
“It was super sweet and not at all an expected look, but it worked,” says Stipe, who photographed River’s hair transformation. “When Jeremy was done, River looked like Dorothy Hamill or one of the kids from The Little Rascals,” shares Stipe. “The next day we drove to Atlanta to see Natalie perform again, and River and Jeremy had these crazy Joan Didion sunglasses—and that bowl cut and an enormous torn up t-shirt. We looked like quite a gang.”
Stipe says his friendship with Phoenix still feels unique to this day. “There’s a handful of people I’ve met in my life who I instantly felt, ‘Ahh, this is gonna be a lifetime friendship, OK, done,’” says Stipe. “Meeting River was like that. There was definitely mutual admiration for what we had each done creatively, but beyond that was an instant spark, a warmth, a kinship. We had so much in common in terms of activism and beliefs about the environment and vegetarianism, but also how to utilize fame and a public platform to encourage progressive ideas.”
“There’s a handful of people I’ve met in my life who I instantly felt, ‘Ahh, this is gonna be a lifetime friendship, OK, done.’ Meeting River was like that. We had so much in common in terms of activism and beliefs about the environment and vegetarianism, but also how to utilize fame and a public platform to encourage progressive ideas.” —Michael Stipe
In many ways, River’s spirit is still wrapped around Stipe’s work, as it is Rain’s. Her debut solo album, 2019’s River, is dedicated to her brother and also features a duet with Stipe on “Time Is the Killer.” When she started LaunchLeft it was to honor River’s life and work. The platform gives left-of-center artists who might not otherwise get exposure an outlet.
For River, what was more important than being a star was finding that true part of himself and amplifying it through the fame that he garnered, says Rain. If River were alive today, she can’t say what he would be doing, but she does know what he stood for in his activism and in his art. “I think he’d make a great poster child for 2020,” Rain continues. “If fame lands you on the cover of magazines, why not use it to start conversations about the issues we all face—despair, the climate emergency, racial justice, animal rights, all these issues that need solutions. He was doing that when it was a totally foreign thing back in the ’80s. My mom always says that River was a ‘solutionary,’ he didn’t like to dwell on what was wrong with the world, but instead enjoyed searching for solutions.”
Rain believes one of her brother’s greatest qualities was reminding kids in his generation—and now a newer generation—of the spark in their truth. “We all have so much inside us that’s worth living for and worth growing,” says Rain. “For him, it wasn’t the most important thing to have a hit record or be in a hit movie. The most important thing was to honor the truth in his own soul and in our country and in our world, and to think about how we are all able to step into our own truth, and face whatever adversity, knowing we have magic inside us.” FL