There are people among us who can take our breath away with their character and style, with qualities of goodness and generosity which make us blink to be sure we are seeing correctly; they are rare, and so beautiful. River Phoenix was such a person.
Angels were not restricted to Heaven until the Dark Ages. Before that, they were thought to walk among the living, ever-present benefactors and spiritual guides. River was like that; no one who ever met him can deny it, nor can anyone explain it. For me he was a bright, unexpected crack of glowing light in the universe, and I mean that literally; when he died, a kind of fog and gloom settled in which I feel even now.
River was aptly named; he was a gusher of talent, of curiosity and wonder. His temperament was to go to the very edges of life, and with his humanness and the tentacles of his talent, to feel around, and to probe with that mischievous, cat-like smile on his face, extending himself in empathy and generosity.
He was always asking questions. When I last saw him, he had all sorts of questions about how I was living my life, and about subjects multifarious. Nobody close to River could escape his scrutiny (or his sly teasing wit) and I, perhaps, represented an “Older Person’s Point of View.” We were in my funky apartment on the ocean side of the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu. Still full of energy at 2 A.M., he asked if he could play his guitar on the deck when I said I had to sleep. I said, “Sure,” and left him looking out over the ocean and playing. I told him he could lock up after himself.
In fact, River was still there in the morning; he was sleeping on the floor with his guitar, lying on pillows he had taken off the couch. He had slept in the clothes he was wearing the night before. I woke him making coffee. Getting up sleepily, he thanked me for waking him, and drove into town to the set of the motion picture in which he was starring. From his clothes, from his very simplicity, you’d have thought he was homeless. Maybe he was.
Maybe he’s home now.
Often I think about the image of River lying on the pavement toward the end of My Own Private Idaho, and about the image of our real-life River lying on the sidewalk in front of the Viper Room on Halloween; I wonder if the first was a prophecy and the second a destiny.
All of us who knew River miss him. For a while we decided in unspoken agreement that we would stop speaking about him to reporters or writers because so many of us had been misquoted. That was a mistake, I think now, because it left those who knew River less well, or almost not at all, to speak on his behalf, and misrepresentations crept into the stories that were written.
Barry Lawrence said he lived in a house on a mountaintop, that he was a vintner, and that he wanted to write every true thing he could discover about River Phoenix. He was persistent and thorough, and seemed hungry for every detail of River’s life. His devotion and research have been extraordinary. I think this book will be of great value to the memory of River, and helpful to all those who want to know more about him.
On his last night I know River had been on a six-week vegan’s diet of artichokes and corn, that he’d been working until late to help the film crew of the production he was starring in, and that the responsibilities he’d taken on with his work, his friends and family were bearing down on him. Among his own he was the breadwinner, and he worked tirelessly at his craft. When River started a film, he not only knew his own lines but the lines of all the other actors as well, and he could recite the stage directions to boot.
On the night he died, he had come to L.A. for R&R like any hard-working guy. He drank a fatal potion given to him by a person he trusted, and it killed him. I think his body was too pure for the common weekend-night assault that far less healthy eaters and drinkers could handle. However, I also think he wanted to touch danger, too, and that the artist he was felt he could handle death, perhaps even collaborate with it and play out a scene or two. This time, however, he opened the one door from which he could never return. He was locked out . . . or we were. The bit of Heaven he brought to earth he took away with him.
Nevertheless, he could not take away our memories and illuminations, and we have Mr. Lawrence to thank for helping us to keep them.
|With the permission of author Barry C. Lawrence, William Richert’'s Foreword for this book has been reprinted as a eulogy for River Phoenix in the newly-released 2003 book edited by Cyrus M. Copeland: Farewell, Godspeed/The Greatest Eulogies of Our Time [ISBN 1-4000-4946-6]. As reprinted in the book, it is entitled “River Phoenix: Eulogy by William Richert”, and it is acknowledged as being “in commemoration. William Richert is credited as being River Phoenix’'s “Director” and “Confidant”.|