"You can learn a lot from a river."
"Siddartha," by Herman Hesse
IN THE BEGINNING…
Why is it, I ask myself, that I have come to revere River Phoenix; why River above so many other people? I am no worshipper of adolescence nor do I pretend that he was the greatest of all actors; however, there is something in him that touches me deeply. I am not sure what it is, not sure what in his spirit has sparked me.
Perhaps his apparent wisdom beyond his age? His youthful exuberance? His secretive childhood? His screen image? Or the sorrowful abuse that he suffered at the hands of his hippie, skewed-view-of-the-world parents?
Indeed, though he died in 1993, it was not until four years later, when I began to read more about him, that his acting began to lure me. Before that, I never had paid much attention to him, but since I have developed this new interest in him, I have investigated and evaluated. I have come to believe that I understand his utterances and his beliefs, his strength, and the beauty of his life--as well as his temptations and vulnerabilities. I now know and understand the hidden shame of his childhood.
As much as I hate to admit it, River and I would not in all likelihood have been friends. We are of opposite political beliefs and artistic tastes; we have had vastly different life experiences, yet some of his friends have told me, "He would have liked you. You are challenging and engaging like he was. And he liked that in others, too." Is that the rub? Was the point and purpose of his life on the planet to reach out--even after his death--to those who appear to be his opposites but who are, in fact, the same inside? To reach out and help people like me? I have been profoundly touched by his purity and maddened by his conflicts.
This book is not about the death of River Phoenix. It is a compilation of my search for the truth: a chronology and a correction of the record, and it is a celebration of all the aspects of his human life. I have interviewed many of his close friends and associates to give the reader a more personal insight to his life and personality.
I visited his birthplace, his homes, favorite haunts and film locations. Amongst other places, I visited San Francisco and Hollywood, California, where I descended into the bowels of the Los Angles City archives five stories below the street. I am making a journey, meeting family (including a conversation with his father), friends and other interesting Riophiles©, having experiences that I had never even thought about. My quest for River Phoenix has opened up unexpected avenues and opportunities and opened up my life.
Since his death in 1993, something phenomenal has been happening. All over the world, men and women of different persuasions and colors, from different countries, with different religious beliefs and political backgrounds, are experiencing a confounding fascination with River Jude Phoenix. River has become more popular now than when he was a celluloid presence. This complex person calls from beyond the grave to say, "There was more to me than Hollywood."
Arguably, no actor before him has affected in so many positive ways the number of people River Phoenix has influenced, and that even more so since his death than before it. He has made people aware of animal rights and motivated some to convert to veganism. He has prevented tragic deaths by getting several young adults off drugs and he has stopped others from starting their use. Perhaps it is hard to believe, but it is true that any number of teens have been convinced, even in their confused world of contradictions and peer pressure, to simply say. "No, I won't do drugs or even let them into my life because of the way River Phoenix died."
I've been amazed to discover how many fans River has now, even in countries such as Poland, Russia, China and Uruguay with the advent of the internet. The number of his fans in North America is staggering. His gift of being able to bring people together and enable them to change themselves for the better seems to have continued after his premature death at the age of twenty-three.
From the moment of his birth, River became one of the most contrived, fabricated persons of his time, living his life cloaked in myth, and it is no surprise that a flood of questions follows the mention of his name. Was he the raging junkie, as many believe? Or the clean living, non-smoking vegan, animal rights activist, and live-and-let-live kind of guy? Was he the best actor of his generation or merely a skillful reactor? Or did he merely parrot the different and radical ideal of his strange upbringing?
Did he father any children? It was public knowledge that he had three relationships, but there were more, plus numerous lovers and brief encounters.
Why was he confused and unable to implement his ideals? Was he full of demons?
Why did no one try to help him as he lay dying on the sidewalk?
His family shaped him--as family does--and his obsessions, attitudes and his responses to life reflected that shaping. He was raised by his family in circumstances that are beyond comprehension for most of us, and which would certainly be unfathomable to a child. Inner struggle and conflict were inevitable for River as he grew older. Nevertheless, he remains responsible for his choices after he became an adult and, yes, one choice had a tragic end. However, as the mythical bird, River can have life again; can rise again from the ashes.
As Henry Miller wrote about the French poet Rimbaud, it is clear about River as well that "He embraced the darkness and the light."
Nevertheless, what is River's true story? More mystifying, why does he want it told?
And most cryptic, why me?
Will this endeavor bring me full circle and end this obsession? This book will answer all these questions and more about one of the most fascinating and paradoxical persons of our time. From his unorthodox upbringing and connection with a religious cult at a young age, his lack of a formal education and possible dyslexia, to his Hollywood film career and death on the street with his siblings and friends present, let River's story, the story of the real River Phoenix, be told.
“Barry Lawrence said he lived in a house on a mountain top, 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.”
- William Richert