The Viper Room: Red Hot Chili Peppers Guitarist John Frusciante Played a Disastrous Set the Night River Phoenix Died

Johnny Depp is known for his quirky personality and talented acting skills, including his notable role as Jack in Pirates of the Caribbean. One of his business ventures in the early 1990s of becoming part-owner of The Viper Room created a space for young celebrities and Hollywood elites to hang out.

The Viper Room green neon sign lit in a dark room
The Viper Room | Barry King/Getty Images

With many stars frequenting the club, you can only imagine the scandals and tragedy the club’s walls have experienced over the years. One of the early tragedies of The Viper Room was the OD-related death of the young actor River Phoenix. 

John Frusciante and River Phoenix

While River Phoenix was a successful actor in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he still followed his passion for music. In the days leading up to Phoenix’s tragic death, reports say that he was living with John Frusciante. As the guitarist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Frusciante had just temporarily left the group to pursue his solo career.

Frusciante had developed a serious drug problem, and when the 23-year-old actor fell in with the musician, the two were doing large amounts of drugs and barely sleeping. Phoenix ended up dying from a drug overdose and caused Frusciante to play a disastrous set the same night.

According to RHCP Live Archive, the members recapped how terrible Frusciante’s first-ever solo show went after his friend died. Frusciante said it was “only like 1 minute long” and he quickly left the stage threw up on Gibby Haynes. 

Phoenix’s OD is not the first tragedy at The Viper Room

When Phoenix and Frusciante arrived at The Viper Room on Halloween night in 1993, no one suspected that it would Phoenix’s last time stepping on stage. Fellow bandmate, Bob Forrest, recapped the night of the tragic death of the young star. According to the Daily Mail, Forrest revealed that the band members had a “pretty consistent” drug routine before performing, consisting of:

“… first, smoke crack or shoot coke directly into a vein for that ninety-second, electric brain-bell jangle. Then shoot heroin to get a grip and come down enough to be able to carry on a conversation for a few minutes before you start the cycle again.”

The night Phoenix died, he recalled Frusciante and Phoenix stumbling into The Viper Room, and cocaine was almost immediately passed around among the group. The signs were there that the young Stand By Me actor was not doing well, but the band went on stage to perform. During the performance, the Daily Mail reported that Phoenix got Forrest’s attention and said, “I don’t feel so good. I think I’m OD’ing.”

After turning back to the crowd, he collapsed moments later. Phoenix was seizing and taken out to the club’s sidewalk, where an ambulance rushed him to Cedar-Sinai Hospital. However, he was not able to be saved. While Halloween night in 1993 is one of the most talked-about tragedies at the popular Hollywood hangout, there have been others.   

The Viper Room continues to be a must-visit venue in West Hollywood

While Johnny Depp and actor Sal Jenco opening The Viper Room in 1993 quickly made it the must-visit location in West Hollywood, the building at 8852 Sunset holds even more historical significance to the area. According to Visit West Hollywood, the building is from 1921 and was originally a grocery store. However, as the Sunset Strip became a hot spot for celebrities, the store was closed.

It has been home to several nightclubs and jazz clubs over the years. When Depp and Jenco opened The Viper Room, it was noted as becoming a magnet for well-established and up-and-coming artists. Many well-known performers have appeared on the club’s stage, including Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on opening night.

Other bands frequenting The Viper Room are The Strokes, Johnny Cash, and The Pussycat Dolls. While Depp sold his share of the club in 2004, The Viper Room still hosts live rock bands today and has been used for filming several movies and television shows, making it a must-visit spot for tourists and residents. 

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