River Phoenix is on Spotify, and other extraordinary things
With his band Aleka’s Attic, River Phoenix advocated for what he believed in and carved out a cult following without so much as an official single. Over 25 years later, his songs are finally (officially) seeing the light of day.
River Phoenix is on Spotify, and other extraordinary things
Fiel Estrella (The Philippine Star) - April 18, 2020 - 12:00am

River Phoenix is on Spotify.

I remember searching his name on the music streaming platform a few years back, curious to see if anybody’s ever written a song with his name in the title. There were a handful, but none by artists I’d heard of. The first result, though, was an artist page with only one track called Curi Curi, a one-minute 15-second song. I didn’t know what to expect until about halfway, when the late actor’s voice suddenly began reciting a spoken word piece. I felt a jolt; I didn’t expect it to actually be him.

The track was a collaboration with Brazilian singer-songwriter Milton Nascimento, whom I would learn had been a good friend of his. I didn’t save it to my library, but I would listen to it sometimes, when I wanted to hear his voice or when I was missing him. Which was a foolish thought, wasn’t it? He died exactly a year before I was born, on the Halloween of 1993. We never walked an earth where the other existed.

I was 10 years old when my mom pointed to the television and said, as though greeting an old friend, “Oh, that boy is dead.” Stand By Me was on and I looked past her outstretched arm to watch the kid with his sleeves rolled up and a cigarette in his mouth, his eyes vulnerable but also world-weary. I couldn’t comprehend that he was right there, and yet he was also gone.

I would see him again years later, in The Thing Called Love, one of his last films. He was all grown up. He played guitar and sang softly, somberly. He was tall and brooding, hair dyed darker, but his eyes were vulnerable and world-weary all the same. He was beautiful. “He’s dead,” my mom reminded me, sounding slightly sadder this time.

I developed a crush that never went away.

The summer I was 15 was a long one, the days stretching and bleeding into one another. I never had anywhere to be or anything to do but stay inside and read young adult novels or watch Tumblr-acceptable indie movies like Nowhere Boy and Adventureland. It occurred to me that I hadn’t seen River Phoenix in anything other than the two movies I’d already watched, so I spent the rest of that summer exhausting his brief but prolific filmography.

His characters had the most wonderful names: Chris Chambers, Mike Waters, Eddie Birdlace, Devo Nod. A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon was terrible and cringe-inducing until the final few minutes, when it suddenly grew a heart and became more poignant and nostalgic than anything. Dogfight was a fumbling romance with Lili Taylor, both square in its earnestness and inexplicably chic. Running on Empty was the movie that earned him an Oscar nomination at age 18, and the movie I still cry to all the time, 10 years later.

I learned, not long after, that he had a band called Aleka’s Attic. His songs were in the first person, his lyrics raw and capricious but clear and honest in his singing. He sounds young, but also like he has outlived everybody else. There were low-quality recordings of their songs straying across the internet — some of them from tapes the band made and sold themselves, some of them released through benefit albums for animal rights — which quickly became an on-again, off-again soundtrack to my own youth.

I saw a band manager, once, at a concert I had attended. He looked so much like a ghost of River — right down to the sandy blond hair that reached just past his shoulders — that I had to stop and catch my breath. But none of my friends knew who River Phoenix was. My crush on him, which had grown to include more complicated feelings like grief and disquiet, was something that was evidently mine and mine alone. Almost like he had been an imaginary friend I’d made up; something personal that I was keeping for my own.

That’s not exactly true anymore. I’ve noticed in the passing years that he’s become part of the internet boyfriend canon, placed (undeservedly, I thought) in the same category as, say, Leonardo DiCaprio in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet or Johnny Depp when he was dating Winona Ryder. Neither, in my opinion, could ever live up to River.

He was bigger than me, I realized. He had been a teen heartthrob, after all, his face plastered on the pages of BOP and Tiger Beat magazines. I wasn’t even the first or the last person who’s put him on this impossible pedestal, who’s listened to his songs and thought she understood him, who’s held on to him as a tragic and dreamy figure. There were many of us who longed for him along the widow’s walk of our minds.

When I turned 24, one of my first thoughts was that I would be older than him forever.

When I got a Spotify account, my iTunes library was left on my hard drive, abandoned and all but forgotten — the Aleka’s Attic songs included. It wasn’t until earlier this year, when Joaquin Phoenix had mentioned his brother during his Oscars speech (he and River were the only boys out of a brood of five) that I remembered they existed and wanted so suddenly and so badly to hear them again.

I typed the band’s name into the Spotify search bar, thinking I’d probably get nothing. But then there it was, an official artist page listing three of the songs I’d known and grown up with. Rain Phoenix, River’s bandmate and sister, had finally let them see the light of day after the band’s activities were cut short following her brother’s death.

River Phoenix is on Spotify, for real this time.

There was Where I’d Gone, a day-in-the-life kind of song that grew more unhinged as it progressed. There was Scales & Fishnails, a brief and dreamlike interlude I’d once imagined playing at my wedding someday. And there was my favorite of all (I couldn’t believe it was there) In the Corner Dunce — which River had written and recorded when he was 18 and feels like the most authentic piece of himself he’d ever left behind, singing like it hurts and like it matters: “I rarely get to feel, you know, I hardly ever feel in place.”

I’ve read that Rain Phoenix hopes to continue releasing the rest of the tracks, completing the album that was once meant to be called “Never Odd or Even.” I hope it includes another favorite, Note to a Friend. A lone guitar chord, and then River sings: “My days are heavy on the inside of my night.” Rain joins in, and together they sing of better days about to come. The verse repeats, and so does the refrain. Once, and then again: “Better they come, better days come.”

He’s been gone so long. And yet he lives on years and years later through this small thing — an official release, the kind his band never got to have, on something so modern and so now, anachronistic in the best way.

So strange, and yet so welcome. Like that summer all over again, having him come alive once more like it was for me and me alone — only this time, I know I’m not alone, and I can’t wait to share it with anyone who’s willing to listen. This is River Phoenix, I would tell them. You can’t find many traces of him anymore, but he’s right here.

RIVER PHOENIX SPOTIFY.
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