Before his untimely death in 1993, River Phoenix was one of the most promising prodigies in Hollywood. He would eventually pass away from a drug overdose at the terribly young age of 23 on Halloween night, but the life of the Academy Award-nominated star was too far complex and poignant to be deemed yet another catastrophic side-effect of fame.
Nevertheless, the same tragic undertones remain a part of his rhetoric. As Ethan Hawke, who appeared along with Phoenix in the 1985 film Explorers, remarked: “You know what you asked me about earlier, why I don’t make easier movies?” he told The Guardian. “Well, my first screen partner overdosed on Sunset Boulevard, you know? He was the brightest light and this industry chewed him up, and that was a big lesson to me.”
Later adding: “Drugs and alcohol and depression are formidable opponents all over the world. People think getting what you want will make you happy, but a sense of self, purpose and love don’t come from the outside. You can’t get distracted by this culture that celebrates things that sometimes aren’t what they seem.” This preventability of his loss made it all the more tragic.
He was a beloved star not just to the masses but within Hollywood himself, and as a close personal friend of Phoenix, Michael Stipe was particularly haunted by his loss. The singer would later bittersweetly reminisce: “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.”
Stipe didn’t write any music in the five months that followed his death while he grieved. Then in 1994, he penned the touching song, ‘Crush With Eyeliner’, in memoriam of his late friend. According to the biography Reveal: The Story of REM, this was the first song that followed the grief-induced creative drought that Stipe suffered.
The song traverses the lives of people who assume different personalities, which Stipe insists is also a reference to the New York Dolls, who were renowned for their amorphous stage personas. While Courtney Love told Uncut Magazine that she believed the song was about her.
The track from their ninth studio album, Monster, also features Thurston Moore of the Sonic Youth on backing vocals. The sleazy reverb-laden guitars saw the band staddle the emergent sounds of grunge and Britpop, which represented somewhat of a change in sound for the band. It was also a transitory track that proved relatively successful, landing at number 23 in the UK singles chart and 33 in the US rock listings.
Whether the links to his late friend were merely subliminal or he was the central protagonist of the song is known only to Stipe, but one thing that is clear is that Phoenix lived on in the profound creative impact that he had on those who knew him best. As Rain Phoenix told Flood Magazine: “I hope his memory and what he stood for can be a source of inspiration and motivates [young artists] into action.”