When Josh McKay’s friends learned that the 22-year-old guitarist was considering moving to Florida to play in a band with teenage actor River Phoenix, they suggested he might be crazy. Movie stars, they said, can’t make music. You’ll be back in Texas in a month.
But in 1988 Denton, a suburb of Dallas, was nowheresville as far as Josh McKay was concerned, and the primitive recordings he’d received from Phoenix were encouraging. “It was really nice, these really tight jam-box garage tapes,” McKay remembers. “It definitely struck me that, ‘This is about music. It’s not about some hobby trip.’” He’d had a couple of long, deep phone conversations with the young actor, about music, and creativity, and what they meant. He hadn’t seen any of River Phoenix’s movies.
Phoenix, who was not yet 18, had recently moved to a farmhouse near Micanopy, Florida – a rural town outside of Gainesville – with his family. At the time, he was onscreen in Running on Empty, which would bring him an Academy Award nomination.
River was passionate about music. He’d been playing guitar since the age of 4, and wrote his first song when he was 8. As a teen, his obsessions were punky singer/songwriter Elvis Costello, Ireland’s deep-thinking U2 and the feisty British pop band XTC.
On the basis of his original songs, Phoenix had secured a development deal from Chris Blackwell, president of Island Records, which had U2 on its roster. Island laid out funds to put a band together, to rehearse and record demos, and – provided the music was good enough – they’d promised to record a proper album at the end of the two-year deal.
So when the Phoenix family relocated to Florida from Eugene, Oregon in 1988, the first thing River did was claim the detached garage behind the house as his rehearsal room. He called it the Attic.
One of Blackwell’s A&R reps knew Josh MacKay and his (defunct) Texas band, Joshomisho, and thought she heard a similar, free-form element in River Phoenix’s songs.
Phoenix was making his home tapes with Josh Greenbaum, also 17, who came up from South Florida just to help his friend start the band. Greenbaum’s mother had grown up with Arlen “Heart” Phoenix, River’s mother, in the Bronx, and the families stayed close through the years.
Greenbaum had drummed for a metal band – after he left, the group changed its name to Saigon Kick and got famous – and he had to learn a whole new way of playing, softer and with complex rhythm changes, to jell with River.
Greenbaum’s fondest memories are of the days he and his friend sat on the trampoline in the Phoenix back yard, working out songs.
Out in Texas, McKay was half-heartedly taking anthropology classes and wondering what to do next. He found himself drawn in by the songs on the cassette tapes, and began inventing basslines around them, although he was a guitarist by training and hadn’t ever seriously played bass.
Still, he was intrigued, and once he discovered that he shared other interests with Phoenix – a vegetarian lifestyle, and a strong belief in animal rights – he decided it might not be so strange after all.
“I left as soon as my finals were done; I wasn’t really thinking about it too much,” McKay recalls. “I just said ‘this is a very unusual thing to fall down from out of nowhere’; some people down in Florida, in Gainesville where I’ve never heard of, want me to come out and hang out, and maybe play together. I didn’t have anything in Denton happening that looked like a musical forward motion.”
Included in the development deal was a retainer fee for the chosen musicians, so McKay’s room and board was picked up as long as Island remained on the line. Both he and Greenbaum lived with the Phoenix family for the first year.
Josh Greenbaum and River picked him up at the Gainesville Airport, and McKay loved the area, the home and the family – River, his parents and his four siblings – as soon as he got a look at them. It was very much a ‘Yes,’” he says, smiling at the memory. “Really, really good feeling together immediately.”
McKay was accepted into the extended family; he and River hit it off and furiously began writing and singing together. Sister Rain Phoenix, two years younger than River, was recruited to play keyboard and sing harmony, and the band was completed with the addition of 17-year-old Tim Hankins, a Gainesville native, on viola.
Hankins met Rain through a mutual friend. A member of the Gainesville Chamber Orchestra, he’d never before played pop music – a good thing, because the band wasn’t about to do things in the usual way. The key word was experimentation.
Toys in the attic
Aleka is a poet and philosopher. The Attic is a meeting place where he lives, and he has a secret society. They come and visit him and read his works.
He then dies, and they meet regularly and continue the readings of his works, and from that learn their own, and become filled with this new passion for life. And they express it through our music.
River Phoenix, 1989, interview with the author
Following a two-week tour of east coast clubs in early ’89, the band – now called Aleka’s Attic – joined the Gainesville music scene. River, his bandmates agree, was dedicated to his craft and paid little attention to those who said Aleka’s Attic was nothing more than a vanity project.
“He was the most annoyingly committed guy you’ve ever met in your life,” says Greenbaum. “Nonstop, every moment.”
Adds McKay: “For him, everything that mattered, he would cram in at the same time. So each limb was independent, because his time was precious. His time to enjoy was just as precious as his time to be creating music.”
The pattern began almost immediately: River was off to Los Angeles to make another movie, and then another, and each time Aleka’s Attic sat dormant in Gainesville for months at a stretch. The two-year development deal was frozen each time he left on a film assignment.
“There was a lot of change and readjustment of lives,” Greenbaum remembers. “It became a problem at times, it definitely did. Never to the point where there were big fights or anything.”
McKay: “He was at the mercy of a lot of other forces, and we were second generation from that.”
Greenbaum: “We were kind of at the mercy of his career.”
Tim Hankins, in particular, grew to resent the interruptions. “We’d practice for six or eight months, and we’d kind of reach this apex … and then he would go off for three months and do a film,” he says.
“It was like coitus, you know? It was like we worked toward something that never came to fruition.”
Hankins says River went out of his way to be nice to fans, to distance himself from the 40-foot-tall guy on the movie screen.
“He always took this posture of trying to dissolve this myth that had been created,” Hankins explains. “If you saw the way he dressed … if you didn’t know him, you’d think he was a homeless person.”
Likewise, he didn’t play bossman with his bandmates. “River was one of the most diplomatic people I’ve ever known,” Greenbaum says. “He had a way of making things flow – of taking energy from one place and driving it in another direction. He was constantly trying to keep things peaceful.”
In 1991, the Phoenix/McKay composition “Across the Way” appeared on Tame Yourself, a benefit album for People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals. A multi-layered, stream-of-consciousness piece about hypocrisy, it is the only Aleka’s Attic song ever to be officially released in River’s lifetime.
That year, Phoenix made the films Dogfight and My Own Private Idaho back-to-back. “After we did two-and-a-half months’ touring, up the East Coast twice, then we came back and did the ‘Here’s where we’re at’ demos,” Greenbaum says.
“But as soon as we finished it, River went off to do press stuff for three months. And so Island was just sitting there with the demos. That was really the big period of change.”
Tim Hankins says he “just couldn’t get along” with River any more, and by late spring he’d left the band.
In August, Aleka’s Attic re-convened as a quartet, with the intention of really getting their album into gear. River returned all excited, McKay recalls, because he had ben offered the big-budget movie Sneakers.
“We started talking about going to L.A.,” the bassist says, “and instead of making the record the band would practice when he wasn’t doing the film. And I just sort of crumbled under that concept.”
Remaining in Gainesville, McKay and Hankins put together another band, Emperor Moth.
Greenbaum went to California with River and Rain; with T-Bone Burnett producing, they cut a couple of demos for Island while Sneakers was in production, using guest bass players.
“Those two demos that we did in L.A., those were pretty much the crux of the deal,” according to Greenbaum. “This was it. We had already gone over the two-year thing, and we had got to the point where we had to make a decision. It was overdue.”
Island heard the tapes – and passed. “It wasn’t like they just dropped us; they heard the demo and it wasn’t – in my opinion – marketable enough for them.”
A man possessed
River was actually relieved; he decided to finance and record the album on his own, at his own pace.
Today, there are 20 or more incomplete songs “in the can” at Pro Media Studios in Gainesville, the result of several furious months of recording in 1992 and ’93. Those who were at the sessions say River worked like a man possessed, as if he knew his time was short.
River Phoenix played his last two Gainesville shows in October 1992, with Rain, Josh Greenbaum and a bassist named Sasa Raphael.
“We still considered ourself a band – it was Rain, Sasa, River and I,” Greenbaum explains, adding that the group billed itself as the Blacksmith Configuration.
“It was rawer, and I think more nitty-gritty than ever. We became the tight garage band that we’d started as. We came full circle, in a way, but more mature.”
Hollywood beckoned again, and this time River accepted three movies in a row. “At that point, I began to look for things to keep myself busy,” Greenbaum says. “I decided I just can’t live for this one thing any more. I gotta make stuff happen.”
Greenbaum joined the jazz group Scarf & the Happy Dragons (later renamed Mindwalk) and Big White Undies.
River died Oct. 31, 1993, two months after the last session at Pro Media. A lethal combination of drugs killed him on the sidewalk outside L.A.’s Viper Room nightclub; he was expecting to jam that night with the house band. He was 23.
Josh Greenbaum maintains his friend didn’t abuse drugs. “I know that the time I spent with him was spent trying to be as healthy as we could,” he says. “Not only physically, but in lots of other ways, mentally.
“He was totally pro-life, and pro-happiness, and was constantly trying to make himself and everyone around him better.”
He wasn’t an angel – name one musician who is, Greenbaum asks– but he wasn’t a junkie. Josh believes River simply got run down on the Los Angeles fast lane.
“L.A. is a swamp, it’s a pit,” he says. “And I think it was just one night of … having too much fun. Simple: Young person making a mistake.”
Tim Hankins had settled his differences with River – he even played on some of those last sessions – and was chummy with him again before leaving in the spring to study music at the University of Miami.
“I spent three years of my life devoted to this thing, and we had some pretty amazing adventures,’ Hankins explains. “Some pretty difficult times, and some pretty great times. It was just a really amazing journey to be on.”
Josh McKay was two weeks into an extended tour of Indonesia when he got the news. On Nov. 5, he was scheduled to check in with his brother in Gainesville, for the first time since he’d left. His travels were taking him through jungles and over mountains, away from telephones and newspapers.
Before he left Bali for Sumatra, Josh intended to give his brother a forwarding address – River had expressed an interest in joining him, and McKay was hoping to spend some “quality time” with his former bandmate and songwriting partner.
Over dinner in his hotel, McKay struck up a conversation with a man from Finland, a musician and composer. They talked about music, mostly.
“Our conversation was just a real nice exchange,” McKay recalls. “And it ended up turning very abruptly and very unexpectedly, with him mentioning having read an article about some young American actor who died.
“And instantly, the hammer struck.”
@1994 Bill DeYoung/The Gainesville Sun