August 5th, 1992—There was a spike of heat in the Northwest. It had risen through the wooden floors and dampened my bare feet. August 5th, 1992—I’d replaced those banged up blinds, and wrapped my leaky showerhead with River’s Thyme. August 5th, 1992—The four cops whom beat Rodney King—whom lit the match on what were the Los Angeles riots—were indicted on civil rights charges.
August 5th, 1992—Stereo speakers were perched high in the open windows of Coryell Court, and Ace of Base blared through my neighbor’s apartment for three hours straight. I wanted to smash my head into the wall. Poetically, of course.
My kitchen was tiny, and River had leaned over the breakfast bar, hair pinned back behind his ears, glasses on. His eyes were glazed in some otherworldly milkiness. Wheels were turning and lyrics were piecing themselves together. The music was breaking through—his stupefacient drug. He picked up the full ashtray beside him, slamming it into the trashcan. And something clicked within that milkiness and he whipped the small notebook from the pocket of his faded blue jeans. I winced as the sunlight caught my eye.
“What are you writing, Riv?” I whispered. I watched my shadow, my head hung low as I walked in a small circle along the wood. Warm shadows, I thought. And Eddie’s face flashed briefly through my thoughts. Warm shadows.
“You’re moving slow,” he mumbled into his fingers.
“Hm?” I blinked up, but he didn’t meet my glance. He scribbled away at that notepad.
“You look like you’re going to fall over…” He flipped through pages, looking up suddenly. “How’s the insomnia?”
“I thought you were going to sing to me.” I poked his ribs, brushing past him.
The fridge was adorned with pizza coupons, cheap magnets, and a piece of printer paper with a quote written in River Phoenix’s handwriting: How to stay healthy and good-looking? Drink the blood of young runaways. Drink my blood.
“It’s not much,” he began, grabbing his guitar off the floor. “And I’m kind of stuck, but I’ll figure it out.”
I grabbed two glasses from a cupboard, orange juice from the fridge, and River ran through a few chords.
“Pearls and swine bereft of me. Long and weary my road has been. I was lost in the cities, alone in the hills. No sorrow or pity for leaving, I feel, yeah. I am not your rolling wheels, I am the highway—” He stopped abruptly, dropping his shoulders in defeat.
That’s all I’ve got, his eyes said. I pressed my lips together but smiled hard, and he rolled his eyes because he knew what I was going to say.
He took a swallow of his orange juice and licked his lips. “Don’t say it’s great, because it’s not. It’s nowhere close to being finished.”
“Play it again.”
Keanu had bulletproof eyes.
“What?” He crinkled his brows, trying to make out the yelling across the way. He shoved his hands into the black leather of his jacket. He shook his head, licking his lips.
He had a quick tongue.
“I can’t hear you!” He motioned to his ears. He smirked, turning away as they continued yelling. Wanting him to come over, wanting him in their presence, wanting a piece of the glory—cooked up fantasies, worn out dazes. He draped his arms around my neck instead, waddling behind me. I shoved him off, but he pulled me down with him.
Blasé, he’d cut you down in an instant. There was nothing accidental about it. I saw the way girls pushed their way into his space, but his galaxy was vast, so if you bore him, you were thrown back into the darkness. And without doubt, he took pleasure out of leading you on and pushing you away. I pitied the young ones.
“I won’t pity you.” He said matter-of-factly, looking over my grass-stained shorts.
Keanu Reeves was a Grade A asshole.
“I just want to stick my thumbs so far into your eyeball sockets.” I reached for his face. He flashed his teeth and ripped the grass from the earth. Standing to his feet, he sprinkled it into my hair.
Silence fell between us as cameras and crew followed River and Tyler down the street. And at the end of that street, banging the hell out of his drums, Eric sat shirtless, his sandy hair whipping all over. Keanu shot me a glance before running into the middle of the scene, ramming into River.
Gus Van Sant was directing the music video for “Stone.” And I was slithering along; half-alive, half-gone; my legs bare and scratched up by the weeds, too tall, too long…
Fall of 1989, Keanu had gone home to California to visit an old friend by the name of Jack Irons, and ended up at a Joe Strummer show one night. This is when Jack and Keanu met the lead singer of Bad Radio: Eddie Vedder. To this day, the three of them will say it was Strummer’s spliff of tobacco and weed that sealed their ties.
In the summer of 1990, Keanu and Tyler convinced River to join them in forming The Lost Boys. They needed him. He had the voice. He could see the music. River had been skeptical, but in the end laid down the rules. He was serious about it all. “If I’m going to do this, we’re not fucking around. I’m twenty-years-old, my life is half-over already.” And so they spent weeks at a time playing music fifteen hours a day in the basement of River’s childhood home, spending weekends in the undergrounds of Seattle. I was going to Evergreen and working all hours of the week so that I was free to tango with them when they headed up north. It was so loud. It was so addictive—so when River asked me to move to Seattle, I dropped everything, I didn’t care. I’d spend the rest of my days living off of Tupelo honey and peanut butter if that’s what it took.
It all seemed to happen so fast, faster than we’d ever expected, because by 1991, they’d changed their name to Running Knees, and their demo was playing in and around Olympia radio stations. The shows grew longer, the crowds grew larger, and once Greater Seattle picked up on them, Epic Records wanted a piece. Keanu worked his ass off to make all this happen, he wanted it more than anything. That’s when Eric came along, and they tried their luck with Rick Parashar—whose studio had given the world Soundgarden’s Louder Than Love and Alice in Chains’ Facelift. “No-fuckin’-brainer,” Keanu said. “We’re doing it.” So there they were sharing time over at London Bridge Studios with none other than Mookie Blaylock, crossing paths with Eddie Vedder once again. Kismet.
See, Running Knees was only becoming more and more mainstream, not that that’s what they wanted. Nobody wants that. But they were making a change, thrown into the same spotlight as Pearl Jam. They earned that same recognition. The same recognition Kurt Cobain loathed—the very reason he and River had their differences. But Kurt was just rebelling against it all, and River didn’t know how to. I caught that.
West Coast Anthem. Sort of like Lollapalooza, but not. WCA was a traveling music festival conceived by Anthony Kiedis in 1988. Every August, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and a bunch of other rockers traveled the west coast, putting on show after show for thirty-one days, raising money for music-less school districts in the west. This was their biggest year yet, and today they had arrived in Seattle.
Pearl Jam and Running Knees were performing so frequently together, people were starting to chant “Running Jam!” before they took the stage. I stood on the side with a colorful Stone Gossard who had broken his wrist the week before. He was casted and wouldn’t be back on stage for a couple weeks. He pointed to a sign in the audience. It read the words REDDIE PHEDDER with a morphed photo of River and Eddie. We laughed, and I cried the more Stone joked. And during Mike’s solo of “State of Love and Trust,” Stone grabbed my hand and pulled me to the center of the stage with him, where we jumped around and blinded Eddie with a fedora Stone would eventually throw into the crowd of sweaty teenagers. I saw the quartz crystal around his neck and smiled before Keanu threw me over his shoulder and ran off the stage yelling something about funnel cake.
There’d be nothing better than these days.
This was also the first time I met Demri Parrott. She was beautiful and high, with a giddy Layne Staley attached to her hip. He was beautiful and high as well. She complimented my teal corduroy cutoffs, they were River’s, but she wore corduroy, too. And John Frusciante, my God, his face hit me like a shot through the heart.
Soundgarden, Soundgarden, and more Soundgarden.
I sat in the small telephone booth in River’s hallway. Chris’ voice echoed through speakers in the living room, while him, Ben, and Kim sat with River and Tyler, going over lyrics and artwork.
I hung up and dialed the number again. Waiting…
“Did you hear Jeff Porcaro died last night?” River yelled my way.
“What? How?” I yelled back.
“They say he was spraying pesticides in his yard and he just keeled over.”
“Hello?” A voice finally came through. Home.
A moment settled. “Hey, Slim.”
“Did you know Jeff Porcaro died?” I rubbed aimlessly at a laminated flyer near my head. It was emerald green. It was a surviving Xeroxed copy from The Lost Boys’ Olympia days. It was River’s favorite show.
“Who?” He asked.
I smiled, dropping my hand. “Nothing.”
“What’s going on, kid? Seattle swallow you whole yet?”
“Not yet,” I humored. “But I’m counting on it.”
“You know,” he cleared his throat, “Chief Seattle was a heavy drug addict? All that Native American magic voodoo and those drugs got the best of him—”
“That is not true,” I laughed, looking up to find Tyler hovering. “You can’t go telling people that.”
“Is that Uncle Rich?” He mouthed. I nodded, shooing him away with the flick of my wrist.
“—He went crazy, cursing the white men he let settle on his land. Told ‘em their children and their children’s children would suffer from a disease that would trap them long before their death. A disease of the blood and veins.”
“Uncle Rich,” I shook my head, “how’s Gray’s Harbor?”
“It’s good, yeah. Are you coming down this month?”
“Of course. Me and River.”
“Good, good… I have to get back to work, but I’ll see you in a couple weeks.” I heard him blow out a quick breath. He was smoking. He was inside his garage, covered in grease and dinner remnants, a cigarette in his mouth.
“I’ll see you then.” I twirled the phone cord around my fingers. There was a lull, and I thought maybe he’d forgotten I was there. But I didn’t mind.
“You need anything?” He asked me this every time. It always kind of pinched my heart.
“No.” Never. “I’m fine, thank you.”
Stay out of trouble, he told me. I’m sorry about Jeff Porcaro. I know Toto was one of your favorites… Bye, Slim.
“But what’s it like? How does it work for you?” Chris took a seat near Tyler, popping his knuckles.
River raised his brows in acknowledgment, and bit his lip in thought. “I think if I wanted to be anything other than a musician it’d be pretty fucking distracting,” he smiled. “But, uh, I just see the colors. Take you and Eddie for instance—your singing voice has a higher pitch, so I usually see lighter and brighter colors the higher you go. Eddie’s pitch is lower than yours, so I see darker, grungier colors.”
“Ahem. River Phoenix of Running Knees, are you saying Eddie Vedder’s more grunge than Chris Cornell?” Tyler egged on, holding an invisible microphone to River’s mouth, putting on his best Kurt Loder voice.
River crinkled his nose as he laughed, and then cut to a serious face. “What the fuck is grunge?”
“Chris?” Kurt Loder’s voice remained. “Thoughts?”
Chris jumped to his feet in faked outrage. “I am king. King of Seattle, all right? Tell ‘em, Jules. Tell ‘em…”
I crept away from the group of guys, pressing a finger to my lips as Kim watched me slip quietly through the backdoor.
“Jules?” I heard Chris’ voice from afar.
Keanu and Matt sat with their backs against the tall evergreens that swallowed River’s backyard. They exchanged mumbled words, breathing in the fumes of a bonfire with a setting sun in the distance. Bliss. Matt wore a raspberry jam t-shirt, a hole in the knee of his jeans. His facial structure was delicious.
I grabbed Keanu’s guitar from the tree stump and sat down across from them, my fingers dancing across the strings. He raised his eyebrows, those bulletproof eyes cool and collected for the rest of the night. Matt snickered when the guys emptied out of the house and huddled around the fire. I smelled the wet black tobacco in Matt’s mouth. Copenhagen. It reminded me of my father.
“Can I see that?” Chris asked, reaching for my lap. I handed off the guitar, the thrill on his face illumined by the fire.
River and Chris began playing their guitars, feeding off each other. And Chris watched the milky stare in River’s eyes, the invisible music comingling with the evening sky while they sang. Matt slapped his hands against his thighs, the drummer in him taking over. I wish I’d had my camcorder.
“I am not your rolling wheels—I am the highway.” River sang, passing it off to Chris.
“I am not your carpet ride—I am the sky.” Chris grinned. A smile that told me he knew River had something special.
I heard footsteps fall behind me, and then the hum of Eddie’s voice. “Jules?”
“Yeah?” I stood, stepping over the wood, away from the music. Someone stood behind him.
“I’d like you to meet someone,” he stepped aside, revealing dark hair and a strong nose. I knew this man. “This is Cameron Crowe. Cameron, this is Jules DeHaan.”
“Jules DeHaan,” He said with emphasis, his smile something secretive. “I would kill to be in your spot right now.”
I sucked my bottom lip in, trying not to look as confused as I felt. But I smirked, feeling absurd. “I’m an unemployed college dropout.”
“No, silly,” River draped an arm around my shoulders. “You’re a twenty-two-year-old writer extraordinaire whose best friend happens to be the devilishly handsome lead singer of Running Knees.”
“I’d like to work with you.” Crowe nodded with a toothy grin.
I took one glance at Eddie, who was failing miserably at trying to hide his smile. Those cheekbones would give him away always.
“What do you mean?” I questioned.
“I mean,” he reached into his jacket, pulling out a polaroid, “this.” My polaroid. A photo of Running Knees, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden crammed together in the basement of the Slam House. THE SOUND was written below in black Sharpie.
“The Sound,” he stated simply. His dark eyes were calm, but his body language read excitement.
This was the night everything would change.