Monday, July 15, 2024

When the Viper Room Ruled the Sunset Strip

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My favorite nights driving over the hill were when the fog was so dense that I felt like I was starring in my own film noir. I could hear the coyotes and the owls performing like a backup band to whatever cassette was playing, which was invariably an advance of the latest EP of the artist I was on my way to see at the Viper Room.

Flying over the canyon at night was my life. When people asked me what I liked most about living in the Valley back then, I would tell them I could make it to the Viper Room—door to door—in 15 minutes.

Juliette Lewis performs with her band in 2003. (Photo: Barry King/Wireimage)

It’s hard not to get emotional when thinking about the Viper, especially now, when it’s imperiled by the redevelopment that is snaking its way along Sunset Boulevard. Nobody knows what its future may hold, or if indeed it has a future. But back in the day, I lived half my life at the nightclub, the best rock and roll bar in the world. Everything happened there. This hallowed ground—once a joint called the Cotton Club, then the Melody Room, then Filthy McNasty’s, and, later, the Central—is the stuff of seedy film noirs as reimagined by Salvador Dalí. Think: beer bottles floating in a psychedelic dream.

In the early days, it was known for tragedy. In the first year of its existence, 30 years ago, on the eve of Halloween, young actor River Phoenix gave up the ghost, dying of an overdose of an illicit drug cocktail infused with ephedrine, on a night he was supposed to perform with members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Butthole Surfers. I was on the Strip that night and saw the aftermath, the chaos and despair. The sidewalk at Larrabee and Sunset in front of the club was for days after covered in flowers and chalked epitaphs. The weight of the loss hung heavy in the air for months, even years. The shock of his death, at all of 23, elevated him to the iconic status of a postmod James Dean.

Nothing like a scandal to create worldwide allure. The Viper was more popular than ever. That it was co-owned by peak Johnny Depp back then—who chose Tom Petty to inaugurate the spot on opening night—also added to the spell cast round

Formerly known as Filthy McNasty’s, the Viper Room is located in the heart of the Sunset Strip. (Photo: Robert Landau)

On the evenings I would see Depp there, he was just one of the guys, hanging with Kate Moss. I would usually hang with his partner in the venture, Sal Jenco, an impresario who was also a painter. The two had been friends since they were kids, and both were on the show 21 Jump Street.

I remember being there one night in ’95 with a friend, drummer Josh Freese. It took Josh 90 minutes to get from one side of the club to the other, the entire time being stopped by friends and fans. Another sacred night was the evening Hole played acoustic—the only time I paid for parking because I didn’t want to miss a second of Courtney Love unplugged. I can still see the rings of smoke curling up as she puffed between lyrics. Both Tom Hanks and I spent the entire set weeping.

There was the night that a fresh-out-of-rehab Scott Weiland performed with Stone Temple Pilots. It had to be ’96 because I was pregnant and watched the set from the downstairs bar, where Adam Duritz of Counting Crows and Christina Applegate would bartend for kicks. They, too, were in peak fame, but no one made a fuss. The thing about the Viper Room was everyone was cool—everyone was famous back then in their own way. Some were famous before becoming famous, like Scarlett Johansson, who was one of the dancers with the Pussycat Dolls, a burlesque group that had a long residency at the Viper.

Perez Hilton (left) with Doug Reinhardt and Paris Hilton in 2009. (Photo: Shea Walsh/Ap Images)

It was a bunch of creatives who were unemployable in the real world but could still make rent in the artist’s world (and then there were people like me, who, as the Los Angeles Times nightlife correspondent, had a foot in both). When the truly famous showed up, their fame was secondary to the club’s. I recall the night I spent hunting around for Mel Gibson, whom I heard was there but had never met before. After scouring the venue for hours, I realized he was the not-too-tall schvitzy and besotted dude in front of me the entire night.

Even the front-of-house personnel were famous at the Viper. Handsome Jack—Johnny Knoxville’s best friend—worked the bar; Sean G was at the cash register. My friend Frankie Fingers worked sound. Frankie, an engineer from Glasgow who has toured with Elvis Costello and the Wallflowers, had the audio mix so dialed in that everything just sounded better at the Viper Room. On the club circuit of the late ’90s, the Coconut Teaszer’s sound would assault you, Dragonfly’s was often blown out, the Palladium sounded good only in one spot—the very far back of the club, in the center—but the Viper’s sound was simply perfection.

We became a family in the city of night. We went to weddings together, and baby showers, and yes, funerals to mourn the loss of scene fireflies—like Cliff Cantor, who co-owned Dragonfly. Or to collectively celebrate our heroes, like Johnny Ramone, whose statue unveiling in the Hollywood Forever cemetery was one of the biggest “club” events that year. Engraved in the marble base is the line: “If a man can tell if he’s been successful in his life by having great friends, then I have been very successful.”

Then-club co-owner Johnny Depp (left) interviews Hunter S. Thompson in 1996. (Photo: Jeff Kravitz/Filmmagic Inc.)

Everyone played the Viper: Johnny Cash, Joe Strummer, the Jonas Brothers, Joey Ramone, Avril Lavigne, and Keanu Reeves’s band, Dogstar, back in the day. I got to discover bands there, too. It wasn’t just who you were going to see that made the Viper magical, it was who would randomly get onstage. One night when I went to see Jesse Malin, Billie Joe Armstrong popped onstage and played along. I got so spoiled that I stopped going to arena shows altogether because I could usually see the same band at the Viper, unannounced. You’d usually get the call on the night of a secret show, so it was good to keep your calendar flexible.

Today, the future of the Viper Room is uncertain. A development has been approved to take over that corner of Larrabee and Sunset, and no one knows yet what’s in the cards for the 250-capacity venue. There have been petitions to save the Viper Room, arguing that the 102-year-old building is a historic landmark. I recall circulating a petition back in ’89 to save the Formosa Cafe and witnessing the tears of Diane Keaton as she pleaded against tearing down the Ambassador Hotel. We keep killing our own history. And as Joan Didion famously said, “The future always looks good in the Golden Land, because no one remembers the past.”

The current redevelopment proposal designed by the Miami-based firm Arquitectonica as commissioned by Silver Creek Development, which owns the property, includes a “reimagined” Viper Room, according to its website. Tommy Black, the Viper’s current general manager, says if that happens, he thinks it could lead to a rebirth. The Viper has withstood many transitions since Depp was forced to divest his ownership in 2004 when another partner mysteriously went missing.

When I look at the fresh specs for the development, it’s hard to imagine a rebirth of cool, but it’s possible. It’s just that the old Viper was so sexy. Walking up those narrow stairs into the main room, you just never knew where the night would take you. On the evenings when Dayle Gloria was DJing, she’d let me hang on the stairs that led up to her booth where I could scan the room. In later years, I usually turned up alone—I wanted to get to the club when I got there and leave when I wanted to leave and not have to be responsible for anyone else’s good time. Invariably, I’d get a tip that someone was playing at the Roxy or the Whisky, and I’d pop in to pay my respects to those fine rock and roll institutions, but I would always end up at the Viper.

Iggy Pop in 1995. (Photo: Jeff Kravitz/Filmmagic Inc.)

One night, from Dayle’s perch, I could see a fine gent looking at me as I was looking at him. It went on like that for a while. I think Sabrosa Purr was playing, and it was such a sexy set. As I walked out the side door, back on to the Strip, I could feel him following me. We said a couple words about the music, but we didn’t care to exchange names. We briefly sucked face in a bush across from Gil Turner’s, and then I slinked away.

On nights like that, I would whip back over the hill and turn right when I got to Mulholland to pull into my favorite overlook for a while. The coyotes and the owls always performed a set at last call. I’d stare out into the infinite twinkling lights of the “poor man’s view”—fake-smoking a cigarette—and think how lucky I was to be an L.A. woman in a city of night.

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