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Snake Pit on Sunset! Johnny Depp's Viper Room, An Oral History.

Jakob Dylan played here, Adam Duritz tended bar here, and River Phoenix died here. For half a decade, the Viper Room has been ground zero for Hollywood hip. The inside story of the club that defined a generation.

Is the Viper Room cursed? One of the club’s previous owners passed away in his office, River Phoenix collapsed of an overdose out front, and Michael Hutchence and Timothy Leary both shuffled off their mortal coils days after performing there. It’s certainly haunted by history: Mobster Bugsy Siegel held court at 8852 Sunset Boulevard when it was the Melody Room, hippies tripped out there in the ‘60s when it was Filthy McNasty’s, and drunks drowned their sorrows there in the ‘70s and ‘80s when it was the Central. Johnny Depp bought the place in l993, and he and partner Sal Jenco turned it into the kind of joint where, it’s been said, the audience is more famous than the performers. In the six years since, the story of this A-list watering hole—sometimes triumphant, occasionally tragic—has been the story of young Hollywood.

The Players:

MORTY COYLE: Frontman of local legends and Viper Room regulars the Imposters, as well as the novelty act Men Without Sex.

JAKOB DYLAN: Singer for the Wallflowers, who had a weekly gig at the Viper Room from 1993 to ‘94.

ADAM DURITZ: Counting Crow and occasional Viper Room bartender.

GEORGE DRAKOULIAS: Producer for Rick Rubin’s American Recordings and a Viper Room regular.

STACEY GRENROCK: Former talent booker and assistant to Viper Room co-owner Sal Jenco. She’s now a correspondent for Comedy Central’s The Daily Show.

SAMANTHA MATHIS: L.A. actress who starred in Broken Arrow; a Viper Room regular.

NANCY SINATRA: Frank’s daughter, she played the Viper Room in December.

TRACY FALCO: Film-development executive and another regular.

KIMBERLY TOTH: Former Viper Room doorgirl.

RICHMOND ARQUETTE: Arquette-clan actor and a former Viper Room bar back.

CHUCK E. WEISS: Legendary L.A.hipster (he’s the subject of Rickie Lee Jones’s “Chuck E.’s in Love”) and leader of the jump-up band the Goddamn Liars. His first album, Extremely Cool, came out in February.

FALCO: I always felt a very cool vibe in that club. Johnny and Sal were such good friends, and they were the nicest guys in town. There wasn’t this insane man standing out front who was evil to people. Even though they did have a red rope, I don’t think people felt as rejected. Everyone got in if there was room.

GRENROCK: There was a period one summer when every Monday night we transformed the club into a different theme. We actually had a crew come in that built things and changed everything. We had a Christmas carnival every year where we would have the oddest acts we could find. We would fill the club with mimes and people dressed as snowmen; we had a guy dressed up as a gorilla running around—we just tried to make it as much fun as possible.

DURITZ: They must have lost so much money doing the theme nights, but they were so incredible. One night it would be this media thing, and they had these TV screens set up all over. One night they turned the entire place into the inside of an airplane. One night they covered all the walls with foil. They just approached their club so lovingly.

ARQUETTE: There was ‘70s TV night. They had The Dating Game, which I wrote a bunch of the questions for. I wound up using my brother David as a bachelor, but he choked when he got his first question. He couldn’t read it—he just started laughing. The question was “I like to masturbate in my spare time for hours on end until I’m suicidal. What do you like to do for a hobby?”

MATHIS: You knew that on Thursday night you’d put on the dress and the heels and the red lipstick. And there were the Pussycat Dolls, and you’d see them dance around. The Pussycat Dolls are sort of a burlesque, 1940s-style, all-girl show—they do these dances wearing bowler hats and underwear.

ARQUETTE: It was great. Christina Applegate was one of them for a while, and they actually danced recently at Leonardo DiCaprio’s birthday party.

GRENROCK: We had the bullwhip artist. He sang “Pop Goes the Weasel” in German and did some tricks with a bullwhip. These were regulars we would have every chance we could get: David Hart, the Christian Science ventriloquist; Enoch Cook, the mime that talks. Oh, and Nanu, the Spanish Popeye. These are all my favorite acts—Sal’s favorites, too. When the club first opened, a lot of odd acts would come by and drop off their resumes, and we would just let them play.

SINATRA: I can’t think of a cooler place to play in L.A. than the Viper Room. If my dad were still performing, he’d want to play an after-hours show there.

COYLE: Before the Viper Room, Sunset Strip had been post-heavy metal—it was at its nadir of respectability. So we [the Imposters] played the Central a lot, and it was a dive—sawdust on the floor, peanut machine nailed up on one of the walls. Anybody could get a gig there—anybody. There was a great AA meeting at the Central during the day on Mondays. It was like therapy at the point of the problem.

WEISS: Bill, the co-owner, died in there in the daytime, and at the time his partner, Tony Fox, had another job. So his kids took over. The place owed a lot of bills, and no one wanted to see it go down and just become a Quick Stop or something. So I was trying to hustle up people to buy the place. My buddy Johnny Depp and I had always had a dream of having a club where they played viper music [minor-key, up-tempo jazz from the ‘20s]. He wanted to buy the kids out—help them and try to fulfill our dream of having a place to hang out that had cool music without the surroundings of the regular club stuff.

DURITZ: Sal always told me that half the reason Johnny bought the place was that they’d been going to the Central every Monday night to see Chuck play. And when the Central was closing down, the idea of Chuck not having a place to play was just terrible to them. So in order to keep Chuck playing and have a place for all their friends to hang out, they started the Viper Room.

GRENROCK: I read something that said that “viper room” was a 1920s nickname for a pot-smoking room. I don’t know if that’s what Johnny had in mind—I think he just liked the name. Originally he wanted it to be an intimate, jazz kind of place.

COYLE: Here’s how I look at it: Johnny’s a frustrated musician. I’ve seen him play when the doors close and no one’s there. I think it’s not unlike Dan Aykroyd and the House of Blues. You’ve got a guy who, for all intents and purposes, is not taken seriously for what he’s really in love with, so he ends up making a home for himself to have that, you know? A castle for his kingdom.

WEISS: My first memory was the grand opening and how adamant certain people were to get in. People who had never walked into the Central felt very strongly about being there.

ARQUETTE: The first time I ever set foot in the Viper Room, Johnny Cash was playing. I had my snobby attitude, like a lot of people in this city. Like, the Viper Room was snobby, so therefore I was too good for it. Johnny Cash was the qualifier that allowed me to go there.

DYLAN: We played there right when it opened up. My group didn’t have a record contract at the time. We needed places to play, and I think the options were kind of slim. We just walked in, brought Sal a tape, and for whatever reason, he gave us a chance to play. We played there just about every other week for quite a while.

FALCO: My first real memory of the Viper Room is the night that River passed away.

MATHIS: Unfortunately, it’s the same for me. The first night I was ever there, I was with River. For reasons I don’t need to explain, it was ultimately not a joyous experience, and I think it was almost a year before I went back.

TOTH: I stepped in right after the River Phoenix incident. It was a very awkward situation, and that’s when it became very touristy—there were a lot of out-of-town people with cameras.

WEISS: It happened on a Sunday night. We stayed closed for about a week afterward. I think too much has been made out of that, because, God, if you take any club in Hollywood, someone famous has died there. You go to the sushi bar next door and someone famous probably died there, too. Rumor had it that Joe E. Ross [of Car 54 Where Are You?] choked on a matzo ball in Canter’s. But you don’t go into Canter’s and say, “Oooh, this is the place where Joe E. Ross choked on a matzo ball.” [Actually, Ross died of a heart attack at home.]

MATHIS: It wasn’t the activity or spirit of the club that contributed to River’s death. That wasn’t what was going down there. I think people realized that. Or at least people who knew did. The way the public perceived it was unfortunately out of everyone’s control.

GRENROCK: The club does cater to celebrities. And where you find celebrities, oftentimes you find these goings-on. The club doesn’t encourage it as much as the clientele does. The people who go there create that atmosphere. It’s not a women’s shelter.

COYLE: They didn’t close down Vegas just because somebody got buried in the desert. It’s like they were trying to use the Viper Room as a way of saying young Hollywood is in trouble. And young Hollywood is in trouble. Heroin is rampant in Hollywood, but it has nothing to do with the Viper Room. It’s really easy to pin it on one thing.

GRENROCK: People have been dying for longer than the Viper Room has been in existence. So I don’t think there’s any connection between the club and people dying. And I don’t think the club really did anything to promote that lifestyle, because, as you know, most of the people who ran the club were completely straight. Timothy Leary [who died shortly after giving a reading there] was an old man, and River Phoenix had a heroin problem. There are reasons why everybody died.

TOTH: Working there and getting to know people at the Viper Room, I never got an eerie vibe or any kind of negative vibe. Every time I go I have a lot of fun, and there’s absolutely no death aura about it.

ARQUETTE: Other than [River Phoenix’s death], the Viper Room was a place of life, as far as I was concerned. It gave me a life. Sal employed me when I was unemployable. He took me into this group of people and made me a friend right away.

DYLAN: There’s no other place in this town I know of that’s so personable. If you’re friendly with them, you can just walk in and have a drink and feel comfortable. It’s like a clubhouse.

WEISS: I felt that there was a lot of magic in the air around the friendships I had with people and the little scene I had going there on Mondays.

DURITZ: After touring in ‘94, I came back to Berkeley the first week in January of ‘95. I was having a really rough time; I was too famous that week. It just seemed like everywhere I went for about six straight days somebody came up to me and said something terrible—just something fucking nasty. And it was really all new to me then, so I was having a little trouble dealing with it. I was at home in Berkeley one night, and I got a phone call from Sal. Sal said, “What’s wrong?” and I told him. There were kids camping out in front of my house. And he said, “Well listen, hold on for a second.” He put me on hold, and he came back on the line and said, “Listen, there’s a flight reservation for you at seven o’clock, and I got a room at the Bel Age Hotel for you, and we’re having this party tonight that Johnny wanted me to invite you to anyway, so why don’t you just come down?” So I was like, “Fuck it.” I grabbed some shit, got on a plane to L.A., went to the party, and I’ve never lived in Berkeley again.

COYLE: Adam was embraced by the Viper contingent. The Vipers always had a soft spot in the hearts for the glitterati.

DYLAN: Some nights we played and there were five people, and some nights there were a few hundred. But it was just like doing clubs—you called as many friends as you could get down there to see you play.

COYLE: It was a dream to play there. At that time in L.A., most places were pay to play—the scene was run by people who would rent out clubs. But the Imposters built up a hell of a following at the Viper Room.

DURITZ: I remember one year on Halloween I was in the audience wearing bunny ears, and I got drunkenly enticed up onstage with Morty and the Imposters to do some covers. I was up there with Morty singing “Maggie May” and a bunch of other songs in fucking bunny ears.

COYLE: The first time I met Adam Duritz [in 1995] I watched a girl walk up to him and say, “Why do you rip off Van Morrison?” And I thought, “What a fucking lame job this is.” So he went behind the bar and he poured drinks.

DURITZ: I did make great tips, but there was no issue, really. It was just, like, these are my friends; they’re always around. I got hassled once, and Morty took care of it, and in the four years since then, I’ve never had a problem there. That’s one of the reasons I moved down here. With everybody else running around, who cares about me? At the Viper Room it was like I was a totally normal guy.

COYLE: What the fuck else is [Duritz] gonna do? He’s got like $8 million. What’s he gonna do, be a bricklayer? You know, he hangs out at a place where there’s pussy, and they’re gonna throw it at him ‘cause he’s a famous rock star. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s the gig.

DURITZ: In the first half of ‘95 I didn’t really do much. And then I started writing, and that summer we started rehearsals for Recovering the Satellites. I left the studio one night really late and went to the house of my friends Tracy [Falco] and Samantha [Mathis]. I was in a really weird mood, and I banged on the door and woke them up, and we talked for a few hours. And then I went home and wrote “A Long December,” got up in the morning, went to visit my friend in the hospital, went to the studio to play it for the guys before dinner, taught it to them after dinner, and recorded it that night. There were no overdubs except, after having a couple drinks in the kitchen, I went back in and sang all the background vocals in about ten minutes. I grabbed a cassette, jumped in my car—’cause it was 2:30 in the morning by this point—and drove over to the Viper Room. They were closing up, but Shannon [the club manager], Big Ed [the security guard], and Sal were still there, and they came outside. My Karmann Ghia was parked on Larrabee right there in front of the side door, and I played them “A Long December.” They were the first three people to ever hear it.

FALCO: We always said that we should have had a sign-in book at the house those two years, because at one time or another I think every actor in Hollywood traveled to our house.

DURITZ: Their house was “the hillside manor” in that song. It was this little house on the hillside, and we joked about it being a manor.

FALCO: We had a very big circle of friends, and I think everyone has that one summer they remember. We were all just twenty-three or so and we had all these wonderful friends—people were in town making music or doing things. Michael Stipe was in town, Adam Duritz had just moved down to LA, and it was a really special time. It was a lot of late nights and a lot of fun.

MATHIS: And a lot of red wine.

FALCO: A lotta spilled red wine.

MATHIS: It was kind of a given that no matter where we went, we’d end the night at the Viper Room.

DURITZ: At that point, it was like home away from home. It was where I went.

MATHIS: At the Viper Room, the doors would always be open to us. We would arrive, and Sal would call Damiano’s Pizza, and we’d order fifteen pizzas and sit around and talk and smoke cigarettes and wind down the evening.

FALCO: But it was never like, “Oh, I don’t want to go there again.” Going to the Viper Room was never a bummer.

MATHIS: It was, “Let’s go see Sal, and see what’s going on.” It was a great place to go.

FALCO: It’s like a little family, too, with Big Ed and all the people who worked there.

DRAKOULIAS: It was like an extended-family kind of thing there. They would have Halloween parties or Thanksgiving, or Sal’s parents would come to town and they’d cook, and everybody would go to Sal’s house. It was nice—like if you had a lot of cousins, and some you didn’t get along with, but you’d see them all the time anyway. It was that kind of thing.

MATHIS: I think Sal and Johnny extended themselves to their circle of friends in such a way that people who were musicians and artists felt like there was this open venue for them to come and try things out. I mean, that’s where the Counting Crows debuted their new music. They invited their friends to come and see what the response was. Or people would just come for an evening of fun and find themselves onstage. But it was a safe place. You knew the owners weren’t calling the press and saying, “So and so is playing at the Viper Room tonight.” It was really respectful.

DRAKOULIAS: Lenny Kravitz did a lot of jamming there, and he played a lot of songs he probably didn’t play on the road. I remember I saw Stephen Stills get up a couple of times. That was really intense. There were unusual things on the stage also, like Jerry Springer and his rock band.

ARQUETTE: I saw Jerry there. It was very entertaining. He sang Elvis songs, if I remember correctly.

WEISS: I have this song where people give me money. It’s called “What Am I Going to Do With All This Money?” And people would throw dollar bills up on the stage. One night some guy jumped up on the stage and started handing my band hundred-dollar bills. And then he broke out a Cleveland—a thousand-dollar bill. Spyder [the Goddamn Liars’ sax player] went to grab it, but I stopped him because I knew this guy was very, very gone. He’d already given us a lot of dough, and I didn’t want him to wake up the next day [without all that money].

DRAKOULIAS: When Beck played there, I remember it was a very bizarre night. He did some breakdancing and things like that, and people didn’t know what to think of it. They just stared at him.

DYLAN: I think that’s what the Viper Room offers. You’ll see a bunch of local bands one night, and the next night you’ll see Johnny Cash and Mick Jagger get up.

COYLE: I’ve seen Chrissie Hynde hanging out barefoot, after hours, talking religion with Johnny. I thought that was really, really cool.

DRAKOULIAS: The most amusing thing I saw at the Viper Room was Big Ed dancing with Naomi Campbell.

COYLE: I’ll tell you the funniest thing that ever happened there. Somebody somehow flushed one of those toilet things [a toilet-paper roller] and got it lodged in the toilet. So they’ve got the toilet on one of the tables on a towel, and they’re all walking around looking at it going, “How the hell do we get this out of here?” And Johnny’s looking at it. Johnny was with Kate Moss, and Sal’s under the table—everybody’s trying to get this thing out. It was the weirdest thing in the world; they’re all standing around a toilet bowl. And Kate gives her opinion on it, so to speak, and we all go, ‘Why don’t you stick your arm in and grab the thing out?” And she goes to Johnny, “Would you give me $100 if I stick my hand in and take it out?” And he goes, “Yeah, because I can get $400 from the National Enquirer for a picture of you with your hand in a toilet.”

GRENROCK: Supermodels throwing up and all kinds of craziness going on. Those were the most fun nights I remember.

ARQUETTE: I think the crowd is pretty mixed, so there’s some confusion. I remember the night Timothy Leary was reading Alice in Wonderland onstage, and a lot of tourists were there. It’s known for celebrities, so a lot of tourists come, and they don’t really know what to expect. They really should be grateful that they’re getting an experience that is above and beyond what they’re paying for. I remember standing outside dressed as the White Rabbit, flirting with one of the girls dressed as Alice, and these drunken guys came out, and one guy says to the other, ‘You know, these people sure do party strange in LA.” And he didn’t seem to like it. He just did not get that he was part of a very historic event. Timothy Leary onstage talking about Lewis Carroll, reading from Alice in Wonderland? It’s big stuff.

COYLE: When Timothy Leary was there, this kid pulled a joint out, lit it, and gave it to him. Leary definitely was a purveyor of fine paraphernalia and products, so I think he took advantage of it, and then the Viper Room staff promptly got rid of it. There are no drugs in the Viper Room. They had the disaster, but honestly, there are no drugs in there. It’s for drinking and hanging out.

DURITZ: What I remember most about that place is sitting around talking to interesting people—it wasn’t so much everything else. My life was really difficult, and those guys gave me this place where it was so great. I was becoming a shut-in when I became famous, and I got back on my feet there and got a life again. I feel like an adult now, and a lot of that is due to how great those people were to me, how great that place was. You see movies about legendary places that are kinda shitty. You wanna make a whole movie about Studio 54? What the fuck is Studio 54? A scene where a bunch of cokeheads got together and denied each other entrance. It was just a dance club. But this place—there was all this music there and all these great bands coming through, just like when I was growing up in San Francisco.

ARQUETTE: You’re part of it forever. I go in there and I still have friends.

DYLAN: I would play the Viper Room tomorrow. And if things aren’t going well for the group in a couple of years, and I need a place to start over, that’s the first place I’d think of.

* Mark Ebner was thrown out of the Viper Room three times in one night during an appearance by Hunter S. Thompson, Depp and John Cusak.

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Journalist Mark Ebner
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