At sixteen, River Phoenix faced a difficult professional transition. In just two years, he had grown four inches and dropped twenty pounds to become a bona fide teen movie idol with a rockstar following of young girls, Although he good-naturedly posed for beefcake shots and suffered through interviews, he only wanted to be accepted as a serious adult actor. His roles in A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon and starring alongside Sidney Poitier in Litlle Nikita, River was tagged Hollywood's hottest teenage property. He was also the breadwinner of the family, who were now living on a rented ranch outside San Diego. He felt tremendous pressure to continue working. "His parents saw him as their savior," Plimpton says, "and treated him like their father." And John Phoenix's crisis deepened as River became more popular. He felt that the family's idealistic principles could not survive in the hard-nosed movie business. John urged River to leave Hollywood and use his money to start a new life. "My father is worried that we could be ruined by this business," said River at the time. "It's got a lot of pitfalls and temptations, and he doesn't want us to become materialistic and lose all the values we were brought up believing in." Although he had once shied away from interviews, River began welcoming them as an opportunities for airing his family's views and beliefs. His somewhat simplistic worldview branded River an environmental poster child. His clean-living eco-conscious image would become difficult to to live up to and sustain.
In an interview with the Bosion Globe, "The Utopian View of River Phoenix," the seventeen-year-old actor sounded like a New Age politician: "I'm quite in love with the human race and this planet that we live on," River began. "I see life as very fresh and beautiful. People say to me, `Oh, you have the world in your hands,' or `You're young, and you have all these opportunities.' But that's not why I feel the way I do.... I get very frustrated with the pace of my life--I want so badly for people just to understand each other and communicate better." River tried to balance his mission as family prophet with the temptations of Hollywood, but this conflict would eventually tear him apart. He became fearless in his pursuit or pleasure--it was against his nature ever to play it safe. River secretly began using cocaine regularly and experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs, such as peyote and psychedelic mushrooms. "Achieving success gets complicated," said River. "You find yourself hanging around with a different crowd. I probably would have shied away from it, but after a while you can't help but get sucked in ... all those parties and premieres and limos picking you up. And after a while, if you hang in with this little group, you lose your sense of reality completely." After finishing Running on Empty in August 1987, River decided to focus on finding a new family base away from Hollywood where he could melt into a community and live a "normal" life. In the fall, the Phoenix family moved to Gainesville, Florida, a college town with a strong music scene. River immediately felt at home in Gainesville.
At last he could lay down roots, find friends, and belong. Determined to be anonymous, River grew his hair into a long helmetlike fringe and combed it over his face whenever he went out. Once he settled in, River immediately persuaded L.A. friend Josh Greenbaum to move into his Gainesville house to help set up a band using the money from a development deal he had negotiated with Island Records. The deal provided funds for River to rehearse and record some demos with the goal of releasing an album on the island label if the music was good enough. In their first few weeks together, River and Josh spent their time playing music in the Phoenix backyard, where they would sit on the trampoline and practice for hours. They were also busy making the connections they would need to break into Gainesville's flourishing college music scene when they were ready. Josh McKay, a twenty-two-year-old guitarist from Denton, Texas, also joined the band and moved in with the family. Rain offered to play keyboards and sing harmony, and they recruited a local, classically trained viola player, Tim Hankins. They decided to call the band Aleka's Attic. By June of 1988, the, expanded Phoenix tribe moved to a twenty-acre spread in Micanopy, twelve miles outside Gainesville. Known as "Camp Phoenix" to the locals, the house soon looked like a sixties commune, with brightly colored hanging tapestries and environmental posters. The house was ecologically correct--to save energy they turned on the hot-water heater only ten minutes a day before showers, declined to have a dryer, used only recycled paper products, and never threw anything away that could be reused. In Micanopy, John Phoenix could devote himself full-time to cultivating an organic garden to help make the family self-sufficient. But he was far from content, mostly internalizing his fears for the family. He would get drunk and speak out about how Hollywood was corrupting his cherished dream. "When Martha Plimpton came to stay that summer, she was shocked by the disharmony in the family. River was drinking heavily, as well as smoking marijuana, snorting cocaine, and tripping on psychedelic mushrooms.
Troubled father and son had started drinking together in an attempt to strengthen their crumbling bond. Several months later, Martha Plimpton decided to end her four-year relationship with River because, as she told Esquire magazine, she could no longer cope with his drugs and drinking: "When we split up, a lot of it was that I had learned that screaming, fighting, and begging weren't going to change him. He had to change himself, and he didn't want to yet." The breakup with Plimpton was a huge shock to River. Without Martha, there was no one to rein him in. Over the next few months, River drowned his sorrows in his music. Aleka's Attic began playing every weekend around Gainesville and got a residency at the Hardback, a small no-frills punk-rock club with a never-ending supply of warm Guinness on tap. River seemed to like the dark recesses of the club, where he could hide with his friends and not be bothered by strangers. In the fall of 1989, a Gainesville band named Mutley Chix hired a new singer/ saxophonist named Sue Solgot.
The blonde, twenty-five-year-old Detroit native had left her adoptive parents to come to Gainesville to study fine-arts photography. Moving as she was in local musical circles, it was only a matter of time before Sue met River Phoenix, who was sporting a new marine crewcut for his next movie, Dogfight. River introduced himself as Rio" at a party, then denied being River Phoenix after a friend of Sue tried to unmask him. "I'm not that guy," claimed Phoenix. I'm nothing like him." River and Sue found they had a lot in common, and soon they began dating. When River asked Sue to live with him, she readily agreed. He found a huge one-bedroom apartment in Gainesville's most prestigious area, the Duckpond. Their new home took up the entire first floor of a restored two-story house and was only a twenty-minute drive from the Phoenix family home in Micanopy.
Although River mostly stayed in town, he found himself supporting-members of the ever-growing Phoenix tribe. There were now more than a dozen people sheltered on the Micanopy spread. The actor's self-sufficient friends resented these hangers-on and called them Klingons. They justified their existence by helping out as gardeners, secretaries, security personnel, and shoppers. John Phoenix, now seeing his longtime fears for his family proved right, became so unhappy with life in Micanopy that River bought him a ranch in Costa Rica. From then on, John spent nearly all his time in the village of Montezuma, a seven-hour ferry-and-bus ride from the capital city of San Jose, running a bed-and-breakfast operation. From time to time, River, Rain, and Leaf would fly out with friends to spend time with their father "The pressure was there to keep going, make more," said John Phoenix. "Iris Burton said ten years ago that young actors were like pieces of meat and river was a filet mignon. It might sound harsh, but she was only telling the truth. As he got famous, the scripts poured in. Everyone wanted a piece of him. He was constantly under pressure to make more films, make more money."
Arlyn Phoenix, who had changed her name to Heart," now divided her time between managing her children's movie careers and attending environmental workshops. Her companion was John Robbins, the onetime heir to the Baskin-Robbins ice cream fortune who had given up his inheritance to devote himself to helping the environment. Ultimately, it was River who had to earn the money to pay for everything. He cheerfully bought a house for his grandparents in West Palm Beach, helping to support them in their retirement, and would always assist hard-up members of his father's family when they were down on their luck. Increasingly, River Phoenix became a benefactor who gave but never asked for anything in return. Keanu Reeves convinced River to take the part of Mike Waters in My Own Private Idaho, a film about two young drug-taking homosexual street hustlers in Portland, Oregon. River was excited about doing Idaho, since he felt it could establish him as a serious actor and finally bury the teenage heartthrob image he so detested. To help River prepare for his role, director Gus Van Sant made videotapes of a former Portland street hustler named Mike Parker, the real-life model for River's character. Five months before the cameras were set to roll, River and Keanu actually flew to Portland to research the world of by bustling. Staying with Van Sant, they became frequent visitors to Portland's Old Town district and spent nights with the hustlers who cruised a strip outside the gay City Nightclub on Thirteenth and Burnside called "Vaseline Alley," where boys as young as twelve sold their bodies to passing motorists on forty-dollar "dates." River spent hours questioning Mike Parker about every part of his life until he knew the character so thoroughly he could step into it. He studied Parker's soft-spoken voice and nervous, darting eye movements. Phoenix Was extracting what he needed from Parker until he had fully transformed himself into Mike Waters. "I "I think he pulled out all the stops to get into his role for Idaho," says Parker. "He found it so challenging that it took over his whole being. Maybe he just went a little too far."