Thursday, March 10, 2011


River (from the album Tigerlily)

Young & strong Hollywood son
in the early morning light
this star fell down
on Sunset Boulevard

Young & strong beautiful one
one that we embraced so close
is gone
was torn away

Let the youth of America mourn
include him in their prayers
let his image linger on
repeat it everywhere

With candles with flowers
he was one of ours
one of ours

Why don't you let him be?
he's gone
we know
give his mother & father peace
your vulture's candor
your casual slander
will murder his memory
he's gone
we know
and it's nothing but a tragedy

Lay to rest your soul and body
lay beside your name
lay to rest your rage
your hunger and amazing grace

With candles, with flowers
you were one of ours
one of ours

I saw cameras expose your life
I heard rumors explode with lies
I saw children with tears
cry and crowd around the sight
of where you had collapsed that day
where your last breath & word
had been sighed
where your heart had burst
where you had died

I saw how they were lost in grieving
all half-believing you were gone
the loss and pain of it
crime and the shame of it
you were gone
it was such a nightmare raving,
"how could we save him
from himself?"

I loved sixth grade for a lot of reasons. It wasn't just because of the power trip that came with finally being one of the "big kids." It wasn't just because I had finally achieved a measure of acceptance from my schoolmates for, of all things, being my weird self. More than these things, the best thing about sixth grade was my teacher, Mr. Clark. In addition to the fact that he was a bit of a loose cannon (occasionally even using mild profanity in class, which was thrilling), he spoke to the students like we were adults, being both respectful and demanding of us. He also encouraged self-expression through any and all creative outlets. One day he announced a new class project - once a week a different student would be assigned to bring a song on cassette that Mr. Clark would play on his boombox for the whole class. Before he played the song the student would have to give a brief explanation for why that particular song was important to them. I couldn't wait!

Many of my classmates were picked before me for this project and given that this was the early 90s, the musical choices were firmly divided between the genders. The boys brought Metallica and the girls brought Mariah Carey. Occasionally, for variety, there was a little AC/DC or Whitney Houston thrown into the mix. I agonized for weeks over which song I would bring, scouring my little music collection over and over again looking for the perfect song. When the day finally came, I was ready. I was brimming with confidence. I knew that without a shadow of a doubt, when my classmates heard the opening strains of Lost in the Supermarket, I would immediately be crowned the coolest kid in school. I was so confident that The Clash would rock their world that I envisioned stacks of whimpering pop music albums littering the playground, like so much discarded trash.

It did not quite work out the way I planned.

No, quite the contrary in fact. I knew within 20 seconds that I had made a terrible mistake. I looked at a sea of expressionless faces, searching for a kindred spirit, but there were none to be found. It was at that moment that I realized I was never going to be able to talk to my peers about music. I was just born too darn late.

As I grew up, of course, I did start to meet some people who had similar tastes, people who loved music of the past so much more than the present. I believe that there will always be people like this and I think sometimes about the kids who will discover Natalie Merchant's music a decade or two (or more) from now. I wonder what they will know about the political scandals that were behind so many of the songs on Blind Man's Zoo. I wonder what they will know about Jack Kerouac. And I wonder what they'll know about River Phoenix.

In 1993, River Phoenix died of a drug overdose at twenty-three years of age. I have to confess, I was not like the children Natalie mentions in River, grief-stricken and heartbroken over his death. I honestly don't remember what I thought, if anything, about his death. But when I first heard River, around six years after the song came out, I knew immediately who the song was about. I did not have to be told. It was a big event that took place in my lifespan. But I wonder about future generations. Since the lyrics themselves don't address him by name, I wonder: Twenty years from now, if some teenager buys Tigerlily in the discount bin of the local record store, would it even dawn on them that River is not just the name of the song, but the name of the person the song is about?

When I was a kid, I listened to London Calling (the album Lost in the Supermarket came from) over and over again. There was a song on the album that talked about Montgomery Clift. I had never heard of Montgomery Clift, so one day I asked my mom who he was. She told me he was an actor. And I said, "Oh...and he was in a bad car accident?" She seemed surprised I knew this little detail, but she was unaware of the education I was getting from rock 'n' roll.

While that song about Montgomery Clift was irreverent and more than a little mean-spirited, River is a song of affection and gut-wrenching sincerity. Here is what Natalie has said about her connection to River Phoenix and her inspiration for writing the song:

"I didn't know River Phoenix that well, but his death struck me powerfully. I thought, 'There's someone who was a kindred spirit.' Somebody whom I always wanted to spend time with but never got to. The few times we spent together, he inspired me to push out boundaries. He had such a vibrant personality. I felt cheated when he died."*

"I wrote it at the time when I found out he was gone and I was very angry at the time because I felt that the press were dealing with his death as if it were a media event instead of a tragedy in the life of him and his family and friends."**

Before I read this, I assumed Natalie must have been very close to River, based on the intensity of the lyrics to this song. But finding out that they were not much more than acquaintances makes the song even more powerful to me. On one hand, I think, How could she have written words as heartfelt as these for someone she barely knew? On the other hand, I think that maybe that's the reason she could write this song in the first place. Any less emotional distance between them might have made this song too impossibly personal to write.

River is a stunningly beautiful song. The words paint a painfully vivid picture at times, like the lyric: "Where your last breath and word had been sighed, where your heart had burst, where you had died." I have seen Natalie perform River more than once in concert and as moving as the recorded version of this song is, it's that much more moving in person. Natalie pours her heart and soul into this song every time she performs it and I never make it through without a lump in my throat.

I hope that someday some kid will listen to this song and be curious enough to inquire about the identity of the person this song is about. An education through music is not such a bad thing. Maybe, given the opportunity, that kid will have the guts to play this song for all his classmates. You never know where you might find a kindred spirit.

Thanks for reading this week's post. This would be a good time for me to apologize to those of you who requested that I write about River a loooong time ago. I'm sorry it took me so long. What can I say? You can't rush art. Or, you know...talking about someone else's art. I always enjoy hearing your thoughts on the songs, so please broaden my horizons by posting a comment or sending me an e-mail.

Download River on Itunes - River - Tigerlily

*People - July 1995
**The Scotsman - July 1995


  1. Thanks for writing about "River". I didn't know Natalie was only an acquaintance of River. I have another point of view on how someone can write so intensely about someone they didn't know very well. It's 180 degrees different from your point of view. It's that familiarity breeds contempt. We tend to idealize people we don't know. No one is ever as wonderful as we think they are. That's not to say there are no wonderful people out there. Of course there are. But that's why people like celebrities and historical figures. It's because we don't know them. Even in our own lives, just think of the People you've gone out with. In the beginning when you're still shagging like rabbits, we think they are the greatest thing. We don't know about the littering, talking during movies or their disgusting personal habbits. After a while - some sooner than later, the behaviors we first thought were so cute don't seem cute anymore. We see them as the rest of us, flawed individuals. So when Natalie says River was someone she would have liked to have spent more time with, she was idealizing him which may have made it easier to write so intensely about him. Lets face it. River Phoenix was a teen movie idol who died of a drug overdose outside the West Hollywood nightclub The Viper Room. Did this sound like someone Natalie would admire? "River" is a beautiful song that Natalie still plays on tour, usually after "Golden Boy". It's now less of a song about a beautiful spirit and more a cautionary tale.

  2. Bernie -

    I think my favorite thing about your comment is how you refer to talking during movies as a "disgusting personal habit." I'm going to save that phrase for the next person who annoys me during a movie. I'm sure it will go over well. : )

    I appreciate your point about idealization and I can see how that might have played a part in this song, as it probably does in all art (speaking as an unabashed idealist.)

    I read another article about this song where Natalie said that she thought it was unfair for people to only look at River Phoenix as the way he died, but at the parts of his life & personality that were beautiful. I can imagine feeling that way if I had lost a friend in such a fashion. It could bring about the protectiveness in you.

    Thanks for your comments, Bernie. I always enjoy them.

  3. Your writing is bland and lacks the intensity needed to explain such a profound song. What kind of artist are you? You're a square. This was natalies attempt to console the hearts of all those who have lost someone they worshipped. She also wanted to explain the ugly side of the media and how they can destroy someones life. Natalie wrote this from the heart she didn't need to know river Phoenix. That's what good artist do, they take universal laws and explain them in a unique fashion. Talk about the beauty of the song how it goes from sweet and somber to a beautiful crescendo. Talk about the beauty of the piece. You conforming squares are always trying to explain art. Go make an excel chart.

  4. Anonymous -

    I could not have imagined when I started writing this blog that it would take so long before someone finally wrote me something nasty. Congratulations on being the first. I'll get to work on that chart.

  5. Anonymous -

    I'm sure Annie feels terrible that she didn't check her personal expressions with you first. Though perhaps the crime was in having her own opinion, feeling and perspective on a purely subjective topic in the first place. Good thing folks like you are in the world to help the rest of us unenlightened plebes stay in our place. By the way, it was very brave of you to share your name along with your bile. What is the national origin of the name "Anonymous"?

  6. I have loved Natalie and this song since it came out but hadn't listened to it in a while. I woke up the other day with River and Beloved Wife playing in my head and have been listening to her music non-stop since then. Such a great artist. And the discussion on how she wrote River is interesting.

    1. Hi Jonathan -

      I love when songs just randomly start playing in your head. I know there must be some logical reason for it, but I usually can't figure out what it is.

      I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for writing.

  7. I always Thought River Phoenix Was one of the cutest tv stars ever When I saw "Stand by me" I knew I had To do research on him :) <3

    1. I had a crush on him for sure. Remember when he played the young Indiana Jones for a minute in one of those movies? I always loved a floppy-haired boy.

  8. Thanks for this blog. I have always adored Tigerlily and this song is beautiful. Started wondering who is was about and googled and this came up. I'm too old to have the cultural reference of River Phoenix ;-). Thanks again

  9. Well, You got your hope sort-of. I am only 16 and I ran across a Natalie Merchant album "Tigerlily" in a second hand store on the discount CD shelf, coincidence??? But I too knew exactly who the song was about when I heard it, Even though I wasnt alive when River was or when he died, He is still a legend and I have always liked his acting and his story of charisma and faith. Frankly the story of his death makes me sad and I have empathy towards that night and the people that knew him. But I cant say the same for alot of people my age playing obsessively the music of Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus- not knocking their fans btw, I just dont prefer that music. Natalie's song seems to be definitely one of its generation, But even generations rub off on other generations, So Here I am I guess. So I too hope there are other people out there that are young but old spirited and they run across her CD in a pawn shop somewhere. It happened to me.

    1. This comment made me really happy. Pop music has always had a lot of slough, but now could be the apex. Don't give up on that second hand store music. It rarely lets you down. : )

  10. Strong work, Annie and thanks for putting words to the feelings lots of us have been having since River died. I've never seen Natalie Merchant and The Clash compared in a set piece like yours. And thanks for leaving Anonymous' drivel in place; now I know who the chowderhead is who writes all those assinine posts on the internet.

    1. Thanks, Jim! This was a fun post to write, as I recall. And yes, you can't please everyone, can you? But I'm glad YOU liked it!

  11. Enjoyable read. My Son has just bought me 'Paradise is There' for my 66th. Birthday. I had a 'thing' for 10,000 Maniacs in the late eighties and saw them play The Apollo , Manchester, England. Loved their albums, especially 'In My Tribe' and 'Blinds Mans Zoo' which helped form the soundtrack to our U.S. road trip in 2000. I especially remember 'Like the Weather' when the heavens opened in Yosemite National Park. Also enjoyed over and over the 'Time Capsule' Video - especially 'Pit Viper' and Don't Talk. I love bands with female vocalists. Always have. From Fleetwood Mac (eventually) Deacon Blue (Lorraine McIntosh) and All About Eve (Julianne Regan). HOWEVER after 'Our Time in Eden' and the wonderful 'These Are Days' and others sustained in the forefront of my favourites for a couple of decades I never EVER bought a Natalie solo album. I'm listening now. Just heard the song 'River' for the first time ever and did an online search, finding your blog. River has gone by, I'm on Track Seven. Finding it a little heavy going if I'm honest, but the best music grows on you slowly, over the days weeks. Even the Beatles did that.
    I enjoyed the read. Thanks.
    Alan in Northern England.

    1. Annie that was a beautiful take on a terribly tragic and beautiful song by Natalie. I wanted to add a short personal story about another song Natalie sings with Karen Peris from The Innocence Mission. They sing a fantastic version of "When They Ring Them Golden Bells" written by D.A.Demarbelle. His life could be another whole blog but I digress. After some research I discovered Mr. Demarbelle was buried in the same cemetery as my Great Grandfather in Elgin ,Il.
      The next time I was in Chicago, I went out there and after paying my respects to my ancestor, I found D.A. Demarbelles pitifully small grave marker. When I arrived however, there were some workers nearby running a very large, very noisy wood chipper. I was bummed because I thought they were going to spoil my plans. I'm not sure if they stopped after seeing me out of respect or were just taking a break. Whatever the case, they shut the machine off long enough for me to take out my phone and lean it against his Grave stone and play His beautiful song. I just thought he deserved that little gesture of respect. It was quite moving and I had managed to check one more task off my bucket list. Thanks Annie

  12. Thank you Annie for sharing your thought on this emotive song about River Phoenix. Like you I was not as distraught over his death however untimely and tragic it was. It says more about Natalie and her empathy and the cruel and vicious societal detritus who also leaves rude anonymous comments on your thoughtful blog.

  13. I would like to thank you for the efforts you have made in writing this article. I am hoping the same best work from you in the future as well. Thanks...
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