The Viper Room

Mr Porter, Oct 2014

The club that defined the 90s.

Viper-Room-1993Also at MrPorter.com

It’s no secret that ghosts lurk in the basement bar of the Viper Room. Ask Rita Fiora, she’s been working the ticket booth there for the last seven years.

“I’ve had my hair yanked, a hand on my leg. Oh yeah, they’re grabby, the guy ghosts,” she says. “But there’s a chick ghost too, she was texting me once from a dead number. I’d talk out loud to her, and she’d text me a response. She was mad that I couldn’t see her.”

Mostly, when Rita tells ghost stories, people ask “was it River?”, as in Phoenix. The James Dean-ish star of Stand By Me was 23 when he died of an overdose outside the West Hollywood club.

It was Halloween October 31st, 1993, barely two months after Johnny Depp and a business partner had bought a majority share, and already the Viper Room was known as one of LA’s coolest spots – a place where supermodels and Hollywood’s finest could truly let loose without fear of paparazzi. Its reputation was building fast when the Phoenix tragedy struck. It was the club’s formative trauma. Ever since, River Phoenix and the Viper Room have gone together like John Belushi and the Chateau Marmont.

“None of the ghosts are River,” Rita says. “But he’s not the only person who died here. People talk about the 90s, when it was Johnny’s place, but that stage goes back to the 40s.”

The Viper Room is the crown jewel of the Sunset Strip, the most storied stretch of the most storied boulevard in Los Angeles. Of all the hallowed venues that remain, it’s the first, the original and the least tampered with. The Whisky has its Doors legends, and the Roxy, down the street is the biggest room, the loudest stage. But the Viper Room is gem-like – small and perfectly formed. The acoustics are impeccable, and it’s so intimate that it’s filled to capacity with only 186 people. It’s also essentially the same room as in the 40s. If those walls could talk, they’d have stories going back to the mobster Bugsy Siegel.

In Siegel’s day it was known as the Greenwich Village Inn, a fabled gangster hang out, frequented after Siegel’s death by crime boss Mickey Cohen, Siegel’s former enforcer. As The Melody Room in the 50s and 60s, it was first a jazz club (John Coltrane) and then a rock venue (The Doors). In the 70s, it was home to all things glam rock as Filthy McNasty’s (The Sweet), and in the 80s, as The Central, the hair was everywhere (Motley Crue, Van Halen and Kiss.)

It was Tom Waits that suggested to Depp that he buy the place – he even proposed the name, The Viper Room. And at the time, Depp craved a private sanctuary for him and his friends. “I wanted a place to escape,” he once said. And so he relaunched the venue. It became known as “Johnny’s place”.  Not to be confused with Johnny’s Booth, which is an actual VIP area at the club.“ (He had it built specially,” says Rita. “You can’t see into it, because of the one way glass, but you can see out and watch the gig.”)

The star studded launch featured a set by Tom Petty, and a crowd that put the Grammies and the Oscars to shame. Instantly, the Viper Room was the place. Stars realized it was a safe place to party, and so they did. Stories abound of Kate Moss behind the bar pouring shots. Or Quentin Tarantino crawling around on the floor looking for his wallet yelling, “it says Bad Motherfucker on it!” And on top of it all, there was burlesque, in keeping with the venue’s illicit traditions – Depp specifically wanted it that way. The Pussycat Dolls had a residency there for five years, long before they took on the later, Don’t Cha line-up.

But it wasn’t just a scene. The music was spectacular. Johnny Cash played solo there, showcasing his first work with Rick Rubin. Depp felt his performance was a cleansing after Phoenix’s death. And Cash was one of many huge acts to play this intimate venue – Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, Guns and Roses, Prince… And if the stars weren’t on stage, they were in the audience, many of them ready to get up there and jam themselves.

“It was one of rock n’ roll’s greatest hideaways,” says Frank O’Neill, the Glaswegian production manager there for thirteen years. “You’d have Al Pacino in booth one, Joe Strummer and Iggy Pop just hanging out in the office, and who’s that bloke up there in the mixing booth with the hot blonde? Oh it’s Tony Curtis. That’s the kind of place it was.”

Stars just came to hang out. It became their local. Mick Jagger, Bryan Ferry, Cher, Michael Hutchence… A few regulars got so used to getting on stage and playing together, that they formed a band, the Neurotic Outsiders – John Taylor (Duran Duran), Steve Jones (The Sex Pistols) and Duff McKagen and Matt Sorum (Guns n’ Roses). Madonna’s label Maverick signed them up in a flash.

“As far as celebrity bad behavior, it wouldn’t be right of me to say,” says O’Neill, grinning. “But Mel Gibson would come in pissed up quite a lot, causing trouble!”

No doubt the heyday of the Viper Room was in Depp’s era. When he sold up in 2004, the venue went through some uncertain incarnations – movie Sundays, for example, or its experiment as a straight nightclub.

But the ship has been steadied since. In 2006 it was bought by Harry Morton, son of Peter, the Hard Rock magnate. And it has returned full bore to its rock n roll roots.

“I was doing shots with Dave Grohl the other night,” says Rita. “They all come in – Dave, Steven Tyler, Slash. And believe me, it’s just as wild as it ever was. I was in Johnny’s Booth the other day, and a band member was having sex with a groupie. He said, ‘hello love! I’ll just be done in a jiff!’ I’ve gone into our offices and found complete strangers doing rails of cocaine.”

Los Angeles has a way of erasing its own history. And already there have been some ominous developments on the Strip.  A beloved old café, Dukes, has been replaced by the corporate abomination, Rock ‘n Reilly’s. There’s talk of turning the Hustler XXX Superstore into a hotel.

But the Viper Room is keeping the torch burning with a passion. This is a venue that puts on three bands minimum per night, every night of the week, 362 days a year. Almost everyone who works there is a musician – Rita’s in a country band, the head barman Tommy Black is a bassist for Scott Weiland (of Stone Temple Pilots), and even the general manager, Mitch, is a singer.

Who knows maybe the ghosts were musicians too? You can’t blame them for sticking around.

“They honestly don’t bother me,” says Rita, setting herself up in her booth minutes before the doors open.  “It’s one of the privileges of working in a historical venue. Because I know people died here, but you know what? People lived here too.”