The Viper Room         

(established 2006; last updated 11/22/15)

(click all images to enlarge)


Viper Room Studio

I opened the Viper Room for a single reason: I was looking for a bar worthy of the name. A place for good music and good host groups. A place where, if I wanted to have a drink with friends, we would not be left victims by ridiculous pounding beats by a “connected”, simple-minded DJ. Or there would none of this feeling of rage that invades you when you suffer the bad taste of others. A place where you would not feel insulted by the crushing of stupid, obnoxious music- and not escape, even in so-called adequate bars. I was looking for a place to escape.
-Johnny Depp, French Studio, February 2000 (my English translation)


     In early 1993, Johnny Depp met Anthony Fox, who owned a nightclub called The Central in West Hollywood.  The club existed on the site of The Melody Room, formerly owned by gangster Bugsy Siegel in the 1940's.  Johnny and musician Chuck E. Weiss went into business with Fox, took 51% ownership in the club and reopened it as The Viper Room on August 14, 1993.  Johnny's best friend from childhood, Sal Jenco, became a manager.
     The opening night was a benefit for the Starlight Foundation, an organization that grants wishes to terminally ill children.  Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers were among the acts; according to a former website, they played a 60 minute set that included the debut performance of Mary Jane's Last Dance, Crawling Back To You (reportedly the only performance of this song with Stan Lynch on drums), Drivin’ Down To Georgia, and Something In the Air.  Shane MacGowan's participation is mentioned in a blog comment by backup musician Cindy Collins Smith.  Other performers that night included Evan Dando, Maria McKee, and Weiss' band the G-ddamn Liars.  Attendees included Quentin Tarantino, Julien Temple, Mary Stuart Masterson, Crispen Glover, and Tim Burton.

portion of a newspaper clipping from the Biography Silver Screen II: Mavericks DVD
LA Times Viper Room

November 30, 1993 Rolling Stone article
rolling stone

Johnny; Dennis Hopper; Chuck E. Weiss; The Heartbreakers at the Viper Room opening night, August 14, 1993
viper room opening   hopper   biography-weiss   rdad-19


     From a 1994 People magazine article, Johnny envisioned the club as a "cool little underground place" for him and his friends to hang out at and listen to good music.  In the 2013 documentary Sunset Strip, Johnny elaborates:  

"What I wanted out of The Viper Room, first and foremost…  wouldn’t it be great to have a place that you could go to where you weren’t necessarily on display all the time, or you didn’t feel like a novelty, you know.  You didn’t have to sneak in and sneak out and hide and all that.  And you could listen to the music that you and your friends like.  And we wanted to hear Louis Jordan, and we wanted to hear Cab Calloway, and we wanted to hear old blues, Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf.  So that was the initial thing, you know.  Let’s make this place feel like it should’ve been, or like maybe it was back then, you know, in the 30’s.  A speakeasy.  It was called The Melody Room then, which is like at that time, I mean, the people that I heard that had played there were like Charlie Parker, Coltrane, all these amazing, amazing players from back in the day.  So yeah, we were all very excited about the history of the place."

Sunset Strip (The Movie), 2013
ss 17
 
     Concrete Blonde had a record release party there in late 1993, leading frontwoman Johnette Napolitano to make a toast to an absent Johnny:  "Lift your glasses!  Is that man good-looking or am I crazy?"  (This may have lead to the rumor that Johnny appears in one of Concrete Blonde's videos, for the song Joey.  This has never been substantiated, and the common video for Joey does not feature Johnny).

 November 25, 1993 Rolling Stone mention of Concrete Blonde's Viper Room show
concrete blonde viper

     Tragically, River Phoenix died of a drug overdose outside the club in the early morning of October 31, 1993 (often misreported as Halloween night).  Johnny has said in interviews that he was playing on stage with his band P at the time, and had no idea what had happened until being notified of it later.  In a Spin Magazine article, Gibby Haynes recalls playing Michael Stipe that night:  "Haynes later told Spin about the night P played at Depp's Viper Room in Los Angeles. Starting 'Michael Stipe,' the singer looked for Phoenix, who was supposed to be in attendance: '[The song's] got River's name in it, so it was going to be cool. He's a friend of mine and he's never heard the song. So we're singing up on stage…and right at that moment, he was basically on the sidewalk…. I've got a guitar solo, and at the end of the solo, Johnny stepped offstage. He was frightened. River died [of a heroin overdose] just a few feet away from us, right on the other side of the wall.'"  Johnny closed the club for 2 weeks, placing a sign outside to express sympathy and condolences to River's family and loved ones.  Fans were permitted to place flowers, candles, photos and other memorabilia outside the club while it was closed.

The days following River Phoenix' death on October 31, 1993
people   cut 1   zuffrante   cut 2   ss 20

     Twenty years after River's death, at least 2 books were published to recount the tragedy:  Bob Forrest's Running With Monsters and Gavin Edwards' Last Night At The Viper Room.  Forrest's book is mentioned by the National Enquirer while Edwards' is described by the UK Daily Mail.  Seems that there is still some finger-pointing going on, but nobody may have been able to prevent this terrible loss. 
 
     P was said to have played at the Viper Room on a number of occasions, sometimes with help from the likes of Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols.  They also reportedly threw Kate Moss a party there for her 21st birthday in January of 1995.

P plays the Viper Room; see the Photo Gallery for more photos
P viper room

     Johnny was present for guest appearances by many renowned artists, including the great Johnny Cash.  On December 3, 1993, after hooking up with producer Rick Rubin with the intention of recording a new album, Cash did something at the Viper Room that he had never done before: he played solo.  He famously debuted much of the solo material that was later released on the Rubin-produced CD, American Recordings, reportedly beginning with his own composition, Drive On.  Johnny Depp introduced the Man In Black by saying "Ladies and gentlemen, I can't believe I get to say this: Johnny Cash!" Rick Rubin recalls: "It was an incredible night.  Dead silent.  You could hear a pin drop.  People couldn't believe that it was Johnny Cash there in the Viper Room.  He started playing, and I could see how nervous he was, but by the middle of the first song, or the beginning of the second song, all of the fear was gone.  He was in the music and it was beautiful.  People who were there that night still talk about it as one of the greatest things they've ever seen.  And we recorded that night and I think one of those songs ended up on our first album."  (Actually, two songs recorded that night were later released on American Recordings: Tennessee Stud and The Man Who Couldn't Cry).  In the 2013 Sunset Strip documentary, Johnny speaks of Johnny Cash's appearance as being a "great cleansing" and an "exorcism" of the dark cloud that had hung over the club after River Phoenix' death.

December 3, 1993: the 2 Johnnys with June Carter Cash, screen captures of brief footage from the Sunset Strip documentary,
handwritten lyrics to Drive On, and a mention in the January 27, 1994 Rolling Stone

cash viper room   ss 22   ss 23   drive on   rolling stone cash mention

     
Another famous Viper Room guest was Hunter S. Thompson, in September 1996.  Johnny and John Cusack joined Hunter on stage to discuss many things, including his fight against a DUI charge.  Some of this Viper Room appearance has been documented on the DVD, Breakfast With Hunter.

Breakfast With Hunter screencaps and November 14, 1996 Rolling Stone mention
BWH5   hunter viper room   19961114rs

     The club was also the setting for a spring 1997 event paying tribute to the release of the Kerouac - Kicks Joy Darkness CD.  Michael Stipe was at least one of the performers.

May 29, 1997 Rolling Stone mention
kicks joy darkness

     The Viper Room operated successfully for years, attracting many top music acts.  However, it was not immune to controversy.  In 2000, Anthony Fox sued Johnny for mishandling of profits, but while the suit was in progress, Fox disappeared in December of 2001 (he is still missing to this day).  Meanwhile, by this time, Johnny was spending most of his time in France with long time love Vanessa Paradis and their two children, and had become less and less involved with the club.  

Johnny at the courthouse, October 23, 2001
court1   court2

     In 2004, Johnny and his lawyers finally settled the case, quietly selling his majority share to Fox's daughter Amanda, whose intent was to resell the club.  The club was then owned by Darin Feinstein, Bevan Cooney and Blackhawk Capital Partners, Inc.
     On February 15, 2008, it was announced that the club has been sold to Harry Morton, son of Hard Rock Cafe owner Peter Morton.  Blackhawk will retain a minority share.  Morton plans to open additional Viper Room clubs in such cities as Las Vegas, Miami, Portland, Seattle, New York, London and Tokyo.  As for the original club, he plans "only minor cosmetic changes, and would not compromise its identity or culture."  Read the article about the sale here.  And here is an article from the November 30, 2008 issue of the Washington Post.
     A documentary about the club began in 2013.  Called Friends Of The Viper Room, it was to be directed by Olivia Barash and was partially funded by a Kickstarter campaign.  Chuck E. Weiss was one of the participants.  They released a 4 and a half minute trailer in late 2013.  Unfortunately, there was barely a mention of the documentary by 2014.  A Facebook post in July of 2014 reported a new round of interviews, but the post was subsequently deleted.  The page has not had any other updates in years, so it is unlikely to ever be finished.
     In 2015, musician Bob Forrest spoke about The Viper Room in an interview with the Telegraph:  "When you were in LA, the Viper Room is where you would go. Every night somebody was there – Tom Petty, Tom Waits – everybody just hung out there. I went three or four nights a week because either somebody good would be playing or your friends would be there...It was a really special, magical thing. There was a love of music and a love of each other, because we all loved the same things: Exile on Main Street and Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. It was like finding your people."  Read the rest of the interiew here.

     The Viper Room is still open and thriving.  In September of 2013, to mark the 20th Anniversary of the club, they launched a new clothing line, revamped its whiskey bar, and updated the decor.  Some articles about the updates:
     The official Viper Room Website which once mentioned Johnny's involvement in the club, no longer mentions him by name anywhere on the site.  One can only guess that this is by mutual agreement.  Nevertheless, Johnny is still seen sporting a Viper Room knit cap on occasion.

Johnny in NYC, February 21, 2013; Peter Mountain photoshoot, 2013
NYC 2013   mountain 2013

Check the Photo Gallery for more photos of Johnny in his Viper Room hat or t-shirt!

     Here is an article that appeared in a 2005 magazine called Club Systems, telling about some of the history and also the sound system for the club:

blurb   club systems 1   inset   club systems 2


Some more articles, not all of them totally accurate, about the lawsuit and other controversies:
 


 
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