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
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)
early 1993, Johnny Depp met Anthony Fox, who owned a nightclub called
The Central in West Hollywood. The club existed on
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,
Jenco, became a manager.
The opening night was a benefit for the
Foundation, an organization that grants wishes to terminally ill
children. Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers were among the
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.
MacGowan's participation is mentioned in a blog
by backup musician Cindy Collins Smith. Other performers that
Evan Dando, Maria McKee, and Weiss' band the G-ddamn Liars.
Attendees included Quentin
Tarantino, Julien Temple, Mary Stuart Masterson, Crispen Glover, and
of a newspaper clipping from the Biography Silver Screen II: Mavericks
November 30, 1993 Rolling Stone article
Dennis Hopper; Chuck E. Weiss; The Heartbreakers at the Viper Room opening night, August
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
and all that. And you could listen to the music that you and
friends like. And we wanted to hear Louis Jordan, and we
to hear Cab Calloway, and we wanted to hear old blues, Robert Johnson
and Howlin’ Wolf. So that was the initial thing,
know. Let’s make this place feel like it
been, or like maybe it was back then, you know, in the
30’s. A speakeasy. It was called The
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
excited about the history of the place."
Sunset Strip (The Movie), 2013
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?"
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
Tragically, River Phoenix died of a
outside the club in the early morning of October 31, 1993 (often
misreported as Halloween night). Johnny has said in
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
article, Gibby Haynes recalls playing Michael Stipe that night:
"Haynes later told Spin about the night P played at Depp's
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
right at that moment, he was basically on the sidewalk….
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
club for 2 weeks, placing a sign outside to express sympathy and
condolences to River's family and loved ones. Fans were
to place flowers, candles, photos and other memorabilia outside the
club while it was closed.
following River Phoenix' death on October 31, 1993
Twenty years after River's death, at least 2 books
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
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
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
birthday in January of 1995.
Johnny was present for guest appearances by many
artists, including the great
Johnny Cash. On December 3, 1993, after hooking up with
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
"It was an incredible night. Dead silent.
You could hear a pin drop. People couldn't believe
was Johnny Cash there in the Viper Room. He started playing,
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.
was in the music and it was beautiful. People who were there
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
ended up on our first album." (Actually, two songs recorded
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
handwritten lyrics to Drive On, and a mention in
the January 27, 1994 Rolling Stone
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 screencaps and November 14, 1996 Rolling Stone mention
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
The Viper Room
operated successfully for years, attracting many top music acts.
However, it was not immune to controversy. In 2000,
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.
at the courthouse, October 23, 2001
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.
club was then owned by Darin Feinstein, Bevan Cooney and Blackhawk
Capital Partners, Inc.
February 15, 2008, the club was sold to
Harry Morton, son of Hard Rock Cafe owner Peter Morton.
Blackhawk retained a minority share. Morton planned 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
"only minor cosmetic changes, and would not compromise its identity or
culture." Read the article about the sale 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, and the Kickstarter supporters are SOL.
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.
In August of 2018, Variety reported
that the club and several adjacent properties were sold to a buyer
known as "8850 Sunset." So far, it is unclear whether the property will
be redeveloped. For now, the club is still open and thriving. In
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:
official Viper Room
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
seen sporting a Viper Room knit cap on occasion.
Johnny in NYC,
February 21, 2013; Peter Mountain photoshoot, 2013
Check the Photo
Gallery for more photos of Johnny in his Viper Room hat or
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
Some more articles, not all of them totally accurate, about the lawsuit
and other controversies: