Tiny, dark and dingy, the single-room Sunset Strip cave that co-owners Johnny Depp and Anthony Fox rechristened the Viper Room in 1993 was a symbol of ’90s angst and aggression.
Fans of the club during that era included everyone from Counting Crows frontman Adam Duritz to Courtney Love, Jared Leto and Drew Barrymore. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers played the club’s opening night, and later, unknown bands like the Wallflowers became knowns on the Viper Room stage. Burlesque troupe the Pussycat Dolls strutted their stuff there on Thursday nights from 1995 to 2001.
Today, the Viper Room’s legacy might be more tinged with scandal and tragedy than music. Depp sold his stake in the venue in 2004, after Fox’s mysterious disappearance in 2001. More famously, Depp’s friend and fellow actor River Phoenix died from a drug overdose on the sidewalk outside the club in 1993, the night of a gig for the band P., (a star-studded outfit that included Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers on bass and Depp on guitar). A makeshift shrine of flowers and candles marked the corner site for several weeks afterward.
But as infamy waned and bands began to explore music scenes off the Strip, attendance at the Viper Room withered. Harry Morton, the son of Hard Rock co-founder Peter Morton, bought the space in 2008, and told W magazine that year he had plans to open outposts in music-friendly cities like Seattle, Austin and Portland, Ore. — although nothing much came of those ideas.
Photo by Daniel Hennessy
Now, as the Viper Room celebrates its 20th anniversary, Morton and his team are finding ways to prove the club is still a central music destination in Los Angeles, while also adding some sleek, modern touches.
“We want to be a place again where (it’s) guaranteed you’ll have a good time, and you might very well be turned on to your next favorite band,” says Brad Robinson, the Viper Room’s director of operations. “We’re trying to get the crowd to come out; to venture past the Wiltern” on Wilshire and Western, and from even farther east, where music-loving hipsters have migrated to places like the Echo and sibling Echoplex in Silver Lake.
In addition to concerts, the Viper Room’s calendar includes comedy nights and burlesque shows. Plus, there’s the lure of a top-shelf American whiskey selection to compete with neighboring pub Rock and Reilly’s Irish labels.
In keeping with the Viper Room’s microscopic square footage and a capacity that best epitomizes the term “intimate setting,” Robinson says management is focusing on breaking bands or underground acts.
The decor has been spruced up, with VIP booths and a refurbished bar area. Graffiti artist Vyal has decorated the green room with a mural of a Muppet-like creature’s piercing magenta eye, while the hallway walls look like a psychedelic solar system of colorful orbs. Outside, on one portion of the building, artist David Flores has fashioned a Picasso-like portrait of Johnny Cash, who recorded songs “Tennessee Stud” and “The Man Who Couldn’t Cry” at the venue, while fellow artist Unglar’s tropical, turquoise mural covers the back wall. As a nod to the club’s roots, Robinson allowed a bumper sticker proclaiming “fuck pro tools” to stay on the inside of the side-door entrance.
Robinson likes to compare the Viper Room with the storied New York Bowery district rock club CBGB — a venue, it should be noted, that closed in 2006 and now lives on as a music festival and iHeartRadio platform.
Despite all the changes, Robinson accepts that his reincarnation of the club will probably never outlive the legacy left by Depp’s generation.
“I get more fan mail a day and phone calls from people asking to speak to Johnny Depp than anything else,” he says. “Depending on my mood, sometimes I pose as (him).”