Kalpana Kalpana (Editor)

(He'll Never Be An) Ol' Man River

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Released  6 June 1995
Length  2:24
Format  CD single
B-side  "Abscess Makes the Heart Grow Fonder" "Dicktatorship"
Recorded  Platinum Studios, September 1994 "Abscess" recorded at Metropolis Audio, September 1993
Genre  Dance-rock, alternative rock

"(He'll Never Be An) Ol' Man River" was the first single to be released off Machiavelli and the Four Seasons (1995) by Australian alternative rock band TISM.


The title never appears in the song, and due to this, it is commonly (though incorrectly) referred to as "I'm On the Drug That Killed River Phoenix". The title references the play Show Boat and the famous song Ol' Man River, indicating that River Phoenix will never be an "ol' man" because he died at age 23 of a drug overdose.

It is arguably TISM's most popular track, or at least, most well known, as it reached #9 in Triple J's 1995 Hottest 100, one number ahead of Greg! The Stop Sign!!. It is also the only TISM song to reach the singles chart in Australia, peaking at number 23.

On the 27th of April 1995, the band appeared on the RMITV show Under Melbourne Tonight and performed the song

In 2002, the band performed the song on John Safran's Music Jamboree with traditional Greek instruments and slightly different lyrics.


The song opens with the refrain I'm on the drug that killed River Phoenix and, as the song continues, talking about a wide variety of celebrities who died due to some sort of excess. As the song progresses, it becomes clear that the addiction is not about actually doing these things himself; rather, his addiction is vicariously following celebrities and their excesses and premature deaths. As with a number of TISM songs, it is a comment on the fairly vapid state of popular culture.

Example verse:

I drank the slab that Bon Scott drunk;
Injected some of Hendrix' junk;
I booked a seat on Lynyrd Skynyrd's plane;
Mama Cass's sandwich? I ate the same!

And ending in ...

Now I'm bored and there's no stoppin'
I need another celeb to fill a coffin
Where'll I get my next drug action?
Odds on it'll be Michael Jackson

However, in the 2002 Music Jamboree performance, the ending verse was changed to reference Philip Ruddock.

The song is performed in drop D tuning.


Not unique for TISM, controversy surrounded the release of this track. The main lyric I'm on the drug that killed River Phoenix enraged a number of people; the Red Hot Chili Peppers Australian-born bassist Michael "Flea" Balzary (a close friend of Phoenix) was reportedly left "wanting to kill" TISM.

TISM addressed this controversy in 2004:

"By the same token, Hitler-Barassi says, "I'm on the drug that killed River Phoenix", the line that famously enraged Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, "wasn't about River Phoenix at all. That song was about fame, and the people listed in it weren't even real celebrities."

But did he get the opportunity to explain that to Flea?

"I had him on the ground and I was just about to break his nose with my forehead and I said, 'You do know, Flea, that satire is a legitimate art form stretching back to ancient Greek drama?' And he said, 'Oh, that's OK then, Ron'. He's a good guy, Flea. He's a mate of ours," he adds unconvincingly.

The single was issued with a second "pills" cover after a version depicting a mockup of Phoenix's tombstone was withdrawn.


  • Damian Cowell - lead vocals (choruses)
  • Peter Minack - lead vocals (verses)
  • Jack Holt - bass
  • James Paull - electric guitar
  • Eugene Cester - keyboards
  • Track list

    1. "(He'll Never Be An) Ol' Man River"
    2. "Abscess Makes the Heart Grow Fonder"
    3. "Dicktatorship"


    (He'll Never Be An) Ol' Man River Wikipedia