(September 26, 2015)
Originally Published: September 26, 2015
Author: Will Hodgkinson
The Roxy on Sunset Strip in Los Angeles is one of those legendary rock venues every big city has: steeped in myth, surprisingly small and grimy. Next door is the insalubrious Rainbow Bar & Grill, which in the early 1970s was home to a notorious drinking club called the Hollywood Vampires. John Lennon, Keith Moon, Harry Nilsson and Alice Cooper were among its members. To join, all you had to do was drink everyone else under the table.
On a hot September night at the Roxy, Cooper is playing homage to his late friends by fronting the debut gig by Hollywood Vampires, a classic rock covers band featuring Aerosmith's Joe Perry on guitar and all manner of guest stars; even the amazonian pop diva Ke$ha get up to do a raunchy version of Led Zeppelin's Whole Lotta Love. Keeping a low profile on guitar at the back of the stage, meanwhile is Johnny Deep.
"We all grew up in bar bands, playing five sets a night," says Depp the next day, looking very much the LA rocker in bandana, fedora and eyeliner, in one of the Roxy's shabby dressing rooms. It's barren apart from a couple of plastic chairs, a tatty sofa, bottles of water and a packet of taco chips. "This is just like being in a really good bar band, but for me to look over and see Alice, whose records I grew up with, and next to him I see Joe Perry, who is one of my top two influences on guitar, the other being Keith [Richards]... it's amazing."
Cooper and Perry might also be amazed to look over and see a Hollywood superstar sharing a stage with them. This journalist from Peckham is southeast London is certainly amazed to be chatting about music to one of the most famous actors in the world in a poky room in LA. A day before the concert Depp was a starry presence at Toronto International Film Festival, appearing with his wife, Amber Heard, for the premiere of his gangster movie Black Mass and making headlines when he reportedly withdrew his support for the troubled film London Fields, in which Heard start and he plays a cameo. At the Roxy, he's one of the boys.
"To go from my day job and to return to the feeling of camaraderie you get in a band,where you look out for each other and earn each other's trust and support, is special," says Depp, who talks slowly and with something of a stutter in a mid-Atlantic accent that leans, oddly, towards a Scottish burr. "The band is the important thing. Nobody is going 'Look at me' because the songs are too good. That's the real gas: every song is a salute to the original, without doing a perfect version. Alice means it and so do we all."
At the core of the band's repertoire are the songs of the late wild men who made up the original Hollywood Vampires, including Nilsson's Jump Into The Fire (Depp: "We rocked it up, made it sexy and languid"), the Who's My Generation and Lennon's Cold Turkey. As Cooper explains, he wanted to capture the spirit of his old drinking club, albeit without the copious amounts of alcohol that bonded them together and, for the most part, killed them.
"The cool thing about the Rainbow back then is that they put anyone recognisable up in this loft, which they called the Lair of the Vampires because they only saw us at night," says Cooper, still looking like the pickled rock villain of legend. "I told them, 'Well, we drink the blood of the vine, not the blood of the vein.' Harry Nilsson was there every night, arguing with Lennon; if John said black, Harry said white. Keith Moon would be there when he was in town, and we all loved him but my God, he would wear you out. Someone must put Ritalin in his oatmeal. Everybody in his prime, everybody was recording or touring, and you wen there to not talk about music. It was like a clubhouse where you got away from fame and felt safe."
The Hollywood Vampires had their own waitress, whom Cooper remembers as a gum-chewing perodize blonde called Schatzi, and modelled themselves on a drinking club from 1930s Hollywood that included Errol Flynn and John Barrymore. Legend has it that when Barrymore died club members took his body from the funeral parlour, propped him up at the table of his house and drank with him all night.
"If Harry Nilsson had died at the Rainbow we would have done the same," says Cooper. "The mood was irreverent. John Lennon could be very funny and cynical but if he was in one his I'm-going-to-change-the-world moods, forget it. I'd say, 'John, I'm the least political guy on the planet. I'm here to entertain the world, not to change it.' The more he drank the worse he was. But when Harry and Keith Moon were there, that was as good as it got." Perry, whose band Aerosmith gave America its answer to the Rolling Stones, wanders into the dressing room, a joint hanging from his mouth, and sharks' teeth, amulets and chains from his neck. Perry was too young to join the original Vampires (he's 65), but as he explains in a Bostonian drawl, he got the general idea.
"I started hanging out at the Rainbow a few years later," says Perry. "There might have been different bands and different drugs or whatever by then, but I'd walk in and they'd put a bottle of Jack Daniel's in front of me, I'd look around to see which waitress I could grab, and that was it. And then there were the groupies that liked drummers, groupies that liked guitar players, groupies the like bass players.... they were very specific. For a good three of four years I made the most of it."
There's a big difference between the Hollywood Vampires of then and the Hollywood Vampires of now: alcohol, or rather, a lack of it. Everyone in the band, through necessity if not choice, is teetotal. Without wishing to glorify dipsomania, doesn't this make the new version a touch ersatz? "Everybody is sober," says Cooper. "But we do remember drinking a lot and all of us have been at death's door, so it's not phoney. I was throwing up blood, and the doctor said I could either join my buddies or quit drinking and make 20 more albums. Joe Perry was into heroin big time. He was actually pronounced dead one time. I'm sure Johnny Depp had come close. The thing is, when I was on stage as Alice Cooper I never drank. It was the other 22 hours that was the problem."
How did the world of the original Hollywood Vampires become so hedonistic? "It was expected. Today, if you're in a major band and you're a heavy drinker or drug-taker, you're not going to get hired; nobody want to take a chance on a guy that can ruin a tour. In the Seventies, if you didn't think and take drugs you wouldn't get hired."
The seeds of the band were sown in Buckinghamshire when Cooper and his manager Shep Gordon met Depp at Pinewood Studios on the set of Dark Shadows, Tim Burton's 2012 film starring Depp as a vampire. "I'm playing Barnabas Collins and had finger extensions and I had to shake hands with them," recalls Depp. "Alice was playing the 100 club in London that night and he said, 'Hey, if you want to come and play a few songs after get get off work, you're welcome to.' That stops you in your tracks. Alice Cooper is trusting me enough to invite me on stage? Maybe he heard I'm a musician. We got up and did School's Out and I'm Eighteen and afterwards he came up and said, 'You can play.'"
Depp got good as a result of hours on film sets, waiting to shoot a scene. "Obviously, for many years I have had a day job, so I'll just sit in my trailer all day and practise. The people I really responded to were the old blues guys like Robert Johnson, Tommy Johnson, Son House and Skip James, so I learnt slide guitar. Later I got into [jazz guitarist] Django Reinhardt. To play his music with five fingers is almost impossible, but Django did it with two fingers and a thumb. I would spend a lot of time between a takes leaning this stuff."
"As a guitarist he has respect for others," says Cooper about Depp, "Which is why most bands would be happy for him to sit in with them."
Meanwhile, Depp intimates something that might come as bad news to fans of his movies: he never really wanted to be an actor. "I was never... I mean... I've been a musician all my life," he says, quietly. "Truly, for the first three, four, five years I was just trying to pay the rent while being in bands. I always thought I would go back to music. But that road kept going." Depp came to Hollywood to be a guitarist. A chance meeting with Nicolas Cage set him on his path to preposterous fame. It's not a path Depp seems entirely at ease with. "It's so completely different," says Depp, on being a musician and being an actor. "It was a strange transition for me... You're going from a band, where it's a tight-knit and safe feeling, to moving into acting, where it's just you, having a bunch of eyeballs on you alone. But I always played guitar. I've played with Ryan Adams and Shane McGowan, I played two entire shows with Willie Nelson. So now with the Hollywood Vampires you want to go back to that feeling of camaraderie. You want the situation to be comfortable enough to throw everything you've learnt away so you can just have fun."
Depp may also have a touch of disrespect for a craft that comes too easily for him. When we meet, he gives an impression of Christopher Lee, who recorded a soliloquy on the Hollywood Vampires' new album a week before his death in June. He becomes everybody's favourite Scouser during an impersonation of Paul McCartney, who played guitar on the Vampires' album for a version of his own Come And Get It. When Depp is not in character, however, he holds back.
"Both Johnny Depp and Joe Perry are Keith Richards kind of guys," says Cooper. "They want to be the cool guitar player, not the front person. Their position is 'I'm a good guitarist and I want them to discover that', rather than 'I'm going to show them what I can do'."
Hollywood Vampires perform two shows at the Roxy, and plenty of guest singers do want to be centre stage - spooky Marilyn Manson, Perry Ferrell of 1990s alt-rockers Jane's Addiction and Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine among them, while, true to form, Perry and Depp stay at the back, allowing themselves the occasional smile when, say, Brown Sugar goes to plan. Nobody in Hollywood Vampires is the first flush of youth. Yet there's something life-affirming about a bunch of rock dudes and one extremely famous actor playing Sixties and Seventies favourites in raucous fashion.
"In truth, Hollywood Vampires is a bit self-serving," admits Cooper. "It's basically a bunch of guys playing their favourite songs. Who wouldn't want to do that?"
Hollywood Vampires is out now on Universal
(Originally published in the Saturday Review supplement of The Times, September 26th, 2015)