Feature by Kevin Murphy
The original Hollywood Vampires were the ultimate 70s hellraisers. Four decades on, Vampire-in-chief Alice Cooper has resurrected them with help from Joe Perry and Johnny Depp.
As we join them in LA, the trio reveal how this all-star supergroup rose from the grave, and how their exploits were informed by their predecessors.
Alice Cooper picks up a glass of beer, walks to the mic, then pauses momentarily while the packed audience takes his cue and attempt a respectful hush. “Alcohol and drugs killed a whole lot of Hollywood Vampires,” he warns, before making a toast. “This is dedicated to our Dead Drunk Friends.” Instantly the quiet is shattered by the raucous opening to the song that took its name from those dearly departed dipsomaniacs that inspired it.
It’s the second of two sold-out nights at The Roxy for the Hollywood Vampires, an all-star group centered on the unlikely trio of Alice Cooper, Aerosmith’s Joe Perry, and Rock City Angels’ Johnny Depp, better known as movie star Johnny Depp. The previous night’s show marked the live debut for the band that have just released their self-titled debut album. With only two original songs, the bulk of the record is devoted to an illustrious collection of cover versions that includes Whole Lotta Love, My Generation, Jeepster and Cold Turkey. The only common denominator among the eclectic selection is that at least one of the original artists who performed them is dead. Indeed death is a central theme for the Hollywood Vampires, who took their name from a legendary group of drinkers that in the 70s frequented the Rainbow Bar & Grill, the club that is within throwing-up distance of The Roxy, on LA’s fabled Sunset Strip.
The fluid line-up of the original Hollywood Vampires included Keith Moon, Harry Nilsson, John Lennon, Mickey Dolenz, Ringo Starr and Bernie Taupin, while Alice Cooper was elected honorary president. For some of the original Vampires, the drinking that secured their membership ultimately proved fatal, while others managed to pull themselves back from the brink. Cooper was one of those who survived, and now, with the christening of this new venture inevitably conjuring up associations with the past, he recounts the origins of the group’s name.
“When you went up to The Rainbow, they put all the rock stars and actors up in this loft, and they gave us the name The Hollywood Vampires because they said: ‘We never see you during the day, and all you do is drink.’ So it’s more like we’re drinking the blood of the vine, not the blood of the vein. They put a plaque up there, ‘Roost of The Hollywood Vampires’.”
The new incarnation of the Hollywood Vampires has a very different relationship with alcohol, one symbolised poignantly when, back at The Roxy, Alice turns his glass upside down and the contents remain in it, revealing it to be a prop of the stage variety, and not the prop that real alcohol once provided him with. Cooper’s long battle with alcohol is a battle shared by his bandmates in the Hollywood Vampires; both Perry and Depp’s struggles with drink have been well chronicled.
“Well, we’re all still alcoholics,” Perry admits. “I’ve never considered myself not. I just don’t drink today. I don’t know what I’m going to do tomorrow. I could just as easily pick up a drink tomorrow, y’know. It’s like, the way I look at it, I have a choice every day: I can either give in to it, or not. That doesn’t go away. It’s always there.”
Looking at the present-day group as they tear up The Roxy, making a mockery of their years and demons, these Vampires couldn’t be more alive. As if the nucleus of Perry and Depp on guitars and Cooper on vocals didn’t possess enough star power, the trio are joined on stage by Matt Sorum on drums and his rhythm buddy Duff McKagan on bass, plus Tommy Henriksen on guitar and Bruce Witkin on keyboards. And while the tiny Roxy was barely able to accommodate the seven-piece line-up, it would have required the vast stage of the nearby Hollywood Bowl to fit all the musicians who make guest appearances on the album. The impressive list includes Sir Paul McCartney, Dave Grohl, Joe Walsh, Slash, Robby Krieger, Brian Johnson, Perry Farrell and Zak Starkey. One other artist contributes to the record, and while not a musician his association with vampires is renowned. In what was his last recording before his death, actor Sir Christopher Lee recites the album’s opening track, The Last Vampire. The record’s pedigree is enhanced by its cover artwork, created by clothing designer John Varvatos, and the eloquent liner notes by Bernie Taupin.
The record and The Roxy shows are the outcome of an idea that was spawned more than four years ago. “I was doing Dark Shadows [2012’s horror comedy] with Johnny in London,” Cooper recalls. “One night we’re going to go play the 100 Club, down on Oxford Street. I said: ‘Johnny, when do you finish shooting tonight?’ He said: ‘Around six.’ And I said: ‘Well, either take your make-up off, or leave it on.’ The ironic thing is that the movie* Dark Shadows* was about vampires. I said: ‘Come down and play with us.’ I knew he was a good guitar player; I mean, I’d seen him play. He came down, and we did a couple of Alice songs, and then somebody would yell out Brown Sugar, and we’d do that, and somebody would yell out, Back In The U.S.S.R, or something like that. Everything they yelled out, Johnny knew every song.
Hardly surprising, really, considering that prior to his acting career Depp had moved to Los Angeles with the express intention of scoring a record deal for his band The Kids, and he’d later spend time with Sunset Strip regulars Rock City Angels. “I picked up the guitar when I was twelve years old,” Depp says. “I conned my mom into buying me an electric guitar for twenty-five dollars. And the first time I picked it up it was over with.”
“In the downtime of the filming, we started talking about the Hollywood Vampires,” says Alice. “And Johnny was kind of fascinated by the fact that these guys were all in one place at one time.”
“So many stick out,” Depp says, laughing, about the tales that Alice would tell of his time in the original Vampires. “They were always waiting for Keith Moon to arrive. And Keith Moon arrived as the Queen of England, waving in the same manner, full-on garb. And the next night he’d be f***ing d’Artagnan or something, you know? So brilliant.”
“It just came up,” Alice continues: “Why don’t we do a tribute to them? I’ve never done a covers album. It started out being an Alice Cooper cover. And then I realised that it really wasn’t any more, now it was a band called the Hollywood Vampires.”
Once the initial idea had been hatched, the two founding members soon found themselves a third member, although Joe Perry’s involvement came about more by happenstance than by design, as the guitarist recalls: “Well, as fate would have it, I was living at Johnny’s house when I was working on my biography. We were talking, and he said: ‘Do you wanna be involved in this?’ And I said: “Of course.’”
Perry’s close friendship with Depp was preceded by admiration on both sides. “The guys that really were my two huge, main influences I mean, there were a number, but there was Keith Richards and there was Joe Perry,” Depp says of his formative guitar-playing years. “I would sit there with my turntable and taught myself how to play. You’d get to a certain part in the song, and you’re learning this s**t by ear, so you’d have to pull the needle back and then learn it again. Bang! Learn it again. So those two guys had a major effect on my playing.”
Many years later, the Aerosmith guitarist was being equally impressed by Depp’s own fancy fretwork. “There’s a movie Chocolat that he’s done,” says Perry, “and he plays the river gypsy, and he’s playing guitar around the fire. And that’s really him playing the guitar. He was playing Django Reinhardt stuff that I didn’t have a clue about. So I said to myself, some day, if I ever get to meet Johnny I want a guitar lesson. In some ways he’s a better guitar player than I am.”
That’s an admission some may find hard to believe, but it’s clear that Perry has enormous affection for Depp, who generously extended an open invitation to him. “He basically said: ‘Whenever you’re in LA, this is your house.’ Which just shows you what kind of a guy he is.”
In addition to providing a West Coast refuge for Boston resident Perry, and walls covered in guitars, Depp’s LA home is equipped with a 72-track studio. With that at their disposal, the Vampires started to chew over which songs they should do. They initially looked to the musical legacies of those original Hollywood Vampires. “What would we do for John Lennon?” Alice remembers pondering. “Well, certainly we weren’t going to do Imagine. Let’s do something that really represented the John that we knew. Which was going to be Cold Turkey. Basically it was a little self-serving, because we wanted to do Jeepster, we wanted to do My Generation by The Who, we wanted to do Itchycoo Park by The Small Faces. I said, the difference is, let’s toughen them up. Let’s put them in perspective to the way our bands play – very hard rock bands. Then it really worked, it just started falling into place. Dave Grohl came in and played on two or three songs, and Zak Starkey played on two or three songs. Paul McCartney walks in…”
It’s impossible to ignore Alice’s nonchalant reference to the arrival of the legendary Beatle, whose Come And Get It (a UK hit for Badfinger), is included on the Vampires’ album.
Paul McCartney doesn’t just walk in. How did that happen?
“No, he just doesn’t walk in. He’s a friend. I’ve known him for thirty-five years or so. But it’s different when you’re in the studio with… not just any other guy, this guy is The Beatle. Not just a Beatle, he was the music of The Beatles, the way I looked at it. He sits down at the piano, he says: ‘Okay, I wrote this one for Badfinger and I haven’t played this since 1968,’ or whenever it was. He sits down and starts playing, and everybody just comes in. We cut that track in four takes, live, in the studio.”
It’s an experience that Depp won’t forget in a hurry. “It was mad,” he laughs. “I won’t say I was nervous, because I wasn’t, but it was a feeling like a jolt of energy that everybody felt. Paul made us all feel very, very comfortable, he’s so down to earth and so, so good, so we all sort of just ended up getting into it. Of course, it’s Paul McCartney, and he’s a genius. We’re recording live, and I look over at Alice, and Alice looks at me with this befuddled little look and he’s mouthing the words: ‘Oh my God, that’s Paul McCartney!’ to me. That’s Alice Cooper saying that to me! Then I look over at Joe Perry – one of my guitar heroes from when I was a kid – and he looks at me and he says, mouthing it: ‘Jesus… Look, man, it’s Paul McCartney!’ It was great to see those two huge stars being star-struck.
If stars of the magnitude of McCartney just happen to walk in, then it was clear these Hollywood Vampires had a vast pool of talent to draw upon. So how did they decide who was going to play on which tracks?
“Some of the guys would come in and it was a natural,” Alice explains. “If we’re going to do I’m A Boy you’d get a drummer that knows how to play like Keith Moon. So Zak Starkey, of course. On School’s Out we got Dennis Dunaway and Neal Smith from the original [Alice Cooper] band. Brian Johnson, we would say to Brian: ‘Hey, how about Whole Lotta Love? Because we wanted that voice on the verse. And he goes: ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. But I want to do School’s Out too.’ I don’t remember it ever being an argument about any song. Harry Nilsson was a ballad writer, so we found Jump Into The Fire, which was actually a pretty good rock song. It was all based on drums, so we have Dave Grohl on drums. We had a plethora of great players there to play with. I said, let’s take these songs and just rearrange them and really make them great, bar versions. Like a pub band, a really good pub band. And that’s really what it was.”
Watching the Hollywood Vampires as they opened their show with their self-written Raise The Dead, followed by a version of My Generation that shook the walls of The Roxy as much as any LA earthquake could manage, it was evident that Cooper had more than succeeded in his desire to form “a really good pub band”.
The all-star line-up had attracted a capacity and enthusiastic audience that included such celebrities as Paul Stanley, Chad Smith and Depp’s wife, actress Amber Heard, who were all in attendance on the first night. After a blistering take on Spirit’s I Got a Line On You, in recognition of Cooper’s old drinking partner Randy California, Alice dedicated the next song to one of the legendary members of the Vampires. “This one’s for John,” he said as the band broke into a raucous and rousing cover of Lennon’s Cold Turkey.
There’s more than a little irony in the fact a group of recovering alcoholics have named themselves after a notorious pack of drinkers.
“Well, you know, there were a lot of ironies in this whole thing,” Cooper concedes. “I mean, we didn’t really recognise the point that there was no alcohol there. That’s the amazing thing. Every single person there had been an addict or an alcoholic, that was now not an alcoholic or an addict. Johnny’s on the wagon, I’m on the wagon, Joe Perry’s on the wagon. Everybody there was, like, on the brink of dying at some point from our abuse, and here we were singing about the guys that did die from the abuse.
Perry is all too aware of the impact that substance abuse can have on a career. “You can get better and better as an artist, or you can be an alcoholic or a drug addict,” he says. He goes on to cite a period with Aerosmith when it became all too clear that their addictions were affecting not only their music, but also relationships within the band. “We were in the studio, when we realised we just couldn’t get along that way, we couldn’t write the way we used to.”
Like Perry, Cooper knows that studios and alcohol don’t mix. “There was a time, that would have been early seventies, that this album would have taken forever to make because it would have been just an ongoing party. Whereas we would get in the studio and there was no alcohol involved, no drugs. I’m kind of like, you know, that’s normal for me, I’ve been sober thirty-three years. We all had war stories. ‘I remember getting up one morning and throwing up blood.’ ‘I remember waking up in Italy, and I started out in England.’ Everybody had their stories of abuse. And then at one point we’re there and I went: ‘You know everybody is sober here,’ and it was just really weird.”
In addition to the lack of alcohol, another factor that ensured the recording of the album stayed on schedule was securing the services of renowned producer Bob Ezrin, who has worked on the majority of Alice Cooper’s albums.
“Bob is great,” Cooper enthuses. “Because Bob comes in not only as a producer, but as a musical director. He’s got such credibility that these guys will sit and listen to him during rehearsal. He’ll say: ‘Okay, you got to take it down here’; ‘I need more Johnny on this’; ‘I need more Joe Perry here…’ He’s like a taskmaster when it comes to making it sound great. And I said what I don’t want to lose is the looseness. I want it to be like a glorified bar band, because that’s what we’re gonna be.”
Given that the Hollywood Vampires originated at the Rainbow Bar, it’s fitting that this new group of Vampires were striving to return to their bar-room roots, even if in sound only. Both in the naming of the band and their choice of songs, it’s clear that the halcyon daze of carousing with friends inspires memories that Alice enjoys recounting, with the inclusion of Itchycoo Park on the album prompting recollections of Steve Marriott and co. ‘’The Small Faces, you know, those guys we used to party with a lot. They weren’t lightweights when it came to drinking.”
The poignant fact that every cover version on the album involves an artist that has died isn’t lost on Perry, who mourns their passing while also acknowledging how it could so easily have been him. “You do miss those people. But just for some reason they took it one more step, they took that one extra drink, they took that one extra pill.”
Many of them were regular members of the original Hollywood Vampires, some had only a passing acquaintance, while the inclusion of Hendrix’s Manic Depression and The Doors medley Five To One/Break On Through (To The Other Side) were nods to two artists who embodied the spirit of the Hollywood Vampires.
“Yeah, every single song had some sort of connection with either us drinking with them or being involved with them on that level,” Alice says. “Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix of course were before the Vampires, but they were like, early, early-breed Vampires. They would have been there every single night, I guarantee you that.”
One who was there more than most was Cooper himself. “Well, the funny thing is, I was probably the most consistent drinker. I was the one that would get up and start drinking at eight o’clock in the morning. But I was the Dean Martin kind of guy. I was sort of the golden buzz that didn’t get out of control, that was never falling down stairs, and you never heard stories the next day about Alice Cooper getting arrested for being drunk and disorderly. I was way too cool for that. I was the guy that was just the smooth operator. Whereas guys like Keith Moon, everybody said: “Has somebody put Ritalin in his drink?’ Because he was like an out-of-control child, even though he was the court jester.
“He was the guy that every single night we’d be at The Rainbow going: ‘What do you think he’s going to wear tonight?’ ‘I don’t know.’ He’s either going to be the Queen or Adolf Hitler, or a French maid, or who knows what he’s going to be? He was the most fun of the whole thing. If I could pick out three of my most outrageous things that I ever did, that would be a Tuesday for Keith, you know, that would be normal for him.
“I always told people: ‘Look, thirty per cent of everything you’ve heard about Alice Cooper is probably true. Thirty per cent of what you’ve heard about Rob Zombie or Iggy Pop, or any of these guys, is probably true. Everything you’ve ever heard about Keith Moon is true – and you’ve only heard ten per cent of it. He was the heart and soul, and the fun of the whole thing.”
While Moon provided the comic relief, others brought their own distinctive personalities to the Vampires. “Harry Nilsson was hard-core,” Cooper remembers. “The guys that would show up when John Lennon was in town. Of course, Harry was his best friend, so they would show up together. Then that became a political argument. The more they drank, one guy would say black, the other guy says white. One guy would say Democrat, the other guy says Republican. And I’m in the middle, like the referee, going: ‘Guys! Sit down, sit down.’ They’d listen to me but… If Harry wanted to get out of control, Harry was a big guy,” Alice says, laughing, with obvious fondness. “Guys like Mickey Dolenz and Bernie Taupin… Bernie and I were both, you know, kind of the coolest drinkers, where other guys, every once in a while you’d say: ‘Sit down.’”
One particular night, however, no one told John Lennon and Harry Nilsson to sit down. The pair’s exploits are probably the most high-profile of all the original Hollywood Vampires. On the night of March 12, 1974, Nilsson made the mistake of introducing Lennon to the Brandy Alexander, a heady cocktail of brandy, creme de cacao and cream. “I got drunk and shouted… ,” Lennon later told Bob Harris on the The Old Grey Whistle Test. “It was my first night on Brandy Alexanders. I was with Harry Nilsson, who didn’t get as much coverage as me… the bum. He encouraged me. I usually have someone there who says: ‘Okay, Lennon, shut up.’ And I take it. But I didn’t have anybody round me to say ‘shut up’ and I just went on and on…” Lennon and Nilsson ended up heckling the evening’s performers, the Smothers Brothers, and got thrown out of the club.
“It was our return to the Troubadour after being fired from television,” Dick Smothers told journalist Bill DeYoung. “It was just packed. Harry and John weren’t working on anything at the time. They’re ripped, and Harry has told John that Tommy [Smothers] likes to be yelled at up there, it’ll really help the show. They were warming up on our opening act, a girl folk singer, and John was saying four-letter words – drunken, rude stuff. And the crowd was really getting pissed off with him.”
Security intervened and, as May Pang (Lennon’s assistant and companion during his infamous ‘lost weekend’ – much of which was spent in the company of the Vampires) recalled: “All of a sudden his boyhood I’m-being-attacked routine came out. Of course, Harry’s in there, mixing it up as usual, and then they got the bouncers to come and escort the two of them out the door. I’m behind them. There’s like ten bouncers. John stumbled and fell on the ground. He was drunk out of his mind by that point. And Harry too. It was just a complete fiasco. And I was just so pissed off at Harry for that.”
The incident played on Nilsson right up until his death. In one of his final interviews, he told Dawn Eden that it “ruined my reputation for ten years. Get one Beatle drunk and look what happens! It still haunts me. People think I’m an asshole and a mean guy. They still think I’m a rowdy bum from the seventies who happened to get drunk with John Lennon, that’s all. I just introduced John and Ringo to Brandy Alexanders, that was my problem.”
Only those who spent time at the Troubador with the original Vampires truly know what it was like. And of those who were, Bernie Taupin captured it perfectly in the liner notes the lyricist wrote for the album: “I’m not completely sure what constituted bad behaviour back then, but in this lair it existed in a bubble, a hermetically sealed dome of fun. It may not have been the round table at the Algonquin, but these were witty, intelligent guys who often got raucous and loud, but rest assured there were no bystanders or animals hurt in the making of the Hollywood Vampires.”
The new incarnation of Hollywood Vampires is rather less benign, as their collective volume is in severe danger of hurting the eardrums of those crammed into the heaving, sweating Roxy. The decibel level is ratcheted up to 11 when Tom Morello and Geezer Butler join the other Vampires on stage for an exhilarating cover of Hendrix’s Manic Depression. Up until this point, both Johnny Depp and Joe Perry have executed their guitar playing with a degree of restraint. However, Morello is rather more excitable. He jerks and bounces around as if wired to the mains. In homage to the song’s composer, at one point he even starts playing the guitar with his teeth. Morello’s adrenalin-fuelled cameo takes the show to another level, as those lucky enough to have securea a coveted ticket shout their approval.
Considering the enormous crowds most of the group are used to playing in front of, it’s somewhat surprising to hear Cooper confess how apprehensive they were about playing The Roxy.
“One of the great things was during rehearsal,” he says. “I loved the fact that everybody was nervous. Here’s Joe Perry, who does this every night with Aerosmith, here’s Alice Cooper that does it every night, and Duff McKagan, who’ve played for every amount of people, and here we are going to play for five hundred people at The Roxy and everybody was nervous.
“I said: ‘Isn’t it great to be nervous again?’ You know, it was something I missed, actually having a little bit of butterflies, because we’re so used to doing our stuff and knowing how to do it. Here’s Alice Cooper going to go up and be a bar band, no props. I’m used to knowing where every prop is and how to work it, and I’m just going to be the bar singer. So it was weird going up there on stage and not having my arsenal of things to go to.”
That sense of unfamiliarity was also an issue for Perry: “I realised that it was kind of like ‘unlearning’ a whole career of playing with the same guys. So when we got on stage it just dawned on me how much influence all those forty years was holding me back.”
But they had no need to be nervous. They killed it. Every guest they had on stage nailed their spots. Whether it was Perry Farrell getting to grips with the vocals on Nilsson’s Into The Fire, Ke$ha doing her best Robert Plant impersonation on Whole Lotta Love, Zak Starkey conjuring the ghost of Keith Moon on I’m A Boy, or Marilyn Manson emulating his hero on I’m Eighteen, the Hollywood Vampires put on a great show.
That opinion was shared by Perry. “Last night when it came together, that was one of the most exciting shows I’ve ever played,” he enthused.
The morning after the first Roxy show, Alice is up early to talk about his new project. Given his late night, it was impressive that he was even up at such an hour. “I didn’t realise vampires got up this early,” I tell him. “We’re a whole different breed,” he jokes. “We actually get up and do stuff during the day.”
Clearly, times have changed. Back in the 70s, when they were holding court in their lair at the Rainbow Bar, few of the Hollywood Vampires could have imagined themselves still rocking in 40 years’ time. Sadly, too many of them didn’t survive the intervening years. But Alice Cooper did. Watching him on stage at The Roxy, it’s clear he’s still loving every minute of it. Which prompts the question: Is it more fun being a Hollywood Vampire now than it was back then?
“Well it is, because back then it was fun being out of control, and now it’s fun being in control,” he says. “You’ve already done a big part of your life as being an irresponsible rock’n’roll drunk. Which was great. When you’re young your body can take that, and your brain can take that, and you’re basically indestructible. When you’re getting to the point where you’re over fifty, and some of us over sixty, now it’s much more fun to get up and really know that the band is tight. You know how many of us are on borrowed time, and we’re up here doing this and it sounds great. I mean, the energy is on twelve, and people are looking at us, they’re going: ‘Wait a minute. Aren’t those guys sixty-five years old? How are they doing this?’ To me that’s the thing that makes it great – the fact that we’re rocking it as hard as any twenty-year-old band is.”
And so what of the future? Vampires are immortal, right? Will the Vampires rise again?
“I would love to hear Shep [Gordon, Alice Cooper’s legendary manager] walk into the room at some point and say: ‘Hey, guys, guess what? I’ve got six more gigs, or ten more gigs…’” Depp says. “And talking to Joe, talking to Alice, talking to Duff and Matt – those two are the backbone of this thing, they’re awesome – everyone’s into it. Everyone is into it. So we’re ready, I’m ready. I would love to keep it going. I would definitely, definitely, definitely love to do a second, another record. We still have a number of originals that we recorded or we have demos of that we never ended up using on the record, so there’s still some material.”
Whether or not that happens, as a euphoric crowd spill out of The Roxy on to the Sunset Strip, following an encore that culminated with Brown Sugar they were still buzzing from having witnessed the greatest bar band they’d ever seen.