Alice Cooper and Joe Perry have every right to be jaded. Each has sold millions of records and chalked up hits over several decades. But their eyes still light up when they talk about the recent adventure they shared, recording with one of their childhood heroes.
"Paul McCartney just opened up an instrument case and there's his Hofner, left-handed bass, the most famous guitar in the world," Cooper says, grinning. "We were standing around it like Indiana Jones looking at it, like it's got its own light source and our faces are melting over it."
"I asked him a question about it, and he said, 'Here it is. It's OK. Pick it up,'" the Aerosmith guitarist beams. "I actually got a chance to hold it, and it was like the Holy Grail."
"Paul says, 'It's just a piece of wood,' and starts playing it and I said, 'Holy crap!'" Cooper rejoins in his typically confident manner. "To us, that bass a symbol of how we started."
The rockers have been thinking a lot about how they got started in recent years, while they worked on the debut album by Hollywood Vampires, a supergroup they formed with Johnny Depp (yes, that Johnny Depp). Although the record contains two urgent-sounding bloodthirsty originals — three, if you count the intro, in which late horror icon Christopher Lee recites a passage from Dracula — the heart of it is a collection of gritty, hard-edged covers of songs by the trio's peers and inspirations: the Who, Led Zeppelin, the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon and more. McCartney happened to stop by Depp's house, where they were recording, to sing a tune he wrote for Badfinger in 1969, "Come and Get It," and the album — out September 11th — also features guest appearances by Joe Walsh, AC/DC's Brian Johnson, Dave Grohl, Slash and Perry Farrell, among many others. What they all have in common is a set of musical roots.
"We were both the same age when we started playing," the 67-year-old, perennially black-clad and surprisingly perky shock-rocker says, gesturing at Perry, who is three years his junior and looks relaxed with a loose, white scarf around his neck. The musicians are sitting on a couch overlooking Manhattan and, though it's the decidedly un-vampiric hour of 9 a.m., both are sprightly and eager to parse just how all the parts of the project fell into place. "We learned the first two Stones albums, the first two Yardbirds albums, the Kinks," the singer continues. "That's how we learned to play and then we invented Alice Cooper and you invented what Aerosmith was going to be from that. Now, when we're doing these songs, it comes pretty easy."
It also came easy for Depp, age 52, who met Cooper in 2011 on the London set of Dark Shadows, the Tim Burton–directed movie in which the actor portrayed (presciently) a vampire and Cooper played another famous fictional villain: himself. When they got to talking, they realized they had more in common than was apparent, namely a love of British Invasion bands and the blues.
The actor was slugging it out as a guitarist in bands well before making his big-screen debut in 1984's A Nightmare on Elm Street. He'd gotten his first instrument at age 12, stole a chord book, dropped out of high school three years later and eventually moved from Florida to L.A. to open for Iggy Pop and the Talking Heads with a poppy new-wave group called the Kids. Video of them playing the Romantics' "What I Like About You" in 1982 exists online. When Cooper got wind that Depp was still playing, he invited him to join him at a gig at London's 100 Club, where they played "I'm Eighteen" and "School's Out."
"He comes in and he plays with us, and he knows everything," Cooper says emphatically. "No matter what people yelled out, he knew it. 'Brown Sugar?' 'Yeah, yeah.' We realized this guy could play." The actor, who was unavailable for this interview, has in the years since become much more active with music, playing gigs with Marilyn Manson, Aerosmith, Patti Smith and, most recently, Gene Simmons. And after jamming with Cooper, he invited the "Feed My Frankenstein" singer over to his house.
"We started saying, 'Let's do an album,'" he continues. "I'd never done a covers record so I said, 'I'd like to do one in honor of all our dead drunk friends, the guys that we used to drink with that are now gone.'" In the early Seventies, Cooper was a member of a loose-knit drinking club called the Hollywood Vampires that would congregate at the Sunset Strip outpost the Rainbow. "It was Harry Nilsson, John Lennon and Keith Moon and a bunch of guys," Cooper says. "I told Johnny, 'They're all dead now. Let's do an homage to them.'"
As it happened, Perry was staying on Depp's estate at the time, working on his memoir, Rocks: My Life In and Out of Aerosmith, which came out last year. "I was staying literally next door to his studio," says the guitarist, who is soft-spoken compared to Cooper. "So when I would finish working on the book, I would just wander over and they would be doing sessions. Johnny said, 'Hey, you wanna be part of this?' I was like, twist my arm, this was so great. I feel like I'm an honorary member because I was the last guy to join."
"Joe would come down and start playing, and I went, 'There's the band, right there,'" Cooper says. "We've got two guitar players that sing, now we need a drummer and a bass player, and then everybody started emerging. We just rocked it."
The original Hollywood Vampires, Cooper's cronies, took up drinking together in the early Seventies, when Cooper was flying high with hits like "School's Out" and "No More Mr. Nice Guy." His drinking buddies over the years included Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, but at the peak of the Vampires they most included Ringo Starr, the Monkees' Micky Dolenz and songwriter Bernie Taupin, along with Moon, Nilsson and occasionally Lennon. The Rainbow allowed the crew to have their own private loft, which displayed a plaque that proclaimed it "The Lair of the Hollywood Vampires." It listed Cooper, who had a legendary proclivity for imbibing alcohol at the time, as president and Moon as veep.
"The reason we went to the Rainbow every night was to see what Keith was gonna show up as," Cooper says. "He took a lot of time to go out and rent costumes. One day, he shows up and he's in full Queen of England garb." The singer pantomimes Her Royal Highness' grimace and signature dainty wave. "Two weeks later, full-out Hitler, and another night he's fully in drag as a French maid," Cooper recalls. "You're going, 'Wow, this is just another day in his life.'
"He'd wear you out," the singer continues. "If he came to your house and stayed, that week was like, 'Holy crap, I need a vacation,' because he was so intense. He'd stay at my house for two weeks, then he'd go to Harry's for two weeks and then Ringo's for two weeks. Those two weeks would be Hellzapoppin'. But he was also the coolest and funniest guy."
As for the other core members of the club, Dolenz lived next door to Cooper and was also one of the singer's golf buddies, and Taupin was the vocalist's best friend, so they would see each other almost every night. The two Beatles weren't as regular as the others, but attended frequently enough to be members, as did Nilsson. The way to join to the group, as Cooper has bragged, was to out-drink the other members. He explains, that's when he would see what kind of drunks his friends were.
"Everybody's personality changes a little bit when they drink," he says. "I was always the Dean Martin guy; I had the golden buzz, always laughing. I was never the depressed drunk. John and Harry, they would drink, and they could get after each other. If one guy said black, the other guy said white. If one guy said Democrat, the other said Republican. Pretty soon, I'm standing between them going, 'Guys, sit down.' They were the best of friends, but when they drank, they liked to get political and talk about religion and everything else that causes fights. It was funny because neither one was a fighter; they just had a belligerent streak in them every once in a while. Most of the time they were laughing."
Cooper recalls the Hollywood Vampires as having a clubhouse vibe, where only very rarely did these famous musicians talk about music. "We were in music all the time, so if you weren't making an album, you were touring," he says. "If you weren't touring, you were doing something else. So to have a night off from that, the last thing you wanted to talk about was music. You talked about cars and other people."
Photos from one gathering of the Hollywood Vampires, which took place at an Anne Murray concert in November 1973, picture Lennon, Nilsson, Cooper and Dolenz smiling like they were having the times of their lives. Today, the latter two in the photo are the last Vampires standing.
"The last time I saw John Lennon, he said, 'Am I still a Vampire?' I go, 'I smell blood.'" —Alice Cooper
Cooper, who got sober in 1982, looks back at the group's friendships fondly. The last time he saw John Lennon, at one of the former Beatle's concerts before he stopped playing live in the mid-Seventies, is a particularly good memory. "I walked back and he goes, 'Am I still a vampire?'" Cooper recalls. "And I go, 'I smell blood.' And he's, 'I'm a vampire. Yeah!'"
But he also knows he couldn't keep up with the Vampire lifestyle. "I've thought back on it, 'Well, that was a great time,' even though it was the beginning of the end of my drinking career," Cooper says. "When you're an alcoholic, in the back of your mind, you know that it's a death wish. No matter how you disguise it, every time you have another drink, you're closer to the grave. So to me, being able to survive it, I felt, in some way I should document it."
Johnny Depp plays a mid-paced metallic blues riff on Hollywood Vampires' closing track, which is titled after one of Cooper's favorite turns of phrase lately, "Dead Drunk Friends." "I'm raising my glass and tossing it back but I can't remember why," he sings, "So let's have another for all of my brothers who drank until they died." The song is far from maudlin. In the middle, it turns into a pirate chantey with Cooper, Depp and their blood-sucking brethren getting into the spirit of the original Vampires: "We drink and we fight and we fight and we puke and we puke and we fight and we drink... and then we die."
"I think it came out with a good sense of humor," Cooper says. "It wasn't morbid, I don't think. 'My dead drunk friends,' they would have laughed at that. It was their sense of humor."
Unlike the original Vampires, this collective was a sober affair. Perry and his Aerosmith foil, Steven Tyler, earned the nickname the "Toxic Twins" partly because of their extracurricular partying but both quit drinking in the early Eighties. Depp, who told Rolling Stone in 2013 that he never considered himself an alcoholic ("I don't have the physical need for the drug alcohol," he said), said in the same interview that he hadn't touched the stuff in a year and a half. So the only intoxicant for these Vampires was their music.
The cover tunes chosen by the triumvirate of Cooper, Depp and Perry include big hits ("My Generation," "Whole Lotta Love," "Break on Through"), as well as tunes that don't get much classic-rock radio airplay these days: Small Faces' "Itchycoo Park," Spirit's "I Got a Line on You" and Lennon's "Cold Turkey." As they began recording, with Depp's Kids bandmate Bruce Witkin playing bass on many of the tracks alongside a revolving cast of drummers, which most prominently included Zak Starkey (Ringo's son), the Vampires' friends got wind of the project and offered some helping hands.
One of the guests, AC/DC's Brian Johnson, came into the fold after Cooper conducted an interview with him for his syndicated radio show, Nights With Alice Cooper, last year. The "Welcome to My Nightmare" singer mentioned the project, to which the "Back in Black" vocalist said he wanted to join in on the fun. "I said, 'If you're serious, what song do you want to do?'" Cooper recalls. "He said, 'I want to do "School's Out."' And I went, 'Well, that would be really cool: When he comes in with that voice that's an octave higher than mine, it's going to take it to a whole other level.' He always brings an element of 'What?'"
"You're never gonna do a guitar solo better than Jimmy Page, so let's make it a harmonica solo." —Cooper
The Vampires ended up recording that tune — with help from Slash and original Cooper group bassist Denis Dunaway and drummer Neal Smith — as well as "Whole Lotta Love" with AC/DC's resident screecher. The Led Zeppelin cover holds a special significance to Cooper, since he remembers getting a headlining slot at the Whisky a Go Go in the Sixties only to recognize the opening act's guitarist as a member of the Yardbirds; it was Jimmy Page and the band was Led Zeppelin, and Cooper insisted they headline. The Vampires' "Whole Lotta Love" kicks off with a bluesy, smoldering soul intro with finger snaps and the sort of understated classical strings that defined Isaac Hayes records in the Seventies. Cooper, though, likens it sonically to something the original shock-rocker, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, would do. It features guitar by Joe Walsh, but the most surprising thing about it isn't Johnson's shrieks, it's that the bluesy harmonica playing in the breaks where Jimmy Page would do solos were performed by Alice Cooper himself.
"You're not going to do a guitar solo better than Jimmy Page, so let's make it a harp solo," he says of the rationale. "Jimmy actually heard it and liked it because it's totally the opposite of his. He told [producer] Bob Ezrin he thought it was cool because nobody did that yet."
Cooper says he considers John Bonham a Vampire, though the drummer wasn't a charter member, but says the hardest of the original drinking club members to pay tribute to was Harry Nilsson. "We're all hard-rock guys and Harry was very middle of the road," he says. "We found 'Jump Into the Fire,' and went, 'That works.' And then at the very end, Johnny starts playing 'put the lime in the coconut,' and I went, 'Oh, I love that song. Let's finish with a little bit of that.' So it was that loose. Everybody that came into it brought in what they know and really gave it color."
For the group's covers of the Doors' "Five to One" and "Break on Through," they brought in Doors guitarist Robby Krieger. "He's played with us before and he has a guitar sound that nobody else had," the singer says. "It was like a snake that was running through his guitar. I got a chill in the studio."
"He was a classical guitar player," Perry says. "That's how he started and that's why he fingerpicks with those metal picks. You need to spend a full year learning just how to do that. Apparently, he had only played electric guitar for six months when the Doors hit their stride. They're all jazz guys. The best rockers have that jazz, especially the drummers. There's a vibe about them where they hit the snare drum that really locks things together in a way that the straight-up rock guys lack. That's why a lot of guys in the Eighties came off sounding flat."
Cooper smiles and offers that Moon's drumming idol was Gene Krupa, and that the Who drummer's style was almost exactly the same as the jazz stickman's, save some bass-drum work. "He was the biggest lunatic in the business, but he was still the best drummer in the business," he says.
"I got to see the Who play four or five times in Boston before Woodstock," Perry rejoins. "The whole thing was insane. They were like a ball of fire. I don't think they played two bars the same ever, but it all worked." To create their own drum fireball on their cover of "My Generation," the Vampires recruited Starkey, who has been playing with the Who on their recent Who Hits 50 tour, and he gamely fills in for Moon with crashing cymbals and a firm respect for keeping the rhythm in the pocket.
"When Paul McCartney walked in the room, the three of us looked at each other and our chins were down here." —Joe Perry
Each guest came into the project for different reasons but in the case of McCartney, Cooper thinks the Beatle took an interest in the project because of its connection to Lennon. While working with him, the band treated McCartney to an old-school approach to recording. "Everybody was in the studio and we recorded live, the way they would have done in 1964," Perry says. "Very few bands do that anymore. They're always afraid that somebody is going to make a mistake. But Paul walked in and sat down at the piano. He ran through it maybe three four times at the piano, no notes, nothing, and the three of us [Vampires] were in a row watching. Alice, Johnny, me, we've all got our own claims to fame, our own journeys, but man, the three of us looked at each other and our chins were down here." He gestures to his knees.
"You know what was great for me?" Cooper says, lifting his chin. "The second time through, he made a mistake. It's like Tiger shanking a ball — that doesn't happen. And he goes, 'Wait, wait, wait, let me start that again.' And I went, 'Wow, I just saw Paul McCartney make a mistake.' But when he got it, Bob Ezrin went, 'That was on the money.' Then Paul turns around and goes, 'Do you want me to play bass on this?' We all go, 'No, Paul, we have a better bass player than you.'" Cooper laughs. "'Of course, we want you to play bass on it!'" That's when the bassist blew their minds.
Perhaps the most surprising guest on the album, though, is actor Christopher Lee, who played roles ranging from Dracula to Lord of the Rings' Saruman and recorded his own brand of heavy-metal albums before his death at age 93 this past June. Like Depp, he met Cooper on set of Dark Shadows, in which he played a fisherman. They took to golfing together. "He was a good, solid player," the singer says of the actor's golf game. Previously, Cooper had drafted Vincent Price to add a voiceover to his Welcome to My Nightmare album, and he thought with the Hollywood Vampires that it would be nice to have "one of those classic voices" on the record for a track called "The Last Vampire."
"His words are from the pages of Bram Stoker's Dracula," the singer says, pronouncing the author's first name as "Braahm." "The passage ends with 'Children of the night, what music they make.' I think it was the very last thing he did on tape, which was tragic and historic at the same time."
The vocalist pauses for effect and continues. "There's one little bit of the tape that we took off and I kept," he says. "After he said, 'what music they make,' he said, 'I dread to think what Alice is going to do with this.' I kept that."
The other original tune on Hollywood Vampires, "Raise the Dead," kicks in right after Lee recites his ominous line with thunderous drums, heavy guitar and Cooper yowling his own menacing observation: "The soul of rock & roll was buried in a hole." When Rolling Stone asks if he really believes that, the singer demurs. "Well, by the soul, I mean the Brian Joneses, the Jim Morrisons, the guys that really created bands like us, they're buried in a hole, but they're not dead — because we've raised the dead," he says. "Physically they died, but we're not going to let their music die.
"One of the reasons we did this album was to remind everybody about these songs," he continues. "They don't get played on FM radio. You never hear [T. Rex's] 'Jeepster.' You never hear 'Itchycoo Park.' You never hear 'Manic Depression.' You're going to hear what the computer spits out, but you're never going to hear those deeper cuts that I feel were the cooler cuts."
The record serves another purpose, too, in his mind. "It's almost a little educational piece for kids that are 18, 19 and in bands right now," he says. "We're saying, 'Hey, don't forget this song and that song.' I'm hoping there are 16-year-old kids right now in a garage learning old Alice songs and old Aerosmith songs. To me, that's the future of rock & roll."
Although the Hollywood Vampires won't be proselytizing new fans in the name of rock on a lengthy tour, they might be able to inspire a few disciples at the handful of gigs they have planned. The band will play two shows on the Sunset Strip — home to the original Vampires — at the 500-person capacity club the Roxy on September 16th and 17th. Then, on September 24th, they will play the Rock in Rio festival in Brazil. The rhythm section for these gigs will consist of Velvet Revolver and former Guns N' Roses members, bassist Duff McKagan and drummer Matt Sorum.
"If any guy is allowed to make an album about his dead drunk friends, it would be me." —Cooper
The group will use those concerts as an opportunity to play a few tunes that they didn't put on the record, too. When Cooper was sketching out a set list recently, Perry and Depp called him up asking to play his 1973 tango-inflected single "Billion Dollar Babies." "I said, 'Really? You know I'm not dead yet,'" he says with a laugh. "They said, 'Yeah, but let's do that and "Train Kept a-Rollin'," for an encore,' and I said, 'Absolutely.' I thought doing 'Billion Dollar Babies' was a nice compliment to me. They didn't have to do that. They could have said 'Brown Sugar.' In fact, I was the one who said, 'OK, let's do that, but let's finish with "Brown Sugar."'"
Cooper does not take the fact that he's "not dead yet," as he puts it, for granted. His drinking escapades are well documented, but he still remembers the wake-up call a doctor gave him after he threw up blood. "He told me, 'If you want to join your buddies — your "Hollywood Vampires" — I'll give you another month,'" the singer says. "'Just keep going how you're going and you'll be with them.' And I went, 'Uhh.' He said, 'You have a choice of stopping or joining them.'
"At that point, I said, 'I'm a little tired of this,'" he continues. "And I didn't really want to die. I guarantee you, Steven Tyler, Ozzy, Iggy, all the guys that are still here went through that decision. That's why we're all still here."
In the context of this incarnation of the Hollywood Vampires — less a drinking club than a sober social club these days — the people who are still here and those who are not remain paramount to Cooper. The album may run only 49 minutes, but to him, it spans generations. This time, he's metaphorically pouring one out for the departed. After all, this is a celebration. "If any guy is allowed to make an album about his dead drunk friends, it would be me," he says, as confident and resolute as ever. "Thirty-three years ago, I came as close to joining them as possible without doing it. I'm a survivor."