“We’re doing a Pink Floyd song today that I don’t know at all, ‘Welcome to the Machine,’” Alice Cooper tells me almost immediately after we say hello, with a hint of fear in his voice. “They’re doing some kind of a tribute album and they said, ‘We want you to do this song,’ and I'm thinking, ‘The timing on these lyrics is so wacky and the melody line just kind of lays there,’ and the more I listened to it the more worried I got. So this is going to be a nightmare today.”
When I tell Cooper that it took Pink Floyd friend Roy Harper to nail the vocal he’s instantly relieved. “Oh, good! Honestly that makes me feel better,” Cooper says, loosening up visibly. “Now I can walk in and feel OK. I have so little ammunition.”
Cooper is in New York with Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry to promote their new album, Hollywood Vampires, named for the legendary mid-’70s Los Angeles nightly drinking club that included Cooper, John Lennon, Keith Moon, Bernie Taupin, Harry Nilsson, and “just about anyone who was in town who could seriously drink,” according to Cooper. The album is made up of a fistful of song covers, many completely reimagined by some of the original Hollywood Vampires, as well as two original songs by Cooper that pay a more personal tribute.
Paul McCartney leads the Vampires in a rousing rendition of “Come and Get It,” the peerless tune he gave away to Badfinger for the band’s first hit, and fellow Vampire Johnny Depp plays scorching guitar throughout.
Let’s do the origin story. The “Lost Weekend” stories about John Lennon and the house he shared with Harry Nilsson and Keith Moon and Ringo are legendary. I gather the original Hollywood Vampires were an extension of that?
Alice Cooper: I lived in LA at the time. Bernie Taupin and I drank every night, Mickey Dolenz always drank with us, and we always ended up at the Rainbow. And it ended up with that club being the magnet for everyone. So they gave us our own little loft up there at the Rainbow. And every single night it was last man standing. But you know, John would come into town and Ringo and all the guys, and they’d always say, “You guys are the Hollywood Vampires, you never see daytime.” It’s a New York thing to stay up all night, I guess. So we liked that; we thought that was good, and we put a plaque there, “The Hollywood Vampires.” And we just kind of took that name. Then, when I decided to do a covers album, which I had never done, I figured I’d do one with a theme. I said, “Let’s pay tribute to all of our dead drunk friends.” Think of it: Every song that you’d want to do is by one of these guys that we used to drink with. So, I thought let’s actually turn it into that, and then let’s not make it an Alice Cooper album. Let’s get all the right guys together and make it a Hollywood Vampires album where I’m just the singer. And interestingly, almost every player on the album was either a druggie or an alcoholic that are now straight. So it’s in tribute to all the guys who were our big brothers who didn’t make it for one reason or another.
Joe, were you an original Vampire or were you a second generation Vampire?
Joe Perry: No, I’m an honorary member. You know I happened to be staying at Johnny Depp’s, working on my book, and he said, “Well, you’re out here in LA, I’ve got a house that’s empty, so why not use it.’ And while I was there, all we talked about was music and the studio he also has that was literally 20 feet away, in the next house. So we were there all the time and we’d be listening to music and talking music, and when the album started happening I couldn’t help but get involved.
Cooper: And Johnny had played with both bands over the years. Johnny had played with us, and he’d played with Aerosmith, and we all wanted him as a guitar player. I see him as much as a guitar player as I do an actor.
Perry: I mean, once in a while he would show us some funny outtake or something, but he very rarely would even talk about what was going on with his acting, unless something funny was happening. Like that scene where he was galloping across the prairie…
AC: Oh, the Lone Ranger story?
JP: In The Lone Ranger, he was riding a horse and he lost his rhythm, and if you’re galloping and you kind of lose the rhythm it’s really dangerous. So he starts coming out of his stirrups…
Cooper: And he’s sideways on the horse…
Perry: And he all of a sudden, he’s half on the horse and then he disappears out of the shot. So he shows us this one night, and we’re sitting there watching it just laughing so hard, and he says, “All I remember is seeing these hooves going around like wheels half a foot from my face!” Fortunately, he was able to get back upright. But I can just imagine what the director must have been thinking. “I’m losing my star here!” But that was one of the only times we ever talked about his acting. It was really always about music. And, in fact, that’s how I met him. I was in LA and I needed a guitar, because all of my studio stuff was up in Boston and I knew he was a great guitar player, from hearing him play…
Cooper: And his house looks like a guitar museum, right?
Perry: Oh, yeah.
Cooper: It’s like every kind of guitar you can think of is in that house.
Perry: So we’d just met, but he said, “Just pick any one.” All I wanted was a beater, just something I could play on while I was in town. It didn’t matter if it had a ding here or there. I started going around the room, and it was all 1935 Martins and things like that. You know, almost museum pieces. I said, “Johnny, I can’t pick one. I can’t take one.” And so he just took one down and gave it to me and he said, “Just use this one.” So right from the start it was just all about music. That’s what our relationship was based on. So when I stayed out there working on my book, when I’d finished for the day, and he was done shooting for the day, we’d hang out.
Cooper: You know, the deal is that every good band in the world was a cover band first. The Beatles were and the Stones were. Everybody was a cover band. So going back in to do covers of songs that really influenced us, songs that we really liked, you know, we all just couldn’t wait to play those songs. That’s what made it so much fun. We do a really rocked-up version of “Jeepster” by T.Rex, because Marc Bolan was a Vampire. And we do “I'm A Boy” by The Who and “Itchycoo Park” by the Small Faces. At first we wondered what to do with those, but the answer was easy: Let’s rock it! What about Jimi Hendrix? “Manic Depression,” how about that one? Everybody went, “Yeah. Let’s do that!” So it was fun.
And there are some serious guest stars on the album, like Brian Johnston from AC/DC and Paul McCartney…
Cooper: I’d never had so much fun making an album. Because there was never a moment where I thought, “Well, that doesn’t work.” And people were calling us saying, “Hey, I want to play on this!” And then McCartney wanted to be involved. So on the appointed day he walks in and says, “Okay, here’s how it goes.” We’re standing there in a line around him at the piano, and he’s got his back to us, and we’re going (mouths), “It’s Paul McCartney. From The Beatles!” We were just stunned. Our jaws were on the floor. You know, it’s one thing to meet him or even get to know Paul McCartney. It’s a totally other thing to be in the studio with Paul McCartney, doing the high vocal with him, or sitting next to him while he’s playing guitar.
Perry: Live in the studio!
That’s something I wanted to ask. Were these tracks recorded live?
Cooper: All of it. We might have gone in to redo a bass part or something here or there, but almost all of it was. Although we did Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into The Fire” into “Lime in the Coconut” live, and it just wasn’t quite right. But then I had to go out to do some gigs, and when I came back and Johnny told me, “I got Dave Grohl to come in and we juiced up that track.” All of a sudden it went from here to here. They brought the life into it. And I said, “Man, I wasn’t sure that one was going to make it onto the album, but now…” It was stellar. It needed that fire from Dave Grohl, but Johnny had the idea of how to make it come alive, and all of a sudden it was back on the album!
And how did you end up doing “Come and Get It”? It’s a great choice and it’s reinvented like the others. But was that Paul’s idea?
Cooper: Yeah, whatever he was going to play we were going to go with it. And we didn’t realize that two of the guys in Badfinger, the band he’d written it for, had hung themselves. Two of the guys in that band committed suicide. But Paul said he wrote the song in 15 minutes.
Perry: Well, he said he wrote it in the morning lying in bed, and then he went to Abbey Road an hour before The Beatles got there and cut the demo—played all the instruments and got it down—and that was it. He showed it to Badfinger, and produced that session, but he’d had nothing else to do with it since.
Cooper: And the great thing about it was that we were all just guys in a band with him for that little moment. I mean, he wasn’t in our band. We were in his band. But we were fine to take a step back and go, “Whatever you say, sir.”
Perry: I call him “the ego-leveler.” You know what I mean? There’s no one in the room, nobody frankly in that part of the world in that moment, that’s bigger than Paul McCartney. The talent is just pouring out of him.
Cooper: And he’s ego-free. He’s done it all. He doesn’t give off any ego at all. He just goes, “OK, I’m the piano player.” And I’m thinking, of course, “Yeah, but you’re Paul McCartney!” And then he goes, “You want me to play bass on this?” We looked at each other and went (nods excitedly), “Oh, OK.”
Talk a little bit about the two original tracks.
Cooper: Well, we needed something that was like an anchor, especially standing in this bar full of ghosts. I wanted to be the guy going, “Well, here’s a toast to everybody that used to be here.” And that’s just kind of what it turned into. And then we added the bit that sounds like pirates—“We drink and we smoke and we fight and we puke”—and I said, oh that’s funny, let’s leave that in because it’s good. It sits right in there. And I told Johnny, when we got to singing, “Give me a little Jack Sparrow here. OK?”
And you’ve got some live shows coming up?
Perry: It’s hard to believe that we’re only going to do two, even for me. I mean, I don’t know, I guess it’s really going to be about timing. Because I know we all feel it. I know I feel it.
Cooper: I think we’re going to keep it nice and loose so that any time you see the bat signal in the air—we see the vampire signal—and we say, ‘Where are we going?’ Boom. Johnny’s schedule is tough, though. Because, when you’re doing a movie, that means three months of doing the movie and nothing else. You can’t just say, “Hey, I’m off to do a tour.” Or even a few shows.
And you wouldn’t do it without him, would you?
Cooper: Well, you know, he’s the core of this thing. He’s the Brian Jones. He’s that guy that likes to stand in the back and just be the middle of this whole thing.
So you guys never had any qualms about his playing?
Cooper: He’s played with both bands on stage. He knows all my stuff; knows all of Aerosmith’s stuff. He goes up with Foo Fighters, everybody. The guy can play anything. You know that movie Chocolat, where he’s playing the Spanish guitar...
Perry: Whenever anybody asks me about Johnny’s playing, I just say, “Watch that movie and realize that’s him playing.”
Cooper: It’s not studio trickery.
Perry: I’m in awe watching that. I never learned that stuff. And I’ve actually asked him for a lesson every once in a while. “Johnny, show me how you do that.” He’s that good. He’s got all these different styles he can draw on, too. He really loves playing.
Cooper: And there was never a time in the studio where we didn’t have the same language. If somebody mentioned a track, even if it was a pretty deep track on an album, he’d know it and would start playing it! He knows his stuff.