“Ruined my reputation for ten years. Get one Beatle drunk and look what happens!” Harry Nilsson said about getting himself (and John Lennon) kicked out of L.A. nightclub the Troubadour after a few too many brandy alexanders.
Like Manson parties and the Traveling Wilburys, the Hollywood Vampires Club is one of those pages of rock ‘n’ roll history that’s so tantalizing, it’s hard to believe it happened at all. The self-branded Hollywood Vampires was a supergroup of hard-drinking, hugely talented musicians including Lennon, Nilsson, Micky Dolenz, Alice Cooper, Ringo Starr, and Keith Moon, where the only way to gain entry was to drink every member under the table.
On July 13, Greenpoint’s intimate Manhattan Inn resurrects those icons with a Lennon-Nilsson-Cooper covers night. Curated by HYPNOCRAFT, the show is part of the At the Inn Series and will feature local artists like Nicole Atkins, Sam Cohen (Yellowbirds, Apollo Sunshine), Christian Peslak, TEEN, the Invisible Familiars, EMEFE, and more. Like the original vampires, these baby vamps are friends and fans of each other’s work (which is also why the show is free).
Ask any of the musicians mentioned above what makes for a good cover song, and the answers are as varied as the interpretations they bring to the Manhattan Inn’s table. According to Cohen, it’s about a great story. He would know. For three years, Cohen was the music director of a sprawling live rock show called “The Complete Last Waltz,” which featured all 41 songs from the 1976 concert. His former bands have contributed to cover compilations of Bob Dylan and Nilsson, and Cohen even convinced his old band Apollo Sunshine that covering “And Your Bird Can Sing” was a sharp idea. Not that it was a hard argument. “We were completely obsessed [with the Beatles], trying to find analogies in our lives to show that we were going to have the same meteoric rise,” he laughed.
Cohen will perform his two Lennon/Nilsson favorites, “Jealous Guy” and “Without Her. “There’s sort of a stigma against tribute shows, because you picture guys that used to be cool wearing shoulder-padded blazers and playing ugly guitars. Maybe people think there is something ‘too Guitar Center’ about covers. But I feel like they’re always great because everyone involved lets their guards down.”
Covering songs can lead a musician down all sorts of unexpected roads. When Peslak was a thirteen-year-old skateboarder singing songs by the New York Dolls at open-mic nights, he never guessed he would get to play David Johansen one day. Martin Scorsese cast Peslak to portray the wayward rocker in his yet-to-be-titled, highly anticipated HBO series about the Seventies. “It was the most fun I’ve had in my entire life,” said Peslak, who studied and hung out with Johansen in a two-week cram session. “He barely moves his feet. If he did move, they were just these tiny little baby steps, which maybe had to do with the five-inch platform shoes he was wearing. And the way he claps — he does these super-energetic flamboyant claps where his hands go limp — I spent a lot of time learning his clap.”
To singer-songwriter Nicole Atkins, the ultimate cover master will always be Nilsson, who recorded one of the most successful covers ever, of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’,” for 1969’s Midnight Cowboy. “Nilsson did his best work interpreting other people’s songs. He made everyone that heard him feel like they were being kicked in the gut.” In that spirit, Atkins drew inspiration for her upcoming album by learning a cover of “Stella Blue” by the Grateful Dead (“I just kept thinking, ‘What if Patsy Cline sang this song?’ ”). “I think Nilsson’s biggest contribution to music has been the inspiration to people in my generation,” she said. “We grew up on Popeye.”
It’s hard to imagine a night where the denizens of Brooklyn would swarm just to hear John Lennon and Alice Cooper covers. Nilsson has cachet, partly because a lot of people don’t really know who he is until they watch the aptly titled documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson? And yet, amazingly, everyone seems to have been born with knowledge of “Coconut.” Even Peslak admitted to growing up with Nilsson’s music everywhere and not realizing it. (Three Dog Night got away with a lot of credit for “One,” he laughed.)
Nilsson was born in Bushwick Hospital 74 years ago, not far from the Manhattan Inn and similar locales where his influence resonates deeply. The Manhattan Vampires Club show will evoke Nilsson, and his peers, who continue to move generations through their music. As Atkins said, “I have a friend who recently told me, ’You know, this is bullshit. Back in the Seventies and Eighties, the Hollywood Vampires could do whatever they wanted, just being drunks and writing songs!’ ” Atkins laughed. “I was thinking to myself — ‘You could get drunk all day, too. But your songs aren’t very good.’ ”
The Manhattan Vampires Club will convene at the Manhattan Inn on July 13. For more information, click here.