Back in the glory days of the Sunset Strip, a gang of notorious rock ‘n’ roll talents convened at one of its most infamous dives in secret — and Alice Cooper has assembled a serious supergroup to sing all about it.
Cooper used to rabble-rouse alongside Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Keith Moon, John Lennon, Kris Kristofferson, Harry Nilsson, and whoever else happened to swing through town in the private room upstairs at the Rainbow, a tavern that counts Ron Jeremy as one of its more devoted customers and sits just a few blocks down from the Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood. This high-profile crew — who called themselves the Hollywood Vampires, and are honored with a plaque at the Rainbow where they used to hang — inspires the portion of Cooper’s live show dedicated to his “dead, drunk friends.” He covers songs written by his former drinking buddies with a hard-edged enthusiasm, and the Who’s “My Generation,” Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady,” the Beatles’ “Revolution,” and the mash-up of the Doors’ “Five to One” and “Break on Through (To the Other Side)” were basically workshopped by Cooper and his band on the road. These covers elicited just as many elated screams as “Poison” and “Bed of Nails” do at his concerts, but it wasn’t until the shock-rock icon found himself in London with a very different kind of Hollywood Vampire that he decided to take a longer, harder look at playing these classic hits written by his dearly departed colleagues.
“So I was doing Dark Shadows with Johnny Depp,” says Cooper, calling in from the road, “and we did this little show at the Hundred Club in London. You look at the wall, and you see that the Yardbirds and the Rolling Stones played there. It holds a hundred people, that’s it. I said, ‘For one night, we’re going to go down there in Levi’s and T-shirts and we’re gonna be a bar band.’ We got up onstage, people would yell out songs, and we’d just do it. That was the fun part of it — we didn’t have to be Alice Cooper that night; we could just be a bar band. Johnny’s a great guitar player. We started talking about these songs, and I said, ‘You know, the Hollywood Vampires was my drinking club, and all those guys are gone now.’ We started thinking, ‘Well, if you’re going to do a covers album, why not do a tribute to your dead, drunk friends?’ ”
Depp was enlisted on guitar for Hollywood Vampires, as was Joe Perry of Aerosmith; Paul McCartney would eventually join them on bass, and a number of other dudes who’ve graced a deluge of Rolling Stone covers between them — Dave Grohl, Perry Farrell, Slash, and Joe Walsh, to name a few — have all contributed snare-hits, shrieks, or guitar licks to Cooper’s first covers collection.
“We started calling people up, and they started showing up,” he says. “We did fifteen songs, but every one of them had something to do with someone we drank with, and it had to be a song that really represented them. It was really fun, because I didn’t have to think, ‘Is this creepy enough for Alice Cooper? Is this funny enough?’ Every single song we did was a song I would’ve done when we were the Spiders, when we were just a bar band.”
For Cooper, an avid Beatles fan, working with McCartney was a notable thrill despite the fact that the two have been friends for years. “It’s different being in the studio with him, because now you’re talking about a guy that if he didn’t record all those songs with the Beatles, you wouldn’t even be in a band. We were in awe of just having him in the room, singing and playing piano — and we were going to be on a record with him. He wasn’t just a Beatle, he was the Beatle.”
He wasn’t the Beatle Cooper drank with, though. “I don’t think Paul was ever at the Rainbow,” he recalls, noting his absence from the lair of the Hollywood Vampires. “Ringo came a couple of times; we used to see George at Max’s Kansas City. I saw John just as much at Max’s as I did at the Rainbow, actually.” Cooper is quick to explain that while the Rainbow provided him and his friends with a West Coast den of mischief, Max’s — the dearly departed Gramercy punk, rock, and loud-as-can-be hotbed and musical petri dish that cultivated the New York Dolls, the Velvet Underground, and more — was more or less his home away from home in New York, a venue that left a deeper mark in Cooper’s rock ‘n’ roll identity.
“We played Max’s Kansas City one night, and it was the first night the police came in and tried to shut it down because it was too loud,” he says. “You look out in the audience, and it’s Andy Warhol, the New York Dolls — all those people. This is when we were first starting. We were really obnoxious that night….I was there every single night. That place should’ve been a no-destruction zone. The history of that place was amazing; same with the Chelsea Hotel and Studio 54 — those places should’ve been untouchable.”
Cooper pauses before noting that it’s only a matter of time before somebody will “do an album about Max’s” the way he’s put together a covers album paying tribute to the moments that transpired in the Hollywood Vampires’ den. (Hypothetically, should one such record ever materialize, he’d happily offer up his own “Ballad of Dwight Fry” to the project.) In the meantime, he’ll continue to belt out his greatest hits and those of his pals night in and night out while supporting Mötley Crüe on the last leg of their final tour. Hollywood Vampires is out on September 11, and though the immediate future looks like it’s a whole lot of road for Cooper and Co., it seems like he’ll be bringing a bit of Hollywood and his NYC heyday wherever he goes. The Hollywood Vampires have long since closed the door on their last meeting at the Rainbow, but these songs — especially under Cooper’s wing — are hardly resting in peace.
Alice Cooper plays the Barclays Center on August 12. For ticket information, click here.