Review: We Are All Complicit in Hollywood Vampires

What is the true cost of watching Johnny Depp play guitar?

I came to the Warfield not to praise Johnny Depp, but to bury him.

Ever since I’d first heard word of Hollywood Vampires — a “superband” in the loosest of terms that features Alice Cooper, Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry, and Depp — I’d been struck with a deeply morbid curiosity as to why this group existed. On paper, Hollywood Vampires felt like the music equivalent of a novelty condom machine. One puts in their money with the knowledge that what they’ll receive is likely to be a disappointment — and also possibly glow-in-the-dark.

Since forming in 2015, Hollywood Vampires have released one album and welcomed scores of cameos at their live performances. On the night prior to their Warfield show, Depp and company invited both Steven Tyler and Marilyn Manson to take part. In San Francisco, the only surprise was how quickly it became apparent that celebrity-driven musical side-projects are simply selfie palaces by another name.

For most of live music’s history, the reason you’d buy a ticket was to hear music. Listening to Hollywood Vampires — be it their uninspired, original cuts or woefully miscalculated covers of greats like David Bowie and the Who — was clearly not the point for the lean crowd that showed up to film every second of Depp’s impression of a hard rock guitarist. Cooper and Perry got a little love as well, but the majority of the smartphones were focused squarely on Depp from start to finish.

This scenario can be contrasted with another recent show that took place in San Francisco: Maya Rudolph’s brilliant Prince cover band, Princess. Whereas the notes and words were wholly irrelevant for the majority of Hollywood Vampires’ 90-minute performance, Rudolph’s role was to act as a divine conduit between the crowd and the Purple One. Individuals best known for their acting front both acts, but Princess attendees were there to celebrate Prince, while the fans at Hollywood Vampires were only concerned with capturing Depp’s image as many times as possible.

(Zack Ruskin)

It’s difficult to decide which moment best encapsulates the experience of watching a Hollywood Vampires show. It may have been when Alice Cooper, at the age of 71, bent over at the climax of “Rise” — from their forthcoming second album, get ready — to pantomime the flatulence sound effects that apparently serve as that track’s coda. Perhaps it was Depp’s take on Bowie’s “Heroes,” during which he mumbled out the lyrics with the conviction of roadkill. Maybe it was the band’s visual designer, who apparently was hired straight from an internship with Hot Topic circa 2005.

In fairness, there were a few moments worthy of praise as well — although not many.

For one, Depp may be a subpar musician but he was certainly kind to fans. Throughout the show, he bumped fists with those in the front rows and even returned following the group’s encore to rain down branded guitar picks. While Alice Cooper must shoulder some of the blame for allowing Hollywood Vampires to exist, the band’s best moments came when they played his material. During “I’m Eighteen” and “School’s Out” there were flashes of vintage Alice — the one that once gave a nervous Wayne Campbell a Milwaukee history lesson and provided the soundtrack for cinema’s most vicious high-school paddling.

Given Depp is an actor and Perry’s heyday with Aerosmith is firmly in the rearview, Cooper is the one with the least enticing motivation to go the “superband” route. Yes, he was born in 1948, but seeing him brandish his evil carnival barker’s cane for the chorus of “School’s Out,” there’s no denying that the man still has it. No one wants to see Cooper relegated to county fairs and corporate retreats, but if the choices are to exit gracefully or to continue on as one head of a publicity-driven rock hydra, he may wish to reconsider his options.

In truth, the problem with Hollywood Vampires is us. There’s no reason to slander Johnny Depp for wanting to be Pete Townshend. The issue is our willingness to pay to see it.

We are the ones who bought this album, purchased tickets to the concert, and shared our good fortune for all our social media followers to see. Every time we decide the spectacle of a Hollywood Vampires is something we simply can’t miss, we tell venues like the Warfield not to book an up-and-coming performer. Every time we decide that three white men with plenty of power and wealth (but minimal musical talent) are deserving of our attention and paychecks, we deny those same resources to the kinds of artists who need them most.

I went to see Hollywood Vampires with Depp in my crosshairs, but I left with the somber realization that I’m the one who needs to do better.

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