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Even before he made his acting debut at the age of twenty-one Johnny Depp wanted to be a rock star. ‘Music will always be my first love,’ he once told Rolling Stone, despite now being an Academy Award-nominated actor and Hollywood star. Four years before entering the movie industry he had dropped out of high school and joined a local group in Miramar, Florida called the Kids, opening for such legendary acts as Iggy Pop and the Ramones before relocating to Los Angeles in the hope of finding fame and fortune. While a friend of his wife, Nicolas Cage, advised that Depp try his hand at acting, even as Depp was introduced to cinema audiences in Wes Craven’s classic horror A Nightmare on Elm Street, he had joined a glam rock group called Rock City Angels. It would not be until he landed the lead role in a teen drama called 21 Jump Street, which would turn him into a heartthrob. that he would take his acting seriously.
But even as his status grew he never gave up on his passion for music. In 1993, having gained a reputation as something of a hellraiser, he opened a nightclub on Sunset Boulevard called the Viper Room which soon became the place to be seen for many celebrities in L.A. An array of artists would perform at the venue, from Johnny Cash to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the latter joined onstage by Depp on Halloween 1993 while unknown to him a close friend, River Phoenix, was overdosing on the sidewalk outside. As Depp continued to gain acclaim for a variety of offbeat roles he continued to collaborate with musicians both in clubs and in the studio, among them former Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan and Iggy Pop, but it wouldn’t be until the 2007 musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, his sixth collaboration with director Tim Burton, that he was finally given the chance to utilise his singing abilities onscreen.
More recently, he played guitar on You’re So Vain, an interpretation of the Carly Simon hit from Marilyn Manson, while also making appearances on tracks by Aerosmith, Patti Smith and Ryan Adams. In 2015 he would form a supergroup called Hollywood Vampires alongside such artists as Alice Cooper (whose legendary drinking group in the 1970s had shared the same name) and Aerosmith‘s Joe Perry, performing around Los Angeles at such iconic venues as the Roxy Theatre and even the Grammy Awards. In the new issue of Classic Rock, Depp discusses how he first came to play guitar and why music will always be his first passion.‘I was about twelve-years-old in the backseat and we were driving down the sort of main boulevard in this little town we lived and there was a little local concert going on in the parking lot of the grocery store,’ he explains. ‘We got stuck at a stop light and there was a band playing. I remember the name of the band, actually, they were called Rocklin Channel…This is Florida. I heard them doing (Aerosmith’s) Dream On you know, and I thought, fucking hell, that sounds really good and how fucking cool to just pick up a guitar and just blast, you know? So yeah, I talked my mom into buying a shitty little Decca guitar for 25 bucks and some little blue Plush amp that sounded like, it was just trash, it was fantastic. Stole a Mel Bay chord book out of a department store – the blue Mel Bay chord book with the black and white pictures y’know?’
He continues, ‘I had a guitar class at school. I dropped out but the guitar class was the only class I would’ve passed. I don’t know why, but I just knew that school wouldn’t afford me anything. I knew that I wasn’t going to be working for an insurance firm. What was I, fifteen when I dropped out? You know, it’s like, ‘I gotta fucking be an adult now.’ There was a part of me that was gonna just join the Marine Corps and say fuck it and get out, but I started playing clubs when I was thirteen. I’d sneak in the back door, play a set and split – stand out back, smoke, go back in to the set. I played under-age up and down the East Coast, for a couple of years…all my money died with the bar tab. I think it’s the classic cliché, you know. It’s always going to be the bar tab that gets you. In those days.’