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Johnny Depp—Beat-in' the Blues

by Dee
Fringecore Issue 11
Summer 2001

There are three "gals" in my family and they are all Johnny Depp fanatics; (Johnny I won't give you the inside scoop—cos you're sure to meet them soon). So whatever I write about Johnny will never contain enough superlatives to fulfill their desires, with perhaps one exception—his relationship with spoken word and the beats, which just may enable them to see yet another of his amazing personas.

I was recently reminded again of his penchant for spoken word, when witnessing his superb performance in Henry Ferrini's new film Lowell Blues, a 30 minute portrayal of Jack Kerouac's word and homeland in which Johnny speaks about the Merrimack River, "which flows like a sad sound and erupts over rocks in joy". Lowell Blues is programmed to get its international debut at the London International Poetry and Song Festival (LIPS) in October 2001. The film captures and clashes beauty and surprise in a flowing vignette of vignettes and provides a great insight into Kerouac's youth. Lowell Blues is a very emotional, spontaneous collage of glances which blend into each other—photographical, musical and spoken word—a visual and acoustic journey which also features amongst others, Lee Konitz, Willie Alexander, Robert Creeley, Carolyn Cassady and my old friend David Amram, the multi-instrumentalist who accompanied Kerouac on many occasions.

I am rarely retrospective, but seeing Johnny and David reminded me not only of the performance that David and I put on in Holland a few years back, but more importantly the incredible performance the two of them put on together with Warren Zevon—Send Lawyers, Guns & Money tribute to Hunter S. Thompson in front of 2000 people at the Memorial Auditorium in Hunter's home town Louisville back at the end of 1996 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. In addition to his slide guitar session with Amram (on flute) & Zevon, Johnny, sitting in a throne-sized red chair, also recited several pages from Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas to David Amram's musical accompaniment. Of course, we've all seen Johnny's performance along with Traffic star Benicio del Toro, in Terry Gilliam's Fear & Loathing movie, but his spoken word performances on the CD of the same name is also cool listening.

Johnny's friendship with Hunter has led to a whole spate of live spoken word performances in New York and California, as well as a collaboration on Simon & Schusters' Rum Diary 4TC and they are scheduled to appear together & separately at LIPS and certainly, Hunter's performances at The Viper Room were at the invitation of Johnny, who co-owns the place with Sal Jenco. Designed after the 1920's Harlem jazz cafes, The Viper Room also played hosts to Johnny's band Rock City Angels and his band P with Butthole Surfer Gibby Haynes, guitarist Bill Carter, Sex Pistol Steve Jones, Red Hot Chili Pepper Flea and Sal Jenco. He also played with the Pogue's Shane McGowan. Johnny' slide guitar became even more famous after his contribution to the two Oasis albums including Fade In-Out album,—where the whole album is considered to include references to his career. Johnny's guitar played second fiddle to Neil Young who played guitar, pump organ and un-tuned piano to Johnny's spoken word, on the album Dead Man, for which the music was inspired by and from the film of the same name directed by Jim Jarmusch, in which Johnny had a starring role. Johnny integrated segments from William Blake's poetry into the music. At the time Jarmusch said " what Johnny brought to the film lifts it to another level, intertwining the soul of the story with Neil's musically emotional reaction to it—the guy just reached down to some deep place inside of him to create such strong music for the film".

Anyone that questions Johnny's depth and enthusiasm should check out The Source by Oscar-winning film editor Chuck Workman, who directed this documentary of the Beats. In general the film is a whirling dervish of beat period footage, full of interviews and an exceptional array of music from Dizzy Gillespie to Sonic Youth. If Ginsburg inspired the movie and Turturro and Hopper had cool roles, Johnny Depp stole the show with his Kerouac rendition and beat poetry. Workman said that he had wanted Johnny do some of the readings very badly, but Johnny is beyond that and a stickler for detail as we saw in the Rolling Stone Book of Beats fiasco. Johnny's essay in that book entitled "Kerouac, Ginsburg, the Beats & Other Bastards Who Ruined my Life", a rambling tribute to the movement that provided "the teachers, the soundtrack and the proper motivation for my life". Not only did Johnny really dig into the issues, but at one point Johnny battled the editor over a comma. In fact a serial comma to which he took exception in a 20 minute exchange. They also locked horns over his use of Kerouacian ellipses. In the piece, Johnny writes affectionately about his friendship with Allen Ginsburg whom he met during the United States of Poetry, the MTV series. Johnny did the Kerouac slot including a brilliant rendition of Mexico City Blues. There is no question about Johnny's admiration and love of Kerouac which has probably led to his best know spoken word piece to-date, namely Madroad Driving on the Kerouac: Kicks Joy Darkness album. Even though Johnny's spoken word performances tend to be limited to his rendition of the Beats etc., I happen to know that he is a great poet himself, albeit shy/modest. I had wanted him to contribute one of his own pieces for Fringecore. I contacted him about it and that still may happen at a later date. As Henry Ferrini told me when I asked him how he got Johnny involved in Lowell Blues: "I sent the text I wanted him to read to his agent in California. I heard back that Johnny was interested in the project and that he would get back to me. I had about given up 8 months after I started the process. One Saturday morning I was sitting around drinking coffee, the phone rang and to my surprise a vaguely familiar voice said "Henry, this is Johnny Depp" He had the script and told me he would get it done in the next few days. He asked about some of the local Native American names used in the text and he got it done". It was good to hear his spoken word piece at the end of Blow. It will be interesting to see whether Johnny manages to integrate more in his forthcoming film From Hell.

-- donated by Joni