While Johnny Depp has done many interviews on The Late Show with David Letterman, his appearance on February 21, 2013 was a first. Johnny wasn’t sitting across from Dave to garner publicity for one of his films—while The Lone Ranger, due in theaters in July, was mentioned, no trailer was shown—but rather to introduce the music of his long-time friend Bill Carter to a wider audience.
Johnny had a relaxed conversation with Dave, talking at length about his own roots in music; then Bill Carter joined them to talk about his life’s work and the genesis of “Anything Made of Paper,” the haunting song he and his wife Ruth Ellsworth wrote for the soundtrack of West of Memphis, the documentary about the West Memphis Three. The show culminated with Bill Carter and the Blame performing “Anything Made of Paper” to an appreciative audience; members of the Blame included Johnny (on slide guitar), Bruce Witkin (on cigar-box bass), Joey Malone, Rob Klonel, and Mike Thompson. Witkin and Malone have also been friends of Johnny’s for thirty years; they all played together in The Kids and moved to Los Angeles in 1983 in hopes of making their fortunes as musicians. So above all, this appearance by Johnny Depp on The Late Show was a celebration of music and friendship: a special evening indeed.
After introducing “the delightful Johnny Depp,” David Letterman began the conversation this way:
DAVID LETTERMAN: How are you?
JOHNNY DEPP: Good.
Thank you so much for being on the program tonight. This is an exciting night. Here’s how dumb I am. I didn’t realize that when you wanted to be in show business, it was going to be as a musician. You are a musician, and that’s what you thought you would be . . . a famous, whatever, musician.
Yeah, since I was about twelve.
Twelve years old. And what are your instruments? Do you play multiple instruments?
You started in Kentucky? Is that where you started?
Yeah . . . yeah, I think it was.
And then you went where? Where did you go from Kentucky?
And then you went to Hollywood? Los Angeles?
And you were going to be a music star.
Well . . . not necessarily. I was going to be a guitar player.
You were going to be a guitar player. And where did you see yourself as a guitar player? As a really good . . . like a studio guy?
[Laughing]: Not necessarily good . . . no.
Oh . . . [looking surprised] not good? [Audience laughter]
I was all right.
But you’d never thought about acting?
Never once. No.
That’s crazy, isn’t it?
Yeah . . . [smiling] it is now. [Audience laughter]
So what was the turning moment? You’re out there in California, you have your guitar, and suddenly, you’re an actor . . . ?
Well, the sudden realization of, you know, rent. Bills. You know, when that pops in your head, you realize that at some point, you’ll have to deal with the inevitable.
But you know, that story often goes the other way. Somebody goes out there to be an actor, and suddenly they’ve got no money, so they go to play the guitar to make money. You did it just the opposite!
How did somebody get your first gig, if you were a guitar player? Because that means you weren’t actually out there auditioning.
No, uh . . . my band moved from Florida to Los Angeles.
What was the name of the band?
At the time, we were called The Kids.
[Laughing]: We actually were kids at the time.
And so you and The Kids are out there . . .
Well, I mean literally, you and The Kids are out there, and so then what happens?
Uh, we did some opening act stuff, that kind of thing—
Who did you work for?
Open up for? We did some good shows back at that time—it was, like, Billy Idol, and, you know, guys like that. The Pretenders—
Yeah. Ramones— [Audience applause]
Good gig. So then, all of a sudden, you’re—somebody calls and says, what? “I saw you onstage with The Kids?”
No. [Audience laughter] No. I was dead broke, you know, and I was filling out job applications at various . . . well, anything. Video stores and coffee joints or whatever. And a friend of mine who happened to be an actor, uh . . . Nicolas Cage . . . [smiling] you’ve heard of him—
Yeah. How did you and Nicolas Cage get to be buddies in those days?
He was just sort of around all the people that I was hanging around with, and we became pals, and he sent me to his agent to—and he said, “I think you should try acting.” And I met his agent, and she sent me to read for something, and they hired me.
What was that? Do you remember what that was?
Yeah. That was A Nightmare on Elm Street. The first one.
[Impressed] Whoa! [Audience applause] That was pretty good!
[Laughing] I was about three when I did that. [Audience laughter]
Later, we’ve got a man named Bill Carter, who is well known in Texas music and southwestern music or what they call Americana, I guess—
A singer-songwriter, and you met him . . . where? Where did your paths meet?
Bill and I met—Bill and Ruth Carter—
His wife? Partner?
Yeah. They’re amazing songwriters, and I met them when I was doing Gilbert Grape in Austin [audience applause] and we all just hit it off. And so they were my kind of saving grace during that period, because it was a long movie . . . and so we did the movie and then I moved in with them for a few months.
Amazing. Your movies are interesting movies, and huge commercial successes, and rarely do you get that combination consistently.
It’s got nothing to do with me, I don’t think. [Audience laughter]
Oh, I could have done any of those films [joking, with a big smile] and I wish I had. We’ll be right back with Johnny Depp.
All right. Johnny Depp is here . . . I can’t thank you enough for being here. It’s a nice night for us, and I hope for you as well, because you’re here with your friend—
—and we’re going to hear some music later. Let’s talk about The Lone Ranger. Oh, I’m so excited for this movie. I really—this is excellent. And you’re not the Lone Ranger.
You’re his faithful companion Tonto.
Yeah. I play Tonto.
[Holding up some photographs from The Lone Ranger] Do you mind if I just show these?
These are great. [Holding up a photo of Johnny as Tonto and Armie Hammer as the Ranger] And then the Lone Ranger is . . . who’s the Lone Ranger?
Armie Hammer. Yeah—
[Pointing to Tonto] And that’s you.
—he’s terrific. Yeah. He’s great. [Audience applause]
Now, as I recall, the beginning of the—the genesis of the Lone Ranger is he comes from a dark story. And is that the tone of your film?
Pretty much, yeah. It comes from a very dark back story, and . . . uh . . . he becomes the Lone Ranger through Tonto’s guidance.
Did this mean anything to you when you were a kid? Maybe after the radio broadcast, but there was a TV show as well . . . did you like The Lone Ranger in those days?
I did. I liked watching the series. I was always somewhat confused about Tonto’s position. I always thought, well, why does Tonto go in the house and do this? Why is he sending the Indian off to—
Right. And is that different in this movie?
Oh, very. Yeah. It’s very different.
[Holding up a picture of Johnny as Tonto on horseback] This looks like a painting. This looks like a Charles Russell rendering, doesn’t it? That’s fantastic! [Long audience applause] You look like you know what you’re doing on a horse.
Yeah. [Pause] I don’t. [Audience laughter] That [indicating the picture] was probably about two-and-a-half seconds before everything went very sideways.
Well, I’m telling you, I mean, forget the movie—I’d pay ten bucks just to look at this picture. [Johnny laughs.] So . . . but you ride. You don’t ride?
I have . . . no, no, I’ve ridden quite a lot in various movies and stuff . . . and, you know, growing up in Kentucky, you grow up around horses and everything. But every horse is different, and every movie.
You had to ride that horse at top speed?
Quite a lot. Yeah.
How did that go?
It went pretty well . . . up and to a point. Yeah. There was one moment in particular where it got unpleasant, where the horses had been running . . . we’d been running them all day, so . . . they weren’t really interested in slowing down. At all. So we’re shooting at a different place in the desert where there are all these little [gesturing] . . . bumps and things growing . . . . And so my horse that I was on decided to jump a couple of these little obstacles. The horse was unaware that the saddle I was wearing to sit on top of it was sort of jerry-rigged . . . kind of faked—
It was to give the effect that you were riding bareback?
To give the effect that I’m riding bareback. So basically it’s not really tight on the horse, it’s just enough—
Just a little tissue there, for you to sit on—
A band-aid. And when we came down, the saddle slipped, you know, and I went to the left and had the reins here [gesturing], and somehow had the wherewithal to grab the mane of the horse . . . and then the next thing I saw . . . [interrupting himself] . . . all very calm for some reason—I figured that fear would kick in, but it didn’t . . . [Audience laughter] I was waiting . . . All I saw in front of my eyes were these sort of very muscular horse legs and the striations of muscles moving. This kind of . . . [pause] . . . death machine. And one word popped into my head: hooves. You know? Hooves. [Audience laughter] In any case, hooves. Mind the hooves.
So, what do you do when you’re in that position?
Well, you make a decision. Will I go with the beast until someone wrangles it, or will I drop? [Audience laughter] It’s a crapshoot.
Sure. And what did you choose?
I mean, you know . . . we’re being silly about this, but you really could have been seriously, seriously injured, if not killed.
[Nodding] Horrifically mangled, at the very least.
You landed on your back? Did you get stepped on?
I landed on my back. Hit the deck pretty hard. The one thing that saved me was the horse’s instinct to lift his front legs and go over me.
He stepped over you?
Stepped over me. Had he not, it was coming straight down into the head.
Broken ribs, strains, bruises, anything?
No. He just kind of clipped me with his back legs, so it was just a little sore . . .
He just “kind of clipped you with his back legs.” Yeah, a good horse’ll do that. Oh, my God. But honest to God, where are the stunt people, for heaven’s sakes? You’re Tonto!
You don’t need that. [Audience applause]
That’s the exact same question I asked.
Yes. I can’t wait for this film. Now, when we come back, your friend Bill Carter will be here. We’ll talk more about Bill and the music we’re going to hear later. Johnny Depp is here . . . we’ll be right back.
[Commercial break. When The Late Show resumes, Bill Carter has joined Johnny and Dave on the set.]
[Holding up a copy of the Woody Guthrie novel House of Earth, published by Johnny’s Infinitum Nihil imprint at HarperCollins] Johnny, I wanted to . . . you’re now publishing . . . I know you have a love of books, and you have published this New York Times bestseller already. This is a lost novel from Woody Guthrie?
About the Dust Bowl?
How did you find the transcript of this?
It came to me through a mutual friend of Hunter Thompson’s and myself, this guy named Douglas Brinkley who’s a brilliant writer and historian, professor . . . he’s just amazing. So he called me and said, “I’ve just been shown the manuscript to Woody Guthrie’s lost novel . . . I think you’re the guy. I think we should publish it.” And so we went into it, and just wanted to make the book as, you know, beautiful as possible, since they’re a dying breed, these things.
You have plans to publish other volumes, different things?
We have a couple of things in line. There’s a thing we’re doing with Bob Dylan, which should be interesting.
And the other thing . . . Last night we had a group on doing sea chanteys. [Dave is referring to The Americans, who perform “Sweet and Low” on the CD “Son of Rogues Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs and Chanteys,” for which Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinski were executive producers. The Americans were musical guests on The Late Show on February 20, 2013.]
From—the Americans, from a collection of sea chanteys which you produced . . . and not only did I not know that you had produced it, this is the second collection of sea chanteys—
Yeah. “Rogues Gallery” and—
This is the “Son of Rogues Gallery.”
[Nodding] “Son of Rogues.”
This is music that you came to when you were doing the Pirates of the Caribbean series?
Yeah, on Pirates 1 I was listening to a lot of sea chanteys, just to stay in the feel of this, and Gore and I—the director and I thought, Wow, wouldn’t it be great to have contemporary artists do this stuff?
These guys were great last night. [Turning to Bill Carter] Now, Bill—I’m sorry, I haven’t forgotten about you—welcome to the show.
BILL CARTER: Thank you. [Audience applause]
How did . . . Johnny explained the connection earlier when he moved in with you and your wife, and then you started working together musically. Tell us about those days and what was going on.
BILL: Well, in those particular days, Johnny was making movies and I was playing music basically, is all I was doing. So we would go with him on his movies, wherever he was, around the world, and we would play all the time.
You guys actually had a band?
BILL: Well, at one point we had a band, in the mid-‘90s, called P [drawing the letter P in the air] —the letter P—we made a record.
Now what did that represent, the P?
JOHNNY: The letter in the alphabet. [Audience laughter and applause]
[Feigning indignation] I don’t need to take this . . . And now you work together? You’re going to play together tonight?
BILL and JOHNNY: Yeah.
And tell us the history behind what we’re going to hear tonight and the collection of music from which it comes, and on and on . . . everything we need to know about it.
BILL: Well, this particular song is called “Anything Made of Paper,” and it’s a song that my wife and I—Ruth, we write a lot of songs together—we wrote for our friends, Damien Echols and Lorri Davis. Damien was one of the West Memphis Three, imprisoned unjustly for 18 years.
And this took place in 1993?
Accused and tried and convicted of a horrendous crime, and then as it turned out, they had been wrongly convicted—
Wrongly accused. And “Anything Made of Paper,” tell us that story.
BILL: So when Lorri—that’s his [Damien’s] wife—came to visit Ruth and I, she brought three roses that he had made out of paper, as a gift, to represent the West Memphis Three. And I had asked her what I could send back for him, and she said that all he can have is anything made of paper. So I immediately had this image. A song.
Absolutely. Right there, even I know, that’s a song.
BILL: You could have easily written the song. [Audience laughter]
That’s tremendous. So, and tonight we hear this song, and then [gesturing to Johnny and Bill] working together on future projects?
BILL: Oh, we’re always recording, doing things . . . We recorded—we did something the other day for Springsteen radio, we did a Bruce song [Editor’s note: the song is “State Trooper”], and on the West of Memphis soundtrack, we recorded— Johnny and I and the band covered an Ozzy Osbourne song called “Road to Nowhere.” So we do little things here and there. And Johnny’s playing on this track.
Bill, tell me some of your buddies over the years from Austin—your pals from Texas that write music.
BILL: Well, my wife and I, we wrote a couple of songs for Stevie Ray Vaughan. “Crossfire.” [Audience applause] There’re a lot of them . . . I think most of them recorded our songs, from The Fabulous Thunderbirds to Omar and the Howlers—Tony Price—there’s a whole slew of ‘em. Freddy Fender, Waylon Jennings, a lot of different people.
Good for you. Austin is great, isn’t it?
JOHNNY: What a town.
All right. So, now, when we come back . . . oh, the name of the band now—the Blame?
BILL and JOHNNY: Bill Carter and the Blame.
We’ll be right back, everybody.
Thank you. Here we go . . . our next guest is a talented singer-songwriter and a musician from the great city of Austin, Texas. His new CD right here [holding up a copy of the CD] isentitled “Unknown.” Please welcome, now, with special guest Johnny Depp, Bill Carter and the Blame.
[Bill Carter and the Blame play “Anything Made of Paper”]
[Over the audience applause] Bill Carter, ladies and gentlemen. That was great! Beautiful! [shaking Bill’s hand] Beautiful guitar. That’s lovely. Thank you, everybody. [shaking Bruce Witkin’s hand] Good to have you here. [shaking Johnny’s hand] Mr. Depp—always a pleasure. Johnny Depp, ladies and gentlemen. Bill Carter.