Johnny Depp is onstage trying not to smile. He tries not to smile for 90 minutes at Coney Island’s new Ford Amphitheater, instead mostly brooding down at his guitar college freshman-style. But the camera people working the Jumbotron, god bless ‘em, catch him smirk a couple times before he arranges his face back into a proper Hollywood Vampires grimace.
Depp has a lot to be pretending not to smile about. When allegations broke in May that he physically abused his now ex-wife Amber Heard, Depp first avoided the press, hunkering down on his private island in the Bahamas. Then he took off on an international rock tour. Alongside legends Alice Cooper and Aerosmith’s Joe Perry, Depp, who keeps rattling on about how he “came to Hollywood as a musician” and never even wanted to be an actor, the poor thing, is now a Hollywood Vampire. The band’s self-titled album of mostly covers debuted last year and rose to the top 10 on the Billboard hard-rock charts. Aside from the mild success though, the side project has perhaps become a convenient way for Depp to, as they say, “take a break from acting.”
My theory going into this concert was that classic rock fans may not intersect with tabloid readers. They could have missed the photos of Heard’s bruised face, her temporary restraining order against Depp, the call for a boycott of his latest movie Alice in Wonderland: Through the Looking Glass, the social media boycott of the Hollywood Vampires show in Sweden. Alice Cooper fans, many who have been coming out to shows since the ‘70s, may have missed the news that Heard forfeited temporary spousal support to underline the point that she’s not after Depp’s cash. As with Chris Brown, Ozzy Osbourne, James Brown, Slash, and more before him, the ignorant, the unconcerned, and those on #TeamJohnny continue to buy tickets. But what if even the most diehard, Aerosmith-tattoo-sporting fan was fully aware of the charges against Depp? Wouldn’t he find it difficult to go and applaud for him?
“I try to separate the person from the musician,” says Dennis, who’s seen Alice Cooper countless times. “I’m not saying it’s not horrible but, what can you do?” agrees his concert buddy Frank. “Vanessa Paradis—who he was never married to, but had kids with—said nothing like that ever happened. I think something happens to these guys. Something went wrong.”
Erin, a brunette in her early twenties, is spending her first weekend as a New Yorker with the Vampires. She’s sitting in the bleachers, but she’s dressed up to go backstage post-show. “I have a friend with a domestic abuse charity. I don’t take that lightly,” she assures me. “But when they broke up I posted on Facebook that my birthday came early. And I never post on Facebook.”
The crowd certainly did applaud for Depp, but most of the dad-aged fans weren’t there to specifically see him either. Cooper and Perry have earned the privilege of playing what Cooper refers to as songs by his “dead drunk friends,” but Depp’s inclusion is glaring. He and Cooper met on the 2012 set of Dark Shadows when Depp played—I can’t even—a vampire. It’s a particular form of A-lister privilege that’s allowed him to end up in the same room as these professional rock stars. The same privilege that’s led him to hire divorce attorney Laura Wasser, who has handled Spears v. Federline, Simpson v. Lachey, and Shriver v. Schwarzenegger.
Wasser is likely behind the strategy that’s led to the attempt at smearing Heard’s credibility. “Plus, there’s her background,” Erin, who’s fallen prey to this campaign, says to me. Erin’s referring to Heard’s own 2009 arrest on a misdemeanor charge of domestic violence against her then-girlfriend Tasya Van Ree. With Heard in the spotlight again, Van Ree has come out to support her, releasing a statement claiming she was “wrongfully accused” at the time.
But nonetheless, Depp’s camp will likely drag this incident up again and again. In a statement dripping with disdain, a representative hinted at other “issues” with the accusations: “Given the brevity of this marriage and the most recent and tragic loss of his mother, Johnny will not respond to any of the salacious false stories, gossip, misinformation and lies about his personal life. Hopefully the dissolution of this short marriage will be resolved quickly.” The statement left no questions as to how the divorce would proceed. Depp would fight back. He would find his own issues with the marriage to pick apart, such as the fact that it only lasted for 15 months. Now, we’re being treated to photo ops with his children, who have come out in support of him. The message is: there’s no way that a good dad could beat his wife, let alone a good guitar player. If you want to get really conspiratorial, the tour could also, of course, play well to a jury. He’s a man of so many talents; so innocent that he’s standing here waiting for fans to applaud.
Depp has naturally refused to talk about Heard in the press and has even left Cooper and Perry to do most of the heavy lifting in band interviews. But it was hard to take my eyes off his new tattoos as cameras zoomed in on his guitar solos: a shade of black on his bicep where a portrait of Heard used to be; her nickname on his knuckles, “SLIM,” changed to “SCUM.” After his final bow, Depp—and Depp alone—tossed plenty of guitar picks into the audience. The last one left onstage, he stopped at the mic and almost whispered “Thank you so much to the crowd.” He knows his fans will be there for him no matter what.