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Moonlighting Rocker Johnny Depp: A Guitar-Playing Pirate Looks at 50

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photo: Mike Franklin/Getty

Johnny Depp turns 50 on June 9, and in many ways, the Lone Ranger star is typical for his age: He had a youthful dream of being a rock star that was thwarted as he had to settle for the mundane, day-to-day drudgery of being one of the world’s most acclaimed and accomplished actors. What middle-ager stuck in a fallback career can’t relate?

But Depp has hardly given up his musical inclinations completely, even though he hasn’t been part of an ongoing band since his group P ended life as a one-album wonder in the mid-‘90s. He frequently moonlights as the world’s most recognizable sideman. And apparently the full-time rockers who let him jump up onstage with them aren’t doing it just as an indulgence.

“He’s a great guitar player,” buddy Alice Cooper insisted to the Desert Sun earlier this year. “I mean, you can put him in any band, from Guns N’ Roses to anybody, to Foo Fighters and our band. He can play any kind of rock 'n' roll you want.” Cooper did, in fact, suggest that Depp give up his day job. “I told him, if this whole acting thing fizzles out, be in a band. That’s how he started, anyways.”

Is Depp better than Eric Clapton? Probably not that godlike, yet when Paul McCartney had Depp star in a sign-language video for the song “My Valentine” last year, he had the actor play the guitar solo live on the set, too, and scrubbed Clapton’s studio part from the track. “I must point out that Johnny is really playing the guitar solo,” McCartney informed Vanity Fair. “That’s him playing. The boy is good.”

Sorry, Slow Hand. You got sacked for Edward Scissorhands.

“Music has always been my first love,” Depp said recently. “It’s what I did as a kid and I never stopped. I was making films and things like that, so it wasn’t like I was searching for a second career as a musician again, but one thing led to another. I was asked to go up onstage with someone, and then some other people saw me on stage and said, ‘Wow, you can actually play the guitar.'”

In honor of his 50th birthday, here is a selection of some of Depp’s (mostly) one-off collaborations with famous musicians:

AEROSMITH Joe Perry better watch out, because Steven Tyler seems to want to keep Depp around as a wingman. Johnny gets onstage with the group seemingly every time they play in L.A., having joined them last August at the Hollywood Bowl for an encore of “Train Kept A-Rollin’” and more recently at Staples Center for “Stop Messin’ Around” and the Beatles’ “Come Together.” He also sang backup vocals on their latest album on the song “Freedom Fighter.”

BLACK KEYS Depp was given the Generation Award — a lifetime achievement honor — at last year’s MTV Movie Awards. That’s not the thing he usually cares that much about, so MTV may have offered him a quid pro quo: the chance to jam with the show’s hot musical guests.

MUMFORD & SONS Depp made an appearance at this year’s Grammys to introduce “the sublime” group. He proved his fandom by covering their material. The soundtrack for the documentary West of Memphis features Depp doing Mumford’s “Little Lion Man” with a group he’s put together, Tonto’s Giant Nuts.

TOM PETTY…AND KE$HA All the way back in the 1980s, Depp starred in Petty's video for “Into the Great Wide Open.” Although they haven’t publicly collaborated since, Depp’s love for Petty is undying. At an annual festival at L.A.’s El Rey Theatre called Pettyfest, at which musicians play Heartbreakers covers for charity, Depp showed up both nights this year, playing along with the house band for six songs and even taking a solo on “It’s Good to Be King.” Among the frontmen he backed on Petty covers those nights: the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney and none other than Ke$ha.

ALICE COOPER Depp has been getting under Alice’s wheels since they jammed together in London in 2011 on “School’s Out” and “I’m Eighteen.” Last May, Depp had Cooper play at the premiere after-party for Dark Shadows. (The veteran shock-rocker also had a cameo in the film.) He also hopped onstage with No More Mr. Nice Guy for a large part of the set in L.A. and Phoenix shows this past winter. They’ve even co-written a song for Cooper’s next album. “I just got out of the studio with him,” Alice said in January. “He came up with a really good song. I wrote the lyrics; he wrote the music.”

MARILYN MANSON Depp doesn’t just stop at loving Cooper, but also loves the obviously Alice-inspired Manson. The bizarre rocker introduced Depp at a recent gig as “my personal savior, my personal guitar hero.” Depp jammed with Manson in April at the Revolver Golden God Awards and attended Manson's 44th birthday party back in January. Last year, Depp played lead guitar on drums on Manson’s cover of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain,” issued as a bonus track.

KEITH RICHARDS Obviously, the Rolling Stone didn’t mind Depp quasi-impersonating him in Pirates of the Caribbean, since Richards went on to guest as his dad in two of the sequels. But have they jammed together? Of course they have! The two pirates played together at the premiere after-party for Rum Diary in New York in the fall of 2011.

OASIS Depp played slide guitar on “Fade In-Out,” a track from the British group’s lesser-liked Be Here Now album, in 1997.

WOODY GUTHRIE Obviously theirs is not a direct collaboration, since the folk singer passed away around the time Depp was born. But the actor recently made a deal with HarperCollins for his own book imprint, Infinitum Nihil. The brand’s first release is House of Earth, a novel Guthrie wrote in 1947 that was never published until this year. “Growing up in Kentucky, I was raised on bluegrass and country music,” Depp told the New York Times, adding that it was really “thanks to Bob Dylan that the man [Guthrie] and his music became solidified in my lexicon.”

BOB DYLAN Speaking of the man: Depp has also announced plans for another book to be published by his Infinitum Nihil imprint with HarperCollins: The Unraveled Tales of Bob Dylan, being written by Douglas Brinkley and set for publication in 2015. The exact nature of the book is unknown, but it is established that Dylan is cooperating with it, thanks in large part to Depp’s clout, no doubt. “Bob has been very warm and forthcoming with us,” Brinkley told USA Today. “His music has inspired us both deeply since we were teenagers.”

PAUL McCARTNEY Macca filmed three versions of his “My Valentine” video: one with Depp, one with Natalie Portman, and a third one with the two of them together. The actor’s reward for acting and playing guitar in the clip(s) was not just monetary. “I did a music video with him,” Depp told Jimmy Kimmel in May, “and he called me up one day and said, ‘Why don’t you come by tomorrow and we’ll have some breakfast, and maybe just jam. Plunk around.’ And…and…you go! We sat around with a couple of acoustic guitars and played.” Just to get Eric Clapton even more steamed, maybe?

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