There are stories that, for better or worse, stay with you forever. You just can’t shake them. If I squint and close my eyes, I can almost see myself in early 2007 and how it went, sitting there high atop a rooftop patio at the shabby, glitzy, infamous Chateau Marmont hotel in L.A., with Johnny Depp and Keith Richards. I was, of course, all puffed up and chesty. It was just the three of us, cozylike. And under such circumstances, who wouldn’t be feeling good? But it didn’t last long, because Richards took an instant, vigorous, and nearly chemical dislike of me and was soon threatening to stick a banana up my ass. No smiling, no kidding. As for Depp, I’d met him once before and we’d gotten along well, over wine and cigarettes, so well that he’d requested the magazine make me the one sitting here right now. But today, he was as the dutiful, fawning son of a much-adored father, with Richards, some 20 years his senior, playing the dad part. I couldn’t blame him. But it was a little disheartening, given Depp’s long-standing reputation for being nothing if not his own man.
Actually, the evening started off OK. With a rouge Los Angeles sky lowering on the horizon, the boys were enjoying their drinks (Depp, a glass of wine; Richards, his customary class-act vodka) and their smokes (Depp, his hand-rolled cheroots; Richards, his Marlboros), and seemed entirely at ease throughout their demonstration of how to run a successful mutual-admiration society, palavering and preening on behalf of the third installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, in which Richards pops up as Captain Jack Sparrow’s father, which makes sense, given that, from the series’ start, Depp has said that he based Captain Jack’s louche, slurring buccaneer on his longtime friend Richards.
“He’s always been very gracious, very sweet, very nice, welcoming and hospitable,” Depp said of Richards, in his usual honey-voiced way. “What do I like about him? Everything. And getting him to play a part in this trilogy, it’s enormous, a major coup.”
“Oh, it’s been great fun,” said Richards, the subtler of the two in this particular enterprise. “Johnny and I have just slowly gotten to know each other, so it’s not like there’s been some forged bonding. It’s just felt natural, no big deal. He’s a very, very straight-up guy.”
I usually enjoy listening to this kind of harmless, genial plumping, but today my mind began to drift, and I soon found myself fixated on Richards. What a strange-looking man, so gnarled, wrinkled, and skeletal, like the worst kind of meth-addled tweaker ever; always with the groovy-cool scarf knotted around his head; a self-satisfied, world-class smirk on his face; wretchedly thin but sporting a potlike belly: skinny fat; and with conically expanding fingertips that’ve come to resemble nothing so much as the corpus-spongiosum head of the human penis. Very odd indeed. And then my gaze came to rest on one finger in particular, the right-hand ring finger, which has that great big skull ring attached to it, the one Richards has worn for decades. Vaguely, I wondered if it was somehow connected to the skull ring that Iggy Pop is known to wear. “The skull ring,” I said, “is that one of Iggy Pop’s skull rings or is that a different one?”
During the briefest of pauses, all light fled, darkness descended, and a sudden chill obtained the air. Have you ever been in the woods hunting vermin with a peashooter when a sizable rustling suggests that maybe you’re terminally undergunned? Me neither. But such was the case now. My hair stood on end, and prickly sweat savaged my cheeks.
Depp was the first to talk. “He’s the, he’s the originator of the skull rings,” he just about hissed, falling into the words.
“This is the original one,” Richards said, coolly. Then he came forward. “I’ve been wearing it for 30-odd years. You didn’t know that? You didn’t know that Keith Richards was famous for his skull ring?”
Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t, but the point is this: When a guy like Richards starts referring to himself in the third person, you can be sure that any ironic intent on the surface is covering up an ugly, purplish ego bruise the size of Mount Vesuvius. Swiftly, I took evasive action. “So, Keith,” I said, “what advice would you give Johnny about how he should live the rest of his life?” But Richards was having none of it. “He doesn’t need any fucking advice,” he growled.
“All righty then,” I said.
“Great,” he said. “Pull my finger.”
Taking a deep breath, I thought it best to change the subject and go with something innocuous. “When you woke up this morning, what was your first thought?”
“Who cares?” Richards said.
“Mine is,” I said, sallying forth dimwittedly, “should I go empty my bladder or not.”
“That’s not a thought,” Richards said. “You call that a thought?”
“Well, it passes for one in my world,” I said.
And Richards said, “Then you think with your dick.” And then he said, “Anybody who can remember their first thought in the morning is a fucking weirdo.” And then he said, “There’s always the balcony.”
I looked over at the balcony’s railing and blenched. So much had gone so wrong so quickly that I was feverish. I didn’t know what to think anymore. Where was I? What was going on? And who’s that dude lurking in the shadows with a video camera, filming all this? And what’s that wireless microphone doing on the table, next to my drink? And how survivable is it, do you think, a drop from the balcony here, seven-stories high, to the ground down there? The whole thing was beginning to flip me out. But, really, there was nothing to be done for it but to muddle forward. I asked them if they could list for me the seven deadly sins, something I thought every pirate-playing actor, and especially these two, would probably know and which could lead to any number of personality-illuminating discussions.
“Can you name them?” Depp said to me, levelly.
“I don’t think so.”
“Why do you ask us then?”
“Well, I thought maybe—”
“I’ll give you the eighth one,” Richards said.
“OK, what’s the eighth one?”
“Asking what it is if you don’t know the seventh one,” Depp said.
“Because if you don’t know the seventh, you can’t have an eighth, baby,” Richards said.
For a second, I thought they were going to high-five each other, so pleased did they seem with this bit of spontaneous repartee. I sighed and excused myself to go to the bathroom. I needed to splash water on my face and regroup.
“You go take a leak,” said Richards, smiling that thin-lipped, knife-edged smile of his, baggy with age, not really a smile at all. “And don’t forget to shake the drips off.”
And then when I came back, Depp took it upon himself to say, smugly, “We’ve come up with the seven deadly sins and decided not to tell you.”
And Richards said, “Yeah.”
I looked at my watch. I’d been talking to these two for 14 minutes and 21 seconds. I had 45 minutes and 39 seconds left to my allotted time. What a horror show. And there was no stopping it.
Along the way, though, I did learn a few things. Richards told me that the palm tree in Fiji that he fell out of last year — the one that landed him in the hospital having to undergo brain surgery — wasn’t a palm tree at all; it was, he said, “a shrub, a gnarled little shrub. It’s embarrassing to say, but stuff like that happens.” For his part, Depp said that the most important thing he does every day is “see my kiddies, see my girl,” while Richards said that for him it’s “take a shit, though it used to be take a fix.” Also, circuitously, Depp let it be known that he couldn’t possibly be buying his own shoes. He revealed this during a discussion about clothes swapping. “We can slip into about anything of the other’s,” Richards was saying. “Shirts, pants, shoes. We just go, ‘Oh, I like that shirt.’ And then it’s, ‘Oh, you better have mine.’ There’s times when Johnny’s walked out of my room and I’m wearing his shoes and he’s wearing mine. I’ve got to say he’s got some great boots. We happen to be the same size.” And what size is that? “I don’t know,” muttered Depp. Today, Richards was wearing two watches. “Why? So I never look at the wrong wrist.” Depp was wearing one watch but it had two faces on it. When I made mention of this, Depp said, “Yes, it does. And so do I,” which I thought was a nice touch. But the mood remained sour, and soon we were back at it.
As if from a great distance, and trying to pull myself out of the death spiral, I leaned way back in my chair and said, “Is it manly to wear makeup?”
“Do you want to argue about it?” Richards said. “You go ask that of John fucking Wayne and see what you get, pal. A very pointed stick. And then there’s the funnel with a red-hot lead enema. And a banana up your ass. And, oh, baby, it’s coming.”
No smiling, no kidding.
Hurrying on, I said, “So, guys, let’s do a two out of three, thumb wrestling.”
“Two out of three what?” said Richards, blinking.
“Thumb wrestling,” said Depp, mirthlessly. “Wow.”
“I need both of them,” Richards said. “I love you. But if you keep on like this, pal, you might get them.”
For some reason, their scorn didn’t stop me from giving voice to my next gambit, which went something like, “Let’s hear a joke from each of you.”
“Oh, wow,” said Depp. “I fear jokes. I have a mortal fear of jokes. Jokes are made to make someone laugh and that sort of manipulative idea is weird to me.”
“OK,” I said, letting him off the hook. “But I’m sure Keith has a joke he’d like to share.”
Richards grimaced. “I don’t tell jokes, I laugh at them,” he said. “I mean, I can tell jokes. But I’m not about to tell you one.”
“Why is that?”
“Because it’s out of bounds, old boy,” he said.
“You two are quite a couple,” I said.
“Thank you,” said Depp. “We’re thinking of taking it on the road.”
“With you, it’s a trio, baby,” Richards said.
“Oh, don’t include me,” I said
“I’ve got a banana,” Richards said. He seemed to have really taken a shine to this banana idea. Then, after a bit, he asked me if I had a joint, and when I said I didn’t, he said, “Well, shit. You come here and you don’t offer a joint?” He paused. “You know what? You don’t know shit from Shinola.”
This was, no doubt, a veiled reference to various matters having to do with skull rings. Thankfully, my time with the two ended shortly thereafter, with Richards making for the exit. Depp disappeared too, leaving me to wobble around, at a loss and fearing for my job. Just then, Depp returned, scowling and looking pretty damn pissed off. “What the fuck’s wrong with you, man?” he said to me. “His ring. How the hell couldn’t you know about that? I mean, for Christ’s sake.” Before I could really speak, he was gone again. Later, I heard that he wrote my boss, Jann Wenner, to complain about the thumb-wrestling moment in particular, to which Wenner apparently said, “Huh, guess he doesn’t have a sense of humor.” Anyway, the piece was reassigned, and I went on to suffer psychic repercussions that continue to this day. Nightmares, mostly, that arrive unbidden, usually around dawn, filled with bananas and deadly sins, Richards leering and Depp copying Richards, everything compounding to make me twitch and sigh until noon at least. I’ll never forget it, the three of us sitting there in the dark, drinking drinks, smoking smokes, and exchanging unpleasantries, all of us so fragile in our own little ways.
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