Truly one of those mythical, often talked about, but rarely realized Hollywood success stories, John Lowery moved to The Sunset Strip at the age of 18 with a singular ambition – to become a session guitar player. And with a little good luck, a number of big breaks and an astounding amount of skill, Lowery eventually moved has way up through the rock n’ roll ranks, snagging coveted spots playing live and studio guitar for everyone and anyone (Salt-N-Pepa, Rick Springfield, Lita Ford, k.d. lang, etc) before eventually earning the chance to not only play with, but co-write with Diamond David Lee Roth.
This pivotal gig with DLR then paved the way for Lowery’s most well-known career work – six years as guitarist for Marilyn Manson. It was this period, during the height of Manson’s notoriety, where Lowery was rechristened John 5, toured the world and co-wrote two certified Gold records (Holy Wood, The Golden Age of Grotesque).
Now, currently at the helm as Rob Zombie’s guitarist and collaborator for the past 10 years, John 5 has far surpassed his childhood dreams of becoming a mere session guy and moved into the realm of bona fide “rockstar.”
Last week 5 returned to the place where it all began, his old stomping grounds on The Sunset Strip, where along with his band The Creatures, he performed to a packed to the rafters crowd at the landmark Whisky A Go-Go – a showcase that proved to be the culmination of a hard earned and much blessed career grinding out his axe.
You moved to L.A. when you were around 17 or 18 years old… Share with us your recollections of the scene at that time.
My whole life was The Strip. I mean my whole life was The Strip! I lived on Fuller in an apartment complex right behind Ralph's (so-called “Rock n’ Roll Ralphs”). My friend and I worked at Penguin's Frozen Yogurt on Sunset and La Brea, and we would just go down Sunset every night and go to the Whisky. In the late 80’s there used to be this great Monday night jam thing… Bands would get up and play a few songs, and it was so much fun! We would do that on Monday nights and it was packed, it was awesome... and then we'd go see shows at Gazzarri’s (now 1OAK), The Roxy, or just go to the Rainbow. It was such a great time! Of course everybody tells you this, but it really was... There were so many people you couldn't even walk on the street, I mean literally it was impossible to walk down the street!
You would see Nikki and Tommy (Mötley Crüe), Slash, David Lee Roth and everybody hanging out at these clubs. It was amazing! I cherish those times, and I am so lucky that I got to be a part of them because it's never happened ever since then, and it never will again. That time that I was on The Strip was magic. It was absolute magic! There was electricity in the air, and it was an electricity of strippers and sleazy music, and you know just debauchery and amazing, amazing fun. I didn't have a care in the world, not a responsibility in the world and it was unbelievable.
Any particular shows that stick out in your mind from that time period?
Well there were great bands all the time; you could see great music all the time, but what was really cool is that you would get to see these musicians play in these smaller little bands that they had... Like I would see Zakk Wylde (Ozzy Osbourne, Black Label Society) do his Lynyrd Skynhead thing and it was amazing! It was so cool because the only time you got to see Zakk Wylde back in the day was on an arena stage, but now Lynyrd Skynhead is playing the Coconut Teaszer (now Hyde) and you could stand six inches away from the guy… Or I would see Electric Fence, Paul Gilbert’s (Mr. Big) thing… just cool things like that would happen, or you'd see Sebastian Bach get up on stage and start singing... I mean it was magic stuff like that and it was great, it was awesome!
Coming up as a studio guitarist and getting progressively bigger gigs, eventually working with David Lee Roth... Do you remember a singular moment where it dawned on you, “This is it. I’ve made it!”
These are great questions, I love this interview because I'm so passionate about The Strip and all this stuff… Yes I do know the time! I was playing with k.d. lang and my very first gig was this thing called the VH1 Fashion Music Awards, the first annual… and we go out on stage – live TV – and I'm playing, and I looked at the crowd and there was Prince, Madonna, Peter Gabriel, all these massive, massive stars… and I was like, "Oh my God!" I really felt like I'd made it. But you know, I don’t take it for granted. I still all the time I say, "Wow this is incredible! This is amazing, this is great!" Like when I got a number one record with Manson (Holy Wood) or when I played The Forum, moments like this always happen to me and I appreciate it so much.
Speaking of Manson, he named you and that's where you sort of developed your identity/persona... What made you decide to keep working under the John 5 moniker after you parted ways?
When Manson gave me that name "John 5,” we were at Gaucho Grill on Ventura Boulevard the first time we ever met... He was like, "Ok your name is gonna be John 5 and we're gonna do everything with numbers…” this was during Mechanical Animals. And I was like, "Cool I'm in!” So then as the years went on with Manson, and I become known to the fans and in the industry as John 5… and then eventually after I left Manson I thought to myself – and I use Ace Frehley as an example – "If Ace Frehley left Kiss is he gonna go back to Paul Frehley?" It's a good example right? Or is Peter Criss going to go back to Peter Criscuola? So I kept the name because a lot more people know the name John 5, then they do John Lowery.
And your current relationship with Manson?
It's good. It’s great. I think his album is great and I love his new band, and I think he's doing exactly the right thing. He's got a great new record and I'm proud of him because, hey I was a huge Manson fan before I got in the band and I'm so happy to see he's doing so well. And you know I'm very proud of those years I was with him, it was such an imperative part of my life, it was incredible. I wouldn't change that for the world. But yeah we have a fine relationship. Great.
You’ve literally worked with everyone from Sebastian Bach, to Rod Stewart, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Alice Cooper, Ricky Martin, Paul Stanley, Meat Loaf, Garbage and on and on… With this kind of sheer volume and diversity of session work… Have you ever turned down a gig?
Well ever since I was a kid I would study all these different styles of music… It's funny I'm telling you all these true stories I haven’t told anybody else… I didn't really do well in school and when the teacher would ask me a question, and I didn't know the answer, it was devastating, and it was embarrassing. It was terrible! So when I wanted to become a session musician, if somebody asked me to play something, I always wanted to be able to play it. And that's why I studied... maybe that's why I didn't do so well in school, because I was studying guitar so much, but it was like I was training for every style of music there was, because I wanted to be one of those session guys so bad... That’s all I really wanted to be was a session guy. I never even dreamt – I don't know if I can even say the word – but I never really dreamt of being a, you know "rockstar" or something like that [laughter]. My dreams didn't go that high, I just wanted to be a session musician, and that's all I wanted to be, because I loved playing guitar so much.
So that's what I still do today, because I never wanted to be in a situation where someone asked me to play this or that and I couldn’t… I was always educated enough with any of the artists I have worked with, to say "Sure I can do that."
New Rob Zombie record in the works? Anything you can tell us?
New Zombie record yeah! So I talk to Rob of course all the time, and we're really excited about this record. This record is going to be so good – and you know I was a Zombie fan before I got in the band – and this record kicks ass! That's all I can say, it just kicks ass, and I have a smile on my face talking about it because it's a monster! I don't know when it's coming out, but I really hope it's coming out soon.
What else… We have a live record coming out on February 24th I believe... and also Rob's going to be shooting his new movie (31) that I will be scoring with him, which is going to be great. It's gonna be really fun! Me and Zombie, we get along so well, it's the greatest. It's like being in a band with your brother or something, it's so much fun.
By: Brent X Mendoza
Photos courtesy of Natalia Britt