Age, The

Originally Published: September 07, 1997

Shock Tactics

Being a satanic rock star takes its toll. Just as well there's Diet Coke, The Simpsons and, um, golf. Stephanie Bunbury wonders if she's worthy enough to meet Alice Cooper..

Author: Stephanie Bunbury

Alice Cooper has 25 televisions back home in America and, he says, they're always on. Right now he is staring at yet another, watching Test cricket. "I just wanted to see if it was as boring as everyone says," he says in exactly the kind of laconic drawl you would expect of him. "What is it with this game? I mean, nothing happens."

Alice Cooper, veteran rocker, the only 49-year-old who would dare sing something called School's Out with all the braggart swagger of an adolescent in drag, is not the kind of guy who likes nothing happening. He beats his hands on the couch. Still and all, his eyes, much clearer little orbs within their dark hollows than once they were, remain fixed on the screen. Something might happen. "If they told me there was no television in the room," he says, "I'd go through withdrawal."

Yeah, bad. But, you know. As addictions go, it's a lot less corrosive than his best-ever, the one where he used to drink a bottle of whisky before he could go on stage. Where he did the whole rock star schtick.

Thirty years on from his high school band days, Alice Cooper is still a rock star, still pounds out the old hits, still plays endless tours of 52 cities for the love of it, but he doesn't do that schtick any more. Now, he says ironically, he is "into elite' everything". He looks like a ravaged whiplash, but then he always did; he also looks rather lean and clean and scrubbed. A Diet Coke is to hand. Alice Cooper dried out 15 years ago, then took up golf. Golf, because it occupies a lot of the day when you could be wasting yourself in a bar. Golf, too, because it is a difficult game and he is very competitive. It's all very well being a satanic rock legend, but at some point you have to make a decision to survive.

When Alice started out in 1968, he set out to shock. He rechristened his high school band, then called the Nazz, when he decided he was the reincarnation of a 17th century witch called Alice Cooper. He speared plastic baby dolls full of red paint and died in an electric chair and wriggled out of a straitjacket. He still does some of that and it doesn't look very shocking now, but by the '70s he had been dubbed "the most evil rock singer in the world". Goll-lee.

Of course, young Vincent Damon Furnier, born the son of a clergyman in Detroit, was hardly evil. This was a boy who loved high school and was a champion distance runner; his anti-hippy band was an ironic joke. It was rock and roll, so it was supposed to be rebellious and modern and challenging. Surely young Vincent would have found the idea of an old Alice pretty ridiculous.

Old Alice is certain he would. "But I don't think any of us knew that rock would ... we didn't know when you stopped. I still don't. I'm 49 and I have more energy now on stage than I did 20 years ago. And I think, well, that's not right. I should be too tired and old to do this. But when I'm on stage I feel great."

And the audience vindicates him: he looks out and sees not only his contemporaries, but teenagers who know all the words to his songs and want to sing along. With so much fun going on, you'd be a fool to give up and do Vegas. People love those old hits, and he is happy to fish them out.

"I guess the thing is,"he says, "to write classic songs. If Eighteen came out today that would be a number one. Or School's Out or No More Mr Nice Guy. Those songs don't fit into an era. Some albums do, but certain classic songs don't go out of phase."

Well, maybe. Alice may be self-effacing about his golf game, but when he starts to slip into his Goth doppelganger his ego rises to boiling point. Self-doubt is not a problem. Fortunately, he can snicker at his own vanity. Think of Wayne and Garth abasing themselves before him, groaning 'we're not worthy', while Alice held court. People have been saying that to him 20 times a day ever since Wayne's World hit the screen. Even U2 did it to him. "That will be mine forever. It will be on my gravestone: 'We're not worthy,'"he says. It's a lament, but a light-hearted one.

His show is funny, too, full of pompous waving of batons and ludicrous horror movie pastiches. It's all a big, entertaining hoot. Every song is enormous. He changes his clothes five times, each outfit more like fancy dress than the last. It's all a laugh. "How could you not like it?"he says to an imaginary critic, rhetorically, but meaning it. "It was big, it was fun, it was colorful, it did all the stuff, it was useless. It was a lot of fun and fed your brain with all this useless stuff. That's what it's supposed to do. It's not supposed to change your life. It's rock and roll."

My best guess is that Alice has survived not because his songs are classics - there are many better, after all, as he would admit - but because he does rock as theatre. It's not him up there, it's an event. And it's that other Alice Cooper, the wild man in purple tails who dies on stage every night and has a life and career of his own. Even though he long ago changed his name by deed poll to share that character's name, they are distinct.

"That's the Alice I don't talk to; I don't have lunch with. I don't ever take him home. My kids have never seen Alice. My four-year-old daughter Sonora, if an Alice Cooper video comes on, she doesn't say oh look, there's Daddy. She says 'Daddy, look, there's Alice Cooper'. And she knows I'm Alice Cooper, but she knows that that's not me."

Because he is playing a part, he can sing I Am 18 without blushing, then switch to become an old man for Dwight Fry. "Alice is ageless. I don't care how old he is, when Eighteen comes along Alice is 18."And after it all, he skips off stage, soul intact. Alice protects Alice.

"The character is a real rock and roll character," he agrees. "I make Alice my own favorite rock star. I want my favorite rock star to have a sword. I want him to look kind of gothic. But I want him to be kind of arrogant, I want him to be kind of funny, I want him to be kind of gaunt, you know, I want him to be unpredictable. Lots of energy. Sort of a villain, but a likeable villain.

"If I watch TV and I think I like that guy better than Alice, I'm in real trouble, so I keep changing Alice. You know, I put a little Basil Rathbone in him, a little Errol Flynn. Every now and then someone new will come along: there's a little Clockwork Orange in Alice. I keep developing him all the time."

Even so, Alice Cooper doesn't go along with my theory. "Sure, it's very important to play a role but you know what, just about everybody I know in rock and roll plays a role. I know Mick Jagger; Mick Jagger's not the same Mick Jagger you see on stage. And Iggy's not like that off stage, he's a different guy. And I think rock needs more characters."

Aging doesn't matter to showmanship, because you learn to do more with less. "You don't make any wasted moves on stage," says Alice seriously, "even going back to get a drink of water has to have something to it, because you're on stage. I look at it like I'm in a play up there."

He gave up even trying to look wicked years ago. "I'm sitting here watching CNN and I realised a long time ago that my show isn't as shocking as CNN. When that happened I thought OK, I'm out of the shock business now. Let it go." There may be just an eensy bit of programmed assistance to the well-worn voice in there, but who's quibbling? Nobody Alice knows.

So Alice isn't shocking any more. I can shock him, though. Easy. I tell him I don't have a television. Not even one.

"WHOA!" cries Alice Cooper, his eyes widening within their dark hollows as they remain glued to the wicket at Manchester. He grips the couch. "How do you live? What do you do? Don't you just look at the wall? How do you keep up with the world? With Bugs Bunny? How do you know what is happening in the Simpsons? You know, that's important!" He is grinning, but astounded. I feel almost worthy.