Originally Published: June 20, 1997
Author: Salvatore Caputo
At 48, four years after his last tour, Alice Cooper has been called away from his regular golf outings near his home in Phoenix, Ariz., and back to active duty.
It seems a hard-rocking German band, the Scorpions, have launched a U.S. tour and want as a co-headliner their revered American inspiration. Someone who can keep up with their ear-jangling metal. Someone like Alice Cooper.
"It's almost like if you're a baseball player, you've got to play baseball, " Cooper says. "After a while, you sit at home and say, 'I've got to get out and do something.' Even if it's doing your hits."
Not that Cooper has been just sitting around working on his chips and putts. He has a new live album due out in September that features guest shots by some of the other acolytes who worship at his alter: White Zombie's Rob Zombie, former Guns 'N Roses guitarist Slash, for instance. And then there's the new studio album after that.
Hey a family man's gotta put food on the table. So at show time, Cooper becomes a cartoon character, a maestro of mayhem presiding over a rock show of hits and a series of tableaus based on the songs. He's a straight-jacketed victim in "Ballad of Dwight Fry," a lone hero fending off a band of street thugs in "Gutter Cats vs. the Jets," and a sword-weilding cynic spearing a wad of money and shaking the bills out over a hungry crowd during "Billion Dollar Babies."
At home, he's a suburban dad with maybe just a little more time on his hands than typical. He plays golf daily, and "Alice sightings" are as common at classical concerts and small eateries as they are at Phoenix's rock clubs.
"I know who I am on both levels," Cooper says. "I know who I am at home in my daily life and I know who I am on stage. I mean, if people don't know that Alice is a character by now, that I play him..."
His words trail off in consternation.
"They can't still be thinking that I'm running around at (the mall) with my makeup on and a snake," he says. "I made that so plain. The two things are so separate, and it's been like that for so long."
He thinks about audience expectations and then says, "I can't watch William Shatner in anything except "Star Trek," because he's Captain Kirk, you know? When he plays something else, I go, 'I don't want to see that,' because he's Captain Kirk. I want him to be Captain Kirk....When a guy plays a role really well, you really don't like to see him in other roles."
There was a time when Cooper didn't seem capable of separating the two roles. His offstage life became as fantastic and strange as that on stage.
Cooper was born Vincent Furnier on Feb. 4, 1948, in Detroit. His parents moved their family to Phoenix in the early '60's.
In 1964, he formed his first band, the Earwigs, with buddies Glen Buxton and Dennis Dunaway and two others who eventually left. By 1965, they were the Spiders and had added Michael Bruce. In 1966, the band changed the name to the Nazz and added Neal Smith. They played dates around Arizona.
In 1967, the band found out the name the Nazz was taken by a Philadelphia group led by Todd Rundgren. The story goes that Furnier took the name Alice Cooper after a hypnotherapist told him that men and women contian elements of both genders. It became the band's name as well.
The concept of a man with a women's name leading a rock band seemed completely subversive. Their costuming completed the illusion of rocking tranvestites years before David Bowie's gender-bending 1970 tour.
"It must have been a little bit frightening," Cooper said. The costumes they wore for their 1969 debut album, "Pretties For You," came from an ice show that was going out of business in Michigan. The band, impoverished at the time, jumped at the offer of cheap costumes.
"We went in and bought everything we could buy for $10," he said. "That cheerleader thing? I just ripped it open and wore it like a vest, and suddenly it was that I was wearing a dress."
The album deal came about in 1968 when the band closed a memorial birthday party for the late Lenny Bruce at the Cheetah in Los Angeles. After four sings, the band had chased off most of the 8,000 people who'd been watching such groups as Electric Flag and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.
Frank Zappa, in the front row, liked that and signed the Alice Cooper band to his label.
"It was so much of a more innocent time," Cooper says now. "It was so easy to shock an audience because they didn't have anything to compare it to."
The first two albums did not do well, and the band moved from Los Angeles to Detroit, where things went much better. "Detroit understood us, totally," Cooper says. "The first gig we played was with the Stooges, MC5, and we fit like the missing piece of a puzzle."
In Detroit, they came under the tutelage of producer Bob Ezrin and produced their 1971 breakthrough album, "Love It To Death."
After listening to the first two albums, Ezrin told them, "People want to like you. They really do want to like you, but there's no handle. There's absolutely nothing to hold on to, except your image, the fact that you guys are really out there and you're one of the bands people love to hate.
"If you listen to a Doors album, when you hear Jim Morrison or the keyboards or the guitar, you know immediately it's the Doors. You have to do that with Alice Cooper."
They took the advice and devised a mix of songs that was equal parts cathartic rock-and-roll release ("I'm Eighteen," "Under My Wheels") and songs about the macabre ("Ballad of Dwight Fry," "Dead Babies"). Suddenly, the band was a hit.
Parents may have been shocked, but kids flocked to the shows in droves. The group's increasingly big-budget gothic horror fantasies, with beheadings, hangings, and electrocutions, started the '70's trend of huge rock-and-roll productions. Would Kiss and Bowie have made the impact they made if Cooper hadn't led the way?
All of this seems to be dark stuff for the son of a preacher, but Cooper doesn't think so. "Alice Cooper's always been a morality play," he says. "Alice does something bad. They catch him. They punish him. They cut his head off or they do something to punish him, and then he comes back and he's forgiven."