Originally Published: November 10, 1999
Author: Larry Rodgers
Glen Buxton was a wisecracking loner thrust into the no-holds-barred world of rock'n'roll, where his fate was sealed.
Originally from Akron and a founding member of the Alice Cooper group, Buxton was cursed with a double whammy: a penchant for alcohol, cigarettes and switchblades as well as a disdain for authority figures, including the doctors who struggled to keep him alive.
But he was blessed with a magnetic personality and musical talent that helped produce rock classics such as "I'm Eighteen," "Under My Wheels," "No More Mister Nice Guy" and "Billion Dollar Babies."
Half a lifetime after he fired off some of rock's most memorable guitar riffs - including the opening to "School's Out," which now graces his tombstone - Buxton's battered body wore out.
Pneumonia was the official cause of death, but those close to Buxton agree that the satin-clad guitar hero who once played to stadiums of 60,000 fans had been felled by the demons of drink and drugs, along with a stubborn streak that made him ignore his doctors' warnings.
Two years after his death in relative obscurity in Iowa, those who performed with and loved Buxton gathered in Phoenix to pay tribute in words and music to the man whom Cooper calls "our main musical force." Although it was not a certainty until show time, Cooper joined the three other surviving band members - guitarist Michael Bruce, bassist Dennis Dunaway and drummer Neal Smith - at his Alice Cooper's town restaurant and nightclub recently to perform six hits in Buxton's memory.
"There would be no Alice Cooper without Glen," Cooper said in a recent phone interview from Syracuse, N.Y. "When it came to the music, we'd look at Glen and say, 'Glen, what do we do here?' ... I think that people didn't realize that about him. He was our main musical force in the beginning."
The beginning was at Cortez High School in northwest Phoenix in the mid-1960s. Buxton, Dunaway and Cooper, then known as Vincent Furnier, met through the school newspaper.
"Glen was in photography class and I was in the journalism class," recalled Dunaway, who now sells antiques in Connecticut. "As the sports editor... when I'd do a story, I'd call on Glen to go take the picture for the paper."
When the future Alice and Dunaway decided to do a Beatles spoof for a talent show, they turned to Buxton.
"Glen was the only person we knew who played guitar," Dunaway said. "Since none of us played any instruments, we asked him if he would play guitar while we mimed and pretended.
With Buxton helping Dunaway and later-addition Bruce with their musical chops - first as the Earwigs, then the Spiders and the Nazz - the group honed its cutting-edge act at local clubs.
Born in Ohio
Buxton was born in Ohio, but spent his teen years in Arizona, where his parents and sister Janice Davison live.
Davison said her brother was a "normal, rebellious teenage kid - didn't want to mow the lawn and do the chores. He wasn't that interested in school. He didn't like to study, didn't like the authority. ...
"He got glasses in his freshman year and just hated them. After the band started playing, he would never wear them."
Although his mother nagged him to attend Glendale Community College, Buxton's parents supported his musical career.
Asked how her family reacted to the staged hangings and beheadings of Cooper, the hatchet attacks on dolls and other shock-rock mayhem that brought the band notoriety, Davison replied, "We all just laughed."
But life was hardly a laugh for Buxton after the Alice Cooper group gained national popularity in the early '70s with the albums "Love It to Death," "Killer" and the monster hit, "School's Out."
The success brought money and adoring females, but it also brought pressure to continue recording and performing to fuel a machine that included a private jet, an expensive stage set and a growing entourage.
The constant travel and pursuit by rabid fans was a thrill initially, but a burden later.
Relieving the pressure
"It's an assault on your ability to keep your wits about you," bassist Dunaway said.
With that kind of pressure, the band members turned to alcohol and drugs to relax.
"It was the party that never ended," Smith said. "We weren't really sleeping as much as passing out and getting up and doing it all over again."
Buxton, who had developed a fondness for alcohol in high school, carried the partying to extremes as the group stormed through tours such as "Billion Dollar Babies" ("Seventy cities in 90 days," guitarist Bruce said).
"I always said Glen made [Rolling Stone] Keith Richards look like a Boy Scout," Smith said. "Glen just partied hard all the time ... and I guess he became more of a rock 'n' roll casualty than anybody else in the group."
Asked to explain why Buxton pushed himself to the point of abuse, Cooper - who successfully underwent alcohol rehabilitation 17 years ago - replied, "Glen and I were drinking buddies. I spent more time drinking than anything else.
No one missed a show
"I don't know why I became an alcoholic, let alone tell you why Glen drank so much. It was just something that happened when you spent that much time on the road.
"I don't think it was a personality flaw or anything, because Glen never missed a show. ... And none of us - we never missed a show because of abuse."
In the relative sanity of the recording studio, Buxton's eclectic guitar work was a key ingredient of the Cooper band's sound - an eerie mix of hard rock, twisted ballads and larger productions such as "Elected," "Gutter Cats vs. the Jets" and "Muscle of Love."
"Glen was not a songwriter," Cooper said. "He would write riffs, though. They would show up on the album and even great guitar players would say, 'What is that line? It's so weird, but it's catchy.'
"Mike [Bruce] was much more into chord structure. So, Glen was always sort of our icing on the cake. ... When everything was done, we'd bring Glen in to put on the little details and oddities."
In Smith's view, the breakthrough "School's Out" "was Glen's album - he played all the lead guitar."
But as Cooper and the others sought a broader sound in the next two discs, Buxton seemed to resist.
At that point, the band brought in other guitarists to fill the gaps and augment its sound, including Mick Mashbir, who also toured with the group in its later days.
To complicate matters at this point, Buxton was hospitalized for two weeks with pancreatitis and was told to clean up his act.
"The doctor told him, 'I opened up your stomach and I was thoroughly disgusted!'" his sister said.
"He was in the hospital, and we sent tapes out to him so he could learn the ["Billion Dollar Babies"] material," Bruce said. "When he came back, he hadn't spent any time learning the material. At that point, we brought in Mick Mashbir and [keyboardist] Bob Dolin.
"After that, Glen never seemed to catch up - a day late and a dollar short, sort of."
Talk with the former members of this close-knit band - they lived under the same roof in locales from California to Detroit to Connecticut throughout their run at the top of the charts - and you'll hear differing versions of their breakup.
Cooper said they disagreed over how much money to sink back into the stage show. Smith said the members simply took a year off for solo projects and never reunited.
However, Bruce said a confrontation with Buxton over his substance abuse, including an incident in which Buxton pulled a switchblade on the group's tour manager, might have sown the seeds of the breakup.
When the band's end officially came, in 1975, Buxton was living in Greenwich, Conn.
He chose not to record a solo project, according to his sister, and spent his time buying antiques and going to yard sales. Then Buxton got into money trouble. When he failed to pay taxes on proceeds from a mutual fund set up and later sold by the band, the IRS came calling. By 1979, "he had lost his house," Davison said. "Then he went to an apartment in New York City."
He played in a band called Shrapnel and frequented punk hot spot CBGB's. Later, Davison says, "He lived with friends [in New York]. The money was going." His parents talked Buxton into moving back to the Phoenix area, and he lived at their house in the early '80s. At that point, according to Davison, Buxton had "a guitar - that's about it."
Davison hooked her brother up with an old high-school pal and they formed Virgin, which took Buxton full circle - back to playing radio hits, as well as some of his songs, in local bars.
He also had his first day job in years, soldering transistors for Goodyear Aerospace for five or six years.
Invited to Iowa farm
To his good fortune, a rock memorabilia dealer found him with the help of Bruce, who remains a working musician. The dealer, John Stevenson, saw the tough time Buxton was having and invited him to move to an Iowa farm.
Buxton worked in a factory near Clarion, but more important, he met a woman, Lorrie Miller, who "was great," Davison said. "I though she was perfect - a geriatric nurse who could take care of Glen!"
By this time, Buxton also was suffering from a bleeding ulcer and liver problems. "He wouldn't go to the doctor when he should," Davison recalled. "He hated doctors."
Buxton enjoyed a taste of his glory days when he reunited with Smith and Dunaway for some Houston appearances in the fall of 1997. But after he returned from Houston, Buxton, then 49, remarked to his sister that he had a pain in his side, possibly from lifting luggage.
"I'm gonna have to go to the bone crusher," he told her.
Later that night, trouble arose. "He felt clammy, his pulse was ... not steady," Davison said. "[Miller] called the ambulance and they went to the closest hospital. He perked up and was joking with the nurses, being Glen, being funny.
"He said, 'Well, I'm kind of tired. I think I'll rest for a minute.' He looked at her, said, 'I love you,' and that was it.'
Buxton never woke from his slumber. An autopsy found viral pneumonia as the cause of his death on Oct. 19, 1997. But those close to him agree that life in rock 'n' roll's fast lane, mixed with a stubborn streak, sped his demise.
"There was never a way of me saying, 'Glen, you gotta slow down,' because that was like me talking to the wall,' Cooper said.. "He would look at me and just laugh and say, 'Right.'
"That was him, and nobody could change him. He was Glen, and that's why we loved him."