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Originally Published: July 16, 2010
Author: W. Brice McVicar
Alice Cooper is coming to Belleville to die. Five times.
That's how many times the legendary shock-rocker is "killed" on stage every night during his Theatre of Death World Tour. At 62-years-old, Cooper shows no signs of slowing down despite a career that spans more than four decades and 25 studio albums. He recently completed a series of shows with Rob Zombie and is currently making his way across North America, a tour that will bring him to Belleville's Empire Rockfest on July 22.
Cooper spoke to The Intelligencer about his years in the music industry, the stage-show he'll bring with him here and his love for bizarre kung-fu films.
INTELL:One of my favourite quotes about you is the famous Bob Dylan quote about you being an "overlooked songwriter"....
AC:That was such a surprise to me. What a compliment that Bob Dylan even knows I'm alive. He must have listened to Only Women Bleed or one of those songs that felt like a touching ballad. I had four ballads in a row that were hits and maybe that was what that had to do with.
INTELL:Going with that quote, what do you think is the key to writing songs that are still being played three or four decades after you released them?
AC:Honestly, it's a knack. It's one of those things where if you asked me to write a song for you about a giraffe and an elephant falling in love on the Empire State Building I would say 'How long do you want it to be? Do you want it to be up tempo?' In other words, I could write that song, I'd just need to know if you want it to be touching, do you want it funny, do you want it to be horrific?
I would probably be able to write for Broadway if they just told me what the story is. For some reason, I've always been able to do that but, when I was a kid, I listened to the two best lyricists: Chuck Berry and Ray Davies from The Kinks. They could tell a story in three minutes and I sat there thinking it's an art to be able to tell a story in three minutes.
I kind of figured out how that was done. You write the punchline first and then you write backwards and set up the whole thing. That's kind of the trick to a Lola or a School's Out or I'm Eighteen.
INTELL:Pretties for You came out in 1969 and we're now in 2010. How has your music changed in those 40 years and how has the music industry changed?
AC:The music industry has changed more, I think, on a technical level. If you look at the bands that are still working from 1968 it's all hard rock bands. It's all guitar-driven hard rock bands like the Rolling Stones. Ozzy's still here. We're still here. Iggy's still here.
All those bands are still out there playing and probably better than we were in 1968. I know I'm a better singer now and I'm in bands that are much better now. It's just funny that that's the one music that will not die.
INTELL:Why is that?
AC:Fifty years from now there's going to be kids in garages listening to The Who saying, 'How do we get that?' It's that four-four beat that I would call tribal. When you play rock and roll you don't necessarily play it from your brain, good rock and roll is played from below your belt. That's the one problem I have with a lot of the bands who are out now. There's too many bands, young rock bands, that are just so sensitive.
I am so sick of sensitive bands. What happened to the bands that got out there and are just snotty rock and roll bands? That's what I miss.
INTELL:Who's in your CD player right now?
AC:I try to find all the new garage rock bands that are really good. I think Jack White is probably the only genius from this era because he keeps breaking all the rules and making it work. I listen to the stuff he does with White Stripes and I listen to the Dead Weather and he always totally goes against production ideas and it just works. He's got something. He's got some kind of magic.
More bands should listen to him and listen to that voice because it sounds like he really means it. It sounded like Jagger meant it and with the '60s bands it sounded like they meant it, there was some realism.
INTELL:You've got such a long career that you have fans who discovered you through albums like Constrictor and Raise Your Fist and Yell and then you have the people who grew up with Billion Dollar Babies and the Killer album and then there's this whole new generation discovering you through Brutal Planet and Along Came A Spider so, when you come to cities like Belleville, how do you determine that set list? Are you trying to hit one particular generation or are you looking to get everyone who's found your music?
AC:Well, I jump around a lot. We do 28 songs. Out of the 28 we're hitting From The Inside, we're hitting Billion Dollar Babies, Killer, Welcome to My Nightmare, School's Out, Trash.... I really do jump around a lot.
It goes back to what we were talking about. What's changed in music? Rock has not changed very much at all. I listen to bands that are out now like The Strokes and bands like that and I say, 'Jeez, that's just great, Rolling Stones rock and roll.' It's really hard to change that basic thing.
Not many people have successfully taken music in a new direction and made it work. Pink Floyd did. They turned it into something different, but not many others have. Everyone just keeps resorting back to pure rock and roll.
When I turn on the radio and there's a new band and they're playing 1966 garage rock, I'm all over that. It never gets old.
INTELL:And you went back to that with The Eyes of Alice Cooper.
AC: Absolutely. After we'd done about four or five studio albums that were produced albums and story albums I told the band, 'This is a good enough band. I want to try something. I want to experiment. I want to write the song in the morning, rehearse it in the afternoon and record it that night. No going back in and fixing the bass and fixing the guitar. It is what it is.' That's how we did that album and, that way, the band never gets tired of playing that song and you can hear how excited they are about playing that new song in the track. That's what a band is supposed to sound like.
INTELL:So is that what you're going to sound like when you're here? This is what we'll get?
AC:Oh yeah, this production is probably as big a production as Welcome to My Nightmare. Theatre of Death is an all-out.... (laughs) It's way over the top.
They kill me five times in the show. We added a new death two weeks ago so Alice gets killed five times now.
INTELL:Over the years have you ever been pushed to do something on stage that you've said no to?
AC:The thing about it is nothing ever happens on the stage without me having the final say. I say 'Let's try this, let's try that' and I've got a director for the show and I told him I wanted to turn everything upside down and backwards. Anybody that's seen my show and think they've got my formula figured out.... I want to destroy that. In other words, start with School's Out, don't end with it. Let's turn everything upside down so the audience doesn't know what's coming next.
That's what this show is. There's one point where he says, 'Okay, you rip the nurse's dress off and you take her wig off and then they put you on a garbage can with a noose around your neck and you do I Never Cry.' I said that would never work.... It's the best part of the show.
It ends up being that moment where I end up feeling so awkward that it makes it work and it goes exactly opposite of anything that I would do. If I force myself to do something it suddenly turns into something new and different. Half the audience is horrified and the other half is laughing its head off.
INTELL:Is that a successful moment, then?
AC: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. Especially when you're going to do something that absurd and it's the prettiest song you've ever written. That's the idea though, to throw things at the audience that they've never experienced.
INTELL:Do you have any regrets with any of the songs or albums you've released?
AC:I can't really think of anything I'm ashamed of but, at the same time, there's songs I look back at now and think, 'I wish I would have produced that better or I wish I would have spent more time on that.'
INTELL:Can you give me an example?
AC:Well, there's four albums that I don't remember writing or recording or touring with during my blackout period. Zipper catches Skin, Special Forces, DaDa.... When I think of those albums and I listen to them there's so much good stuff on there and I just wish I would have spent more time on those albums.
INTELL:So, before you go on stage here are there any backstage rituals you will go through?
AC:I'll get there an hour-and-a-half before the show and I watch really bad kung fu. That's true. I watch really bad kung fu. If Bruce Lee's in it it's too good. I'm talking about Seven Golden Shaolin Versus Fifteen Drunken Ninjas.... Those are the kinds of movies I try to find. Don't ask me why, it's a tradition and I cannot explain it.
Tickets are still available for the July 22 show, but VIP seating has sold out. For ticket information for the Alice Cooper show and more on the Empire Rockfest lineup, go to www.empiresquarelive.com/rockfest