Boston Globe

Originally Published: May 07, 1999

Alice Cooper box set keeps the horror alive

Author: Jim Sullivan

Capital punishment may be a divisive issue in America, but it has been very good to Alice Cooper. It's uncertain whether Alice is a fan or foe, but it's an undeniable fact that capital punishment has been a big part of his professional life: The singer has been executed night after night on the concert stages of the world for more than a quarter-century.

"I think I've been offed in every sort of capital punishment sort of way you could be," says the ever-affable Cooper, often dubbed King of Shock Rock, from his home in Phoenix. "tens of thousands of times. I have been electrocuted; I have had my head cut off; I have been hung. I've been put in a coffin and had blades put through it."

Gas chamber?

"I haven't done the gas chamber because I couldn't figure out a way to make it exciting," he admits. "I think you could do lethal injection if the needle was about 40-feet long and came down from the ceiling."

Cooper may die for his sins, but he always comes back from the grave, prancing and preening. "Always with the best of taste," he adds. His tastefully packaged boxed set - Alice's peers out from behind a prison cell window - called "The Life and Crimes of Alice Cooper," a four-CD, 84-track compilation on Rhino was recently released.

"We spent years and years trying to say, 'OK, we are a band and we do theatrics, but we are also a really good band,' " says Cooper. "It was hard to convince people of the fact that you could actually do visuals and music at the same time because they figured one had to suffer. It's more like giving the audience more rather than taking away."

For years - way before Marilyn Manson, GWAR and Rammstein - all acts with a bit of Alice in them - Cooper was viewed by mainstream America as the epitome of bad taste. And by post-hippie, pre-punk hard rock America as the coolest thing going. His music was a rock 'n' roll horror show: visceral, flashy, grotesque, seductive, gender-bending. Who can forget "I Love the Dead," his ode to necrophilia? "I love the dead, before they're cold," sang Alice. "Their bluing flesh for me to hold/Cadaver eyes upon me see/Nothing." Or the plastic dolls, baby and adult, that Cooper brought on stage to thrash and slash every night.

Golfer and icon

Now, at 51, he's an icon. Cooper, a longtime avid and excellent (four handicap) golfer, advertises clubs on the golf cable TV channel. He just opened a rock-n-jock theme restaurant in Phoenix called Cooperstown.

On his new CD collection, there are pre-Alice Cooper band songs from the Nazz and the Spiders. There are hard rock classics from the glory days: "I'm Eighteen", "Ballad of Dwight Fry", Dead Babies", "Be My Lover", "Elected", "Billion Dollar Babies", "No More Mr. Nice Guy". There are smoother hits from his cruising-into-the-mainstream period: "Only Women Bleed", "I Never Cry", "You and Me". And there's nearly two discs worth of post-peek, B-level Cooper from part of the 1980s and '90s. A portion of the box set liner notes are written by former Sex Pistol John "Johnny Rotten" Lydon. He praises Cooper's "gall and bravery," chafes against any who might think the Pistols were the real thing and Alice Cooper wasn't. "WRONG!" Lydon bellows in print. He tells the story of singing to Cooper's "I'm Eighteen," auditioning for Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren. He was hired.

Cooper has a revealing take on why a lot of his stuff during the early part of era failed to click: demon alcohol. This comes as a surprise. The early Alice was a well-known boozer, hardly ever seen without a Budweiser in his hand, but he went through a much-publicized cleanup and was presumed a sober man.

Idols and bottles

Here's Cooper's story. He grew up with self-destructive heroes like Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix - "Those guys were kind of my big brothers," he says - and he emulated what he saw when the guy born Vincent Furnier created his character Alice Cooper. "Alcohol was certainly a part of the formula of being Alice," he says. "You want to be notorious and it gets to the point where 'OK, I am notorious, I have proven that. Now, I want to go to the mall."

Cooper realized his character was getting to be more extreme than Morrison's or Hendrix's. "I was going to kill myself it I was going to try and be this all the time. There was a time where I finally got self-preservation."

But there was a relapse. "I did four albums where I was totally blacked out," Cooper says. " 'Flush the Fashion', 'Special Forces', 'Dada', I forget, there's one more ['Constrictor']. Four in a row I don't remember writing them, recording them. I was in an absolute alcoholic state."

Cooper explains that after he was hospitalized in the late '70s, he was "sober almost a year" and then "went back for a while" in 1983. He's been sober since.

Cooper's music took a swerve toward the mainstream when the Alice Cooper band disbanded and Cooper set off with other musicians to make "Welcome to my Nightmare," a concept album, TV special, and tour. Cooper says the band split because the musicians wanted to work on solo projects and "on top of that, weren't into the theatrics anymore. They felt we were past that, and I'm going 'Guys, this is absolutely what we've been waiting for! People are now trying to look like us. Now is not the time to wear Levis and T-shirts and try to save the world.' "

"Welcome to my Nightmare" was a commercial hit, but the two-year tour burned Cooper out and led to his hospitalization. Subsequently came a creative lull.

But Cooper's metier has always been the stage - he's toured through up years and down years - and that's where he continues to reign. "I tour three or four months a year," he says, noting a summer/fall shed tour is highly probable.

"If something comes along that really sounds like a great idea for a rock 'n' roll album or if something inspires me," Cooper continues, "I'll make an album. The next album is going to be a real good rock 'n' roll album, to sort introduce Alice into the millennium. Consider: Alice is not old, fat, tired and hasn't lost his hair. I'm still sleek and have every bit of energy that I ever had."

Cooper doesn't have a label currently. He calls himself "a .300 hitter with power, without a team, a free agent. Every once in a while I can knock it out."

Cooper says what he's planned is another concept album collaboration with Bob Ezrin. (Ezrin produced Cooper's "Nightmare" as well as Pink Floyd's "The Wall," Lou Reed's "Berlin" and many others.) "It's a concept album," Cooper says, "pretty classically themed, called 'The Seven Deadly,' " as in the Seven Deadly Sins. "It's pretty much written and I'm working, actually, with Alan Menken, who wrote all the Disney stuff, 'The Little Mermaid' and all that."

Oh no!

Says Alice: "Somebody else put it together, Rob Ross who did 'The Beauty and the Beast.' And he's the biggest Alice Cooper fan of all time. Alan also did 'Little Shop of Horrors' so I'm thinking anybody who can write this stuff can write rock 'n' roll. So I sat down with the guy and everything the guy writes is a hit, and when he writes it with me it's really an adventure. He's used to working with Tim Rice and I'll come in with a lyric and he'll go 'That's cool, very experimental.' "

Still.

"The final thing you gotta remember," says Cooper "is Ezrin. You gotta remember Ezrin is sicker than me. His is a sick man."

Quintessential Cooper

Asked to pick the quintessential Alice Cooper song, Alice Cooper doesn't hesitate: "Ballad of Dwight Fry," originally on the "Love It To Death" album, included on "The Life and Crimes" box set. A gorgeous song that begins softly with acoustic guitar and piano, it builds into a monstrous, cathartic crescendo with Cooper - as the locked-up patient at an insane asylum - screaming "I gotta get out of here! I gotta get out of here! I gotta get out of here!" It still hold up today.

Cooper: "A classic. Probably my most psychologically disturbed song. Well written, well performed, and I don't know what it is about the song people relate to, but it's about a character who was the guy who played Renfield in 'Dracula'. He was the guy nobody ever recognized but was the scariest guy. So we found out his name and said 'Let's out this guy in a straitjacket and, suddenly, it was Alice. Alice was this guy.

"When we did the vocal Ezrin put me in a straitjacket and said, 'Sing your way out of this.' I said 'Are you kidding me?' and he says 'Nope' and puts the straitjacket on and I'm singing in it for six or seven hours. Finally, at the end when I get to the 'I gotta get out of here!' part I actually wasn't able to get out of the straitjacket. Wow, talk about method acting."