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Originally Published: November 1975
Author: Michael Gross
The lobby of the Boston Sheraton Hotel looks, smells and feels like Grand Central Station. In the midst of it stands a tall, skinny man with curly dark hair. David Libert, road manager of the Alice Cooper tour, 1975, is tossing room keys to his band of gypsies and screaming at a hotel official. "Hey, Dynamite Dave," comes a cry from a bedraggled looking freak who gets hit with a room key and a computer listing of the thirty-five or so members of the touring party.
The lobby is so crowded that no-one recognized Alice Cooper, minutes before, as he sped through the doors and up the elevator to his suite. The door locks behind Alice and the television sputters into life. The man at Alice's side pops the top of a can of Budweiser, hands it to Alice, and watches as the lean, longhaired rock and roller collapses on the couch.
When the lights go down, a few nights later, in New York's Madison Square Garden, the crowd roars. The first notes of the music are obscured. Clouds of smoke pour from the stage, and suddenly, from out of the dry ice haze, a bed appears, moving slowly forward; on it, Alice Cooper, singing the title track of his newest album, and the theme of his latest stage extravaganza, "Welcome To My Nightmare."
Backstage, in the hospitality room, along with a few ex-Young Rascals, is a fair cross-section of New York's rock world, there to be seen in the shadow of today's Lugosi, the man who took the most bizarre rock act ever created and convinced the world to accept, and love it. One only had to look at the well-dressed, well-fed kids from eight to eighty in the audience to know that this was more than rock and roll. No other rocker had dared try it, but somehow, Alice Cooper had succeeded in combining the best of rock and roll with a tradition that stretched from Greek theatre to Dean Martin.
The smoke was gone from the stage by the time "Welcome", a grandly traditional show opener wound to a finish. The kids were looking happy. The music was cooking. And Alice, of course was Alice: mean, prancing, growling, a perfect combination of devil and little boy. As the bridge song, "Stephen", introduced the evening's character, a new figment of Alice's imagination, the crowd sat, thinking, perhaps, that they were about to be disappointed, as they'd been warned, by the new, mellower Alice. But as their attention started to drift, it was suddenly brought back to focus by a driving guitar riff, the beginning of one of Alice's recognizable bits, "No More Mr. Nice Guy", and up they came again, in the familiar tidal wave, beginning at the stage, where they could see a gleam crossing The Coop's face, then proceeding to the balcony, "The Gods" in street talk, where all they could see was that familiar form, in ripped red leotards, suddenly careening across the stage, a bright sword swinging madly above his head.
The scene shifts back to Alice in his room snoozing contentedly on the couch as quiz shows turn to soap operas and it's mid-afternoon. Da Boss is up, and Alice plays with the TV set till he's locked in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, popped the top of the ubiquitous Bud, and nestled a telephone into the space between his ear and the arm of the couch for a quick chat with an on-the-air dj, somewhere out there in radio-land. The conversation is typical Alice banter, disjointed and covering part of the variety of topics he would cover over and over throughout the sixty-five city tour.
"With Salvador Dali you don't talk about anything that makes sense because his whole life is based around confusion," Alice opines, winking quickly at one of The Cherry Sisters, the two minister's daughters who dance onstage with him each night, and earned their nicknames as a direct result of the fruitless quests of various members of the road crew to bed them down. "Dali says confusion is the greatest form of art. He can say one sentence and use six different languages. I listen to him and say 'Sal, I have no idea what you're talking about.' He says that's perfect communication. He loves it if you don't understand. He did an oil painting of my brain, you know. With a chocolate eclair on top!"
"Everybody expects me to be the Alice I am onstage, but they have to understand that Alice is just a character I play. I drink and watch quiz shows. I don't watch soaps. I have enough problems without worrying about whose baby is having who. Figure that one out."
Then come the mandatory questions about Alice's past, which he answers with the silver-tongued precision of a master at press-agentry. "We started in High School. The band Alice Cooper was together almost eleven years. We were called The Spiders, The Earwigs, The Nazz and The Lov'able Leathernecks. Finally we decided on Alice Cooper because it sounded like Lizzie Borden. If I were to pull out a 3" worm on stage it would be a 9' python by the time it made the papers. After I heard that, I went out and got a python. I project images to the audience and they make up their own story to fit it. I have no message at all. I never did. Back in the beginning, we could wipe out six thousand people and make them leave in two songs. We coulda been contenders. We coulda been somebodies. So we got into theatre because this generation was educated in theatre by the TV. I mean, TV is my best friend. I like white noise when I sleep. If someone turns it off, I wake up."
"You want to know what I was like when I was a kid? I once said I was like Eddie Haskell on "Leave It To Beaver". Which meant I was a brat."
"I live next door to Barry Goldwater in Arizona. I go over and borrow a cup of money. But I gave that house to my parents and now I live in Hollywood. It's fun there. I look at stardom on a real Kurt Vonnegut level. You know, if you're gonna be a star, you play it to the hilt. We all play different characters and, mine is Alice Cooper. My mom doesn't even call me Vince anymore."
At The Garden, Alice finishes "Nice Guys" and segues back into "Stephen". Again the audience sits, and again, he gets them up, this time with the theme song of his last tour, the tour that gave him the money to afford luxuries like houses in Phoenix and Tinseltown, "Billion Dollar Babies". The band, hidden in the rear shadows of the stage, play like they are supposed to. They lack some of the excitement of the band, Alice Cooper, but they make up for it in perfection. They fit in perfectly with the rock sound Alice (like Lou Reed, who used them before him) wants. The whole show is a musical. The whole sound is perfect, The dancers, Robin and Sheryl (The.Cherry Sisters), "Stretch" Montoya and Uschi "The Swish" Sugiyama, provide a choreographed counterpoint to Alice's controlled, but slightly hysterical stage moves.
As the song ends, Alice heads for the monster toy chest at the side of the stage, rummaging through it and playing with his human dolls as the band plays "Stephen" yet again. The theme is now adequately reinforced, and the audience seems to know another surprise is in the offing. As Alice dons a sweater, the crowd catches on, seeing its inscription, the title of Alice's first, and possibly greatest, hit single, "18". Alice is playing with them now, showing them that he remembers his past, and it's all part of the nightmare. The songs are powerful and by using them, Alice is telling the fans to get ready to move on.
By 7 pm the halls of the two Family occupied floors of The Royal Inn of South Bend, Indiana are jumping. At the moment, Alice is sitting in his suite, again entertaining a small group of visitors from his perch on the couch. This time it's a TV crew preparing a spot for their local station. In the other Family rooms the trials of the tour are being lived. But in Da Boss' room, it's as close to a mellow world as possible. No-one acts like the show will be on in less than two hours. The short-haired TV interviewer sits facing Alice, who cradles a pitching wedge in his lap and holds a can of Bud in his hand. The cameraman finally gets the camera going and the interview begins.
"I'm a general entertainer," Alice tells the camera. "I work with audiences. If someone says we need a dance number, I learn to dance. The music is background, but it's indispensable. I was a brain surgeon before I was Alice, and I don't have any reason to want to stop being Alice. I've developed Alice over years, and he's fun, as long as he stays interesting. As long as I keep feeding him things to play with on stage and on records, then I don't see why he can't stick around.
"My whole life's been a production. When I went to school I would produce what I was going to wear the next day. Show biz has always been a part of me. I can jump into Alice whenever I want to. I leave him on stage because that's where he belongs. It took a while to learn to turn it on and off, but you do it long enough and you learn how.
"The thing is, Alice can't be limited. He should be able to go out and do a soft shoe with Fred Astaire. Little old ladies accept me as me, but they can't accept what I do on stage. I'd like Alice Cooper to be an institution like the Circus, or Ice Capades. Why can't you do that with rock? Alice has developed a funny side now. At the same time that he's so horrible, he can turn around and do something that makes me laugh. The audiences let Alice change because he never plays to an audience. He plays at them."
"They're under his control when he's up there," he continues, perfectly comfortable discussing himself in third person. "He never goes up there thinking, 'Gee, I hope you like me tonight.' It's the attitude of you are here, and you are here to watch me. It's a sexual thing. People like to be taken." "Alice never even talks to an audience," offstage Alice continues. "That would make him human. Only once did he ever talk, but that was because I thought the cops would crush the kids, and I didn't want to see that. But it was still Alice talking. They're like little kids when Uncle Alice talks. They're there to be entertained and that's my only job. I'll go out of my way to do anything to entertain them. That's so honest it's scary."
"Alice used to scare me at the beginning. He was rough on stage. I broke my arm, a few ribs, my jaw, all my teeth. Alice was going out of his way to get attention. Now, I like the idea of getting Alice to a point where people follow what he does. I wanted to do something they'd never expect, and be as individual as possible. You got to be crazy to be in this business in the first place."
Crazy as a fox, one thinks, as Alice goes on to explain how he got the idea for his biggest hit single, "School's Out".
"I was watching the Bowery Boys on TV one day and Satch did something stupid. Muggsy turned around to him and said 'Hey, Satch, School's Out!' As street talk, that meant wise up. I liked that, the way it sounded." With that bit of inside info, the TV men were on their way. Alice donned shoes (no socks) and a sweater for the ride to the ball, ready once again to show 'em something they ain't seen before.
The oldies section over, Alice as Stephen again dives into his fantasy world. He disappears and the four dancers, clad in black-lit skeleton costumes, take the stage for a dance number which climaxes, as seen from the balconies, with a paired off sequence in which the eerie dancers energetically mime a variety of sex positions, using canes as genitals, only to be surpassed by Alice, in a white satin top hat and tails, who joins them in the ambitious dance number, "Some Folks." As the song ends, Alice rips the suit off till he once again looks properly dishevelled, and sings the two songs dealing with women from his new album.
The first of the pair, "Cold Ethyl", is a rocker about, one assumes, necrophilia. Ethyl, it seems, is dead, and Alice/Stephen still craves her "refrigerator kiss". As he tosses a lifeless doll about the stage, shades of the old, nasty Alice, who decapitated mannequins and stabbed baby dolls returns. Then it's time for his new single, and the crowd screams as Alice begins to croon "Only Women Bleed," the only song he was forced to change on his recent late-night TV special.
Man got his woman
To take his seed
He got the power, Lord
She got the need...
Though the words are a bit kinky, the combined power of the lighting, the flaunting dance of one of The Cherry Sisters, and Alice's crooner-like vocal take the song into show-biz heaven. A long pause begins onstage, and the crowd fills most of it with screams and cheers.
Alice always was branded a sex monster. In the beginning people thought he was a fag, and one teen magazine had to run banner headlines to the contrary before the weeny-boppers believed it. Then his general stance brought about the same charges that used to plague every rocker from Elvis to Bill Haley. Though Alice has had the same girlfriend for close to seven years, the presence of model Cindy Lang by his side did nothing to dispel the stories of Groupie gropes that followed him everywhere, Of course, renting a sex club in Copenhagen for a press party didn't help matters, nor did Cooper's infamous party in Munich, where the most lovely girls in Germany were imported for him. So by now, The Family takes the whole matter of sex with tongue firmly in cheek, be it Alice's tongue in Alice's check, or a roadie's tongue in the cheek of a pretty young thing who'd love to stick around and play once the grownups have all gone away.
As the cheers for "Only Women Bleed" died down, the band began the ominous introduction to "Devil's Food", and the stage was slowly dominated by a rising spider web, clearly visible from the highest balcony. The effect devastated the audience, and they clearly expected the spiders who immediately lunged from the sides of the stage, and began an intricate dance number. Alice entered, again, for the song, which ultimately turned into "Black Widow", ending with him caught in the nightmarish grasp of a giant Black Widow spider. The songs, at this point, are the weakest in the show, while the effects mount, causing the spectacle to cross the line from rock to theater. Suddenly it becomes a one-character show, with the music, the dancers and the webs all props for Alice to play with. In the past, the band had served as Alice's handmaidens in violence, feigning battle with their instruments, coming off their platforms in the "Billion Dollar Babies" show to beat Alice up. Now it's slick, as Alice says. It's the difference between vaudeville and theater, even if the plot is tenuous. It's all staged and planned, down to the last swat of the Black Widow's tail, and the last chuckle from the taped voice of Vincent Price.
Touring with a major rock attraction is akin to entering a grown-up's version of the womb. Everyone has a job. All the jobs, put together, create a society that supports itself. At one level of the tour are the roadies who must drive tons of equipment from city to city, while the rest of the tour flies, or sleeps comfortably in a good hotel. Yet, when the haggard drivers arrive at the next stop, a steak dinner awaits them. If the city lends itself to such goings on, there may even be a few young ladies in the hotel lobby, willing to soothe the roadies to sleep in exchange for a few kind words or a backstage pass.
At the higher levels, where the ability to perform, for two hours a night, is the only requirement of membership in The Family, every need is taken care of as well. It may be up to the itinerant guitarist to find his own girls, or his own drugs, but one can be assured they are never far away. So you are lulled into a unique kind of passivity.
So, you begin to forget what it takes to mount a tour the size of "Welcome to My Nightmare." You forget, occasionally, that back in New York, the offices of Black Widow Enterprises, Alive Enterprises, BMF and Atlantic Records are all mobilized, just for the hour. And then there are the hours of booking, the hours of rehearsing, the $400,000 initial cost of the production, the work of choreographer David Winters, the pre-tour costume designing of Casey Spencer and the on tour costume work of Linda "The Gap" Smith.
Because "Welcome To My Nightmare" is an extravaganza, even more so than a tour by The Rolling Stones. At each stop, a virtual hotline opens up between the touring party and the New York offices, where Don Gordoni holds forth. Advance man Donny Vosburgh is usually somewhere in the next city. And it's when you realize the extent of the operation that you realize the success of Alice Cooper is no accident. Smooth, professional, hysterical, only when necessary, the tour chugs across America, and even when it is disrupted by the demands of outsiders, there are no mistakes. For this nightmare is plotted with the precision of a Mafia hit. Each man is the very best for his job, and they all believe, as if their lives depended on it, which, in one sense at least, is true. The web onstage is only a miniscule portion of the web which Alice Cooper places over America each time he tours.
Still, the web can grow too tight as it did on the Billion Dollar Babies tour. It forced Alice into a two year hiatus from performing, during which he and The Don conceived the next phase of his career. It forced his old band out of the picture temporarily, and possibly forever. For two years, the Family went "to the mattresses," staying off the streets for carefully orchestrated personal appearances by Da Boss and the ongoing movements of the aptly named Alive Enterprises. Fuelled by the dollars coming in from America's insatiable need for Alice Cooper, in movies, on television, in Greatest Hits albums and royalties from all the old albums, the machine geared for its reappearance, once Alice was ready to spin the web again.
"There are parts of the show where the old Alice comes out, the demented Alice. But I've been working stages for eleven years and I had to learn to pace myself. There's nothing like experience to teach you that. I made a lot of mistakes at the beginning. That's what you learn from: standing in front of 20,000 people and blowing it."
"But people are attracted to the legend. They think I run around hotel rooms chasing groupies with an axe. I know exactly what I'm doing I've learned to take the punches on the road. There's a certain amount of survival necessary."
Interview over, Alice left the radio station, entourage in place, doors of the limosine locked. Back at the hotel, with a fresh beer opened, settled in front of the TV, Alice talks to another nervous interviewer about his new life, the one to which he escaped two years ago.
"I was going crazy and I needed an Alice when I was young. Everyone should have an Alice. It just happened that Alice is very popular and everybody liked him. It's Busby Berkely, rock and roll and Bugs Bunny rolled into one." But Alice had to escape his own creation after a while. Now he's content."
"I don't party like I used to. It's not that I'm getting old. It's just that I've done it so many times. I never cared about a private life before. I lived on the road all those years and there was no such thing as privacy. Then, I got a taste of it - like owning my own home for the first time - it became an enormous thing. Now I very rarely go out. I'll have dinner with someone. Now, I have fun on the road. And it's fun knowing I have somewhere to go when I'm home. So I called- my parents. They hadn't called and then I realized I have my own home and it was Cindy calling. I mean, I get water bills! I never had to cope with anything like that before, and I have such a hotel mentality that I think you have to tip a meter reader."
"I want to beat Johnny Miller in The Masters Tournament by one stroke, and I'd like to put on a production bigger than Busby Berkely who, by the way, is receiving the Alice Cooper Living Legend Award this year, which puts him in a class with Groucho Marx and George Burns. Those are two of my goals."
Asked why he no longer uses a snake, Alice replies "Every American girl should have a snake." Then it's into the show, and soon enough Da Boss is left to his TV and his beer.
With the closing bars of "Escape" fading, the band launches into the crowd pleasing "School's Out". The kids lunge to their feet. This signalled the beginning of berserko time. Alice left the stage at its conclusion and they begged, as they had in each city, for more. They got it in the form of Alice's anthem, a song in the tradition of "18", "School's Out" and "Elected": "Department of Youth", a tongue in cheek bow to the kids who made Alice Cooper famous. The song ended and the house lights rose immediately. The crowd left content, like a Broadway crowd, aware that the show was over. The absence of screaming hysteria was the only non-rock and roll moment in the evening, and, in a way, it was saddening to note that the kids gave up so easily.
All the people with paper backstage passes start heading for the gates. Backstage is a zoo, with hundreds milling around, jockeying for position, trying to find out if, when and where the inevitable party is, and being told there is none, then going off to ask someone else. These are not fans. This is business, and though these people, be they groupies, agents or friends of friends, have no connection to The Family, The Family knows they have to be taken care of.
The backstage scene goes on as privileged plastic pass wearers slip away, out of the Garden, heading for the invisible party, a private shindig. The party resembled nothing so much as the wedding scene in Godfather II. The friends had a good time because they were among friends, and for the people who got in through connections or subterfuge, it was just another night in the hottest spot in town. The next day all Alice would recall was getting very drunk, and the next night and the night after that, he would return to the same club, giving the place his seal of approval before flying to Phoenix with Cindy to visit his parents and play some golf before the tour resumed a few days later.
In Hartford, as Alice entered one of his radio station interviews, a girl rushed up to him and shoved a large green photo album in his hands. It was filled with Cooper memorablia, including a pack of photos of the girl's room, wallpapered in a decor Bloomingdales will never approve - Alice Cooper. Da Boss was taken aback and asked her how many bits of Cooper history she had.
"Thousands," she answered with gleaming eyes. "Well, you finally met your biggest fan. Whadda you think?" With an apology and a smile and a yank, Alice was pulled into the station before he could answer.
Coming out a few minutes later, the girl tried to join Alice in the elevator, but could only shove the oook at him as the doors slid closed. The last thing anyone saw were her eyes, filling with tears. The scene momentarily ruined the sense of silliness that had developed in the studio as Alice read ads and the weather. In the car, after running from a horde of instamatics, Alice said how bad he felt.
"She probably wanted me to come meet her parents and have dinner. Listen, Frankie, when we get back to the hotel, try and find her. I think that was really nice." Find her they did, and a few hours later she was given one of Alice's own jackets, autographed.
"All right," Frankie crowed as the limo turned into the private airfield where it would meet the crew and the plane. "Back on the road a-gam! Another night! Another show! Syracuse, New York, here we go!"
Then he paused, as Da Boss looked him over, smiling, raising his hand in a casual way that seemed to say, "Okay Frankie." Opening the door, Frankie started to step out, then looked back into the car.
"Syracuse?" he asked. "Is that where we're going?"
The show went well that night.
Back in the hotel, Da Boss headed for dreamland. The road crew and friends began their all-night orgy. The next morning everyone wanted to know who'd gotten the two blondes spotted front row center and again in the hotel hall. No one knew.
On the plane the next afternoon, Dynamite Dave read the daily announcement: "Good afternoon and welcome aboard AC One, nonstop to Syracuse, New York. I want you all to know the crew got laid last night so it will be a pleasant tour from now on. A birthday party began for Robin of The Cherry Sisters. Her present was a rather large vibrator, inscribed "From The Boys". A card game began, magazines were read, and trays of cold cuts made the rounds. As the plane set down in a perfect landing, the entire crew gave the pilot a standing ovation.
During the limo ride to the airport, a roadie had begun to brag of his exploits the night before. Before he got very far, Da Boss interrupted. "I've sowed my wild oats. It's nice to know I could have any one of them." "Yeah," the roadie replied, but last night it would have cost ya." "No, you boys go ahead. Get your antibiotic shots. Have a good time. If I ever got the clap, I couldn't drink for two weeks and then there's no show."
"Ah, and where were you last night, Mr Cooper," the roadie demanded. "I swear to God on my family, boss," Fast Frankie cut in, "he thinks we had those two blondes in the front row. You know why? He called me at 2.30 in the morning wanting his radio back."