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Originally Published: 1994
Author: Michael Bonner
What strange madness is this! Alice Cooper, the demon lord of hard rock nightmares and Neil Gaiman, auteur of all things dark and terrible, have made music and comic book history with their multi-media collaboration, "The Last Temptation".
Michael Bonner talks about this, and much more with the duo over a freshly sacrificed goat or two.
The two men sitting in a hotel room deep in the august heart of London's Mayfair hotel. Downstairs in the foyer, fat-cat businessmen glide across the marble tiled floor, the sweet scent of wealth gently blossoming in their wake. Mock-classical architecture lines the pale white walls, and the whole place is so quiet, so mannered, you could hear an ant fart at twenty paces. Posh is not the word - this place is so up-market it makes Buckingham Palace look like a council flat in Tower Hamlets.
And swathed in all this elegance and refinery sit Alice Cooper and Neil Gaiman, two gods among men.
Believe me, we are simply not worthy.
So why is Alice Cooper a god? Because his epic stage persona, unfailing energy, mischievous wit and pioneering use of the plastic guillotine make him a bona fide rock'n'roll legend and an example to us all. He is also a survivor - but more of that later...
Why is Neil Gaiman a god? Because he's working with Alice Cooper. Why else?
Alice is a seasoned pro as far as swanning round high class hotels is concerned - but what do you expect? He's been practicing for thiry years and twenty-five albums. Reclined on an expensive looking sofa, dressed in a faded Beatles tee-shirt, black jogging trousers and a pair of tatty white sneakers, he sips from a glass of iced mineral water and plays indifferently with the TV's remote control unit. As far as Alice Cooper is concerned, this is home.
Neil Gaiman looks less at ease. Clad entirely in black, his eyes red and tired, his skin painfully white, and his hair a disheveled thatch running down to the nape of his neck, he looks righteously fucked. Hey, he may be one of the comics world's top celebrities, but even getting harressed in San Diego's many fine public conveniences hasn't prepared him for this grueling assault-course of giving the glad hand to an infinite number of journalists as he and Alice relentlessly promote their "Last Temptation" album-comic collaboration.
Neil's got the easy job though. Most people want Alice. Alice's music may not be cutting edge anymore, but he's got great stories to tell - real widescreen, John Ford sagas, full of debauchery and excess, of five-year memory lapses, of drink consumption to shame Jamie Blandford and the kind of heroic drug exploits which make the end of "Scarface" look like a Nativity play. For instance, there's the time Alice and his entourage hired a private plane to ferry them from date to date on the "Billion Dollar Babies" tour. A stringer from Rolling Stone boarded the plane to find himself walking into a scene from "Apocalypse Now". Groaning bodies lay everywhere, like wounded civilians caught in a crossfire; the seats, once fixed to the floor, lay strewn around the cabin like debris from a bomb blast, and Alice himself sat in the centre - fully made-up - staring into the distance, oblivious to the carnage around him. The horror, the horror.
Now Alice is a clean, lean picture of health and I catch him staring at my bottle of Budweiser with a slight look of distaste, so I don't offer him a quick toot or anything.
"I haven't had a drink for eleven years," smiles the man voted Mr Be Kind To Your Liver 1983 and onwards.
Alice was the kind of shameless hedonism you'd never believe possible from the son of a preacher. Mr Cooper Snr (Mr Fernier to you; Cooper is his sons alter ego) began his career as an electronics engineer before his involvement with the church. The Ferniers moved from Detroit - "like Manchester, very industrial" - to California, then to Phoenix, where Mr Fernier began Missionary work with the Apache Indians. The Fernier's had a son, Vincent, who lived a regular teenage life, staying out late, dating girls, annoying his parents - but it was music which really got to him. It made him feel important, as if the bands he was listening to - The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Chuck Berry - were talking directly to him, telling him he should get a car, get girls, get drunk, be cool. They were challenging him too, asking him 'Are you bad enough to be like us?'
"I remember thinking that when I started a band, I wanted to make the Stones look like saints," he laughs.
As fate would have it, the band he formed with some like-minded friends relocated to Detroit, taking Vincent - now Alice Cooper - back to his birth place. The audiences there were receptive to the hard rock the band played, and soon they were a regular fixture in the seedy bars and clubs of Motor city, plugging in every weekend alongside the mighty MC5 and the Stooges.
Alice released his first album "Love It To Death" in 1970. It was a wild, knife-sharp blast of garage rock, and the rest is musical history.
Neil Gaiman was "a little punk" growing up in Sussex and Croydon, for whom Alice Cooper's legendary 1972 Top Of The Pops appearance performing "School's Out" was a distant memory. He'd felt a bit of an outsider before punk: until '76, white music had been dominated by Glam Rock, and the thirteen year-old Gaiman felt that walking a-round in make-up and a silver jumpsuit was rather silly behavior for someone his age. Then he hit 16 just as punk reared its spotty, unkempt head, and his teenage world went into overdrive. He and his friends used to hang around Croydon's urbane Fairfield Halls, baking in the '77 heatwave in their torn black jeans and leather jackets, too young to get into the shows, trying to sneak through the side door to soak up the charged atmosphere within. He saw the Clash, Costello, Ian Dury, even a ninety minute Jam soundcheck, which he later discovered, to his delight, was longer than the gig itself.
As punk's initial fury dwindled, diluted by hoary old pub Rockers like the Boomtown Rats and the Stranglers, so did Neil's teen years. Soon greater issues than the colour of Polly Styrene's hair loomed, what career best suits a soft-spoken, suburban punk with a burgeoning Lou Reed fixation?
"I did what anyone would do under such circumstances" says Neil. "I became a journalist."
He wrote successfully for several magazines - everything from Today to Penthouse - covering the swelling tide of mature comics and graphic novels being released. It wasn't long before he was meeting the people behind them - and in 1986, he was asked to write three strips for a planned anthology title. It never appeared, but Escape editor Paul Gravett saw Neil's work and asked him to write a strip, to be illustrated by Dave McKean, for his own title.
The strip was an elegant noir piece called Violent Cases, and the rest is comic history.
Alice himself is no stranger to comics, having starred in his own edition of Marvel Premier [#50] in '79. "The Last Temptation" project though, is something of a landmark: as the result of a unique collaboration between Sony and Marvel, it's released as an album and accompanying comic.
"Back in the seventies, I gave away paper panties and calenders with my records. Now I give away comics," chuckles Alice. Originally, though, the project was intended to be just a concept album.
"Alice's A&R man came to me and said 'Alice wants to do an album with a story and wants to get together with you'," explains Neil, "It was a great idea: Alice Cooper is a fictional character, he's this weird, ironic creation, that's great! It's real Italo Calvino territory. I mean, Alice even refers to himself in the third person."
"It means I don't have to take responsibility for my actions," deadpans Alice. "It means I can be totally objective about Alice because I don't have to be him. I can watch him on television and say 'Oh, he shouldn't have done that', whatever. That made this whole experience with Neil great fun."
"We went and sat in a room and talked about what scares Alice," says Neil. "We wound up talking about those movies they show high school kids in America to deter them from doing what society deems 'bad things'. They're these really scary movies about sex, drinking and rock music."
Alice's rock music perhaps?
"Hey, you've never seen anything Satanic on my shows," counters Alice. "We never put upside-down crucifixes on stage, nothing like that. I have strong Christian values. I always have, which makes me think that when people criticise Alice for," he sneers, "y'know, being evil and Satanic, they just haven't got the joke.
"Anyway, you can't shock an audience any more," he moans. "Back then, you could bite the heads off plastic chickens and it would wow your audience. Now they're shock-proof. I mean, what haven't they seen? Jeffrey Dahmer took care of that: I can't be as shocking as CNN."
"After I agreed to do it," says Neil, "I worked on a first draft plot, which I sent to Alice. He went through it, commenting on it - saying things like 'I like this, can you expand on that, I don't want to cover this', all that kind of stuff. After the second draft I went out to Phoenix, where he was writing the album, and we worked on it together. It was a pretty organic experience; there was a lot of give and take between us, we both contributed ideas, and it was personally very refreshing to work like that."
"After we finished the story, Alice went away and made the album. Strangely, almost immediately afterwards three different comic companies decided to create music titles. They all approached us, and we ended up going with Marvel. Alice was tremendously keen to work with them again after the success of 'Premier'. I liked the idea too, because they'd be working for me, rather than the other way around - the project is licenced from us, you see. There was also a lot of plot lying around that we hadn't used on the album, which made my job of writing the comic easier."
"Marvel's good," says Alice slowly. "Marvel's real good. See, they draw you with a better body than you've got: bigger pecs, and stuff. I like that. I like that lots."
"That's not really true," smiles Neil. "He only likes Marvel because he got to pose with Spiderwoman the other day."
"Oh I'm sooo easily pleased," Alice sighs wistfully.
Alice is the perfect subject for a comic book: larger-than-life and charismatic, he's easily suited to the weird and extreme situations comics provide. In "The Last Temptation", he is the Showman - kitted out in Victorian music hall garb - who plays Faust to a young boy with magical powers. Neil's script is a sly pastiche of everything from The Good Old Days" to Peter Ackroyd's "English Music", cut in with all the usual trademark Gainmanisms - the subtle evocation of childhood memories, the use of myth, fiendishly eerie undercurrents - all topped off with Michael [Puma Blues, the real Swamp Thing #88] Zulli's sumptuous illustrations.
To be honest, it's a miracle Alice is capable of appearing in a comic. It's a miracle he's alive, period. His voice adopts a note of sadness when he speaks of his time in the late seventies as LA's biggest repository for Jack Daniel's Tennessee Malt Whiskey, because he knows better than anyone how close he came to oblivion, how fucking lucky he is. Look at his peers - Ozzy Osbourne, Jimmy Page, Johnny Thunders, Peter Laughner, Jim Morrison, Nico and many, many more who didn't make it back, who are either dead or fucked up.
"During the dreaded disco plague, no one was playing my records," he recalls. "Maybe they'd play the ballads or something but it was a pretty unbearable time and I became very demoralised. I started drinking, and before long I was doing a bottle of Jack a day, plus other stuff. It was the same for a lot of people - Aerosmith, for instance. Hey, I had this green Rolls Royce - like lizard colour - and Steve Tyler, their singer, and I went driving round Beverly Hills in it one time. Me driving, and Steve with this shotgun, and he kept firing off shells every few hundred yards. We were in serious trouble, y'know."
Neil, of course has no such tales to tell. Sadly, the life of a writer is less colourful than a rock stars, but as Neil point out: "As a writer you get to make up these Dionysiac debaucheries."
Wouldn't you like to live them though, Neil?
"We-e-ell... I once wrote a piece for a magazine called '20/20' - the failed national 'Time Out'. They wanted an article on alcohol and writers, so I called it 'Being An Experiment Along Scientific Lines'. The idea was that this guy is sitting with a couple bottles of whiskey in front of him, and he's writing to prove a theory that alcohol has no effect on writers. Of course, it gradually descends into very, very funny incoherence - a complete mess. To this day people still come up to me and ask how drunk I was by the time I finished the piece."
How drunk were you?
"I was sober! If I hadn't been sober, I wouldn't have been able to write anything funny."
"The thing is, if you try to live your image you're going to die," says Alice quietly. "Nobody I know is the same on stage as they were off, apart from three exceptions. They were Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Keith Moon, all of whom are sadly no longer with us. Look at Alice: Alice only exists as a stage persona. He couldn't exist any other way, because if he did I'd be dead by now."
You don't want to take him home with you?
"I'm a method actor!" He laughs. "I'm not like Brando; I'm not in character twenty-four hours a day! You have to get away from it, because it'll kill you otherwise. I mean, I knew those guys - the Doors were friends of ours when we lived in LA - and I knew Jim was going to die. He lived that crazy life all the time. But you know what? It's nice that people make pilgrimages to his grave, put roses on it and all that stuff - but he's dead. People can treat him like a god, but it's not much use to him 'cos the guy ain't coming back."
"To an extent, I have an image," begins Neil. "I created it a long time before I actually needed it: It's this guy in dark glasses, massive hair, big leather jacket. People have this cartoon shorthand of me in their head, and I let them believe it because it leaves me free to write. Sometimes it's not enough, though. Sometimes people become obsessed with you, and then that image isn't sufficient. A friend of mine once rang me up and said she'd heard from somebody I've never met how much I sleep around. It's amazing! I mean, I live in this big house and sit in the basement all day typing. On a good day, I see my children, my wife and my secretary. On a bad day I don't even see my secretary. I mean, when would I get the time to be promiscuous?"
That's not the point, though. Comics and music - along with train-spotting, bell-ringing and pornography - attract a very intense following. Remember De Niro's Rupert Pupkin in "The King Of Comedy" - the dysfunctional, would-be stand up comic who becomes so hooked on Jerry Lewis' chat-show host he kidnaps him? They're like that. They're like Charlie Manson believing God was speaking to him through the Beatles song "Helter Skelter". They're the people who believe Neil is talking directly to them, who live their lives round "Sandman", who think death really looks like a seventeen year-old Gothette.
"I get kids listening to my records who are very creative people," says Alice. "I'm like a father figure and hero rolled into one for them, so naturally they want to show off their talents to me. They write me letters, y'know, which are really good - but they're way, way out there, I realise 99% of my audience know what I'm doing is entertainment, it's just a diversion from the real world, but there's that 1% who believes that is the real world, who take it seriously. But they also take "Kojak" seriously y'know."
"Someone tried to fame me for murder once," says Neil. "I got a call from my editor, Karen Berger, saying some guy in Philadelphia had killed himself and signed the suicide note 'The Sandman'. There were news crews everywhere and all hell was breaking loose. Karen read me some of the note, It said 'The Sandman will bring perfect peace to the world', which struck me as a bit odd. Nevertheless, I was stunned, I didn't know how to react at all. I was horrified by the death. I questioned my reasons for writing. It was a terrible time.
"It is a real exception, though. Most letters I get are from people who want to say 'thank you' for brightening up their day. I got a letter from a girl in Florida recently, who was scared to leave the house because she thought she'd get AIDS. She had a horrible history of beatings and so forth, and now the only men she trusted in the world were me and Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails. She said that if I was ever in Florida, would I look her up. It was a sweet letter, really, and I wrote her a note back, but what else can I do?"
"You've got your own life," agrees Alice. "It's not right to go around interfering in other peoples. I get letters from people in institutes, written on headed paper from, like, Green Leaf Sanitarium. I mean, that stuff is scary."
"The worst letter I ever got was about the serial killers' convention in an early 'Sandman' storyline and the murder of Polly Klaas - the little girl in America who went to the same school as Winona Ryder. Ryder put up money for a reward and it became quite a big news story. Anyway, this letter..." His voice suddenly trails off. "Well, I sent it to the FBI," he mumours darkly.
Our time draws to a close, and while I'm packing away my tape recorder and Alice is trying to find CNN on the TV, I ask Neil what he plans to do in the future. His eyes sparkle, and he leans forward conspiratorially and whispers: "Sandman finishes next year, then I'm going to write a travel book. There's a little town in Brazil I want to visit called Gaiman and I though it would be nice to write a book about my journey there, and the people I meet on the way."
For the first time today, Neil looks alive. He looks like he can see the light at the end of the tunnel that tells him he can stop worrying, take a break, do something different. He looks happy.
And Alice? Vincent just watches TV, blue neon jumping across his eyes, lighting up his face, waiting patiently for the next journalist and the next interview.