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Originally Published: October 29, 2009
Author: John Hood
Hard to believe that Alice Cooper's new single, "Keepin' Halloween Alive", packs more punch than any 10 new rock songs combined, especially when you consider the fact that the Shock Rock King has, as the song says, "kept Halloween alive since 1965." But there you have it.
Of course it helps that here Alice is backed by axemen Piggy D. (of Rob Zombie's band) and Dave Pino (Powerman 5000), two of the few new(er) jacks who can stand toe-to-toe with Detroit's original glam-slammer. Still, it is Alice alone who leads this thrashfest. And why wouldn't he? It's been his kinda holiday all along.
"At home, my family all gathers around an old, spooky tree decorated with skulls and bones in the living room, and we exchange gifts," Cooper says. "It's our holiday. We even all have matching black-and-orange Halloween sweaters! I wanted a theme song for people like me, and for us, Halloween never ends."
Nor will it ever. Not if Cooper has anything to say about it. Caught on the current "Theatre of Death" tour, Cooper seems intent on maintaining his place atop a very ghoulish heap. In fact, at one point, after being sentenced to a beheading for impaling an errant roadie, Cooper emerges, Hamlet-like, holding his own head in his hands before launching into "Welcome to My Nightmare." And that's just the first of four deaths he faces during the 90-minute spectacle.
But Cooper - who's had Groucho Marx pop backstage and call him "the last hope for vaudeville" and has Vincent Price introduce his shows - has always been something of a grand theater piece. And "Theatre of Death," with its guillotine and gallows, chainsaws and straitjacket, is simply another over-the-top chapter in an incredibly storied tradition.
What compounds the spooky fun is that Cooper makes sure his whole crew gets in on the action too, no matter what their particular job title might be.
"I remember going to the circus, to a small circus," he explains. "The guy that sold me the tickets was the guy who was walking the tightrope and the lion tamer. That's what the circus should be. I've got 25 people [on my crew]. So, you're not just a truck driver, you're the executioner.
"It's so funny because people look forward to that," he continues. "Most guys are roadies. They go out there, 'I'm the drum tech.' Well, no. You're not the drum tech; you're the zombie, you're this, you're that."
Still, even with all the trappings, Cooper wouldn't have half the desired effect if the music didn't bring back many fond memories. And whether he's kicking out "School's Out" (which bookends each show), smashing into "I'm Eighteen", or crooning through "Only Women Bleed" and "I Never Cry", all his songs continue to touch some very sensitive nerves. Alice knows it, too.
"I hate to rehearse [the old songs]," he says. "But when I get onstage and 'No More Mr. Nice Guy' starts, or 'Billion Dollar Babies', or any of those songs start, the audience, the look on their face… it's like the look of recognition. It's awesome."
And Cooper is quick to point out that he knows the thrilling feeling all too well himself.
"I went to see McCartney," he says. "I've known Paul for 35 years. I saw him backstage and I said, 'Let me see a set list.' And I looked at it and I said, 'This is great.' I'm sitting in the front row with my wife and he did 'I Saw Her Standing There.' And I was 16 again, jumping up and down going, 'Yeah!' I mean, it's funny what songs will do to you; they will take you back to a certain era in your life."
In other words, Cooper "absolutely" knows what it's like to be a fan as well as a star, "especially with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and the Who. I went to see the Who and they did 'Substitute' and these songs, and I'm thinking, 'These are the songs I did when I was 16.'"
Fans, of course, especially fans with bands of their own, are most likely to cover their favorites too. And Cooper is no exception.
"We knew every Yardbirds song. We could play any Yardbirds song. We knew most of the Rolling Stones songs, up to High Tide and Green Grass. We knew every Beatles song. The Kinks, the Animals, Them - all those bands. That's what we learned how to play."
And as a fan with a budding band, Cooper even got to share the stage with some of his heroes.
"We were 16 years old and we were called the Spiders, and we opened for the Yardbirds. And we did all of their songs in front of them. It was in a club. They actually stood there and they watched us play and they were giving us the thumbs up. They would go, 'This is great!'
"And how about this for a lineup: Jeff Beck on guitar, Jimmy Page on bass - because at that time, Page was not good enough to play guitar with the Yardbirds."
Beyond opening for and touring with some of rock's most hallowed names, Cooper has also hung out with some of the best of them. And he's seen up close and personal the kind of craziness that ensues when rock stars become unhinged. Craziest of the crazies, he insists, was the Who's Keith Moon.
"Keith most definitely was the maniac of all. You know, there was no such thing as a dare he wouldn't take. I tell people like this... I say, 'Look, 35 percent of what you've heard about Alice Cooper is true. Okay? The urban legends, I mean, I hear the urban legends every day. I still hear them in every town I go into. Same thing with Ozzy. Same thing with Rob Zombie or Marilyn Manson. Every single thing you've heard about Keith Moon is true. And you've only heard a tenth of it. A night with Keith Moon was an experience. Honestly, 25 things could've happened that night. So anytime I hear a Keith Moon story I go, 'Yeah. Oh yeah. I totally get it.'
"Not only was he the best drummer in rock 'n' roll, but he truly was the epitome of rock 'n' roll insanity."
Cooper has even been on the wrong end of some craziness himself, albeit accidentally, as country crooner Charley Pride surely will tell you if given the chance.
"It was a brand new hotel," he says. "And it was in Knoxville, Tennessee. I remember exactly what it was. It was a Knoxville Holiday Inn. No, it might have been Hyatt House. And I had this snake, maybe 12 feet long and about four inches thick. I mean, it was a big snake. And I needed to put her in the bathtub at night because she liked to swim. And I went, 'Okay.' So I filled up the bathtub, closed the door, and went to sleep.
"I woke up the next morning, opened up the bathroom door, and she was gone. She couldn't have gotten out under the door. I mean, this thing is way too thick. Then I realize it was a brand new hotel and they hadn't put the lids on the toilets yet. And she went down into the toilet, into the plumbing, and stayed there for two weeks. There were probably rats in there and she had a great time. But when she came up, she came up in Charley Pride's toilet.
"I never got around to asking Charley if he was, like, sitting on the toilet at the time. Or if he was shaving and he just happened to look over. I mean, this [snake's] head was as big as my hand. It was no little snake. It was a big, big snake."
But aside from the odd escaping snake, Cooper traditionally kept his antics on stage, despite what a recent TV-throwing Sony commercial might imply.
"We shot that in Jackson, Michigan on a day off. It really is a funny commercial. But the very funny thing about that is that I never did throw TVs out of windows. Every rock star from the '70s had the reputation for throwing televisions out the window. My best friend was the television. I don't mind throwing somebody else's television out the window, but not mine.
"Now, the champion of all champions, even more than Keith Moon, for wrecking hotel rooms, was the Small Faces. They were the heavyweight champions. It might have had something to do with the fact that they were all 3'8". They could wreck a hotel room better than anybody."
Cooper toured with Steve Marriott's ultra-mod band early in his career, before the British singer left to form Humble Pie. And they became close, even though Cooper didn't share their penchant for trashing his temporary abodes.
"The Small Faces came to the stage and we got to be really good friends. I mean, they could wipe out a room pretty quickly. They were good at throwing TVs out. But honestly, I was not a hotel wrecker. I would walk into hotel rooms that were totally destroyed, of course, be standing there and everybody's like, 'Well, it's Alice.' But we were not hotel wreckers at all. That was not in our repertoire. We were stage wreckers."
Many of the stages they wrecked were with Iggy and the Stooges back in the heyday of Detroit rock.
"We grew up with the Stooges. I mean, the Stooges and the MC5. We played every weekend with them… the Amboy Dukes and the Frost and Brownsville Station. I mean all those great Detroit bands. We all played the Grande [Ballroom] and the Eastown [Theater] together. It is one of the great rock audiences of all time. Detroit audiences will kill you if you are not loud enough."
And loud is a lesson Cooper has definitely learned, in every respect, be it in the volume of his band, the notoriety of his concerts, or the echo of his legacy. And, thank hell, the roar shows no signs of abating anytime soon either.
This Halloween, Coop and company will find themselves spooking it out at Harrah's Rincon Casino and Resort in Valley Center, California; then they jet off to Slovakia, date one of the European leg of the "Theatre of Death" tour. But even if you're not down San Diego way when the ghosts, goblins, and witches come to play on Cooper's stage, you can still pick up the screaming single and celebrate the holiday Cooper-style. Just remember, slapping on eye-liner and playing to the crowd isn't optional.
(Originally appeared on the Crawdaddy website on 29th October 2009)