Express Times

Originally Published: July 30, 2004

A look inside Alice Cooper's soul

Author: John Zukowski

On stage he's simulated hangings and guillotine executions, carried a boa constrictor and flaunted dolls dripping with fake blood.

Nervous city councils banned him from performing long before Ozzy Osbourne and Marilyn Manson.

His one-time drinking buddies were Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Keith Moon.

Now the legendary rocker -- whose androgynous stage name was supposedly given to him by a hypnotist -- unabashedly calls himself a Christian.

But when Alice Cooper comes to Bethlehem's Musikfest Aug. 7, he won't be performing Christian praise music.

He still performs his best-known songs such as "Billion Dollar Babies," "I'm Eighteen" and "School's Out." And his onstage theatrics are as edgy as ever.

But in a revealing recent interview, Cooper talked about his spiritual path and how his songs and famous performance theatrics are a reflection of it.

And his current home life in Arizona also indicates his newfound faith.

The man once considered rock's most sinister influence on teens is the father of three children and a former Little League coach.

"I'm a different person off stage from what some people might think," Cooper, 56, said recently calling from England at the end of a European tour. "I play golf and wear Italian slip-ons. I've been married 28 years and never cheated on my wife."

So just how respectable is Cooper in his hometown of Phoenix, which at one point in the 1970s banned him from performing?

Cooper runs a nonprofit Christian center for troubled youths, called the Solid Rock Foundation, which "promotes strong family units, good moral values and supportive programs," according to the center's Web site.

He also recently received an honorary degree from Grand Canyon University, a Christian college he's supported for years.

"It bothers me that people of faith continue to judge Alice without knowing who he is and what he is about today," said Michael Clifford, the university's vice chairman, on the college's web site. "It is time to support people like Alice who make their faith known even though they take heat from all sides -- both from the religious community and from people of no faith whatsoever."

Many of Cooper's fans may never know he is a committed Christian. He's not overt about it because he fears becoming what he calls a "celebrity Christian."

But Cooper is one of rock's most fascinating spiritual musicians.

That's because of the spiritual warfare in Cooper's music and in his stage performances.

Along with the campy fun of his stage shows was something else: a battle of light and dark, and good and evil. Over the years, Cooper has done everything on stage from dressing in a straightjacket to staging an execution in an electric chair.

But the Alice Cooper on stage is a character, Cooper explains. Alice Cooper is an alter ego and the dark side of himself acted out on stage.

"I talk about Alice in the third person just like Jack Nicholson might talk about playing the Joker," he says. "I designed him to be rock's premier villain. I saw so many people trying to be heroes but not villains."

The catharsis of exorcising his inner demons on stage saved him from the self-destruction that destroyed his friends such as The Doors front-man Jim Morrison.

"If everyone had an Alice Cooper there would be no need for any psychiatrists," Cooper says.

But it always wasn't an easy separation, he adds.

At the height of his fame in the 1970s, Cooper was an alcoholic who downed a case a beer and a bottle of whiskey a day. He also was part of a legendary group of rabblerousing musicians called the "Hollywood Vampires" which included The Who's Keith Moon, Mickey Dolenz of The Monkees and, for a while, former Beatle John Lennon when he was separated from Yoko Ono. Cooper's heavy drinking went on for about 15 years.

"There was a point where there wasn't a separation between me and Alice, and I thought I had to be drunk all the time," Cooper said.

One misconception is that Cooper's heavy drinking and stage antics were because of a troubled upbringing. Cooper -- whose real name is Vincent Furnier -- was the son of a Baptist minister. His parents also were missionaries at an American Indian reservation. But he had a great relationship with his religious parents, he says.

"I was like Ferris Bueller growing up," he says. "I had a great childhood, got along with my parents, was a letter sportsman. So when I started writing songs I was writing about the problems of friends of mine who didn't get along with their parents."

And his interest in putting together a stage show didn't come from the stage. It came from how he often entertained himself in his suburban home.

"I was in the first generation that was basically brought up on television," he says. "I was pretty much a product of what I watched every day. So when it came to writing lyrics, I would do things like write things that would be a cross between 'West Side Story,' a horror movie and 'I Spy.' "

It was musician Frank Zappa who was Cooper's first high-profile fan. After seeing Cooper perform in California, Zappa arranged a record deal.

But Cooper didn't fall into Zappa's zany vision of performance art. Cooper felt closer to gritty punk bands such as Iggy Pop and the Stooges and the MC5 from his native Detroit. Cooper's music was also way too edgy for hippie jam bands like the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers that were the rage in the early 1970s.

However, his extravagant stage shows and music kick-started a gender-bending genre often called glam rock that culminated in everything from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" to David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust. Although Cooper predated Bowie, T. Rex and the New York Dolls, Cooper said he felt an affinity with those bands.

"We realized we were doing something different and we were on the cutting edge," he explained.

Cooper also was different because of his influences. He would be more likely to mention Vincent Price, the Marquis de Sade and Salvador Dali as influences rather than The Rolling Stones. He befriended Hollywood legends such as Groucho Marx and appeared on television's "Hollywood Squares."

But in the midst of that enormous success, he was struggling with his inner demons. By the mid 1970s his drinking escalated and he checked himself into a rehab clinic. After being released, he wrote the 1978 album "From the Inside" about his time there. It was reportedly during that period he had his first rumblings of becoming a committed Christian.

It wasn't until about 1987 that he completely conquered his drinking and became a committed Christian. In 1989, his comeback album "Trash" featuring the hit song "Poison" turned out to be his biggest success ever.

Since then he's become entrenched as a rock legend. While some heavy metal bands and performers such as Marilyn Manson praise Cooper, his influence is more widespread. Punk bands saw him as an alternative to the hippie culture they rebelled against. Johnny Rotten auditioned for the Sex Pistols by singing Cooper's "I'm Eighteen." And the Talking Heads song "Psycho Killer" was David Byrne's ode to Alice Cooper's style.

But Cooper's newfound spirituality has him producing the best music of his career since his 1970s heyday. His latest album "The Eyes of Alice Cooper" shows Cooper to be confident, effective and relevant.

In that album's song "Man of the Year," Cooper said he adopted a Johnny Rotten sneer to sing about a man who appears to have everything: "The Queen made me a knight/The Pope made me a saint/The President plays golf with me/I made Madonna faint/So why am I so lonely depressed and in despair?"

At the end of the song he pulls the trigger and the man talks back from the dead.

"It was the greatest funeral/I lied in perfect state/And later I will meet the Lord/I'll bet he just can't wait to meet the man of the year."

Cooper says he enjoys telling such stories through his songs.

"I like writing ironic O. Henry-type stories that make people think," he says. "He has everything, but at the end you wonder why does he have a gun in his mouth and you wonder what it is that's missing."

Other songs on the album deal with battling inner demons. The ultra-catchy "Novocaine" is about addiction, "Love Should Never Feel Like This" is about lust and obsession, and "This House is Haunted" is an image of a tormented soul.

He says some of those themes reflect that so many people are asking spiritual questions.

"I guess I notice it because I'm a Christian and I notice things and I read a lot," he says. "A lot of what's coming out has some kind of spiritual question whether it's 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' or a TV show about a girl who talks to God. People are much more interested in those questions now."

That's different from the era he started performing in, he says.

"There was a time in the 1960s and 1970s where people could care less and they just wanted to get as high as they could," he says. "Now there's an incredible awareness that there's something more than just getting up and going to work or partying and having sex."

But there's a common theme he sees in that questioning and in his own music.

"It's the story of good and evil fighting each other," he says.