Goldmine

Originally Published: July 24, 2008

Backstage Pass: Alice Cooper spins another web

Author: Peter Lindblad

With its twisted lyrics, devastating sonic crunch and vicious hooks, many are calling Along Comes A Spider a return to the demented Alice Cooper of old.

The new album from the shock-rocker — his 25th — tells the story of a serial killer who, imagining himself as a spider despite an acute case of arachnophobia, wraps his victims in silk during a murderous spree that comes to a halt when the psychopath, unexpectedly, finds love. Only Alice Cooper could spin a rock 'n' roll yarn like that.

Reviled by parents and anybody else whose sensibilities tended to run conservative in the early '70s, Cooper and his bandmates in the Alice Cooper band offended multitudes of right-wing hand-wringers with macabre, darkly theatrical stage shows and songs that dealt with everything from necrophilia to political corruption to teenage rebellion to ... well, anything his sick sense of humor could dream up.

Hugely influential, Cooper set the stage for acts like KISS, Rob Zombie, Marilyn Manson, Slipknot, and The New York Dolls. And then there's the story of how Johnny Rotten auditioned for The Sex Pistols by singing the Cooper classic "I'm Eighteen".

The Alice Cooper band imploded after seven albums, as internal strife tore it apart. The act's parting shot was, perhaps, its greatest achievement, 1973's ambitious Billion Dollar Babies, which featured the mega-hit "No More Mr. Nice Guy".

As a solo artist, Cooper's nightmarish concert stagings continued to shock and awe. His sound has evolved from the gritty garage-rock stomp of early Alice Cooper band recordings into a harder, more metallic grind, though on Along Comes A Spider, a combination of the two genres produces a potent musical poison in "I Know Where You Live", "Vengeance is Mine" (with a killer guitar solo by Slash), the solar-powered psych-rock of "Wake The Dead" and and the glam-rock swagger of "I'm Hungry".

Cooper discussed both Along Comes A Spider and Billion Dollar Babies in this recent interview.

Goldmine: You've always, throughout your career, been the type to throw a twist in here or there, and I think this album does that.

Alice Cooper: Yeah, especially with this album. This album, it doesn't just twist; the very last thing you hear on the album totally changes the story. At the very, very end of it, when you're hearing the epilogue... the whole thing starts off with them finding his diary. And his diary is about all these elaborate murders and wrapping his victims in silk and taking one leg because he needed eight legs, you know, for the spider. And you're getting really insistent [that] this guy is really insane. And then, at the very end, you realize that he says, "Well, they found my diary today". You know, we've been in this insane asylum for 28 years. So, the diary was just all his imagination. And none of these things actually happened. So, I do get, at the very end, I get that O. Henry/"Twilight Zone" twist at the end.

GM: In creating this character, what sources of inspiration did you draw from?

AC: Well, I think I put myself in his position. I think there is nothing charming at all about real serial killers at all. The ones that we see though in fiction — the Hannibal Lecters, the Dexters and people like that — are the ones that have a certain amount of charm to them. And for some reason, you're actually, somehow, pulling for them.

I don't think anybody pulled for Charles Manson or Ted Bundy or anybody like that, because they were seriously sick people that deserved to be taken out of the scene. But, when it comes to fiction, for some reason we feel that it's okay to be on the side of the Darth Vaders and the Jason Voorheeses and people like that. So, you know, when I'm writing a fictional story like this, I actually want him to be charming. And I want him to be a villain, but at the same time, you're almost sitting there going, "I hope he gets away".

But, of course, in none of my stories does he ever get away. That's why at the end of my shows I either get decapitated or I get hung, because any good story line always ends with the bad guy getting his just desserts.

GM: The interesting twist here is that Spider, the serial killer, falls in love. What prompted you to write that into the script?

AC: Because I don't think anybody expects it. Here he is, and he's this, you know ... he has it all figured out. He's mathematically got it all figured out, and he is taunting the police to the point of even leaving clues as to who he is. And then he gets to his eighth victim, and the last thing that he's expecting is to fall in love. But he's vulnerable. And he does, and he falls in love with his eighth victim and of course, he can't kill her. And he can't, you know, cash in on her sort of... and he realizes this is going to be his downfall.

But what can you do? You're in love. You can't do anything about it. And I think that's kind of a funny idea. In other words, it doesn't matter how big your Goliath is, there's a David there somewhere. There's going to be something that's the straw that broke the camel's back. And that's why that song "Killed By Love" (a ballad along the lines of "Only Women Bleed") is in there. You know, he just goes, "I don't believe it. I never saw this coming".

And then there's another song called "Salvation", where he thinks for one second that he has a lucid thought and doubts himself, and he goes, "What if I'm wrong?" In other words, he's totally convinced that he's right in doing all this, but that one second he goes, "What if I'm wrong? Is there any chance of salvation? Do I have any chance of getting myself out of this spiritually?" And it ends up being almost like a hymn in church, you know. He's crying out, "Is there any chance of salvation?" And then when he goes back into his normal mode, he says, "I am the spider". You know, he goes back into his darkness again. But I like seeing different sides of him. I like seeing different sides, you know.

GM: How long have you been conceiving this idea?

AC: Well, I write short stories, and so I have about 20 short stories, and when I read them back... I’ll read them and go, "That's a good short story, but it's not an album. It's not a stage show." And then I'll get something... something like this, and I'll read it, and '’ll go, "Oh, wait a minute. I can see the stage. I can see the songs. This character is worth writing 12 songs about, you know. And let’s see if it’s viable to make it a stage show.” In this case, it was. There’s another story that’s coming up next time that’s going to be about something totally different, but again, it works in rock ’n’ roll. For my kind of rock ’n’ roll ... I really can see how I can make this thing work. It’s like writing a movie or a play or anything, you know.

GM: Your sound is always very sinister, and here it seems to reflect the inner turmoil of the main character. When hatching ideas for Along Came A Spider with co-producers Danny Saber and Greg Hampton, how did you go about crafting the music to go with the lyrics, and what did you do specifically to create a real psychotic, scary musical environment?

AC: Maybe the most mystical thing about songwriting is — and I like you could ask [this of] McCartney and Lennon and Paul Simon and Burt Bacharach and all these people, all the good songwriters — if you can marry a chord structure to a lyric, and somehow the chord is saying the same thing as the lyric is saying, that is magic, because one out of every 10 songs will do that.

You might have to write 20 songs to get 12. And for some reason, you listen back, you listen back and all of a sudden, you go, "Wow, this is a great idea, but it doesn't work." Whereas this one little song here works perfectly. I don't know what the mystical thing there is; it's certain chords are sad chords... when you can get those things all married together, then you've got a hit.

And I can't explain it, I don't think, but I'll be listening to a guitar player play parts and play riffs, and I'll stop him and say, "Wait a minute. What was that you just played?" And he'll play it and say, "I've got something for that." Now, I don't know where that knowledge comes from, but in my head, that chord, those chords, and this lyric fit together. I mean, that's unexplainable, but it's there, and I think that's what makes a songwriter. That's probably the same as what makes a director, a good novelist.

I don't think I would know how to even start to write a novel, but I can certainly write short stories. I know how to do that, and I know how to write lyrics. So, I don’t know what the formula really is. People probably ask Burt Bacharach, "How do you write such a simple, perfect song?" And he probably goes, "I don't know." I don't think anybody could put that into words.

GM: Interestingly, 2008 is the 35th anniversary of Billion Dollar Babies, and here we are in an election year. I was listening to "Elected"...

AC: Yes, and I'm so surprised nobody is using it. Nobody is using "Elected" as a theme.

GM: Yeah, it'd be perfect.

AC: Maybe that's what Hillary [Clinton] should have done.

GM: Do you get the feeling that not a whole lot has changed since then?

AC: You know, I'm not political at all. in fact, I don’t even understand why politics and rock 'n' roll are in bed together, because, to me, it's the antithesis of politics.

When I was a kid and my parents started talking about who to vote for and, you know, tax cuts and this and that, I would run into my room and put The Yardbirds on at full blast, because I just didn't want to hear it.

I'm still like that. You know, there are so many people who are interested in politics, I'm not one of them. I see the comedy in it. I mean, I have to see the comedy and irony in a lot of the characters, in a lot of the candidates, but I think that every president gets dealt the same cards. And presidents can't do that much to change things. They have to deal with all the other stuff going on and unfortunately, they have to be politicians (laughs). And that's the worst thing of all. So, I mean, I am in the business of making you forget about politics, not promoting it.

GM: Looking back at that album, what was it about the times, the social and political environment, that impacted those songs?

AC: Well, it was the time when "Public Enemy No. 1" to every parent in the world was Alice Cooper. I was Marilyn Manson times 10, okay? And who was the president? Nixon. So, my sense of humor immediately said, "Alice Cooper should run against Nixon." And we need a theme song, and we wrote "Elected." It ended up being John Lennon's favorite song.

GM: Is that right?

AC: Yeah, I mean, he thought that was the greatest song, because it was funny and it was so ironic, and it really was well produced. It was a great big production. It sounded like a great big Who anthem, and we still do it. It's still our last song in the encore, because the audience wants to hear that one at the last, that one and "Poison" and "School's Out."

GM: Hearing "No More Mr. Nice Guy," that whole idea of getting vengeance on those who've harmed you and having no interest beyond self-interest seems to come up again on Along Came A Spider.

AC: Yeah, I think the funny thing about that song was, here again, I was at that point where everytime you turned on the TV it was, "Alice is responsible for this..." and apparently, I was responsible for Vietnam (laughs). I was responsible for everything that went wrong in those days, and the funny thing is, I said, "That's it. The gloves are off. No more Mr. nice guy." And they were going, "Wait a minute. You were being a nice guy before this? (laughs)"

So, again, my sense of humor said that I'm going to let them have it now. So, again, I don't know what makes somebody's sense of humor odder than the other ones, but I've always had a very dark sense of humor, and somehow, when I write my lyrics, it works, because that song... I hear that song once or twice a week every place I go on the radio. That one and "School’s Out" ... you know, there's a bunch of them that I keep hearing, so apparently it worked.