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(October 10, 1997)
Originally Published: October 10, 1997
Author: Russel Hall
Appearing recently on the Tonight Show, a typically bedraggled-looking Alice Cooper performed a blistering version of the angst-anthem, "I'm Eighteen," then took a seat next to Jay Leno. Smiling broadly, the talk show host quipped that it looked as if it had been a tough 18 years. "Well," replied Cooper, "if you say 'I'm 49 and I like it,' then it becomes a whole different thing."
Yes, the King of Shock Rock will turn 50 on February 4, and as writer/groupie Pamela Des Barres noted a few years back, the Coop hardly seems different than he was back at the dawn of the '70s. At the very least, his staying power has muzzled all the naysayers who once insisted that his act was nothing more than a passing fad.
The son of a Baptist minister, Cooper (whose given name is Vincent Furnier) spent his teenage years attending Cortez High School in Phoenix. Around the age of 16 he formed his first band, initially called the Earwigs, then the Spiders, and then the Nazz (not to be confused with the early Todd Rundgren band). By 1968 the Nazz's personnel had settled into a quintet that featured Furnier (vocals), Glen Buxton (lead guitar), Michael Bruce (rhythm guitar), Dennis Dunaway (bass), and Neal Smith (drums). After a final name-change (courtesy of a session with a Ouija board), the newly-christened Alice Cooper headed for L.A., where the band eventually signed to Frank Zappa's Straight Records.
Although the group's first two albums - Pretties For You and Easy Action - captured their bizarre stage persona, both albums sound like apprentice works today. It wasn't long, however, until the group found its musical voice. Under the direction of producer Bob Ezrin, the band unleashed the first of several releases for Warner Brothers that couched macabre themes and sexual ambivalence in searing rock 'n' roll. Over the course of four albums - Love It To Death, Killer, School's Out, and Billion Dollar Babies - Alice Cooper ruled both the charts and the airwaves. Fueling their popularity was the band's controversial stage act, which at various times featured such niceties as beheadings, mutilated dolls, hangings, and boa constrictors. Ultimately, the group established themselves as heroes to burgeoning adolescents while earning the scorn of parents everywhere.
Around 1975, acrimony began setting in between Cooper (Furnier had adopted the bandname as his own) and his record label, and soon thereafter Alice decided to switch labels and pursue a solo career. Since then, Cooper's career has been spotty, to say the least. His 20-plus solo albums have ranged from the excellent (Welcome To My Nightmare, Trash) to the abysmal (Lace & Whiskey, Special Forces), but in recent years his music has been on a steady upswing. The Last Temptation (released in 1994) marked a comeback of sorts, and although sales were less than spectacular, the album met with impressive critical acclaim.
The follow-up to The Last Temptation, entitled A Fistful Of Alice, finds the Coop in better form than at any time since his '70s heyday. Recorded live in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, the album features scorching renditions of many of his vintage hits. Among the high points are "School's Out," "Elected," and "I'm Eighteen," all delivered with astonishing , adrenaline-stoked energy. Also included are a handful of ballads, among them "Desperado" and "Only Women Bleed," and one new studio track. While touring this fall to promote the album, Cooper took a few minutes to speak with Goldmine about his remarkable career.
How did you arrive at the song selection on the new album?
That's hard to do. You've got so many songs that you wanna do live, but then you've got to consider what people want to hear. We wanted to give 'em some new stuff, but you really just have to do a balancing act, and hope you cull the right ones. You can't go wrong with "Eighteen" and "School's Out" - you know that stuff will be there - but we also wanted to do things like "Teenage Lament" and "Desperado," songs that people weren't expecting.
Is it true "Desperado" was written for Jim Morrison?
Yes. He and I used to hang out together. I used to drink with him a bit.
Did he have a great impact on you?
He was a very unique character. I don't know that I necessarily learned from him, except maybe that it's better to be a live rock star than a dead one. He was actually a very cool guy. I really liked him, and thought he was very funny, very poetic, but also very self-destructive. He was kind of bent on going out early.
Let's talk about your songwriting a bit. People probably don't view your lyrics this way, but they're really very much in the tradition of Chuck Berry.
You know, he was my favorite writer, my favorite lyricist. When I first heard something like "Nadine," or "Maybelline"... those songs told a story. As the lyrics went along you really pictured what was going on. He took the girl out, he couldn't get his seatbelt off - things like that. So I always wanted to write 3-minute stories that were funny. Or not just funny, but also dramatic or whatever, but the idea of compacting everything into three minutes, which is really hard to do.
Two people who played important roles with the band early on were Frank Zappa and Bob Ezrin. In a way it seemed each of them sort of pulled the band in different directions, or that maybe what appealed to Zappa is the very thing Ezrin came in and cleaned up.
Well, what appealed to Zappa was always a sort of Dada-ist approach, a sort of "it is what it is." He never tried to change anything. We would ask Zappa if he wanted to help us arrange something, and he would say, "No, no. I just want to record it the way it is." He kind of gave us a left-hand compliment by saying we were so different from anybody else he wouldn't know how to help us with our stuff. I really admired Frank Zappa, and still do.
But at the same time, Bob Ezrin had a different look at it. His thinking was, "You know, everybody loves you guys - even the people who hate you love you - but the problem is, there's no handle on the music." He pointed out that when you hear a Doors song, or a Rolling Stones song, or a Who song, you know it's them immediately. But in those days, when you heard an Alice Cooper song, it could've been any one of a lot of different people. It just didn't have a signature.
So Bob Ezrin was basically our George Martin. He came in and re-taught us how to write. That's when Love It To Death came out, and that album was really different from anything else. It certainly gave us a signature.
There seemed to be tremendous growth between Easy Action and Love It To Death.
Yes. Ezrin didn't really change how we thought; what he did was say something like, "Okay, I love this idea you guys have come up with. But let's take this part here, this part that would normally last just 5 or 10 seconds, and make it into the whole middle section." He took the good parts and made them bigger and better. Bob Ezrin was really the guy who taught us everything - not theatrically, but certainly musically.
Around the time of Billion Dollar Babies, it started becoming clearer to the public that you and the "Alice" persona were really two separate entities. Were you relieved when that began to happen?
Yes, because I didn't want to have to live Alice's life. Alice had a strange lifestyle, a stage persona that was so unusual, and so unearthly... if I had tried to live that lifestyle it would've been a lie. It would've been a lie to have said I'm really Alice all the time, that I live in a big black house, and have boa constrictors everywhere. I thought it was much more interesting that there were two of us. Alice had a life of his own that existed only on stage, and I totally let him have the run of the stage. But then my other life was my own, and it had a lot more aspects to it than Alice's did. I did other things. I could play golf, I could act, I could write, I could be a husband... I was many other things besides just Alice, but I felt those other thingsdidn't need publicity, through what he did on stage. I was always kind of saying "Why does anyone care what I do at home?"
Around 1975 Bob Dylan called you one of America's most underrated songwriters. What did you make of that at the time?
That was one of the greatest compliments. I was probably tongue-tied for a long time after that. I was amazed that he even knew who I was. I put Dylan on such a higher level than other people. When you listen to his body of work, it's so vast and so consistent... Highway 61 Revisited is one of my favorite albums of all time. If you listen to that album all the way through, you get the feeling that was sort of his Sgt. Pepper. You just go, "Wow, this guy's absolutely amazing!"
In 1978 you teamed up with Bernie Taupin to write From The Inside.
Bernie and I were best of friends, but we hadn't ever really done any writing together. We just sort of hung out and drank and played golf, things like that. Then after I got out of the hospital [Cooper was treated for chronic alcohol addiction in 1978], I wanted to write sort of my memoirs, from the hospital. I told Bernie I was gonna start work on this album , and began telling him some of the ideas, and he started offering ideas about this and that. So we ended up more or less co-writing a lot of the songs.
David Bowie was once quoted as saying you were a great entertainer in vaudeville sense, but his comment seemed to be made in a kind of disparaging way. Was there ever any heavy-duty competition between you and Bowie.
Well, the funny thing is, that's all I've ever claimed to be. Another great compliment I got once was from Groucho Marx, who saw one of our shows and said that Alice is the last great hope for vaudeville. That's what we were - we were rock 'n' roll burlesque, rock 'n' roll vaudeville. At the same time, we were certainly sort of the dark side of that. But that was always our intention, to be pure entertainers. We weren't a cult, and we weren't trying to sell anything religious. We were just trying to sell ourselves as a fun show. Our targets were always sex, death, and money, but there was never any agenda.
To stay on the subject of religion for a moment, there's obviously a distinction being a Christian songwriter and songwriter who's a Christian, and I understand you're the latter.
Absolutely, yes, although there may come a time in my life when I do a series of Christian songs. But I think that what happens is, when I'm writing I find lots of theology coming into play. Like The Last Temptation, obviously, but I also saw theology in "The Second Coming," from the Love It To Death album. I was brought up in a Christian household, and I think, being a writer, a lot of biblical ideas come out in the lyrics. I go back and look at these things sometimes and think, "Wow, that was from my Sunday School class!"
But again, I'm not on a soapbox. I have deep theological precepts, and things I live by, but I don't think that has to interfere with satire. I don't think I step on my own feet - or I hope not - when I'm doing my show.
Are there any songs you've written that you wouldn't play now, for religious reasons?
I can't think of too many. There might be a few, but I really haven't sat down and thought about them. There might be some that we don't play anyway.
Twenty-five years ago, would you ever have thought that what Alice was doing then would be regarded as rather tame now?
You know, when we get right down to the shock value of things, I don't think much is shocking anymore.
When I think about who is supposed to be shocking now... I just read an article about Marilyn [Manson], where he's saying they're the biggest hoax ever played on America. So it's hard to know how to take all this stuff where he's so serious about himself.
That seems to be one of the big differences - there are many, obviously - between you in the early '70s and Marilyn Manson today. There's no humor or irony in what he does.
That's the general consensus I get, almost 100 percent of the time. People say, "I saw Marilyn's show and I saw your show, and the big difference is he has no sense of humor." And I'm surprised by that, because I've read some of his interviews that were pretty funny. I don't know why he doesn't inject some of that into his show a bit.
A simple question: which do you enjoy performing more, ballads or rockers?
Oh, I'm a full-out rocker. I'll throw in a ballad every once in a while - "Only Women Bleed" or "Desperado" or something like that - but 95 percent of the show is hard rock.
Are you seeing any particular age demographic among the fans who come to your shows today?
I've noticed it's a much larger spread than it used to be - like 15 to 50. But I only really see the first 20 rows, and that's generally a young audience. The surprising thing is that they know every lyric. I'll be doing something like "Public Animal #9," and I'll notice some 12-year-old kid singing right along. (laughs) I'm thinking, "Where did you learn that song?!"