Harvard Crimson

Originally Published: December 14, 1972

In Defense of Alice Cooper

Author: Frederick Boyd

Paranoia, Political paranoia, the kind you get when you see a fascist behind every rock. I know quite a few people who count themselves as politically active, and to a man (or woman) they're all a touch paranoid. But to call Alice Cooper and their ABC-WBCN simulcast a harbinger of creeping facism, as Andrew Kopkind did in last week's Phoenix, strikes me as so much hysterical over-reacting.

It starts at the movies. The furor over violence in movies reached its crescendo with A Clockwork Orange, but it started with Peckinpah's Wild Bunch, and no discussion of cinematic fascism is complete without Straw Dogs. At the beginning of the year came the realization, by Pauline Kael and others, that the movies had begun to pipe fascism into the mind of Joe Moviegoer. That the primitive, unquestionably macho preachings of Peckinpah and Kubrick, as well as the less subtle portrayal of Dirty Harry Kellerman by Don Siegel, depicted a cultural regression.

So I went and saw them. And I liked them a lot. The notion of violence, artistically treated, pleases me aesthetically. People died in the Wild Bunch with more simultaneous grace and realism than I'd ever seen. And I admired the cinematic ingenuity displayed in the assault sequence of Straw Dogs. I couldn't recoil in horror because I never forgot I was watching a movie.

There's a paradox. You must watch these films with the simultaneous realization that you cannot withdraw from what you consider violence, (and here I'm speaking essentially of the Peckinpah films) because the violence that surrounds you daily exceeds your wildest sadistic dreams; and despite that knowledge, what you're watching on the screen is a fiction. It didn't happen. The movies are at once totally representative, And not representative at all.

This concerns Alice Cooper and the simulcast insofar as both media are visual. Kopkind's complaint is not so much over the simulcast as it is with Alice Cooper's particular appearance on it. (If he finds creeping fascism in the Allman Brother's brilliant performance last week, then he's in worse shape than I gave him credit for), On the highest level, his major complaint is with Alice Cooper's performance, and what he assumes is gratuitous violence similar to that displayed in the films. More on that later.

Because on another level, Kopkind does call the simulcast system "a bastard technological system," and short step shy of the 'feelies'. That's ridiculous, Simulcast is an interesting advance in technology. At this point in time it isn't more. I grant its sinister possibilities, but I haven't seen them realized yet.

Kopkind's insistence on the dehumanizing aspects of simulcast are purist. There are three points to be made. The first is in essential agreement. Insofar as TV dehumanizes, the viewer-listener is up against a wall, there is very little he can do in the face of what is obviously a profit-oriented attempt to cash in on the popularity of rock. Widening its accessibility translates very easily into dollars. I had intended to count commercials last Friday, but I lost count way before 36. The steady stream of commercials is a tribute to the greed of the media powers that be. All I can see to do is grin and bear it.

Secondly, Kopkind labels radio rock, record rock and TV rock dehumanizing simply by association when he claims their combination lessens the quality of the art. This is the worst kind of purism. There has never been a time when wide-accessibility imitations of live rock weren't the foundation of the industry. The whole concept of live performances grew out of a popular desire to see what we were listening to Finally, "an upbeat emotional experience" isn't the issue; appreciating the music is. Here Kopkind shows his own ignorance of the industry. Because it is the audience performer music relationship that troubles rock most.

We've come to a point in the music where, in many cases, the music just can't stand on its own anymore. Gimmickry abounds. Theatrics have been a part of rock every since Presley didn't show any pelvis on the Sullivan Show. But for our purposes, the final push started at Monterey, when Jimi Hendrix first burned a guitar, or with Peter Townshend's first windmill chord. The notion of theatrics has expanded to the point where the average Jethro Tull show is half music and half theater. Something seems necessary to augment the music which for a lot of reasons has stopped undergoing radical changes in directions.

Alice Cooper is another step, or perhaps the culmination of the trend towards a more theater-oriented rock. Kopkind stumbled inadvertently on the core of the matter when he stated, "Cooper belongs to the Theater of the Absurd as well as the Theater of Cruelty." The second label is debatable alone, but Kopkind undercuts his statement with the clause that follows, "with live warm humans around in a concert hall, Cooper is funnier than he is scary."

An interview given to England's New Musical Express stresses Alice's offstage normaley. Nick Kent, the interviewer, remarks on the apparent paradox between the Alice Cooper image and the man. He refers to "the charm and good manners of the All-American college boy he appears when not giving vent to his transvestite juvenile delinquent alter-ago." Kent also notes his own surprise at "how overtly masculine they (the band) look," and Alice's cross-country career at his Phoenix high school. In line with all this one of rock's current rumors is that Alice Cooper is really the guy who played Eddie Haskell on Leave it to Beaver, and boy, was he ever the classic American snot-nose.

I never took it seriously, and I'm surprised to have to prove to anybody that Alice Cooper is no threat, merely the latest in a series of progressively more theatric rock performance. To call his performance antilife, when it is really an attempt to augment a medium that is in danger of stagnation, is to deny his innovative efforts, and is wildly paranoic to boot. Concern for society is one thing, witch hunting is another. Besides, Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention were performing almost precisely the same things almost four years ago. Zappa's atrocities, as they were called, included dismembering dolls, a particularly juicy interlude where a salami, attached to a guy wire, runs through the audience and smacks a doll in the ass, a replies of a penis that shot whipped cream over the first ten or so rows of the orchestra, and others too humerous to mention. In 1968, IT WAS CALLED SOCIAL SATIRE. But times have changed, and Alice Cooper is now "the droog as cult-idol." And his stage act is called "ominous, overwhelming, primal."

I don't deny that the simulcast system has problems. The most flagrant is its tendency to overload its hour and a half show with acts. As big a problem is the tendency, in the first show at least, to mix white-oriented and black-oriented acts. Kopkind's point about the apparent change in audience to white for Bo Diddley's set is easily explainable. His lack of understanding of it does nothing but further display as ignorance introduced by his demand for the concert as "upbest emotional experiece." Bischnees does not guarantee a black audience. There are any number of examples. BR King rarely plays before black audiences anymore, because young white kids have a moderate appreciation of his talents, and are able to pay more to see him. Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, and any number of Chicago Muse bands will confirm the theory, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley make music that no longer appeals to the masses of black people, it is natural that they perform in front of whites.

Kopkind's final statement on audience participation leaving rock could only have been made by a man who missed Ten Years. After, Grand Funk at the Garden, Jeff Beck, or someone who's a confirmed sopor freak. He claims that there audience participation leaving rock could only have been made by a man who missed Ten Years After, Grand Funk at the Garden, Jeff Beck, or someone who's a confirmed sopor freak. He claims that there is no opportunity for interfacial action between people and their music makers." I believe that the same audiences no longer care about the music I no longer enjoy rock concerts and, asked the question. "What's killing rock?" will answer, "audiences." Too many people get hopelessly stoned an hour before show time; too many people spend concerts buying or selling dope, or smoking it, or dropping it, and generally behaving like morons. Thus the clown who, having lost his shirt after left Beck's excellent show at the Orpheum, stood in the aisle, wavering demanding an encore. He finally took off his shoe and starting beating on his seat with it. He was there long after everybody left. There is too much emphasis on the "upbest emotional experience," which now is no more than a demand for a drug induced cuphoria, and not enough pure appreciation of good music. I'm convinced that no one cares.

I watched the second "In Concert." And I thought, within the limitations imposed by the greedy general atmosphere of television, that the show was excellent. This may've been the music--my love for the Allman Brothers borders on mania--but the tendency to underplay the visual effects was refreshing after the nightmare of split screening in Woodstock. WBCN's choice of what obnoxious commercials to air was just irrational enough to be interesting. "In Concert" has the potential to please that segment of the rock listening public tired of fighting rip off ticket prices and obnoxious audiences. And, even before simulcast gets itself completely straight, it sure beats late movies.