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Originally Published: November 16, 2002
Author: Paul Travers
Long before Marilyn Manson became public enemy number one, a snake-loving, noose-wielding madman was happily enraging moralists everywhere. This is the story of how Alice Cooper became rock's original bogeyman...
THE YEAR: 1969 The remaining vestiges of the Summer 0f Love are about to be trampled underfoot by the Manson Family murders. On a stage in LA's Whisky A Go-Go club, five long-haired insurrectionists are doing their own bit to drive a stake through the heart of hippy culture. Going under the deceptively wholesome name of Alice Cooper, the band churn out a cacophonous mix of harsh psychedelia, driving hard rock and pure Dadaist confusion that garners more blank stares than applause The visual aspects of the show are just as bizarre. Lacking the resources to realise his grand vision of rock theatre, the fledgling group's singer - a scrawny blonde with garish make-up and a curled-up pre-punk sneer who also bears the name Alice Cooper - utilises whatever he could find that day. Sheets, whips, fire extinguishers and a canister of carbon dioxide ail become props in a performance that is little more than absurdist freeform anarchy. One by one the audience starts to leave until, in a little under half an hour the entire room is cleared.
It's around this point that the man whose name is to become synonymous with shock realises he could be onto a very good thing indeed
"I haven`t even tried to shock an audience in a long time," Alice smiles today . "It's pretty hard to beat CNN when you can sit and watch New York being attacked; you can watch the snipers; you can watch Bagdad being blown to pieces in the comfort of your own home. But back then it was easy. Put on some make-up, hang yourself onstage, put an anaconda round your nect and you're going to get banned. Outrage was a commodity. We just had to figure out how to use it."
And no-one, no one, has ever used outrage as effectively as Alice Cooper. Parents, politicians and the religious right wanted this monster strung up. He was, they insisted. an affront to decent values, a corruptor of the youth. Their children, meanwhile, wanted a little corruption in their lives. In a storm of controversy fuelled by mangled chickens, onstage executions and songs about necrophilia Alice Cooper became one biggest stars on the planet as revered as he was hated. The Alice Cooper story began on February 4, 1948. when Vincent Damon Furnier was born in Detroit. His father - and his grandfather before him - was an evangelist preacher and Vincent would often accompany him to the Apache reservation where he 'worked' with the natives. The young Furnier's whole social life revolved around the church and it was only when the family relocated to Arizona that the gawky teenager who would become America's most enduring nightmare, discovered rock 'n' roll. Hooking up with guitarist Glen Buxton and bassist Dennis Dunaway he formed his first band, a Beatles pastiche called The Earwigs, in high school. The Earwigs mutated into The Spiders and later The Nazz, by which time they`d also recruited future Cooper-ites Mike Bruce on guitar and Neal Smith on drums. On learning that another band were calling themselves The Nazz, Furnier and co found themselves in need of yet another name. Legend has it that the name Alice Cooper was spelled out during a ouija board session, and that Vincent was told he was the reincarnation of a woman of that name who had been burned at the stake as a witch. More plausible, but less delicious, is Alice's later assertion that it was just "as sweet, all-Amer ican a name as you could wish for, but with, a sinister, Lizzy Borden, axe-behind-the-back quality"
Whichever version you plump for, Vincent Furnier had become Alice Cooper and the Alice Cooper band having relocated to LA, set about alienating as many people as they could with their twisted live shows. It was at another venue-emptying performance that doyen of wierdness Frank Zappa happened upon the band and offered them a deal. Their first two albums - 1969s ''Pretties For You' and the following year's 'Easy Action' - sold absolutely squat They were too abstract and expermental for the mainstream but the continued notoriety continued to grow as they took their travelling freakshow through every backward town in the States.
"That was pretty dangerous" Alice recalls. "I used to wear make-up during the day, gold lame suits and hair halfway down my back, and if you got stopped by a trouper in Georgia back then you were going to jail just for being a freak. I could never go out alone. I had to have five or six guys with me, but believe me, whatever my guys looked like they were pure `Clockwork Orange`. They were adaptat breaking up a stool and using the legs as clubs."
ALICE COOPER can remember the day that he became Public Enemy Number One. The band were playing an outdoor show in Toronto, when an audience member threw a live chicken on the stage. As Alice recounts it, he was ignorant of the aerial capacities of domestic fowl and threw it back into the air, expecting the thing to fly happily on its way.
"Instead it nose-dived into the disabled section at the front of the stage and suddenly all these kids in wheelchairs were pulling it apart. The next thing I knew, I was reading in the press that I'd bitten its head off and sucked its blood."
The true story of what really happened might have ended up as mangled as the bird, but for Alice Cooper it was the sort of publicity of which legendary villains are made. As Alice's infamy grew, his band were honing their songwriting skills under the tutelage of producer Bob Ezrin. 1971's masterful 'Love It To Death' was a moderate hit, as was 'Killer' (released the same year), but their breakthrough album was 1972's 'School's Out', the title-track of which shot to Number One in the UK singles charts. By 1973, 'Billion Dollar Babies' was a Number One album on both sides of the pond and the band's newfound success allowed them to pour money into their already impressive stage production, installing, among other things, a life-sized working guillotine.
In his book 'Billion Dollar Babies', columnist Bob Greene described the Cooper stageshow as, "a combination of leering sexuality and blood-drenched simulated violence that has prompted in-print reactions labelling the group as sick, perverted, obscene and 'Nazi-like"'. British MP Leo Abse echoed those sentiments when, heading an attempt to ban a proposed British tour, he accused Alice of "peddling the culture of the concentration camp".
"Pop is one thing," he went on to note. "Anthems of necrophilia are quite another."
THE CONTROVERSY only fuelled the band's success but, inside the Cooper camp, cracks were beginning to show.
"After our next album, the band suddenly decided they were serious musicians and we didn't need this theatrics thing anymore," Alice sighs. "I just looked at them in shock - we'd got to the point where we were at the top of our game and they wanted to take the make-up off and be Crosby, Stills & Nash. I was thinking of taking all the money we'd made and doing a production -'Welcome To My Nightmare' -that would leave everybody floored. That would cost a million dollars, back when a million dollars was a lot of money."
The division proved too wide. The original band split and Vincent Damon Furnier (as his driving licence still read) legally changed his name to Alice Cooper. His solo career was an unmitigated success and with 1975's 'Welcome To My Nightmare' - an epic mix of black humour, scarlet gore and dark, unhinged surrealism - he finally realised the rock as theatre spectacle he'd always envisaged.
Through the mid-`70s he lived the life of the model rock star: fast cars, gallons of booze and bizarre friendships with the likes of comic legend Groucho Marx and Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali. There were more hit albums and bigger, more spectacular tours. During one show, he inadvertently skewered his leg with a sword. On another, he fell from the stage, concussing himself and breaking six ribs in the process. He was put to death every night but he always came back for the encore. Alice was indestructible.
"That's what I thought back then anyway," he laughs. "But drink can blindside you. You know you're going to become a drug addict if you're putting something in your arm, but when you're just drinking with your friends, you don't realise how much of a problem it is."
It had, though, become so much of a problem that in 1977 Alice had himself voluntarily committed to a New York sanatorium. It was an experience that inspired the classic 1978 album 'From The Inside', and also, says Alice, probably saved his life.
"Back in the days when I was hanging around with Jim Morrison and Keith Moon and all those guys, I felt it was my obligation to be Alice at all times. I had to be this dark, unpredictable character. But then I looked around and realised that all my friends that I drank with were dead. I looked at Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and I realised the one thing they all had in common was that they were all trying to live their image. That's when I decided I had to separate the two."
HE DID indeed separate the two, to such an extent that he began to refer to Alice in the third person, to see him as a separate entity, a character to be played.
"Alice is very different to me," nods the singer. "For those two hours onstage, I become him, but after the show I switch him off. Alice belongs on the stage, he doesn't even want to live in the same world as you and I."
He did, however, put Alice slap-bang in the middle of the real world when he took up a residency on the mainstream game show 'Hollywood Squares'. He was much derided for it at the time, but insists today that putting Middle America's favourite bugbear on primetime TV, where he couldn't be avoided, was the most subversive thing he could have done.
Subversive or not, Alice's popularity waned through the early '80s, before a successful comeback culminated in the biggest-selling album of his career, '89's 'Trash'. He followed this with the gonzoid metal of 'Hey Stoopid' and the more conceptual 'The Last Temptation' in the '90s.
The live shows - now a mixture of hightech thrills and vaudeville camp-still managed to capture the jaded imaginations of a new generation of MTV-fed fans.
Today, faced with a public desensitised to horror and violence, Alice Cooper sees himself with a different, make that very different, role to play.
"My job now is to tell a good story, to write good songs and maybe go a little deeper," he explains. "The concept behind my most recent albums, 'Brutal Planet' and 'Dragontown', is that there's this place where, without salvation, you end up stuck for eternity. I'm questioning my own moral status here, and that to me is a lot more frightening than anything hiding under the bed."
"After I'd done everything, and I did do everything imaginable in this business, there was still a real void in my life," he continues, with one final shock up his sleeve. "And that was the fact that I needed to get back to God. So Alice now becomes this part that I play that becomes the prophet of doom. He starts telling people that maybe things aren't okay, maybe Hell isn't a myth after all. And who better to tell you that than this Alice Cooper guy, this monster?"
Suddenly, we're back to the beginning; talking not to Alice but to Vincent Furnier, the evangelist's son. And as for the alterego, the monstrous, larger-than-life corruptor of children with a passion for the dead? He's scaring for Jesus. Now that's outrageous.
ALICE COOPER's UK tour begins on November 16.