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Originally Published: October 12, 1991
It was the moment of truth for Ray Zell. After nigh on 20 years of being a billion dollar baby, he was about to step out of the lift and meet his idol, Alice Cooper. Would Alice lasso him with a live python while dangling from the chandelier guzzling a bottle of meths? Would fake blood splatter the Zell chops as Alice decapitated a chicken? Or would the older, sober, calmer Alice merely ask if the Zell took milk and two sugars?...
I'm in the lift of a West End hotel with Alice Cooper's manager, Toby Mamis, taking me up to meet the great man, legend, anti-hero personified. And I'm excited.
"Alice knows who you are," announces Mr Mamis ominously. And I'm worried. Like a drowning man, haphazard images of everythin' I'd ever written (or drawn) about Alice flash before my bulgin' eyes. And the elevator! Is going up... or down...!?!
Next thing I'm floating through a sterile, vanished hotel room door - which I swear glides open of it's own accord - and my vision, pure Spielberg, sweeps around the obstacle to be confronted by the striking form of Alice Cooper. A form that leaps out at me in dream sequence 3-D effect as the background blurs into insignificance.
"Nice day in London," considers Alice, motioning to the window. "....looks like snow."
Alice looks old. But lucky for Alice - he never looked young. Yet those eyes. Blue like an ocean on fire and as aware as a panther in its prime.
Mere days before the latest 'Cooper band' yanked the recent chain of UK dates in support of the 'Hey Stoopid' album, the Zell had been elected to grill the Coop. I wear oven gloves for protection. Alice has his aide, Brian, seated somewhat conspicuously at the opposite end of his couch, (supposedly) engrossed in a pocket computer game.
The original Cooper band ('69-74) - do you keep in touch?
"All the time," he stresses in no uncertain terms. "In fact, I just saw Glen (Buxton - guitar) on the American tour in Iowa. Neal (Smith - drums) and Dennis (Dunaway - bass) are still playing and writing in Connecticut, and Mike (Bruce - guitar) is in Phoenix and, er, yeah, I see 'em all the time."
I only ask, say i, cos in practically all the interviews I've read over the past few years it barely, or never, gets touched upon. I wondered if maybe you never wanted to talk about it.
"Oh, no, no, no! They're great guys," assures Alice as, um, Brian, offers an opinion of his own:
"The only misconception of this is that it's always been written that Alice fired the band. Which is completely untrue."
"Yeah" nods Alice, "the band just didn't wanna go on with the theatrics. Once 'School's Out' and 'Billion Dollar Babies' did so well, all of a sudden they said, 'Well, let's just wear Levi's on stage now. We're the best band in the world'!"
"And I went, 'Boy, we're the same guys that were in the garage and we're the same guys who worked our way up to this position! I said, 'People are trying to look like us now! We don't wanna be the Pink Floyd, we don't wanna be George Harrison'! They really went crazy. They wanted to do solo albums!" he says incredulously. " I said. 'fine... (Alice gesticulates uncaringly) go ahead'," to which Alice laughs at what he obviously considers to be the stupidity of it all.
"That's when I wrote 'Welcome To My Nightmare' (Alice's first 'solo') which was even more theatrical than 'Billion Dollar Babies'. That was my intention from the beginning and I wasn't ever gonna give that up! So the band just really left the original concept. There were many other guys out there who wanted to do it, so...." he says with glee, throwing his arms out welcomingly.
"That's the nice part of being able to pick and choose different musicians... There are thousands of great musicians out there."
So doesn't Alice miss the mentality and camaraderie of a permanent band?
"No," pounces Alice, nailin' me as I utter the word 'band'. "This is my band now. These guys in this band mean as much as anyone I ever had. Of course we didn't live together and starve together...."
Perhaps you should make 'em, I suggest.
"Yeah," he smirks wickedly, "maybe I should move them into a worse hotel..."
The subject propels us to the early '80s and Alice's bizarre demented-general-meets-a-geisha girl 'Special Forces' image.
"I see pictures from that period and it's scary!" He shakes his head, his eyes staring wildly into somewhere. "Where was I mentally?"
"First of all, I don't remember most of the tour... Of course I don't remember most of '79-'83," he mumbles like someone addin' a can of beans to a shoppin' list. "That was really like... blackout. I was definitely on auto-pilot. Really out there."
Do you like the albums from that time?
"Yeah! That's the funny thing! I go back and I listen to 'Zipper Catches Skin', 'Dada', 'Flush The Fashion', and I go, 'wow, I really like that song....' I wish I could remember writing them."
There must be a certain creativity in being 'out there'?
"Oh yeah," Alice coincides. "But I would like to remember it though. At the time it must've been fun... Or a matter of just surviving it. But 'Dada' is the album I probably least remember recording. In fact," he relates, "the other day I was doing an autograph session in Stockholm and this little 13-year-old girl with big glasses comes up and goes (adopts eerie monotone zombie voice), 'Do 'Former Lee Warmer'' and it was just like (Alice is wide-eyed) woooooo!"
"I guess it's maybe because when I put the stage-show together I think about what songs are going to effect people. I would LOVE to go out some night and do songs that only the true Alice fans would know. Y'know, do 'Serious', 'Nurse Rozetta', 'Tag, You're It' and things like that. And the audience would go - WHAT!!"
"I've gone from album to album, 'This is what I'm going to do now', and I don't know what's gonna happen next. That's the way I feel now too, and maybe that's what's kept me going for 20 years."
So it's like a helter-skelter ride with lots of side routes?
"Absolutely. When I get there I don't know if my hair's gonna do this, or my make-up's gonna do that. I don't know if the stage-show is gonna go that way or this. I try to keep it spontaneous."
I ask for Alice's opinions on the modern Alice with his ultra-shiny leathers and assertive poise as opposed to the brattish, punky, '70s Alice who stumbled around the stage in rags.
"That had a lot to do with when Alice was an alcoholic," he admits. "The early Alice was much more of a victim. He was psychotic in a different way."
"A lot of it has to do with your mental posture, how you feel about yourself, and I wasn't exactly feeling great about myself a lot of the time. I think now I feel really good about myself, so you find Alice with his shoulders back and much more in command."
"I find that after a show my muscles are sore (he exaggeratedly rubs his outstretched arm) because they're tense for the whole show. At the end I go 'Aaaaaaaah, maaaaaaan', because I have to suffer for what Alice does," he laughs.
I wonder what Alice thought of Extreme's complimentary line to him in 'When I'm President'. To my surprise, he's unaware of (but very interested in findin' out more about) it, so I move on to his vocal appearance on Guns N' Roses 'The Garden' from 'Use Your Illusion I'. Why that particular song?
"They originally handed me the song to record for my 'Trash' album," Alice reveals. "But it didn't fit what I wanted to do. Then one day Axl calls and says, 'We've got the track done and the problem is in this one section, and every time I sing it I sound like you'!"
"And I really like the song... it's a little psychedelic," he says, backin' away like a vampire from a cross. "At one point I was singing the one part one way doing Axl's voice - and he was doing mine!"
The original Cooper band were actually the Guns 'N Roses of their day, weren't they?
"Absolutely! When I was in Axl's position I did the same thing - I re-wrote the rules. In fact, the rules that I re-wrote are still intact!"
'Hey Stoopid', if you count the 'Alice Cooper Show' album, is quite staggeringly Alice's 20th! And my, does the Coop's poor old heart take a bashing on this one! Alice explains why.
"Every once in a while I do some of those songs ('Love's A Loaded Gun', 'Might As Well Be On Mars') because, as heavy as it is, there is a female audience out there. I get letter that're real.... y'know..... amazing letters!"
"I found a lot of things on this album that had the early '70s feel. Jack Ponti, who I wrote with, went back and just studied 'Love It To Death' and 'Killer'. That's what I think makes 'Hey Stoopid' sound so Alice-ish and familiar."
"'Wind-Up Toy' was the song that got most reaction because it was like, let's go back and see what Steven (the man-child 'hero' of 'Welcome To My Nightmare') is doing."
A Postcard from Steven....
"Yeah, really," he casually nods. "Doing fine."
Talking of Steven, would you ever be tempted to make another completely conceptual record?
"I would love to. For my very next project, I've been thinking of spending a year or two writing something that's really strong, on the level of 'Welcome To My Nightmare'. I think there's a need for it now. Rock'n'roll's getting to a point where it's so predictable. It's time for a refreshing new thing."
Could a certain Mr Bob Ezrin (producer of past Cooper classics) be involved?
"I'm very much considerin' Bob Ezrin." he announces with infinite nonchalance. "Because he's the only one who really thinks like that. I just saw him in LA. But I'm in no hurry to do it. I really wanna make sure that when it comes out it's perfect. State of the art."
Alice hasn't exactly been a stranger to these shores over his last four albums, so I remind him of 'For Britain Only' - an effective tongue-in-cheek autobiographical romp - released in single and EP formats (with live tracks) back in '82 followin' the success of the 'Special Forces' tour. I tell him I'm constantly amazed at how he hasn't been tempted, for obvious reasons, to slip it in as an encore or somethin'.
"I absolutely loved that song!" he erupts. "When we wrote and recorded it, I said I totally believed in it as a rocker, subject matter and everything! I really can't believe that it wasn't a hit over here."
"You've got me thinking now," he muses, eyes probin' the carpet like a laser spotlight. "I'll have to listen to that again. Maybe it might be a good time to do it. There'd be 23 people in the audience going - YEEEAHHH!"
So how long are you going to give Alice? Another 20 years and several more past the sell-by date albums and pranks? Maybe another tour of wheezing theatrics and ageing schizo rock opera? Of course you probably will. Alice Cooper is an institution.
These days the elderly stickleback chooses to encore with 'Hey Stoopid'. These days Alice is cleaned up and healthy, writing kiddy-friendly anti-dope commercials and, as they say about Sophia Loren, 'looking good for his age'. Welcome to the pantomime indeed.
The show? THE SHOW? The clever cinematic illusion that merges real-life Alice with video art, the obligatory asylum nurses that appear to reinforce the myth that Alice id dangerous and crazy are still used to create great rock theatre. For 16 quid (SIXTEEN QUID!) I'd expect absolutely nothing less.
It's a greatest hits show. A tour of duty that will probably not be his last because Alice, everyone keeps telling me, will go on forever, hacking out 'School's Out' and 'Billion Dollar Babies' and, as they say about Joan Collins, 'looking good for his age'. Every year he will trade in his band for a younger model to pump up the illusion and every year he will write progressively triter variations of his alter-ego. Vince is probably dog tired of all this, but Alice will never die. Alice in chains.
So if Alice can no longer scare the shit out of the kids, then at least he can still say things we cant. He doesn't. 'Trash'? 'Poison'? Oh, c'mon! We should demand that Alice causes a furore because he once did in 1973. He plays great rock'n'roll, great dumb toons, but Alice Cooper is a parody.
What about the great skeleton fingers that curl around the backline? What about the whips and the outrageous costumes? What about, as they say about Angela Rippon, Alice's great legs? Who cares. What about the f**king riot this used to be? What about all the venom, hate and spite that used to dribble from his lips all those years ago? Alice Cooper is about as subversive as the Black Crows (who stole most of his audience tonight) and that's a pitiful shame. Really it is.
Never mind. As they say about the Green Goddess, he's looking just great for his age.