Lansing State Journal

Originally Published: July 11, 2004

Alice Cooper, other acts bring strong state ties to wrap up Common Ground

Author: Mike Hughes

Each summer, rock musicians whirl around the globe, playing to strange people in strange places.

Alice Cooper - who rocks tonight's Common Ground finale - can tell you that.

He's been to places where the sun doesn't shine, and places where it doesn't set.

"We did a show in Finland when it never got dark," Cooper said by phone from Stuttgart, Germany. "I had a (golf) tee time two hours after the show ended."

Tonight, however, shouldn't seem odd to any Common Ground star. All have strong Michigan links.

Mario Winans grew up in Detroit. Cooper was born there and returned to find his first success. Fee Waybill of The Tubes has known some splendid summer days in Michigan.

"I got all the best parts of Michigan life," Waybill said. "The lakes are wonderful."

Cooper and Waybill wrap things up on the West Stage tonight, with Winans and B5 on the East. Here are portraits:

Alice Cooper

At first, Alice Cooper was too Hollywood for Los Angeles, too weird for rock 'n' roll. It was a tough start.

Cooper and his group had "a reputation as the worst band in Los Angeles," said the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll. Everything changed with a Saugatuck concert that put them alongside the MC-5, Iggy Pop and the Stooges.

"I had never played Michigan before, but it just blew me away," Cooper said.

He and the band settled into a Detroit hotel room and worked on an album that did well. "Detroit gave us credibility," Cooper said.

He likes the Michigan style of straight-ahead rock. Maybe that got implanted during childhood.

Cooper was born in Detroit 56 years ago as Vincent Furnier, the son and grandson of Protestant preachers. The family moved to Arizona when he was 10, but his loyalties were set; living 2,050 miles southwest of Tiger Stadium, Cooper kept a picture of Detroit Tiger star Al Kaline in his room.

Why become a rocker? Psychologists might say he was following a family tradition; many performers had parents who were preachers.

"My granddad was a very dynamic preacher," Cooper said. "He would just glue you to your seat. My dad couldn't resist a joke."

In a way, Cooper became a merger of the two. Some of his music is filled with preacher-style passion; some is simply funny.

"My last show was very apocalyptic, very deep and dark," he said. "It didn't have a lot of humor."

The new one does. Still, any Cooper show is dramatic.

"Alice Cooper pioneered shock-rock theatrics - simulated executions, the chopping up of baby dolls and Alice draping himself with a live boa constrictor," the Rolling Stone encyclopedia said.

Some people pooh-poohed Cooper as a gimmick guy. Ozzy Osbourne, however, has said he has a lot of admiration for Cooper.

In Rolling Stone's "The Decades of Rock & Roll" (Chronicle Books, 2001), Osbourne listed Cooper's "Only Women Bleed" as the fourth-best hard rock song of the 1970s.

"People are still recording that now," Osbourne wrote. "I toured with Alice in the early '70s. At that time, he did strange things, weird theatrical stuff on stage. Alice is a lovely guy."

Gradually, rock fans accepted Cooper. In the 1970s, "School's Out" reached No. 7 on the Billboard charts, with "You and Me" at No. 9, "I Never Cry" and "Only Women Bleed" each at No. 12, "Eighteen" at No. 21 and "Elected" at No. 26. After a long break, "Poison" (No. 7 in 1989) was his first top 20 song in more than a decade.

In between was his long bout with alcoholism, including a stretch in which he committed himself to a psychiatric hospital. "I quit drinking 22 years ago," Cooper said.

Instead, he began playing as many as 36 holes of golf a day.

"My wife says I traded one obsession for another," Cooper said. "I get up in the morning and she says, 'Go get your golf bag and get going.' "

The Tubes

Fee Waybill's journey has been similar to Alice Cooper's.

Cooper moved from Phoenix to California in 1968; Waybill and other members of The Tubes did that in 1972. Waybill chose San Francisco.

"We were stunned," he said. "We were a bunch of guys from Arizona, not knowing what to expect. There were a million bands there; each one was trying to get noticed."

Waybill tried hard and failed often. "Early performances were generally reviled," said the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll. This was "one of the wildest stage shows in the business, verging at times on soft-core pornography."

Eventually, some of its parodies - "White Punks on Dope" and the girl-group tune "Don't Touch Me There" - were radio favorites. The 1982 song "She's a Beauty," propelled by a hot MTV video, reached the top 10.

Some people might spot a trend here. Maybe people from Arizona - Cooper, Waybill, Steven Spielberg, Garry Shandling, etc. - are exceptionally creative.

The creativity is possible, Waybill said, for the same reason that Northerners do well: Arizonans have some down time, suitable for thinking.

"In the winter, you crawl into your hole," he said. "We do the same thing in the summer. It's the same cabin fever, and you become more creative. Culture works the least when there's no dramatic change in the climate."

The Tubes thrived for 15 years, with Waybill as its only continuous member. It broke up in the mid-1980s, but he assembles a group for tours.

Waybill retreated into a quieter life in Los Angeles under his original name of John Waldo. "Some people didn't know I was this crazy rock guy," he said.

Then a friend recognized him and told someone he had met Fee Waybill. Eventually, the word got to Brendan Ragotzy, who had been looking for him.

Ragotzy and his wife (Penelope Alex) were Tubes fans when they were college students in San Jose. Now he runs the Augusta Barn Theatre that his late parents created, between Battle Creek and Kalamazoo. He wanted Waybill as his "Rocky Horror Show" star, Dr. Frank-N-Furter.

Waybill liked the idea. "I saw 'Rocky Horror' before it was even a movie," he said. "It's a great show."

He romped on stage and has been back in the same role several times. He also stayed at the home of a Barn patron.

"She lived on this gorgeous lake, with a couple of boats," Waybill said. "Her son is a motorbike enthusiast. We had a great time."

He won't be at Augusta this season, but he does get one wild Lansing night. He'll open for Cooper, in an evening of Arizona-California-Michigan madness.