(July 30, 1971)
Originally Published: July 30, 1971
Author: Albert Goldman
The advance publicity for Alice Cooper almost turned my stomach. The pictures showed a kohl-eyed queen, cadaver face framed in a rat's nest of teased black hair, camping it up a whole warehouse of lurid props, everything from a boa constrictor to an old-fashioned mission-oak-and-leather-strap electric chair. The advertising copy was the usual I-can't-see-anything-wrong-with-it palaver about "contemporary theater" and rock as "total experience" and the wonderous fact that we all have male and female traits. After surveying the whole hyped-up spiel, I concluded, "If that's where it's at, who need it?"
Then I saw the show and ditched my preconceptions. The moment Alice sidled across the stage - in a black leotard zipped down to his navel - I recognized that he/she/it was thoroughly professional. Every provocative move and theatrical flourish was carefully calculated and precisely performed. Far from being a freaky aberrant, Alice was a shrewd operator intent on translating to the fagged-out rock stage some perverse excitement of the Andy-Warhol, Sado-Masochist, Low-Camp Drama and Cinema.
Alice does a turn with a straitjacket, for example, that is so phony you could put your fingers in your mouth and whistle him off the stage. He plays a lunatic and some stiff little chick dresssed up like a nurse leads him off the stage. The band - for bone-skinny Rapunzels in white spangled tops and purple patent-leather pants - rave it up like Screamin' Jay Hawkins' Walkin' on the Water. Out comes Alice again with his arms trussed up in a straitjacket, giving the house his Conrad Veidt look. As he does his song about all the people he's been seeing in the bin, he keeps giving mumblety-peg twitches with his bundled-up arms. You couldn't see anything corny as the tryouts for the senior-class play. Still, he makes it work. You sit there and gape and flash around the edges of your mind. "What is it like to go crackers? To be tied up? To scream your guts out with nobody listening?" You don't believe this guy, but he gets you thinking, feeling a little trickle of terror, looking beyond the tawdry stage image, staring through the inanities of pop culture into the depths it suggests.
Yet your feeling is mostly about him. You feel he's a fool, a warp, a crazy for wanting to play at being crazy, being queer, being electrocuted and stabbed with spears and swords. Despite his skill, he makes you feel just as you do watching the Warhol films when one of those nutty kids, with names like International Velour or National Superette, gives her pathetic impression of a glamorous old movie queen. It's a frightening embarrassment. An unnatural act.
Which explains why Alice Cooper stirs up so many bad vibes during his shows. It isn't his queerness and transvestism - traditional devices of fun - nor his queasy sado-masochism. Even when he coils the snake around his shoulders and feeds its head into his mouth, you react less to the horror of the image than to the sickness of the act.
What gets everybody uptight with Alice Cooper is the sacrifice he makes of shame. Confessing fantasies most people would sooner die than reveal, he becomes a scapegoat for everybody's guilts and repressions. People project him, revile him, ridicule him and some would doubtless like to kill him. At some stage, he knocks out the young boys with the daring of his act and the rebelliousness of his image. After all, the ultimate rebellion of our time is the simple refusal to be a man.
What the young seem to overlook is the fact that all of Alice Cooper's psychodramas turn on death. He imagines death, enjoys death, looks like death and courts death at the hands of some enraged motorcycle hoodlum. Even his big message about accepting out latent homosexuality may be a metaphor for death. What did Thomas Mann reveal in Death in Venice, if not the ironic fact that realizing all mankind's potential - the female as well as the male - may be just another way of destroying our identity and thus commiting suicide?