Mail

Originally Published: November 09, 2002

When The Chickens Came Home To Roost

ALICE COOPER thrilled audiences with his anarchic lyrics, hard-drinking ways and notorious stage antics that infamously involved a live bird. Then he took up golf, found God - and discovered the joys of family life.

MICHAEL HELLICAR found out what happened

It is the middle of the afternoon in the Arizona desert and after two rounds of golf Alice Cooper is as parched as the fairways. He takes a long swig from a bottle, savouring the first cool trickles as they wash the dust from his throat. Then, with the crusading zeal of the born-again Christian, he offers the drink for inspection. `See? It's Pepsi-Cola. Once, that would have been whisky, and I wouldn't have stopped drinking until someone poured me into bed.' When the sun goes down, he says, he'll drive into Phoenix, the nearest city to his ranch-style home, and buy something silver for his wife Sheryl, to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary.

Is this the same Alice Cooper who for more than 30 years has been the high priest of shock-rock, with anarchic songs such as I'm Eighteen and School's Out? The man whom Mary Whitehouse accused of warping the minds of our impressionable youth? `Yeah, I saw the light and I saved my life,' he says. `I was on the verge of becoming a dead hero like so many of my drinking pals - Keith Moon, Jim Morrison, Harry Nilsson. But my wife pulled me back from the brink. Now I save the wild stuff for the stage. The rest of the time I'm straight, clean, sober, God-fearing, respectful and responsible.'

Cooper - born Vincent Furnier, the son and grandson of preachers from Detroit - is now 54. With his long, black hair and lined face, he has the look of a man who has lived to excess. He is wearing his off-stage uniform - tight jeans and a T-shirt - but on stage he prefers women's dresses, corsets and stockings.

On November 16 he begins a tour of Britain in which he promises he will confine his outrageous behaviour to the stage. Beheading Britney Spears - played by his 21-year-old daughter, Calico - is one stunt. She also plays a nurse and a dominatrix. Oh, and at one point her doting father bundles her into a car boot, while she pleads: `Hit me, hit me, one more time', which he does.

'She's in my show because it keeps her working. Years ago she said, "Dad, I wanna be an actress." I told her, "The only lines you'll need to learn are: `You want chips with your steak? What kinda dressing on the salad?"' Most actresses spend their lives waitressing, and that's no fun.

`She told me, "Dad, you don't understand me." "Oh, excuse me," I said. "I designed your generation. I invented rebellious kids. I gave birth to your attitude."'

Calico's recollection is different. `He told me: "You can do whatever you like because you're Alice Cooper's daughter. But never forget - you're also my baby." He's a wild man on stage, but at home he's really strict.'

His son Dashiell, 17, is a budding guitarist and his nine-year-old daughter, Sonora, is counting the days until she is allowed to join her father on stage. When you've got your daughter in tow and God on your side, you have to face up to the fact that the days of trashing hotel rooms and drunken binges are over, says the New, Improved Alice Cooper.

`It used to be beer all day, whisky all night and Satan-knows-what in between. The turning point came when I began coughing up blood. Sheryl said: "Your fake blood on stage looks great. But real blood in the bathroom means you're a hospital case." She was right. Another month and I'd have been dead. Now, alcohol never touches my lips. I still can't walk from one room to the next without a drink, but now it's Pepsi.' He takes another swig. His hands are steady, his eyes are clear and he is healthier, he says, than he has ever been.

'When I was a kid, I'd fantasise about being a rock star, sleeping with supermodels, buying fast cars, making millions. I got all those, but I also became an alcoholic. Wow! I never saw that one coming. When I was 21, I got my first royalty cheque, for 000. I could have bought six Ferraris. But somebody advised me to buy a house because if the career went wrong, I'd have a roof over my head. I still own that house and it's worth many times what I paid for it. So I was thinking straight some of the time.'

Cooper has earned more than million and sold 50 million records. He could afford to indulge in every pleasure known to man, he says, 'and a few that aren't'. But he prefers to play golf by day and, at night, when he's not touring, he runs a sports and rock memorabilia restaurant in Phoenix. 'When I gave up drinking I felt empty. I was still hungry for something. So I began to value my marriage and cherish my life. I realised it's better to be a living legend than a dead one.

'Keith Moon used to stay at my house and we'd just drink. He always felt he had to perform. Once we were staying in a hotel and he realised he'd left his tape recorder in the next room. He started tunnelling his way underneath. The manager came in and said: "What's that hole in the floor, Mr Moon?" "Rats," said Keith. "I'm not paying my bill because there are rats burrowing here."

`There's a story about him driving his Rolls Royce into a swimming pool. I was there when he did it. He'd walk into bars dressed in full Hitler gear. But when he wanted to be straight, he was a real gentleman. You could introduce him to your parents. Then, after they'd gone, he'd be up on the roof, setting himself on fire.

'Just as outrageous was The Doors' Jim Morrison. I'm only surprised he lasted as long as he did. One time he was sitting in the back of my car and we were racing along a mountain road. When we came to a corner, he opened the door and jumped out - at 80mph. He was so drunk he just rolled for miles down the hill, uninjured.

'Another guy on a collision course with God was John Lennon. He and Harry Nilsson would drink from one dawn to the next, arguing. They deliberately took opposite views. John was very perverse. He saw conspiracies where there were none, meanings in music that weren't there. I used to tell John: "Maybe you can change things because you're a Beatle and people listen to you. When I say something people just laugh and have fun.' Cooper has rarely bothered to deny his reported excesses, although now he says it is time to put the record straight. `I am infamous for ripping apart a live chicken during a show in Canada. It wasn't true. Someone in the audience threw a chicken on stage and I threw it back, thinking it would fly. It didn't. The audience killed it. I was horrified, but I'm Alice Cooper. I'm supposed to do things like that.'

`I did rip up dolls on stage as if they were babies, but it was only an act, symbolic stuff. Alice Cooper does terrible things, but he always finishes up getting electrocuted, or having his head cut off. Afterwards I come out in white tie and tails. I've paid for my sins and now I'm back. It is like a morality play, really.'

His showmanship has attracted unlikely followers. `Salvador Dali came to my shows. He told me: "I understand what you are doing. It's surrealism. It's theatre. It doesn't make any sense." I took that as a great compliment.

`Groucho Marx and I were good friends. He was an insomniac. He'd call me up at 1am and summon me to his house. He'd be sitting up in bed smoking his cigar, watching television and drinking from a six-pack. He knew everything about everyone in every movie. "See her?" he'd say. "Chico had her one night after the show in Buffalo. See him? He looks very macho, but he made a pass at Harpo." After a couple of hours he'd fall asleep. I'd remove his cigar, stub it out, switch off the television and tiptoe out. He died when he was 86, but his mind was sharp right up to the end.'

During one of his tours Cooper met his wife-to-be. Sheryl was a classically trained dancer who had auditioned for the show with 1,700 others. `She was hired to be a dancing tooth, a nurse and a leather-clad dominatrix. I didn't notice her until halfway through the tour, but when I did, I didn't waste any time. In 25 years, he says, he has never been unfaithful. `Never been tempted.'

Ten years ago, Cooper wanted to quit rock ' n' roll. He went to see a priest. `I told him: "I can't be Alice Cooper any more." He said: "But that's who you are. Do you think God makes mistakes?" He was fight, and it got me thinking. My father and my grandfather were both preachers, but I had never taken my own Christianity seriously. It's everything to me now. `If you gave me a choice between rock and my faith I'd choose my faith because that's now my life. But I don't think that means you can't be a rocker. I read the Bible and I pray every day. Rock is still fun - it's what I do for a living. But it's not what I live for.'