Originally Published: October 2000
Author: Joshua Sindell
Phoenix, Arizona has its famous Suns: A great basketball team that made it to the semi-finals this year. And Phoenix also has its famous sons, one of them being a rock star by the name of Alice Cooper.
Tonight especially, Cooper is indeed "Mr. Phoenix". The local daily papers and free weeklies all have interviews with him, and he's even on the cover of a few of them. It marks the return to liver performance for Cooper after an extended break with a special preview of his latest bonanza: The Brutal Planet Tour. Still, the extent to which the former Vincent Furnier has become a fixture in this hot city doesn't quite sink in until one visits his Alice Cooper'stown restaurant and sports bar (located in the heart of downtown Phoenix, a short stroll from both Bank One Ballpark - home of the Diamondbacks Major League Baseball Team - and the Suns' own American West Arena).
The restaurant is a giant tribute to both music and sports, "Where rock meets jocks." Giant television screens broadcast four different ESPNs as one happily munches on ribs, baked beans, and mashed potatoes, washed down with a cold beer. It's everything you could want in a sports palace and more, and this evening a party is in full swing.
The reason? Earlier this May evening, Alice and his new band of crack talents - including former KISS drummer Eric Singer, guitarist Ryan Roxie and the reinstated Pete Friesen (back after year's with Scotland's The Almighty), keyboardist Teddy "Zig-Zag" Andreadis (who's played with Guns N' Roses, among others), and veteran bassist Greg Smith in tow - utterly blew away a packed Web Theatre a few blocks away. A typically lavish affair, an Alice Cooper show is something that once witnessed is never forgotten. The undisputed king of theatrical rock, Cooper has outdone himself in his newest production, which is based upon the concept of his latest album, Brutal Planet.
The stage is strewn with futuristic mechanical debris, creating a cold and bleak setting for the sci-fi drama that Alice and his cast of characters play out. It's very much in the same vein as movies like The Terminator and Blade Runner, and it's perfect for the album's hard grim tone. Produced by longtime Cooper ally Bob Ezrin (who hadn't worked with Alice since 1983's Dada), Brutal Planet tells of a world wherein everything has utterly gone wrong. People are steeped in hatred, for themselves and everyone around them. They are suspicious, dangerous, gluttonous, and terribly, terribly, lonely. While Alice Cooper has made his fame from delving into the macabre and the unspeakable, this time out, Cooper sounds more serious than ever. The music on Brutal Planet is not the uptempo rock of his last full-length effort, 1994's The Last Temptation, but a soured, angry metal that wipes the smile from your face with a cold slap.
Luckily, the live show is packed with Cooper "classicks" from nearly every era of his 30-year career, ranging from the expected - but always delightful "I'm Eighteen", "Elected" and "School's Out" - to such unearthed gems as "It's Hot Tonight" and "Caught In A Dream". Young and old alike were seen singing along to all the old favorites. It was Cooper at his finest, belying that fact that what the audience was seeing was merely a "dress rehearsal" for the band's upcoming European tour. [American dates will follow soon.]
When The Last Temptation came out in 1994, it was like a breath of fresh air from a lot of the grunge rock that was dominant at the time. This new album probably would have fit in better with those times, as it's a very heavy album, downbeat, and a somewhat depressing album. Do you agree?
Yes. When I watch movies like THX-1138, Fahrenheit 451, or 1984, they portray a future for us that you really didn't want to be in, and a world that we don't really want to go to - But, they still remained entertaining. You have to straddle that fence: I wanted this to be a fun album, but at the same time I wanted to get this message across that Alice's idea of the future is not good. I worked with [producer/writer] Bob Marlette, who has got a heavy hand when it comes to guitars, bass and drums, and I told him that I wanted him to make it as heavy as he could make it. Then Bob Ezrin came in, and whenever we went to far to the left or right, if we got too soft somewhere, he would say, "No, this is "Brutal Planet!" I wanted to up the ante on everything.
There's no "smile" or "wink" during this album, where Alice peeks behind the curtain and says, "Relax, it's just a cartoon, a fantasy."
In the show, there is, but not on the album, because I really wanted to paint a bleak picture. I think, here and there, there are some humorous elements in the songs, such as "It's The Little Things". I think that one's funny.
Are we in a time in our society and in your life where you're in the mood to address these sterner things? What pushed you in this direction?
I started writing with the idea that I was doing "social fiction". While we were writing the album, it was right in the beginning of the whole thing with the war in Kosovo. I was writing one song and watching TV with my other eye - because I always keep the TV on - and on the TV there's this guy walking through this still-smoking village. It looked like a scene out of a movie, and he's walking with a pillowcase picking up human bones and putting them in the bag. I thought, "What is this?" I turned up the volume, and the man was saying, "This is my uncle, and this is my cousin..." He picks up a ribcage, and pits it in the bag. I was astonished. This was the most horrific thing I'd ever seen in my life. Stephen King couldn't write this. We all tend to think of "genocide" as something that happened in Germany in the '40s, but it's not - it's rampant right now, all over the world. So, I don't see things getting better. We're very insulated here in the United States, but in the world there's murder going on everywhere. So, I stopped the song I was working on right then and there. I said, "I've got to write this song now." I called it "Pick Up The Bones". Can you imagine picking up your own family's bones? Two or three songs on the album were very hard for me to write. I started to think about how, on my own Brutal Planet, an incident like Columbine High School would probably happen every day! In our real world, we're getting these isolated glimpses of how bad such a would could be. In the song "Wicked Young Man", the subject has got a pocketful of bullets and a blueprint of the school. What I want to do to that guy is to expose him, not to condone him or to glorify him. He's not Billy The Kid or Wyatt Earp. He is a guy you want to turn in. In the show, we cut his head off! [Laughing]
In general, teenagers have been the source of fascination for you for your entire career: The glam-rock kids of "Teenage Lament '74", the street gangs in "Gutter Cats Vs. The Jets", the Steven character from Lost In America and earlier albums, "Hey Stoopid", which dealt with teen suicide. What is it that interests you so much in this transitional time between child and adult?
The funny thing, for me, is that I didn't have a heavy childhood at all. I had the most normal, nice high-school childhood there ever was. But I'm fascinated by the fact that other kids grow up with their brothers and sisters becoming drug dealers, or who have parents in jail. How do these kids grow up to be normal? I always wondered why certain people became murders, why certain people go psycho. That, for me, was always a great place for me to write from, and I would create these monsters, these psychodramas, and it somehow seemed to tap into these kids' insecurities. On "I'm Eighteen", I'm saying "I'm insecure. And that's okay!" It's okay to be that way, because you're half a boy and half a man! Have fun! Next year, you've got to go to work! [Laughing]
Is it done out of a morbid fascination, or our of real concern for society
Well, I don't know if I'm a social critic or a social satirist. I see humor in a lot of our frailties but I never say "you". I always say "we". I include myself. I never stand apart and say, "You are doing this wrong". It's "We are doing this wrong."
If you trace the songs from "Hey Stoopid" to "Blow Me A Kiss" and "Wicked Young Man", it seems that things are getting bleaker. Do you feel that there's less hope for the youth of today?
This might sound off-the-wall, but I'm a true believer. I've always said that Alice Cooper is the all-American kid gone bad. I'm a true believer in family values. I think that if every one of these kids had a family that strong, we wouldn't have these problems. And it's not because I'm 52-years-old. I'm probably the strangest Dad of all time. I knock on my kids' doors and yell, "Turn that up!" Still, I feel that a lot of the problems that we have are because kids don't trust their parents, and they shouldn't. Their parents are broken-up, they've decided they only care about themselves and not their kids. Our whole society is built on that, on that mistrust. I can see why people go crazy, and why they go bad and turn to crime. There's a moral core that runs through every one of my shows, and in my lyrics. Isn't that ironic, that Alice Cooper has a moral core that runs through every one of his albums?
You've stated that the stageshow, "Alice Cooper" must receive his comeuppence at the end of his concert for all of the dastardly things that he does over the course of the evening. Why are you compelled to show that the villain of the piece has to always lose?
I don't think you can not resolve the drama. You can't let the bad guy win. It's classic, it's Shakespearean. He has to "get it" to be satisfying, and I don't care what the movie is. If I'm seeing a movie and I'm really liking the bad guy, I still wouldn't want to walk out of the movie seeing him get away with it. And if Alice has to be the bad guy, and if he has to be the one to get killed, good. He always comes out at the end in a white top hate and tails! "I'm back and it's party time now! I've been exorcised!" Then the balloons and the confetti come down. I never want to leave an audience with a bad taste in their mouth. I want them to walk away going, "That was the best party I was ever at."
You succeeded last night.
Wasn't it like two shows? The first part of the show was the dark part, and the second half became a celebration. Past shows have started off bright, and then suddenly turns and gets dark. I said, "Let's give them 'Hell' first this time. Then we'll kill the monster and party!"
When you wrote "School's Out" all those years ago, could you have imagined that one day kids might literally try to blow their schools to pieces?
This goes back to the family thing. I know if my kids have got a firecracker in their possession. I have a 15-year-old son, and I can tell when he's got something that he's not supposed to have. I finally went in to his room and asked him, "You've got some firecrackers?" "Yeah." I said, "Well, let's go into the desert and blow them up." And we went out there and had fun, but I told him I didn't want him to smuggle them home again. How in the world does someone not know that their kids have got 50 bombs in their garage, or sawed-off shotguns and grenades in their bedroom?!? How detached do you have to be to not know that? It's almost impossible. Are their bedrooms so off-limits that you can't ever go in there?
How did your kids rebel against you, as an infamous rock 'n' roll figure?
I fully expect them to get into The Carpenters, or lately, Britney Spears! My kids are 19, 15, and 7, and they haven't rebelled against me because they just kind of threw up their hands and said, "How can we rebel against that? Look at him!" But I'm fairly strict at home, I tell them to be home at 11. I've got all the concerns of any other parent. I coach baseball, I coach soccer. Still, they can never come to me and go, "Dad, you don't understand." I'd go, "What are you talking about? I designed your generation! I invented you guys. The black lipstick? That's me! Don't ever think that you're going to out-hip me!"
At the show last night, I saw whole families, with young children, at the show. Did you ever see that in the '70s?
No, that's a new phenomenon. But I think Alice has turned the corner. We have become a family show. I don't see that there's anything that we do up there that a family can't see. There's no bad language, there's no nudity, there's no sexual innuendo that goes on.
Why is it important to keep it PG-rated?
I've never, in my entire career, resorted to bad language or explicit sex. Or anything anti-Christian or anti- any other religion, really. I could see parents today taking their kids to my show. But in the '70s, I was very dangerous for the standards at the time.
On "Is Anyone Home?" from 1997's A Fistful Of Alice, and on the new album's "Sanctuary", are you taking aim at this new phenomenon of cocooning in one's home, thanks to the lure of the internet and cable TV?
Yes. I hope that it's all a phase that we're going through. I'm very anti-high tech, unless it's for business purposes. I like to go to the mall. I don't like to shop on the Internet. I don't write letters to friends on the Internet. I like to call someone and hear their voice. There is some social intercourse that we need to have. I can imagine when some guy will be home in his cocoon connected to his Internet and being fed intravenously, and he never has to move. He just becomes part of this machine. He becomes a borg. That kind of social isolation worries me. People proclaim on the news that one day, we won't have real money and we won't have shopping centers, and I'm going, "I'll hate that! I'm a shopaholic!" My favorite thing in the world is being part of the crunch of people at Macy's in New York City, where you simply can't move for all the people around you. I love that! That's mostly what "Is Anyone Home" is about, "Sanctuary" is more about being a kid and not letting your parents anywhere near your own space. I respect that in my household, with my own kids.
What happened to cause Alice's world to become a "brutal planet"?
In my world, all technology collapses on itself and everything implodes. It gets too smart, blows and fuse, and says that it won't work anymore. Suddenly, everyone who was so dependent on it become helpless and stalled.
Who is The Controller character who welcomes the audience to the show?
To me, he's what's left of humanity. He's half-technology and half-humanity, and he warns us that he is what we're all becoming. Look at me, I'm just a spine and a head! I don't need legs anymore because I don't have to walk, I don't need a heart, I don't need anything. "This is my job, the Warlord puts me here to warn you. Leave now!"
In the boxed set, The Life and Crimes of Alice Cooper, there is a quote from you about the song "Cold Ethyl": "A lighthearted take on necrophilia taken much too seriously by the likes of Ann Landers." Today, though, is there shock-rock that you see and hear offends you?
Well, I'm at a point where I'm numb to everything. I can pretty much inject some comedy into anything I hear, but there are certain times when my limits are reached. Even Alice won't go certain places and has his limits! When I was going to perform the song "Dead Babies" [from 1971's Killer] in this new show, I said that I needed to make Alice horrific. At that point in the show, he's alone with a baby. He gets rid of the nurse character, and he's standing there with her little pink baby carriage. Now, the audience knows that something's going to happen. I thought, "It's too obvious for Alice to hurt this baby. We've got to make this baby part of Brutal Planet." Without ruining it for people reading this, by making the baby more dangerous than Alice is, it justifies his actions. It would have been offending for me to have Alice kill something innocent. That would be distasteful.
Does Alice the writer have a message that Alice the character would never dream of uttering?
I definitely have to write for him, and I have to be his conscience. Alice is nothing more than a shell for me to fill up. I know what he does, and I know how he thinks. He doesn't have much of a conscience, but he has a little bit of humanity in there. He has an ironic sense of humor, and there are a lot of funny things that happen to Alice over the course of each show.
After hearing the record, I wondered if that comic relief would still be present in the live show.
This is purposely a dark album. I want people to think of this album as Alice's darkest moment, because I am trying to create this apocalyptic thing. I've got the next part of the story half-written right now, and it's called Spirits Rebellious. It's something I wrote a long time ago, but it connects so well to this.
What's the next move for the tour?
I'm leaving for Berlin on Monday for some interviews, and then we start playing in Stockholm and head to Russia. Being in Russia is going to be some fun! The last we heard, the KGB put out an announcement in 1975 or 1976, that "Alice Cooper is the product of Western decadence, the epitome of everything that teenagers are becoming in America. He will never come to Russia to destroy our children!" It's one of my favorite clippings. Now that their defenses are down, we're going over there. From what I understand, they are just starving for rock and roll over there.
How does it feel to be on an indie again label? It's been a long time since Straight Records back in the '60s. Did it affect your recording budget?
That's the best thing about working with my new label [Spitfire]. I had no budget at all. They said, "Do whatever you want to do, whatever it takes." It was like having a blank check. I tend not to spend a lot of money on albums anyways. It took a month to write it, and three weeks to record it. I don't know what Axl's thinking! Five years trying to put an album together?
After this downer of a record, will the sun rise the next time around?
[Laughing] Yes, there is some closure on the next one. The way it's written, it will be very satisfying at the end of the next one. Did you see the movie Gladiator? Did you see the ending? I loved it. Even though the movie ends sadly, there is a real sense of how the hero wins in that movie, and the next album will be like that.