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Originally Published: August 1994
Author: Gerri Miller
Three years since his last release, 1991's platinum Trash, shock rock-meister Alice Cooper is back with The Last Temptation, a concept album that follows a storyline illustrated in a three-part Marvel Comics series, the first installment of which is being issued (and sold) with the record. Alice collaborated with well-known songwriters like Jim Vallance (on the menacing "Lullaby") Damn Yankees' Jack Blades and Tommy Shaw and Soundgarden's Chris Cornell on two tracks each (the latter on kickoff metal radio track "Unholy War" and the former on "It's Me", a killer ballad and the first official single). But on the performance side, he departed from his previous big-name guest player policy, using his tired-and-true touring band throughout. Cooper veterans Stef Burns (guitar), Greg Smith (bass), and Derek Sherinian (keyboards) reunited with Alice at the video shoot for "Lost In America" at Hollywood's Chaplin Stage, where I had the chance to catch up with him during a break. Alice's always-on-top-of-it assistant Brian Nelson offered some additional insights.
So bring me up to date.
First three were the dinosaurs, they died...
You don't have to go that far back! Let's talk about the video first. How does making this compare to the previous ones?
This is funny because there's not a lot of setups. It's pure rock'n'roll. That's something that we need to do. Every once in a while we get too involved in big production videos, and how slick you can be. I'd rather just have the band rock out and play. When we got into this, we said, "We don't want a big production." This song is a basic Alice Cooper "Under My Wheels" kind of rock 'n' roll song. It's so basic the lyrics pop out. That's what we wanted it to be. It puts emphasis on the lyrics.
How do you like being on the crane?
You know, it's funny, I'll do anything on stage, get my head cut off, do all that really dangerous stuff, but this is pretty dangerous. A crane that I don't have any control over, it drives me crazy because I don't have any control over it. Same thing with rides in parks. I won't go on them unless I have control over them. I don't mind going fast as long as I have control of it. I'll drive 150 m.p.h. in a Shelby Cobra as long as I'm driving. I guess I just don't trust people.
MTV has been in rap and alternative mode, less rock. Is video as important now?
I'll tell ya, that's one reason we put a comic book out on this album, for a different visual trip. We're gonna do videos like everything else, but at the same time, I think if we were gonna go ahead and do every video for this album since it's a concept album, start to end and actually make it into a movie. That would be the way to go with it and we might do that. But as it is right now, I'd rather see the audience get the CD, listen to the album, read the lyrics, and then read the comic book.
The lyrics are on the album?
The lyrics are on the album, and it gives who in the story is singing it.
Can you explain the concept?
The concept is basically, something needs to be said about temptation. We're bombarded at all times with how much sensation can we get, how much can we take in, how much can we absorb, from every medium that there is. The temptation is out there.
What are your temptations?
Like everybody else's. Being an ex-alcoholic, it's not really a temptation for me any more - I've been through that. But a 15-year old kid might want to go out and drink a bottle of Jack Daniels. The temptations are there also for gangs, violence, sex, things that are potentially very dangerous. I think we're in a generation right now, that what I used to do on stage for fun they're doing it for real. It's a scary thought. I'm not gonna be Dad, and go "No, no, no, no!" That's not what I do. But I'm in a position where I, Alice Cooper, can be an observer. 15 year old kids in Pittsburgh or Seattle have their own world that I don't live in when it comes to their problems. I never had their problems. I never had to worry about going to school and having to have a gun. We're in a land where everything is available. But this poor guy - Johnny Blunder is his name, he's one of the characters - he can't get a girl, can't get a car, can't get a job, can't go to school 'cause he can't get a gun, can't get a gun 'cause he can't get a job. All these things he can't have in a land where you can have everything. This is the same guy who sings "Eighteen" and "School's Out" - I had to sing it under another character.
Is he the voice of other songs on the album?
No, he only sings one song. Steven, the character from Welcome To My Nightmare is the actual hero of the album, and the comic. The comic is in three parts.
But only one comes with the record.
Right. The other two parts come out later.
You've explained the overall concept, but what about the songs, how do they fit?
I'll give you an overview. There's a small midwest town, kids are coming home from school, and they look down an alley and see an old broken down vaudeville theatre that they never noticed before. The character The Showman, who looks very much like the old Alice Cooper, steps out.
"Welcome To My Nightmare?"
Absolutely. He's saying, "Come on in, let me show you a real show. Which one isn't chicken to come in, I want to show you what real life is about." One kid, Steven, says "OK, I'll go in." Then the show starts. He eventually notices that everybody up there is dead, with black under their eyes, and all they sing about is death. At the end he wonders, "Where is the life?" and The Showman can't answer that. He's not selling life, he's selling death. "Unholy War", "Stolen Prayer", that's what's going on in his head. But in the end he decides not to join this theatre, and not only isn't he going to join, he's going to burn it down, for the good of the world. He goes back home and says "I did it, I am a hero," and as he's brushing his teeth he sees The Showman in the mirror, and he says, "I've been burned down for the last 6000 years, and I'm never gonna go away. I'll always be here when you need me. I am temptation. You can't get rid of me by burning me down."
What song does that represent?
That's "Cleansed By Fire". In the end the kid ends up winning because he beat temptation. It's an option that I don't think kids know they have. They think that they have to do everything that's expected of them - join a gang, have sex when they're 12. This is saying, "Think for yourself. You can't live your life without consequences." Look at Kurt Cobain. You can't live you life without consequences. There's a consequence of what you do, and in the end you get a bill.
So that's the message in the end.
Yes, and it's something that kids don't hear - I know I don't hear it - that you have an option. You can say "No, I don't think I want to have sex at 12." There's such peer pressure. But this says "Alice says it's OK not to do that."
Is all this covered in the first comic book?
The first comic ends up with him being undecided what he's going to do. When they get all three comics, they'll have the whole story. I included Neil Gaimen, the comic book writer, in the basics of the story. When the story was all written, I said, "I need a song that opens up, that gives the kid's a point of view." That's "Sideshow", the opening song. Then "Nothing's Free" - come on in, but nothing's free. There are things in the fine print. Then "Bad Place Alone", "Lost In America", "You're My Temptation." These are all acts he's seeing on stage. "Stolen Prayer" is when he lives the place and goes, "What do I do, do I join or not? It looks fun, but I better not.". "Unholy War" is the battle going on, "I'm going up against this guy." Then he goes to bed and has this dream, with the angel - that's "It's Me", and he has an idea that The Showman is under his bed in "Lullaby". Then he says, "That's it, I'm gonna burn the place down."
What was the time frame on writing all of this?
It took a long time because I wrote 30, 40 songs. A lot of them I was sure were gonna be on there, but they just didn't fit.
They had to fit together as an album and with the story.
Exactly. I'd listen to it and it wouldn't have the same feel as the other songs. It's a bit tricky, because you want a balance of ballads, medium, fast for it all to flow. I wanted someone to listen to it and say at the end, "I want to hear it again."
You wrote with a variety of people.
I wrote with Jack Blades and Tommy Shaw, which was great, I'd never worked with them before. I worked on "It's Me", the ballad, with them. We really didn't have anything in mind, except I wanted something that was heart-rending. That will be the first single. "Lost In America" is for Europe. I think people will relate to it because it's simple.
So you're writing with Jack and Tommy...
I said I wanted something that has the feel of "Poison", kind of sexy midrange, midtempo, and we came up with "You're My Temptation". We wrote another six or seven songs up there.
That didn't make it?
And they were really good songs.
You worked with Chris Cornell, how did that come about?
[Former A&R representative] Bob Pfeifer was good friends with Chris Cornell, and he said "Chris has a couple of songs and he wants you to hear them."
Did he know you were working an a concept album?
No, he didn't, which was really unique. The songs worked perfectly on the album. I did a little surgery on them. Chris brought "Unholy War" in. I just had a couple of lyric things to make it fit. "Stolen Prayer" was just pieces - "I love this section, that section I don't know, it doesn't seem to work". In the studio I still wasn't sure, but when we recorded it, I loved it. It ended up being one of my favourite things on the album. I can see "Stolen Prayer" being a big single. It's so different, so unique.
How was he to work with?
Great, he was easy to work with. He ended up singing all the high parts on it.
Soundgarden's doing great.
It's time for these bands. They've done their preliminary albums, it's time for them to come up out of the underground.
And some of the other writers?
The other writers I used were friends of mine, Brian Smith, Danny Wexler.
Yeah. He came up with some great stuff.
How long did the writing take?
It was probably eight months of writing. We recorded little pieces of it on a little recorder just to get it down. Once we got everything done, I brought my band in. We had two weeks of intensive rehearsal, and then we went in and cut it in the studio. It was done over six months ago but the comic book wasn't so we couldn't put it out. We had a idea for a video game that was gonna go with it, but it was just to complicated. It would take another year and we didn't want to spend the time. We had two albums coming out and we had to time them. My preference was to put out the studio album first.
You used three different producers. Why?
We wanted Don Fleming for the street stuff, "Lost In America", the non-produced, straight ahead rock'n'roll. We used [Duane] Baron and [John] Purdell for "It's Me", for the more radio-ish stuff. And Wallace put the whole thing together, he mixed it. I wanted to use one producer, but I thought, one producer is gonna give it one sound, and Alice has a lot of sounds - a ballad sound, Love It To Death kind of sound, a big production sound, a hard rock sound. It was fun to work with three different people. It worked great.
Can you pick a favourite track?
It's really hard. I'd say "Stolen Prayer", "Cleansed By Fire", "Lost In America", "It's Me". I love "Bad Place Alone", too. When I pick 10 songs for an album, they're usually my 10 favourite songs.
Did any vocals give you trouble in the studio, and were any so easy they were done in one take?
Every vocal's a challenge for me. They were all different voices, I didn't use the same voice hardly at all. I used different voices all the way through. That was kind of neat to do. The only songs I think sound really similar vocally are "Bad Place Alone" and "Nothing's Free". "Lullaby" is totally different from "It's Me". Trash, I used one voice the whole album. I got a little more versatile with this. Most people who've heard this album think it's my best album. I think it reminds them of my old albums. I think it's OK to borrow from yourself, your own sounds.
Where did you record?
We worked in Phoenix, we worked here - all the recording was here but most of the pre-production was in Phoenix.
Since Eric Singer, who played on your last two records, went to Kiss, who played drums on the album?
From the Hooters, David Uosikkinen. I was a big Hooters fan. Don Fleming knew him. He did the whole record. But I was a big Hooters fan and when they said he was the drummer from the Hooters, I said "Get him immediately". As weird as that band was, I though they were great.
The rest of the band has been with you for years.
I'm so comfortable with my band that I can go away for five hours and let Stef [Burns] play and I know he's gonna come up with the right stuff. I think he's one of the best all-round guitar players I've worked with in my entire life, he's so versatile.
But you'll get another guitarist for the road.
Yeah, rhythm guitar. But as far as I'm concerned I wouldn't look any further than this group as far as playing live on stage.
What are the tour plans?
We don't have any tour plans at this point. We always say "Summer". We've got a promotional tour coming up, I'm going to Europe in May for 3.5 weeks, then Canada, the States, and Japan, just me. After that I don't know. Touring is different now, it's not the same as it was. We're not living in the past so we're not gonna pretend that we know exactly how to do this.
What about the retrospective album?
The box set? It's gonna be so much fun. I've got so many good titles for it. I wanted to call it Boxing Alice and sue Kim Basinger.
Weren't you having some problems with rights and clearance?
It takes a long time to get clearance on things. I did songs for movies, movies in Europe, and you have to get releases.
Brian: There was this movie done in 1974, Flash Fearless, that Alice had two really cool songs on. We contacted the company and they said there's no such album, it never existed. We had to send them a photocopy.
What were the songs called?
"Flash" and "Space Pirates"
What other rare material is included?
A song called "Monster Dog"
Brian: That's one thing that still hasn't been cleared. Another reason for the delay is Warner Bros. decided to refigure all their boxed sets to four CD's instead of three. We have tapes from high school, in our garage, that we recorded on a little tape recorder. One is called "Look At You Over There Ripping Sawdust From My Teddy Bear". It was a great song and it never made an album. There's some Jimi Hendrix songs. For the true Alice aficionado.
Is there a booklet with it?
Brian: Yes. They've also increased the number of pages, another reason for the delay. We've got pictures from high school, and now with the delay, we'll probably include pictures from the new album. We want to make it so comprehensive that we're gonna try to put one of the songs from this album on it. And we're gonna try to get the version of "I'm A Boy" that Alice did at Carnegie Hall last month with Roger Daltrey.
We did "Join Together With The Band" with Townsend and Daltery, too.
When will it be out?
It should come out on Halloween.
Any other projects?
I played the town drunk in Maverick. It's a cameo part, it's fun. I'm in a scene with Mel [Gibson]. I get a lot of scripts, I haven't picked up on anything yet. I'm just busy with this, I couldn't start. But I know I'm up for a part in Star Trek [the latest sequel]. I know I've been suggested for the part, but don't know if it'll ever come off. I'd love to do it. I'm a born Klingon!
"People in high school thought I was too scary for my own good" - Alice Cooper