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Originally Published: March 31, 1973
Author: Roy Carr
The unlit Marquee of the Capitol Theatre, situated on the corner of a cold, dark, windswept street in the New York suburbs of Porchester, advertises: "This Theatre Available For Rent For Rock Concerts."
"I'm not sure," says my driver, "But I think this is the place". I enter the building by a small side-door; pass two stocky rent-a-cops with thick bull necks and sidearms strapped firm around equally thick beer guts; and trip over a hoop of electric cables.
On stage a construction crew play human flies, clambering precariously, all over the monsterous Meccano of a set which had been assembled of the Warner Brothers' movie lot in beautiful downtown Burbank California. Now - broken down and shipped crosscountry to the Capitol - it has been restored to its original glitzy glory.
Posed before me here in their key positions amid the array of tubular steel, sheet perspex and spotlights stand the Billion Dollar Babies. And enetering stage left - the inevitable six-pack of Budweiser beer in hand - stands Alice Cooper, stumbling up one of the many illuminated staircases to this split level stage.
"He belches down the microphone and slurs. "This," he says, "is a song my mother used to sing to me."
It's a cue for group member Neal Smith, positioned immediately behind Cooper on a raised podium. He extends long arms above his head and then, in a rapid quick downward motion, thrashes the skins of his gigantic drum kit before the band lurches into the opening chorus of "Dead Babies". An illuminated glass Egyptian Mummy case shakes behind.
With no audience at the dress rehearsal - except for a dozen of so stage hands and friends taking a well earned five at the rear of the theatre - no sound is absorbed and the electric fury ricochets around the bright red walled, red plus velvet auditorium. Giant glass chandeliers chink in time.
'Hello Hurray' comes next, then 'Elected', quickly followed by another oldie-but-goldie 'School's Out'. But no dolls are hacked to pieces. Neither is anyone put to death.
When it stops, Alice tosses away his empty can, refuses one of Colonel Sander's Kentucky Fried drumsticks and instead rips the tab off a fresh can of golden Budweiser.
11 p.m. states the clock on the wall, and they all hult in rehearsals to allow the crew to put the final touches to the biggest and costliest collapisble stage ever taken on the road. Everyone decides to split to their beds except Alice and his aide-de-camp Ashley Pandel. Together we drive back into Gotham City to unwind amongst the human jungle that nightly infests Max's Kansas City on Park Avenue South & 17th.
It was the calm before the storm, these last few hours in New York, and a matter of hours later the Alice Cooper Road Show would commence the longest trek ever undertaken across the American continent by a rock act. For the next 90 days it would be seemingly endless string of one-nighters, jet flights, Holiday Inns; Phlo & Eddie, hamburgers, TV, booze and interviews. And the guillotine.
I did say guillotine. And should anything go wrong, it could be the shortest trip for Cooper down Highway 51.
As a grand blood-letting finale to the tour patrons' intake of ice cream, greasy hot dogs, cheap vino, downers and rock 'n' roll the fact is that Alice is being nightly led up the steps of Madame Guillotine to the muffled throbs of covered drums.
There, for all to see, he is made to knee and his neck is secured on the block by master illusionist - the Great Randi. It's fascinating stuff as, in a flash and a gasp from the wide-eyed spectators, the razor edge blade speeds earthwards and Cooper's head tumbles into the waiting basket. Then the Great Randi leans forward and, grabbing a fist full of black hair, lifts the freshly severed blood-splattered head aloft for all to see.
Don't forget to bring your knitting.
We are now speeding silently along the fast lane of the highway that leads back into the metropolis and Cooper attempts to explain away his apparent fixation with the grim reaper.
"Be honest, Roy", he says without warning. "What ya most afraid of, in life? Death... I'm right. Aren't I?"
"Not death itself," I say, " - but the way one meets it".
"Correct", Cooper responds. "I don't know if I'm lying to myself, but I'm the same. I'd rather be killed outright than be terribly mutilated and disfigured. That's worse than dying. With me, it's the dying that's frightening."
It seems death has been the main subject of conversation during the sittings he had recently with Salvadore Dali and Cooper makes as unintentional pun: "Dali's scared to death of dying." He realises and laughs to relieve the tension.
"Death is the only really big mystery left in life. It's the only thing I have absolutely no control over. It's only because I'm afraid of dying that, through Alice, I can act it out so often. Actually I've become quite used to playing with the idea of death."
Next I asked about his other frustrations.
"He or she - it's definately there", he confesses, confirming his own doubt as to the true sexuality of his alter-ego. "But to be honest I really can't remember precisely when or where Alice emerged. I only wish I could.
"Right now I'm constantly trying to steer away from the Bela Lugosi image on stage, but every once in a while Alice gets right back in there and wrecks everything. On this tour he's gonna run rampant."
Ninety days on the road, when you're Alice Cooper, ain't apparently all it's cracked up to be. He elaborates as we rumble over 59th Street Bridge.
"When I've been on the road for any length of time Alice begins to take over as the dominant personality, and I start believing in it. Right now, for instance, I can go into a bar, sit down and hold an intelligent conversation with people.
"After I've been out there, doing one-nighters for a couple of months, it's Alice sat in a bar smashing bottles and turning over the tables. That's exactly what happened during our last European tour. Alice got thrown out of three bars in Copenhagen.
"When I come off the road, for the first week or so I start going through some kind of withdrawal symptoms. It takes me about a week of hanging out in bars to tone down. You see - around that time in the evening when I'm usually due to go on stage - I can feel Alice trying to break out.
"There have been incidents when I've passed out in a bar," he tells me, "but I didn't really pass out. It was just Alice trying to create a dramatic incident. There had to be a scene: that particular side of Alice needed it for effect."
Rock 'n' Roll stars have never really been afforded any degree of respect, or for that matter held in social esteem by their elders. But we won't go into that one. Therefore I felt it on the bizarre side someone as blantantly outrageous as Alice Cooper has been feted by the like of Graucho Marx, Jack Benny, George Burns and Omar Shariff, let alone preserved on canvas by Dali.
Cooper has an adquate explanation: "It's because these people are total entertainers. They know what entertaining is all about. They can understand what I'm attempting to do.
"Recently, when I met both Jack Benny and George Burns, they both impressed upon me that it didn't really matter how I was doing it. The important thing was that I was endeavouring to entertain my public in the same way they had done 40 years earlier... and making a success of it.
"Jack Benny just sat there and said to me" (at which point he does a Xerox impression of the poker-faced comedian): " 'Alice... I don't know what you're doing, but whatever it is, keep doing it. Because every time I pick up something to read, there's your picture on it.'
"Even as far back as the Spiders I always wanted to be a star", he tells me when, upon the last stroke of midnight, our slick black limousine glides to a halt outside of Max's and we push our way through the melee of fans and freaks.
Esconced at our table he continues: "I can remember that even when I was as drunk as hell, singing in some tacky bar where the Mexicans and Negroes were having pitched battles on the dance floor, the only thing that drove me on and stopped me from throwing it all in was this vision I had of one day being a real star.
"I don't know if this is a personal ego thing... I don't mind saying the word 'ego'. I love it. I don't deny that I've got a big ego. If you wanna know, I like to walk down the street and have people point me out and whisper: 'Hey that's Alice Cooper'. But I'm very careful to only use it for the value that it's worth.
"If someone says to me: 'Hey, I saw you on TV and turned you off', I'll reply: 'Oh great'. It doesn't bother me that people might not like me.
"The important thing," says the star of the show, "is that they recognise me. The importance of being recognised is of great value to any artist."
In between downing the first of what turns out to be an unbroken chain of double V.O. whiskies Cooper adds:
"I could go to the White House and Nixon would say: 'Ummmmh so you're Alice Cooper' - he'd know who I was. To be frank I don't want to be in this world and remain a nothing. My definition of a star is an over-exaggerated ego."
He draws the line: "I detest the kind of person who becomes totally obnoxious in public. You know, the kind who throw their wieght around and shout so everyone within miles can hear: 'Hey man, yer know who I am?'
"If you can be humble about who you are when you walk into a public place... that's cool. But go shout your mouth off about it, that's a bummer. And you've defeated your whole aim and what success is all about. I know a lot of people like that, and really they don't need to do it. Yet they still insist on being obnoxious about their success. You've always gotta treat people nice. And show them respect."
Suddenly Bette Midler is the topic of conversation. "Bette Midler IS a star", he emphasises. "She's great because from the very beginning she assumed the idea of being a star, and because she had both the confidence, and talent to back it up, she's become just that.
"Bette Midler" - he repeats the name with a certain amount of professional reverence - "is the best thing I've ever seen on stage. She's a real pro, though in some aspects I think that you've really got to be from New York City to understand and fully appreciate where her humour is.
"Bette is a combination of three people, really: Barbra Streisand, Ethel Merman and Tug Boat Annie. I mean, that gal's so entertaining that when I first saw her I just sat there with my mouth wide open.
"I'll tell you how good she is. I had a six pack of beer under my seat, and when she started performing I became so engrossed they were still there unopened by the time she'd finished. Any gal who can make me stop drinking has just got to be talented.
"David Bowie is another fine entertainer who assumes that he was a star", says Alice. "And again, because like Bette Midler he's got an abundance of extremely original talent, he's carrying it off very successfully."
It's of prime importance to Cooper to carefully avoid being trapped and subsequently destroyed by the very image that has currently made him America's top box office attraction. He is adamant and astute enough to realise he should always stay one giant step ahead of his audience without leaving the behind.
He discusses the longevity of his career. "I'm 25 years old and I can tell you that the Alice Cooper you see on stage won't be doing the same things he's known for by the time he reaches 30. It would be utterly pointless.
"I'm not going to be in any position to speak for 13 or 14 year old kids. By the time Alice is 30, he'll be acting and producing things that will be relevant to what's happening in 1978."
Just then a drab figure appears at our table and in the dim red light I see he's wearing a shabby top coat and his short black curly hair is a mess. "Hi Alice", says the stranger.
"Hi there fella", replies Alice.
"Hey Alice, yer gotta minute free to rap?"
"I must tell you", the young man begins, "I really bored the audience to death when I played ay Kenny's Castaway Club the other night. Man, you should have seen me. I was really boring. The crowd hated me."
"That's great!" Alice says, as he starts getting interested in what the young stranger has to confess. "What's ya name?"
"Matty... friends call me Matty".
"Well Matty, why don't you sit down and tell us how you bore people."
"Oh, I just kinda bore people all the time. Actually, I'm really very good at it."
"Well, you're not boring me", he is informed.
"Oh, don't worry. I will," says the guy, "once you get to know me".
"You know something Matty? You ought to make a professional career out of being boring", Cooper begins, proceeding to outline a career for the young artist.
"First of all you gotta change your name. Now why don't you call yourself John Smith?... that's a boring enough name.
"Then, what you do is dress in a drab ill-fitting grey and brown suit, and have cards printed with your boring name in brown, boring type on a dreadfully boring grey card. You realise that if you can really bore people as well as you say, you'll become a big star and make millions. John Smith - the guy who bores people. You could fill Carnegie Hall with an act like that. But you gotta make sure you don't do anything that entertains people."
For the next couple of hours Cooper downs glass after glass of whiskey and works out the most boring ideas for John Smith. Finally the newly christened star-to-be thanks Alice for his indulgence, and with a look of acute boredom etched into his nondescript pasty face, disappears into the crowd.
"He's really a nice boring guy," slurs John Smith's patron. "If he can really bore an audience like he says - he's got it made. He really has."
Somehow the conversation has brought about a change in the personality of mine host, for he lurches forward and, as the table shakes, he moans: "Oh my God . . . I can feel Alice taking over... ahhhh, I must get outta this place at once".
He staggers through the crowd, out of Max's, and collapses in the back of the waiting limousine.