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(September 29, 1973)
Originally Published: September 29, 1973
At age seven Vincent Furnier was playing in his back garden, down in Phoenix, Arizona, when he found a baby King Snake. He took it home and watched it grow, day be day. He even caught small mice to feed it. He liked to watch their tails disappear down the sinuous throat.
His mother, the wife of part-time minister, was disgusted at first, but gradually came to except it was a pet. Vince called the snake Alice, because it was the name of a little girl at Sunday School. It wasn't until it died that he found it was a mansnake, after all. Vince was so upset as its death he cried for days, and there was nothing his mother could do to console him.
He never forgot that snake.
The Spiders from Phoenix came well before the Spiders From Mars, but even they weren't the first. In the beginning they were the Earwigs. They were all friends at Cortez High School: Dennis Dunaway played bass; Glen Buxton was on lead; and Mike Bruce did a little on bass and keyboards. Neal Smith wasn't there yet. There was another drummer, now the manager of a band called Beans, who do TV themes. And then there was Vincent Furnier.
He sang and played a bit of harp, but he was as much a schoolboy hero type as a muscian.
But it wasn't until the school gave out its 1964 sports awards that the muscian in him and the rest of them came to the surface. They did a skit on the Beatles as part of the presentations, and found something they'd sooner be than athletes. They became the Earwigs and played Catholic dances.
Later they became the Spiders and did Yardbirds music. When they didn't make it with that name, they became the Nazz - all Beatle hats, yellow corduroy jackets and Rolling Stones numbers.
Although they were putting together some kind of reputation in Phoenix, they went to LA after two years of college. To make it, in short. But in LA, the originals, and several friends, including Neal Smith who'd since joined, were living in one room, and starving.
Hollywood turned out to be the making of them. It gave them style and a direction, partly worked out by the band (and particularly Vincent), but basically the brainchild of Shep Gordon, a young Andrew Oldham-type businessman from New York.
He and his partnet, Joe Greenberg, took over the management, with Gordon as creative hustler and Greenberg as the accountant. Gordon had been impressed, so the story goes, by the amount of bad vibes about them. His suspicions, he felt, were confirmed when 2,000 people walked out on them at the Cheetah Club in LA. So bad they were good: if it's true the cliche is wonderfully apt.
They hit on their appraoch, in fact, by a kind of counter tactic. It was 1966, a big year in hip, when the world was on the verge of being changed, to listen to some. And all around were these new wave of Californian bands, like the birds and Buffalo Springfield.
It was peace and love, but Vince and the rest saw what was underneath it all, under all that LA sun and surf, and it was sex: sex and violence.
Vince was becoming very aware. He saw that while LA was physically beautiful it was spiritually sick and tacky. He and Shep decided to run against the laid back trend that was emanating out of San Francisco. They became a kind of picture of Dorian Grey, drawing into themselves all the more outrageous and ugly things that populated the local scenery, but giving it all an ironic twist.
And they capped it, put the icing on the cake, by christening themselves Alice Cooper (the name had to be changed, anyway, because there was a more famous Nazz in Philadelphia, led by Todd Rundgren).
Their stage act congealed into a mix of sex and TV horror, outlined by a camp theatricaity. They took to wearing bizarre costumes. And they put themselves about, waiting for the big break. It came in the goateed form of Frank Zappa, patron saint in those days of America's musical anomalies. He had already met them and talked of signing them to a new label, Straight, being formed by his manager Herb Cohen and himself at the time. Like Shep Gordon, he was confirmed in his interest in the night of the Lenny Bruce birthday party in Hollywood when they were opening for the Doors and the audience walked out.
Two albums came out, "Pretties For You" and "Easy Action," and they became a minor cult among the critics, particularly those on the West Coast. They finally made it to New York in June '68, when they played at the Felt Forum with the Platters, but it was still a hustle. After another year they all moved to Detroit, where they felt the audience, raised on home-grown products like th Stooges and the MC5, was most receptive.
By now they'd found Bob Ezrin of Nimbus 9 Productions the man who really created them musically. And by now, too, they'd begun to seriously disagree with Zappa's concept of them as another of his freak satellites (Reportedly, he washed his hands of their music).
They signing themselves to Warners - there's still legal action going on between Zappa-Cohen and Alice Enterprises, the Cooper's company - and "I'm Eighteen," produced by Ezrin and on the "Love It To Death" album, turned out to be a hit in America in late 1970. It was the gap through with poured the flood.
On May 6, 1971, they headlined in New York at Town Hall, featuring the first of Alice's threatrical variations on death - this one the electric chair. They climaxed the performance by ripping up pillows in a mock chicken-killing routine, the feathers, it's said, got into the ventialting system and it cost 3,000 dollars to remove them.
The act also included the famous sequence during "The Ballad Of Dwight Frye," in which Alice was led offstage in a straight-jacket by a "nurse," unsually, in the beginning, some girl recruited from the audience.
It was less an overnight sensation than a gradual escalation into Grand Guignol, the process became grander each time a new album was released. Each album contained a song that has defined it and which has formed the core of their new stage act. On "Killer" it was "Dead Babies," a musical theatrical exposition of the theme of infanticide in Edward Bond's Saved.
Alice chopped up plastic dolls, which looked realistic enough from a distance and in the heat of the moment, the effect was heightened by the increasing sleazy nature of his stage gear - he resembled a middle-aged Soho tart with ladders in her tights.
But the most fascinating aspect has always been that ultimately Alice is the victim himself, in as much as he's made to suffer retribution for his sins in a kind of code that's absurdly moral.
Any violence that he perpetrates is only ever a prelude to the real point of the show: his emasculation by the forces of authority (even though that authority has more in common with a lynch mob).
The irony is that if it were all emoted before a small theatre club on the London or New York fringe, say, its sociological import would have been sharply discussed. Because it's done before 18,000 people at Madison Square Garden, it has become showbiz, as surely as Judy Garland was and Marlene Dietrich still is.
In "Killer," Alice and Shep opted for la morte Anglaise - the handman's noose - just as the image had hinted earlier at le vice Anglais. Alice was hanged in quite convincing fashion, then showbiz took over again as he reappeared, with top hat, tails and cane.
They've always been careful to reassure their audiences of the essentially harmless nature of the act. In a way it's a cop-out, an anti-climax rather than a release, designed, one feels, to end it all on a happy note and gloss over what may earlier have seemed offensive.
"School's Out" was released last year and it clinched their reputation. The single was one of the definative pop songs of all time, playing upon the teenage sense of rebellion in archetypal fashion, utilising a great, catchy riff, and putting it out at the crucially commercial moment - just at the onset of the kids' summer vacations.
The album also clarified their origins in true showbiz. They took "Gutter Cats Vs The Jets" from Bernstein's "West Side Story," and amplified it on stage into a kind of "rumble." It wasn't quiet successful, perhaps because the staging was so clumsy but it showed where they were coming from and also where they were going.
Alice began to make plans for a huge rock theatre show, to be staged at New York's Palace Theatre. Its opening was fated, because, said the Schubert management, the theatre couldn't meet the demand for the tickets. Privately, and not so privately observers thought the real reason was the profit margin would have been too low for the band and the business operation that was positively burgeoning.
No matter. With the release of "Billion Dollar Babies," in early '73, wheels were set in motion for a huge 56-city tour of America and Canada, which was to gross four and a half million dollars, the largest venture of its kind up to that point.
Broadly, it followed the same pattern of crime and punishment, despite all the increased trimmings, and by the time it came to Madison, the band was worn out and looked sick to death of the act. They came off the road, and Mike Bruce announced he was making a solo album (a couple of months earlier, he'd opened his own appartment complex back in Phoenix; because the band was a financial democracy, it was reckoned this now made him the richest member).
Alice himself said what everybody had been expecting; he was going to go into films. It wasn't said what what ventures, but there had been some contact with Roman Polanski; the chemistry seemed ideal. Since Salvador Dali, no less, had made a hologram sculpture of his head, Alice Cooper could be said to have translated his early interests in surrealism and television escapism into tangible acheivement of sorts.
But pop moves so quickly that Alice Cooper already seems in the past. At least, his shock value does. It seems ten years ago since he chopped the heads of dolls; in fact it was only last year. His problem is a self-made one - he has to come up with a better gimmack each time. And, who knows, death might not be so interesting next year.
The again, he's never really defined himself by rock standards. The visual aspect has always been uppermost; it's the effect, not the content, and his has been a triumph of style over substance, theatricality over musical ability. And why not?
The bounderies of what is good and entertaining don't have to be circumscribed by rock. There are no rules, and Cooper, in any case hasn't asked to be judged by any.
Really he's the patron saint of trash and that cheap punk attitude that's gained so much currency in '72 and '73, itself a reaction against the weighty words that critics have doled out on rock.
Perversely, I think his records have been much better than anything he's ever done onstage, but I attribute them more to Ezrin than anyone else.
The records have said something. "Elected", "I'm Eighteen", "School's Out" and "Under My Wheels" - that's real Art with a capitol F. Within it's own sphere, punk rock can have genius; it's like reading the Daily Mirror in tandem with The Times. Alice was pure tabloid. He's been, as they used to say in drawing-room circles.......an entertainment.
Alice Cooper's new album "Muscle Of Love" is released on November 15. The album will be packaged in a brown corrugated cardboard box and tracks featured include "Teenage Lament", Women Machine", "Working Up A Sweat", "Never Been Sold Before", "Hard Hearted Alice" and "Crazy Little Girl".
There is also a possibility Alice Cooper will be touring Britain in the New Year, although no arrangements have yet been finalised.