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New Musical Express
(September 06, 1975)
Originally Published: September 06, 1975
Author: Kate Phillips
"PEOPLE WANT artists to have messages - which is dumb. Your average wino in the street's got more of a message than any artist."
Alice - the new, cleancut, lovable, inoffensive ol' Alice - continues his policy of Owning Up... He's over in England for a few days of intensive advance publicity (well, for that and a trip to Gleneagles) before his "Welcome to My Nightmare" show opens at Wembley on September 11 and so far he's spent the first 48 hours spieling nonstop to nearly every journalist in the capital.
The main line of the new spiel, however, is nothing that they - or you - won't have heard before.
It's nothing new these days to hear (a) that Alice, sorry, Vince, his realised he needn't play Alice offstage as well as on ("I Used to drink two bottle of whisky a day, trying to keep up with the pace of being Alice all the time); and (b) That he thinks of his new show as "pure entertainment, in the Barnum and Bailey tradition." No message, therefore, Al, huh?
"In The Beginning" he agrees, "I thought I had all the messages in the world. But now I realise that no-one has all the answers. I can't stand anyone preaching at me."
But what did you imagine the gospel of Alice to be in the days when you were out to shock/outrage people, and not just shock/surprise them?
Alice/Vince (only everyone calls him Alice, actually) comes up with a good theoretical reply to that: as a long-term admirer of the "Old Masters". Bela Lugosi and Boris Kariorf, he figured that in rock, as in films, there had to be a balance between the good and the bad. A Lugosi to every Mary Pickford; an Alice to every John Denver.
If Alice was verily keeping the John Denvers of this world in their place, it seems a pity he had to change, says I.
But Alice's creator don't see it that way: "After the 'Billion Dollar Babies' show, I took a year off - and during that year I realised that I couldn't go on doing the same kind of thing with the Alice character. It was develop or destroy him: either divorce myself, and never see him again, or find him something new.
"Alice is much more elegant now, he knows much more about himself onstage. He can come on and be as bratty as he wants to be, but elegant with it. He grew up a little bit."
Yeah. He got a little bit cynical, you might say - since Cooper knows perfectly well that parts of his audience, at least, will continue to believe that Alice is up there calling them to riot, despite the denials. Wouldn't be true, though. Alice has always been a cynic: that's what saved him. How could we have enjoyed Alice if we'd thought he was really serious about dead babies and electric chairs? Like, committed to them, you know? He wouldn't have lasted a minute.
No, whether we realised it or not at the time, it's the slickness of Operation Horror, so much more in keeping with the true character of sneering Alice than any psuedo-political loyallies, that keeps us interested. When Cooper forgets the old idea about having had "messages", or having thought he had, he explains the origins of shock-rock convincingly.
"When we were starting, it was the time of the Doors, Buffulo Springfield, Love - we were competing against 20,000 other bands just in LA. We'd do things like 'auditioning' for three hours at a club, and then not being offered work: all people were really doing was getting us t0 play free at their club.
"We were starving, physically starving, and we were tired of being fucked around. So our attitude was, we're gonna make you look at us. We're gonna grab your attention.
"So all of a sudden, there was Alice Cooper. And people hated us. They hated us so much they came to see us. Even other bands hated us. Friends of ours started hating us. But they came to see us.
"And after that, we developed the character of Alice to the point where he's a lot of fun. Now people hate him, but they still really like him as well."
And since he's now such a familiar old villain, such a cosy old perve-you-love-to-hate, it's quite safe for Cooper to admit that he's really been Mister Nice Guy all along; safe for him to seem only theatrically nasty instead of really quite nasty. Especially since, as we've already said, lots of people won't even realise there's been much change.
As to why he's owning up - I think he just got bored with Alice's excesses, particularly having to pretend that he kept them up 24 hours a day. "I don't really sleep in a coffin. I don't really put on black makeup and chase groupies round the room with a whip all the time" he says wearily. And indeed, you get the feeling that kind of stuff may have been messing up his golfing schedule.
AT ANY RATE, the new show, or so he insists, is "about as controversial as Sinbad," I haven't seen it yet. so I'll just have to take his world for it (and CSM found Sinbad a good deal more terrifying). The story, insofar as there is one, has Vince playing Alice playing a small boy called Stephen who wakes to a nightmare in which the security of his bedroom has turned to horror: his teddybear becomes a nine-foot furry cyclops, his bug collection becomes enormous Black Widow spiders climbing over the walls, etc. But it doesn't sound all that alarming, somehow, compared to the Clockwork punkery of "School's Out", or the "decadence", as Cooper labels it, of "Billion Dollar Babies."
"This is just a different show - I change my whole attitude with every show" protests the Man With The Snake. "I don't use the snake any more." Oops, sorry. "People get so secure seeing Alice Cooper with a snake" (they do?) "There have to be changes."
For example: in "Billion Dollar Babies", Alice was the aggressor, says Cooper; in "Nightmare," "poor little Stephen is always running around bumping into things that are trying to get him." Yes, but Alice is going to play it his way, isn't that right? And Alice will give a few twists to the little boy's character, hmmm?
"It'll be twisted alright" grins Cooper. In fact, he's obviously glad to ditch any lingering belief that he had a responsibility to the audience at all - except, of course, to "entertain" them. "All I do" he declares, "is give you the stimulus. It's like a Dali painting: he gives you the images and you play with them and make up your own story; and Dali doesn't even have one written. A snake, for instance: you might be totally scared by a snake, or totally turned on by it. Some people think my show's frightening, some think it's hysterical, a complete farce. Me, I can't tell you what it's supposed to be."
What he really wants to talk about is not the meaning of the show, if any, but the mechanics of it: he's very proud of the way the whole thing's organised, telling you it cost 400,000 dollars and was rehearsed eight hours a day for a month, and that during numbers like "Cold Ethyl", the audience acutally quieten down and watch intently, not a bit like the old wild Alice fans.
"Cold Ethyl" is a song about a nubile corpse, and Cooper sings it while fondling a large rag doll, whilst a fifteen minute ballet cavorts around him. Eventually he falls to beating the doll up and throwing it on the bed; the lights dim for one moment; then Alice goes into "Only Women Bleed" and the lifeless form onthe bed slowly raises on leg.
"Everyone goes 'Wow', they can't tell if the doll came to life of if I was really beating up a real woman" enthuses Alice. (In fact a dancer is substituted for the doll during the moment of blackness.)
What's all that about then, squire?
"It's just part of the nightmare" says Cooper with slight impatience. "He beats the woman up, laughs, thinks perhaps he shouldn't have laughed - he's confused. Things don't have to make sense in a nightmare."
Cooper's philosophy of entertainment is pretty simple, on the surface at least: he believes in giving the audience "as many things to think about, and look at, as possible. We're probably the best touring band in the country, without the visuals, but anyone can just get up and play all night. Why just do that? When I start designing a show, I actually go and sit in the audience at a big concert and think 'What would I like to see?'
Of course I'd love to see a fifteen foot snake, of course I'd like to see a guillotine. A kid doesn't worry about messages, he just wants to be able to go to school next day and say "and then he did this, and then he fell off that..." It's juat the fact that he saw it, that's enough. "If I was a kid. Alice Cooper would be my favourite band."
You don't miss going spare every night?
"Well, you see, Alice... I can't trust Alice. Once he gets up there..."
I don't believe that. I think you're in control the whole time (and always were).
"Oh I am - basically - but I've had nights when Alice has really gotten back to the old guts thing - it sounds bizarre, it's so easy to get up there and be a maniac... because you don't have to answer to anyone. Who did I have to answer to? If the audience said 'We hate it'. I'd say 'If you don't like it you can go home' to their faces, and I'd laugh if they did, because I knew they'd still come back next time. Alice is arrogant as hell, and you don't destroy an attitude like that overnight. When he gets onstage and realises 20,000 people have paid to see him - well, he doesn't come on and say 'Gee. I hope you like me tonight'. He says 'Aah... so you're here, eh?' and grabs them by the throat.
"A couple of shows this last tour, when I'd had a bad day, I found myself becoming ultra mean about the whole thing... but now I'm relly into getting the show right. I don't want to miss my cue cos I'm out of my head onstage..."
Seems a pity to repress the old Alice.
"Well, the audience are my critic, and the audience love the new show, it's been a total sell out. Nobody's said 'Gee, I wish you were back there breaking things up and killing people'.
LIKE I said. I haven't seen "Nightmare". But CSM has, and he wrote that Alice should take it straight to Vegas. I'm not sure Alice would agree with him: "Carol Charming saw the show" he says happily "and she really thought of it as a play, you know. She said 'That should be on Broadway.' And you could - you could take my show to Broadway."
Loveable Bozo Alice Cooper hasn't checked yet on how much of his property went up in flames with his new house, but he thinks his Warhol and Dali painting may be a little heap of ashes in LA - he only heard about the fire from the new the next morning, and he thinks playing "Welcome To My Nightmare" with the film clip was "a little cruel".