Originally Published: 1989
Author: Jon Pareles
Alice Cooper was, unfortunately, a pop-culture prophet in the mid-1970's. Long before MTV, he realized that rock could be treated as a theatrical spectacle, and he anticipated slasher movies by putting his hard-rock songs behind blood-splattered, Grand Guignol vignettes. For audiences that wanted jokey titillation, Mr. Cooper became the tasteless entertainment of choice, and every so often he'd come up with a well-made hit single.
At his best, songs like "School's Out" and "Eighteen," he could probe taboos and summon a spirit of nihilistic anarchy, though he was usually better on concept than on follow-through. But he couldn't keep topping himself, and by the end of the 1970's, while Mr. Cooper had become a regular on the game show "Hollywood Squares," punk-rock and heavy metal had stolen his thunder.
On Monday night at the Ritz, Mr. Cooper gave his first New York performance since 1981, acting like the same old ghoul for a packed room. Still skinny, with mascaraed eyes, a mop of black hair and a half-dozen leather jackets, he revived some of his old shtick and tried to look menacing in the relatively tame songs from his new album, "Trash" (Epic Records).
To update himself, Mr. Cooper has collaborated with Desmond Child, the producer of Bon Jovi, in full-bodied, cliche-proud songs that compara love and lust to "poison," " a bed of nails" and "a house of fire"; another declares "This Maniac's in Love With You." His growling voice is intact, and his band is thoroughly competent, but the songs are retreads.
The audience, which looked a decade older than a typical Ritz crowd, was there for the blood and oldies, and Mr. Cooper obliged. He deployed a Freudian's bouquet of phallic symbols - a riding crop, a sword, a pool cue, a rolled-up poster, a cane - and replayed old roles as the music grew a little rougher.
He was a straitjacketed madman and a juvenile delinquent (singing the Jets' song from "West Side Story"); he acted out strangling a nurse and slitting another woman's throat, thus presenting nearly enough ugly, anti-female violence for a typical prime-time cop show. To top "I Love the Dead" he was "guillotined"; then a band member held up the head, which spurted stage blood on the happy audience.
Mr. Cooper makes clear that his threat is pure show business; if he ever seemed truly frightening, that moment has passed. And at the end of "Under My Wheels," he unfurled and waved a large American flag, cackling, "Only in America."