Observer

Originally Published: April 29, 2001

Fairway to heaven

Old rockers never die. They just get God and golf. William Leith meets Alice Cooper

Vincent Furnier, who started performing as the megalomaniac rock god Alice Cooper three decades ago, still looks more or less the same - he is long-haired, big-nosed, Cuban-heeled, with thin, pipe-cleaner legs. He is 53. He's recorded 25 albums, spent years as an alcoholic, dried out, converted to Christianity, taken up golf, opened a restaurant with a sporting theme in his home town of Phoenix, Arizona, and raised three children. Some things in his life have remained consistent - he still watches a kung-fu movie before every stage performance and eats a McDonald's quarter pounder with cheese afterwards. We meet in a hotel lobby in Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia, as he embarks on his umpteenth world tour.

We are ushered into a car which will take Furnier to a local radio station. Settling into his seat, he says, 'They just point me.' Tobey Mamis, second-in-command of Furnier's managerial team, has told me that 'Alice' is extremely professional and good with the media. He comes to life in front of a microphone. In the car, Furnier says, 'You know what? This royal scandal is pretty ridiculous. Did she say anything scandalous? If it was me, I'd have told them I was a cannibal.' Looking out of the window at the dull sky, he says, 'I don't think I can quite get away with sunglasses. It's just a bit too cloudy.' Offstage, but in public, he negotiates the territory between the real Vincent Furnier, a middle-aged entertainer, and his stage persona, Alice Cooper, who is supposed to represent the evil that exists in the human condition. There are similarities between the two - for instance, both Furnier and Alice believe in Satan. But while Alice kills babies, Furnier attends weekly Bible classes. Furnier spends five days a week on the golf course. He has a handicap of four. At the moment, though, he is on Alice-related business, and expects to be addressed as such. Arriving at the studio, he sits in front of the microphone, grinning. The presenter, a cheery woman, says, 'Most of you probably know him for his gothic stage persona. But did you know that he's a very keen golfer? Welcome, Alice Cooper.'

Alice Cooper! This is the man who pranced around on stage in a corset and leopard-print thigh boots, a live boa constrictor around his neck, who cut the heads off dolls filled with fake blood, who declared, 'An audience loves to be taken and almost raped.' This is the man who threw handfuls of dollar bills at his fans and stood above them, relishing the ensuing mayhem, who pretended to have himself guillotined at every one of his shows, who was condemned by the MP Leo Abse for 'peddling the culture of the concentration camp', and whose records were banned in the early 70s after a campaign by Mary Whitehouse. When Johnny Rotten auditioned for the Sex Pistols, he mimed to Cooper's song 'Eighteen'. Once, during a 1969 Alice Cooper show in Toronto, a member of the audience threw a live hen on stage; Cooper, thinking it would be able to fly, threw it back. The audience tore it to pieces.

And what did it all mean? Alice Cooper was the Eminem, or the Beastie Boys, of his day. He was trying to show us what we, as a society, had come to. 'Society has created this Frankenstein, this Alice Cooper,' he said in 1973. One critic, Allan Jones, made the point that Alice was not Alice Cooper, but 'the audience was'. Even though it all got too much for him in the late 70s, when he used to drink more than a bottle of whiskey a day, Vincent Furnier has often referred to himself as 'the ultimate put-on'. He is a conservative Christian. As long ago as 30 years ago, he declared, 'I'm the most American rock act. I have American ideals. I love money.'

You wonder what drives him still. He doesn't need the money. He has just flown thousands of miles, been subjected to delays and stopovers, and is visibly weary. Perking up on air, he says, 'I didn't know that rock'n'roll was such a long-lasting disease. There's a guitar germ or something. When I was a little kid, and I heard the electric guitar for the first time, it got in my system. Chuck Berry or whatever. To this day, all of my albums are guitar-driven rock'n'roll. The only thing that won't go away is garage rock. The Rolling Stones are the best garage band of all time. Two guitars, bass, drums, and a lead singer. That's garage rock. Aerosmith. AC/DC. Alice. Led Zeppelin. These are all great garage bands.' He's a fluent speaker. 'If I wasn't doing this,' he says, 'I would have loved to have been a lightweight boxer.'

He took up golf, he says, to take his mind off drinking. He talks readily about his drinking years. 'Let me tell you who my big brothers were. Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Moon, Harry Nilsson. These people were my best friends. I was the little kid - the one on the way up. Every one of these guys were like maniacs. Look who I was looking up to. The thing I did learn is that you don't have to die. I learned a long time ago that Alice Cooper had to have his own life. Tomorrow night, onstage, it'll be fun to be Alice for two hours. But I don't have to be Alice now. Jim Morrison thought he had to be Jim Morrison all the time.'

Fans are gathering. Alice poses for snaps. He says, 'I've got to do a dress rehearsal - in a real dress!' The Australians love him. The first time he came here, he says, was in 1976. In Perth, in his hotel room, he woke to the sounds of what he thought were fans shouting 'Alice! Alice!' Preparing to bathe in the adulation, he opened the window. What they were really shouting, he says, was 'Abba! Abba!'

In the car, he tells me about his family. His wife Sheryl is a former ballet dancer who took a job on the side performing in his stage show. She played the part of the nurse and also the leather-clad dominatrix who attacks, and is attacked by, Alice on stage. These parts are now played by Calico Furnier, Alice and Sheryl's 19-year-old daughter. He has a 16-year-old son, Dashiell, and an eight-year-old daughter, Sonora. 'My son loves hockey, heavy metal and so on,' he says. 'So I go into his room, and he's watching a Britney Spears video. Him and his buddies are all sitting there. Normally they're all listening to this hell-raising music. I said, "You guys like this?" He said, "Dad, look at her." I went: "Right!"' Alice clenches his fist. 'As a father,' he says, 'I thought, "I have a son!"'

Britney Spears is on Alice's mind for another reason - he has devised a Britney routine for his new show. In the routine, Calico dresses up as Britney, in a shortie kilt, and gets into a fight with Alice. We talk about Britney's celebrated virginity and the fact that, a decade ago, Brooke Shields worked the same ploy. 'What guy in the world doesn't like that image?' he says. '"This is my butt. Nobody's touched it." Every guy in America is saying: "Let me be the first!"'

Back at the hotel, Alice's manager Shep Gordon, who was introduced to him in 1969 by Jimi Hendrix, is discussing Alice's golf options with a local professional called Clem. There is a course nearby. On the other hand, the weather is bad; we are experiencing the tail end of a cyclone off the Gold Coast. Gordon, who used to wear flowers in his hair, is now bald, but has a tanned pate. He lives in Hawaii. He says, 'I think Alice has been a remarkable reflection of an adolescent's feelings about the world. Like all great artists, he's a reflection of the times.'

As times have changed, so Alice's act has changed - it has become more doomy. The show he is preparing has the same name as his most recent album: Brutal Planet. 'The world is a different place,' says Gordon. 'Thirty years ago it was about throwing water balloons in the summer recess. Now it's about bringing a gun to the school and killing everybody. A song like "School's Out" becomes very trite, almost. Whereas 30 years ago, it was revolutionary.' Gordon says, 'It is a brutal planet. It's one of the reasons I live in Hawaii.'

Here in Newcastle, the surf is pounding on the beach. Wind is buffeting the windows. Upstairs in his hotel suite, Alice is wearing slippers, having removed his snakeskin boots, and is sitting with his feet up, watching golf on TV. When I arrive, he flicks the remote and starts watching a recording of the Grammy awards. 'There's so little rock involved,' he says. 'It's all about what's easy to listen to. Now, rap has made a place. Rap is basically the voice of the street. But when you look at the rock charts and see Destiny's Child, and Ricky Martin. I like Ricky Martin, but I take exception when they say, "It's all rock'n'roll." It's not rock'n'roll. Rock'n'roll is Aerosmith. Rock'n'roll is AC/DC. Rock'n'roll is The Offspring.'

Alice grew up in Detroit, but the family moved to Phoenix when he was 10, hoping the dry climate would have a beneficial effect on the young Vincent's asthma. It did. His father, Mickey, was a car dealer and then an electronic engineer who preached in his spare time, as his own father had done. Alice says he is part French, part Sioux. 'So maybe that's where my drinking problem came from. You can probably trace me back to Creole. There's a little bit of hillbilly in there, too. But when I look at myself, the high cheekbones and the black hair, there's some Indian in me, I can tell.'

As a kid, although never particularly musical, he liked to dress up as Elvis Presley. At Cortez High School, his first band was called The Earwigs. 'It wasn't a band,' his older sister Nickie would tell reporters, 'it was a joke.' He was a marathon runner, and he formed The Earwigs with Dennis Dunaway, another runner, for a school revue. Along with 'the early days of being in the band', Alice tells me that his schooldays were the best time of his life. 'I basically ran my school. I had all my teachers totally under my spell. I was funny. Popular. I was a jock. I had the only band in school. I got along with every sect at high school. I was sort of the go-to guy. If somebody wanted to meet a girl, they'd say, "We'll call Vince. Vince'll introduce you."'

Before he decided on the name Alice Cooper, the band was called Nazz, and then The Spiders. 'I had such a great time with my original band,' he tells me. 'The only thing we had going for us was that we believed in this silly rock'n'roll that we were doing - and the theatrics.' For a time they all lived together in a mansion in Greenwich, Connecticut. 'We weren't what people imagined,' he says. 'People assumed we were into drugs, but we were drinkers. People might have thought we were liberal, but we were conservative. We called ourselves Alice Cooper, but we were probably the biggest chauvinist pigs out there.'

After having massive hits with the albums School's Out and Billion Dollar Babies, the band split up in 1975. 'They wanted to ditch the theatrics,' Alice tells me. 'One guy wanted to be George Harrison; one wanted to be Pink Floyd. I was going, "Guys, we won the war. We won. Everybody wants to be us now. You want to go backwards?" I was thinking just the opposite. Instead of having less theatrics, I was thinking five times more.'

Since then, working with a fluctuating line-up, Alice has become increasingly theatrical. The first big show was called Welcome to My Nightmare. 'This was guitar killer-monster rock with real theatrics. With spiders coming up out of the floor! There was a bed that came out, and monsters came out from under the bed and did ballet! If you're going to say "Welcome to My Nightmare", do it. If you're going to say "Brutal Planet", you'd better give them Brutal Planet.'

We drive to the venue for the dress rehearsal. The stage set is already in place - a guillotine, a crashed car, piles of tyres and rusty pieces of machinery. Brutal Planet is set in a futuristic, Mad Max-like dystopia. In the dressing room, which contains a lifelike rotting corpse, a television crew from Channel 10 is setting up cameras for an interview. Alice sits on the sofa, in a sea of skulls. On camera, he says, 'The show is very apocalyptic and dark. One song, "Wicked Young Man", is about Columbine.' The interviewer says, 'Certain sections of the community blame music for these tragedies.'

'You know, it's so ridiculous,' replies Alice. 'What rock album was Hitler listening to? He was listening to Wagner when he was killing everybody.'

The rehearsal begins. As the guitars start to crunch, Alice moves about the stage, a hopped-up, skinny presence, a dervish with wild hair. He practises walking around the stage, posing with a crutch. He practises holding out his mike towards the auditorium to encourage the audience to sing. He sings, 'I've gotta get outta here/Mum and Dad have got me drinking whiskey/I'm 18 and I like it.' He looks like a timeless old pirate. Age has not withered the Alice Cooper persona, but improved it. The more hollow-eyed and wrinkled he looks, the better. He struts around between the guitarists, playing air guitar. 'The breath of the death is the only sound,' he whispers into the microphone.

More practising. The stunts must be organised. Calico, dressed as a nurse, runs on to the stage. Alice practises abducting Calico and shutting her in the boot of the wrecked car. Later, she bursts out of the boot. There are more scuffles. Alice rehearses sticking a curved sword into a plastic baby, and then waving the baby above his head. He is then arrested and guillotined on stage. As he disappears behind the guillotine, his head is substituted for a rubber lookalike. Later, Calico appears as Britney and mimes the words, 'Hit me one more time', at which point Alice does. On the way back to the hotel, Alice says, 'My old body feels like I walked from California.' There is silence for a while. Then he says, 'Look at the size of that!' We are approaching a large building, festooned at every entrance with golden arches.

It is Friday the 13th of April, Good Friday, the day of the show itself. In the hotel, Alice tells me about Christianity, which he began to take seriously 10 years ago. 'It's everything,' he says. 'It's what I live for. If you gave me a choice between rock'n'roll and my faith, I'd take my faith. Rock'n'roll is fun - it's what I do for a living. But it's not what I live on. I believe in classic Christianity. I've given my whole life to the Lord. But I don't think that means you can't be a rock'n'roller. Ten years ago I went to my pastor and said, "I can't be Alice Cooper any more." He said, "D'you think God makes mistakes?"'

He is religious, he says, having indulged in every pleasure it is possible to indulge in, and having, at the end of it, still felt empty. 'If you had known me 20 years ago, you would have said, "This is the most crazed, addicted person on the planet."' Drinking, he says, is 'a real freedom in the head. And I lived behind that mask for an awful long time.'

Alice drank with Keith Moon, who was 'such a loon. You had to love him. Of course, you had to sit with him and drink all night. Same with Harry Nilsson. Same with John Lennon. John liked to drink.' Others involved were Mickey Dolenz, of the Monkees, Bernie Taupin, John Belushi. 'You'd get on the same level and everyone was having a great time.

'I've had every car, every mansion,' says Alice. 'I went through everything you could do.' Of his experience with drugs, he says, 'You lived through the 60s and 70s. You tried this and that.' He says he hasn't cheated on his wife since they got together a quarter of a century ago. Of being debauched, he says, 'I got to the end and realised there was nothing out there. I was still hungry for something. I was the prodigal son. I left the house, achieved fame and fortune, and found out that that was not what I wanted. Now I read the Bible every day. I pray every day. That's really what I'm about.'

Is he, in a way, a sort of preacher, carrying on the tradition of his father and grandfather? 'Sometimes,' he says, 'I think what I do on stage is a very dramatic warning to the audience that Satan is not a myth. I believe he's very active.'

Calico is sitting at the hotel bar. She wants to be an actress. When she told her father this, he told her to practise saying the phrase, '"Do ya want that wit' cheese?" Cos that's what you're going to be doing.' Of the show, she says, 'Your jaw is going to drop to the floor.' She feels fully rehearsed, and is not worried about getting hurt in the scene where she has a fight with her father. Alice appears to punch her in the face. 'Sometimes you just get clocked,' she says. 'But it is stage fighting. It's hit and push. You push your hand back if you make any contact.' She ponders for a while, and says, 'It's Spinal Tap, the show. We're just waiting for Stonehenge to drop.'

Half an hour before the show is due to begin, I walk into Alice's dressing room. He is watching a kung-fu movie. Chinese men are tumbling around, shouting. He's calm. Alice says, 'You didn't believe me, did you?' He opens a trunk, which is full of kung-fu videos. The door opens. It is Brian Nelson, known among the entourage as Renfield. Nelson, originally a fan, had spent years attending every Alice Cooper show within driving distance of his home in Buffalo; before he was hired as Alice's assistant, he had become an Alice authority, with a huge collection of memorabilia. He knows more about Alice than anybody on earth, possibly Alice himself. He says to me, 'What are you doing? Alice needs to be alone now.'

Nelson ushers me to the door. Alice nods. Outside, in the corridor, Nelson says, 'You shouldn't have done that! This is when Alice watches his kung-fu movies!'

The show begins with a sinister voice: 'Well, well, well - what have we here? I am the controller of the city of the dead run by the sadistic megalomaniac Alice Cooper. Go now while you have a chance before it's too late. If he catches me now, he'll kill me. if I'm lucky!'

And then everything happens - the Mad Max costumes, the dry ice, the raw guitar chords. Eric Dober, the rhythm guitarist, had told me he was nervous; this was his first performance in the band. Alice had told Dober to make his playing as raw as feasibly possible, to 'make that guitar just a horrible thing'. And now Dober is bucking over his guitar, squeezing a suitably hellish noise from it.

The show runs smoothly. The Newcastle fans seem to be either young or fairly old - a good proportion are well into middle age. One kid has the word 'Twisted' inked across his face. 'I'm Twisted Boy,' he tells me. Adults, I think, like Alice because he reminds them of the time when they used to say that the world was going to hell in a handcart, but did not really believe it. Kids see him as another point on the hellish cartography that is their cultural world. Alice stabs the baby; Alice shuts his daughter in the boot of the car. The guillotine scene works well. Alice croaks out his Aids-era song, 'Poison' ('You're poison, running through my veins'). When he sings 'School's Out', lots of people stand up and start bopping around. Towards the end, he disappears and comes back wearing a T-shirt which says 'Britney Wants Me' on the front, and 'Dead' on the back. Calico appears, dressed as Britney. They fight.

After the show, Alice has agreed to 'meet and greet' some competition winners and members of a local golf organisation. 'Say please and thank you,' says one man to his son. One man, a collector of Alice memorabilia, asks Brian Nelson to sign something. In the car afterwards, Alice sings 'There's no business like show business' in a jaunty manner. We drive through the windy streets of Newcastle towards the golden arches. 'We should do a commercial for these guys,' says Alice. Then he says, 'At least I'm always thinking. I've always got an angle. I'm an ideas man.'

But when we get to McDonald's, there is a huge tailback. The queue has been caused by Alice Cooper fans, who left the venue before us. 'I'll have a quarter pounder with cheese,' says Alice. And we join the end of the queue.