Originally Published: May 12, 1999
Author: Stephen Thompson
Alice Cooper has received equal measures of credit and blame for influencing numerous shocking, over-the-top rock acts, from The Sex Pistols to White Zombie to Marilyn Manson. But what many of the 51-year-old's most popular contemporary descendents forget to emulate is Cooper's rebellious sense of fun, heard in such timeless rock 'n' roll moments as "School's Out," "I'm Eighteen," "Welcome To My Nightmare," and more. Perhaps the first to build truly over-the-top theatrics into his live shows--his raucous sets feature blood and countless props, and generally end with a simulation of his own violent death--Cooper has always built his act around catchy rock songs and a rare knack for showmanship. Of course, the cross-dressing, copious fake blood, and literal gallows humor raised some hackles in the '70s, and he's battled some form of controversy on and off ever since. Shortly after the release of an elaborate, 81-song, four-disc, five-hour career retrospective (The Life And Crimes Of Alice Cooper), the singer and showman spoke to The Onion about his legacy, the secrets of shock, and his performance on The Muppet Show.
My first rock 'n' roll moment as a kid was seeing you on The Muppet Show.
Oh, that was a classic.
That seemed to take a lot of guts, for a somewhat controversial rock 'n' roller to do that show.
You know, at the time, I felt that the Muppets were... The reason they got away with everything was because it wasn't a black against a white; it was a green against a purple, you know? So nobody could really be insulted by the ambiguousness of what they were doing. It was these furry little things, and they were very hip. And I thought, you know, Vincent Price had done the show, and I looked around at everybody who had done the show, and they wanted me to do this Halloween episode. And I said, "Well, that's perfect. I watch the show all the time and I think it's probably the hippest show on television. Absolutely. I'd love to do that." We did it in London, and the funny thing was that when you're rehearsing--we were there for a week rehearsing that thing--you're rehearsing with the puppets. And you're talking to the puppets, not realizing that there's a guy down below you, and you're talking to his hand. So you're sitting there, and Kermit's going, [imitates Kermit The Frog] "Well, Alice, um, should I move over here a little bit?" And I'm going, "Yeah, yeah, Kermit. I'll tell you what: The arrow's gonna come right through here, and I don't want it to get too close to you." And he's like, "Oh, I don't want to get hit with it..." And after a while, I'm going, "What am I doing?!" I look down, and there's the guy down there, and I'm like, "Why am I talking to your hand?" And I realized that I really was rehearsing with the character. And Miss Piggy, you know, she'd literally flirt with you. She'd say, [imitates Miss Piggy] "Ooh, Alice, come over here," and that kind of stuff, and you would get so sucked into the character that it was like you were really talking to the character.
It's funny, because there are quite a few musicians today who are clearly influenced by Alice Cooper, but very few of them--maybe Rob Zombie and a few others--would do something like that.
Oh, it's the most fun thing, and if you can't have fun with your image... You know, I didn't let any guard down: I was still Alice, except for the fact that I was surrounded by all these creatures. And they wrote it so it was very funny. If it would have been Sesame Street, I wouldn't have done it, but it was the Muppets, and the Muppets were hipper than anybody. So I thought it was very cool, and it gives me all kinds of credibility with my 6-year-old. Besides, I thought that if Peter Sellers could do it, and if Vincent Price could do it, then Alice definitely belonged. [Laughs.]
You're regarded as the father of shock-rock, and the man upon whose shoulders the likes of Marilyn Manson stand. But most of those people seem to not be having any fun.
Boy, did you hit it on the head. The only person out there who's having any fun with this is Rob Zombie. And it's clear when you listen to his albums, and when you see his show, that he's having a great time. And the other people look like they're just tortured souls up there, and you go, you know, "Guys! Lighten up! The image is heavy and everything, but you don't have to really be that." These guys are trying to live their lives the way their image is, and I'm going... The idea behind rock 'n' roll is joy. It's joyful music. It's not a depressing thing. You know, the big difference between an Alice Cooper show and a lot of the shows you're talking about--I won't specifically say anyone--is that I always left the audience on an upper. I left them inspired rather than... They walk away going, "Wow, I've got confetti in my hair and Alice has got a white tuxedo on, and he just did 'School's Out,' and balloons are popping." And then they remember back, and they go, "Wow, he did a thing with a baby carriage, and he did this, and then he got his head cut off. What a great night!" [Laughs.] They always walked out with big smiles on their faces. Whereas I know a lot of people walk out [of shows now], and they go, "Wow, my life is over." I don't know what they're going for. Are they trying to depress an audience?
I guess so, and I guess that if you can make a buck with one emotion, you can make one with another. But to me, I liked the fact that people always came up to me--even now, 25 years later--and said, "The most fun I ever had was at your show where you came through the screen and did this and this and this." And then another guy would say, "You know, I never had so much fun at a concert as when the Cyclops came out and picked you up." And I'd just think back and think, "You know, those were fun shows."
I was just going to mention the Cyclops. What a great thing.
Yeah, I mean, it was a real Cyclops. This thing was 13 feet tall and it could pick me up. You could imagine how much fun the rehearsal was with that.
Yeah, talk about Muppets.
Yeah, I had big Muppets. But even the things that were dangerous were fun. The guillotine. To this day, I get nervous putting my head in that thing, because it's a 40-pound blade. And when I look back... I'm putting together the show for The Life And Crimes Of Alice Cooper for this summer when we tour, and I'm looking around going, "Okay, what songs are we going to take off of this album? What songs are we going to try to redo?" And when you do the song, you also think, "What are we going to do visually with this?" It's fun to rehash some things on stage that maybe you haven't done in 15 years.
What do you have next besides this tour?
Well, the tour starts probably around August. Between now and August, I've got to write the show. I'm working on two new studio albums. One is already written, but we're not going to record it until later. That's the more theatrical one. And then the next album we'll probably start in the studio in July, but we go on tour in August and I'm certainly not going to be able to get the whole album done in July. So we'll tour for two weeks and then record for a week, and do it like that. Right now, I'll pretty much be in a continual musical mode for the next year and a half.
Is there a point at which you're ready to say, "Screw it. I'm just going to retire a legend and play golf"?
You know, I do that every once in a while, even though I've never really cashed in my hand. I've never really said, "Okay, I'm out of this poker game." There was the time when I dropped out because of alcoholism, but I was fully intending to come back. But since then, since 1986, no. I haven't played my hand out yet. I keep thinking, "Gee, I wonder what the next album is gonna be about. I wonder what the next tour is going to be." As long as I can get an audience standing for an hour and a half, and when I get up on stage, as long as I'm not 300 pounds and bald-headed... You know, as long as I'm sleek with long, black hair and can still do an hour and a half of high-energy rock 'n' roll, I'll keep doing it.
Is anything shocking any more?
Uh, CNN. CNN is more shocking than anything I can do. Audiences are pretty shock-proof. It was easy to shock people in the '70s, but around 1978, I quit the shock business and said, "I'm just going to be in the entertainment business now. I just want the audience to walk away going, 'Wow. How did they do that? Wasn't that a great party?'"
Maybe fun is what's shocking right now.
Yeah, I guess so. Trying not to be shocking is shocking. [Laughs.]
For people today who aren't really familiar with what you went through, what sort of censorship and controversy did you have to deal with?
Well, everything you did in the '70s was construed as being subversive on some level. Nobody in the band was gay, so the gay people thought we were making fun of them. And then the straight people thought we were trying to make everybody gay. And then, of course, the churches thought we were satanic, and nobody was satanic. We were anything but that. We were probably considered Communists, you know, and you couldn't find a more all-American band than Alice Cooper. We sat around drinking beer and watching football and baseball, and when people were calling for the end of the war, we were saying, you know, "Bomb them Commies!" [Laughs.] So you couldn't find a more all-American, white-bread, middle-America band than Alice Cooper. We were everything that people thought we weren't. We would sit around on nights off, and people would think we had these incredibly wild orgies going on, and we were probably sitting around watching Star Trek and listening to Burt Bacharach. [Laughs.]
You mentioned that you guys were anything but satanic. You're fairly outspokenly Christian.
Well, I mean, it's one of those things where I try not to put the two on stage, because they're different worlds. But at the same time, I always say, when people call me [satanic], that it's probably the worst insult you can give me. I'm certainly not trying to be like that. The image has always been misconstrued, I think. Again, it's people forgetting to have fun with the character, and I always go, "Hey! Alice is a character! Come on, guys." They really, truly expect me to live in this big gray house with a big cloud over it, like the Munsters. Of course, Rob Zombie's house is kind of like that. Rob Zombie's house really is pretty much the Munsters' house. [Laughs.]
Do you anticipate further battles in light of the reaction to what happened in Colorado?
You know what I think? I think rock 'n' roll is always going to be the easiest target. Nobody wants to point their fingers at the establishment and say, "Everything's out of control." And the feeding frenzy of the press... I think it even induces copycat stuff. As far as I'm concerned, what happened is a very demented thing that came out of a very demented place, and you could probably blame everything for it. But how many people can come to an Alice show or a Zombie show and walk away... I mean, 99.9% of those people go, "That was fun." There's maybe one-tenth of one percent who actually think it's for real, and they're the same people who think there's a spaceship behind a comet, and that we should all put Nikes on and drink cyanide. There is a lunatic fringe, and I guess [the Littleton school shooting] proves that that's true.
Where would rock 'n' roll be without Alice Cooper?
You know, I always figured that people would say, you know, "There would have been no Kiss, and there would have been no this and that." I think somebody would have done a version of what I did. I don't know if it would have been exactly the same kind of thing, but definitely someone would have done some kind of version of it. It might have been a lot later. I mean, we were pretty far out on a limb when we came out as Alice Cooper. We knew that if this didn't happen, we were setting ourselves up for being the biggest bunch of jerks of all time--or some of the greatest geniuses. And it was really a matter of, "If this works, it's big. If this doesn't work, we are gonna be known as the biggest morons of all time."