Orange County Register

Originally Published: March 06, 2001

Alice Cooper: Sick thing had a message

Alice Cooper gets a bum rap

Author: Ben Wener

Partly that's his own fault-no sooner had his macabre clowning reached its pinnacle then it became true clowning, the sort that found him enrapt with his own celebrity and making lousy albums that were one slice away from Andrew Lloyd Webber.

He has tried to shift his music back to what it was, but that's moot. It's the golfing Alice Cooper we live with now. The restaurateur Alice Cooper. The spoof-himself-in-commercials Alice Cooper. The Alice Cooper that today's suburban 50-somethings-the very same types Alice intended to tick off 30 years ago-now see pop up on "Behind the Music," then remark, "Ah, he was better when he did `Under My Wheels.'"

And you wonder why Marilyn Manson became popular, to say nothing of Eminem.

But there was a time, someone must remember, when Alice was considered dangerous. Not by any kid, of course-it was blue-sky clear that this was brutal satire-but some adults thought him a scourge on the nation's youth. Even those just removed from their teen-age years couldn't quite fathom Alice's "art."

Which was the point. The failure of the previous decade's well-intentioned but laughable utopianism had left a good chunk of a new generation despondent and bored. Along comes a sick thing singing "Sick Things" to sick things-the antithesis of "Ziggy Stardust." Makes perfect sense why it caught on.

"Billion Dollar Babies"-Alice's last great album, recently reissued in a two-disc deluxe edition-was the one that sold like gangbusters, topping the charts in spring `73. Purists might argue that the band's leaner earlier efforts are better-like, say, the 1971 one-two strike of "Love It to Death" and "Killer." And you'll probably run out of ammunition before they do; excepting the monumental anthem "School's Out," those albums have the Cooper standards.

For the mainstream fan, however, "Billion Dollar Babies" is the ultimate-and this many years on, it holds up as Alice's sturdiest achievement.

True, many of his great hits ("I'm Eighteen," for instance) succeed because the antagonist's desperation is palpable; were the tracks tarted up any more, they'd be ridiculous.

But "Babies" is different. The album on which producer Bob Ezrin cut his bombast-rock teeth (hear this, then go play Pink Floyd's "The Wall" and discuss), it's not nearly the sellout some detractors claimed it was at the time. Yes, the punched-up sonics have an air of corporate meddling to them-and for as much as "Hello Hooray!" works as commentary, it's uncomfortably close to the meatless hokum Alice would soon favor.

At the same time, that enormous sound fits the cheesily dark mood of "Babies" perfectly. Songs about suburbia's soul-stripping uniformity needed to be over-the-top-and how better to impress alienated kids with too much time on their hands than with a stomping ode to necrophilia called "I Love the Dead"?

Yet the intelligence behind Alice's shining moment often goes overlooked. Smart rebellion can be an oxymoron, but it's inherent in the best anti-establishment rock, from "Revolution" to "Anarchy in the U.K." to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" to "Guerrilla Radio." Anger for anger's sake goes nowhere fast; it's why I suspect new-metal is starting to bore more than a few people.

That's what Marilyn Manson, whose "Antichrist Superstar" pose almost went somewhere, never understood. Espousing winkless, atheistic, anti-social rhetoric as a means to get people to think for themselves only gets them thinking that winkless, atheistic, anti-social rhetoric is the proper way to think. The rest of us merely laugh at it, not with it.

Alice, on the other hand, relished (and made sure his audience relished) the irony, the glibness, the bait-and-switch. He could lambaste the rich with the title track by lampooning his own fame and fortune; likewise, he mocked staid values with "Generation Landslide" (a forgotten gem) because he knew his crowd would get the joke, not twist its meaning into a manifesto.

He has more in common with Kurt Cobain, actually, than Marilyn-a social commentator with built-in aloofness presenting parlor tricks.

After all this time, those tricks still mesmerize.