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Originally Published: October 01, 2000
Author: Ed Masley
More than 20 years after deciding his audience couldn't be shocked anymore, Alice Cooper was shocked to find the inspiration that would fuel his most frightening nightmare yet while watching CNN.
"I asked myself, 'What scares me?' And what scared me was CNN.Freddy Krueger doesn't scare me. Things like that don't scare me. What scared me were things like Kosovo. Here's a guy collecting his family in a pillowcase. And it's not staged. It's not part of a movie. It's for real."
And so, he wrote a song, "Pick Up the Bones," about a guy collecting pieces of his family in a pillowcase.
And two songs based on the killings at Columbine High School.
"The Columbine thing, I think, must have sent a chill through everybody," Cooper says. "It was right in the middle of America, and there was absolutely no reason for it. It wasn't any vengeance killing. It wasn't a racial thing. It was just pure murder. From two normal kids. And that's gotta scare everybody. These kids didn't fit the type. They weren't Aryans. They weren't the Klan. They weren't Black Panthers. They were just two kids. To me, that's frightening, you know? So I said, 'Well, that's gotta be written about. That's American history.' "
At first, he thought of "Brutal Planet" as a concept album placing Cooper in the future of a post-apocalyptic "ball of hate."
But then, the truth came back to haunt him as he realized that "what I was writing as a fictional piece is already here."
The title cut finds Cooper singing, "Right here, we stoned the prophets/Built idols out of mud/Right here, we fed the lions Christian flesh and Christian blood/Down here is where we hung him upon an ugly cross/Over there, we filled the ovens/Right here, the Holocaust."
It's heavy stuff.
And don't be shocked by all the Christian imagery.
The son of a preacher man (born Vincent Furnier), the shock-rock veteran, 52, rediscovered Christianity about eight years ago -- aside from which, he's always toyed with Christian imagery. "Love it to Death," his breakthrough album, featured songs called "Second Coming" and "Hallowed Be Thy Name."
The difference now is Cooper really means it.
"When you've absolutely done just about everything that you can do, you look back and you say, 'OK, was it satisfying?' And you go, 'Well, not a lot of it was.' The fame is great, the money's great, but it's not the most satisfying thing in the world. So you're wondering what is then? You start asking those questions. I don't think you ask those questions when you're 20 years old, though."
Would he take back things he did at 20, 30, maybe even 40 if he could?
"I think so," Cooper says. "There are a lot of things that I don't necessarily condone now that I used to."
Not that his music or lyrics were ever as ugly as some of the bigger-selling records of the past few years. At worst, he was making a sly, cartoonish mockery of money, sex and death.
Compared to Eminem, he'll always come across as Mr. Nice Guy.
"Oh, come on," he says, when told a friend of mine insists "Dead Babies," for example, is no better than what Eminem is going on about. "That record was one of the first times anyone had ever said anything about child abuse. I certainly wasn't gonna say, 'Now, don't abuse children 'cause it's not good.' Alice Cooper wouldn't say it like that. He would say, 'Dead babies can't take care of themselves.' And how would he prove that? He'd start throwing them around on stage. He'd start kicking them into the audience. It's definitely a piece of theater. But it's to make a point."
As for the people who insist on blaming all the evil in this world on Eminem or any other form of entertainment, Cooper's heard it all before. About himself. He addresses the topic in "Wicked Young Man," a song about a kid who brags "I can punch through a wall/I can kick like a mule/I got a pocketful of bullets and a blueprint of the school /I'm the devil's little soldier/I'm the devil's little tool."
And what made Johnny evil?
"It's not the game that I play/The movies I see/The music I dig/I'm just a wicked young man."
As Cooper sees it, if popular culture were to blame for all the meanness in this world, "Every kid at Columbine would have killed every other kid. They all played 'Tomb Raider.' They all saw 'The Matrix.' They listened to Rammstein and Marilyn Manson, Rob Zombie and whoever else. Why didn't everybody else at that school kill everybody. Why these two guys? Because they were evil. And they probably would have ended up being serial killers. These guys just had no regard for any life at all. So that's what they did. But the easiest target in the world is rock 'n' roll.
"Howard Stern said something very insightful. What heavy metal album was Hitler listening to, you know? The guy killed 15 million people. What was it, Rammstein he was listening to? He was listening to Wagner."
Cooper isn't saying artists shouldn't take responsibility for what they're putting out there.
"I think if you say, 'Hey kids, go put a bullet in a gun and kill a cop,' yeah, you're responsible. You'd better be careful about what you say."
And even at his most extreme, he never told a kid to kill. "I've always kind of glorified being 18 years old," he says. "I said, 'Look, I'm 18, I'm screwed up, but it's great.' I've never told anybody to go out and hurt anybody. I think that that would be wrong to do. And I definitely have places where I won't go."
His disciples in Slipknot and Marilyn Manson may not place those kind of limits on themselves. But life, says Cooper, doesn't mean as much today as in the days when he could shock the world with a song called "Only Women Bleed" (which was, in actuality, a heartfelt critique of the way our culture abuses its women).
"When we look around now and wonder why is life so cheap, it's because we treat it that way," Cooper says. "People in this society used to respect life. We don't do that anymore. You know, 400,000 people could die in Africa in one day and we see it on CNN and we go, 'Ohhh, wow ... hey look! The Simpsons are on!'
"Four hundred thousand! That's a mountain of people. Dead. They all have families. There are people crying over every one of them. And we're so apathetic, we're going, oh, well, that was in Africa, who cares? That's horrific. The apathy may be more horrific than the murders. A lot of times on 'Brutal Planet,' what I'm saying is I think our desensitization is part of the horror. And that's something that we never think about."
As Cooper admits, "It's not the happiest album I've ever done."
It may be the heaviest, though -- and not just in terms of the lyrics.
"I think when you say Alice Cooper or bands like Aerosmith or Ozzy, a lot of people expect a classic '70s rock sound," Cooper says. "But I don't want to stay in that era. I've done that already. I'm competing with Rob Zombie and those guys. So we definitely took a guitar-driven rock 'n' roll album and just plugged it into a much more modern recording system."
The other thing that separates this latest album from his early classics is there's no escape.
"I usually let the audience off at the end," he says. "This time, I didn't do that. I didn't give them an out. On 'Welcome to My Nightmare,' the kid wakes up. On 'From the Inside,' he escapes from the mental institution. I didn't give anybody a way out this time. I just left it there going, 'Hey, "Brutal Planet." That's our future. Learn to love it.' And people are sitting there going, 'This makes me nervous.' "
He's already writing a sequel.
"And again, I don't know if I'm going to let the audience off," he says. "I might just keep it negative like that and let the people deal with it. There's one way of scaring an audience, which is by writing about what's living under the bed and what's in the closet late at night when all the lights are out.
"The other way is to put a mirror up and say, 'Oh, by the way, this is where we live.' "