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Originally Published: July 26, 1989
Author: Dave Dickson
Alice Cooper's legendary status within the world of Hard Rock owes much to his dark and infernal dabblings. But now, with a new record deal secured and a new album 'Trash', poised for release in the UK, the man has changed tack slightly, giving his songs a more commercial slant and exploring (in the musical sense at least) an assortment of bizarre sexual experiences.
Frank Sinatra. Few men in the history of the music business have attained such near-universal respect, admiration and, yes, fear. Frank Sinatra must rank in the upper echelons of The-Coolest-Man-In-The-Cosmos league. Not, perhaps, as cool as Clint Eastwood, nor Rolling Stone Keith Richards, but somewhere up there.
'New York, New York, a wonderful town....' sang Frank Sinatra. And indeed it is, despite the almost insufferable heat. It's that close, enveloping and physically draining heat that New York, a dry and airless place, is particularly prone to. New York may be a wonderful town but it is also a town of magnificently vampiric qualities, drawing it's victims in, sucking them dry, and spitting them out into the rank and polluted waters of the Hudson River.
But I wear my crucifix and wet my lips in holy Evian water, humming Frank Sinatra tunes idly to myself as the cabbie taking me to the Regency Hotel explains that just that morning he had been caught in a pincer movement by street thieves who robbed him of his cash box. In consequences, he has no small notes. I give him five dollars and tell him to keep the change.
Some 30 New York cabbies are killed every year. This goes largely unnoticed in a town grown complacent to acts of violence.
"I used to carry a gun," says the London cabbie who came here to ply his trade. He drives my friend Laurie and I towards a party at a new club on the Lower East Side of Manhatten later that evening, regaling us with rueful stories about the horrors of this city.
"Used to keep it right under here," he continues, indicating his seat.
"Now I don't bother. You want to know something? You want to print something?"
Sure. So he tells me the statistics about the cabbies. No-one, apparently, is much interested in such statistics.
"Imagine if that happened in London." There'd be uproar, I tell him.
"Right! But here, no-one gives a damn."
He points out a club, a late night drinking haunt for homosexuals.
New York, it's a wonderful town.
So I'm humming Frank Sinatra tunes as I step out of the oppressive heat and into the air-conditioned luxury of the Regency Hotel. The International Rock Awards (sponsored by Coca Cola) have block-booked rooms here and are putting up a whole batch of celebrities.
The Awards are partially the reason for my presence. I stumbled across the line-up: Keith Richards, David Bowie, Lou Reed, The Bangles. And now I'm here. Here to interview one of the stars of the evening's proceedings: Vincent Furnier, better known to the world as Alice Cooper.
Alice Cooper is leaning back on the couch in his hotel suite, watching MTV. It's been a while since our paths have crossed but he still looks fit, healthy and in irrepressible good humour. I'm feeling slightly frayed at the edges, hot, sweaty and not a little pleased to be off the street. Air conditioning may be environmentally unfriendly, but there are times when you just don't care.
Cooper smiles broadly and offers me the empty armchair. The great thing I've noticed about not just Alice but all superstars of rock, is that they make it easy to be around them. I could be nervous - I should be nervous around a star of this magnitude - but I'm not. Alice Cooper enjoys the interview process, it's almost, well, theraputic.
So I start rattling off about Frank Sinatra and how I saw him just the previous month with Sammy Davis Jr. And Liza Minelli at the Royal Albert Hall in London, a show of truly galactic proportions.
"I went to see Sinatra with (songwriter) Bernie Taupin about ten years ago," says Cooper, "and this guy in a suit came over to our seats and said: (adopting deep, Mafiosi thug-style speech) 'Mr. Sinatra would like to see ya in his dressing room'."
"We didn't feel like arguing so we went. And the thing was, he was doing one of Bernie's songs and one of mine in his set. He just wanted to thank us. So we told him it was a great honour to have him sing our songs. And he said: 'That's OK, you keep writing 'em and I'll keep singin' 'em!' Ha!"
Alice Cooper keeps singin' 'em too, and the latest outlet for his singing is a new album with the uninviting title of 'Trash'. But that is likely to prove it's only uninviting aspect. It has been co-written and produced by Desmond Child, the King Midas of the record industry and the man responsible in part for such hits as 'You Give Love A Bad Name' and 'Livin' On A Prayer' (Bon Jovi), 'I Was Made For Loving You' (Kiss) and 'I Hate Myself For Loving You' (Joan Jett), among (many) others.
Desmond Child, despite an abortive performing career in the late '70s, continues to write material that is both credible in the rock arena and acceptable to the radio airwaves. An enviable combination and Child is unquestionably its most accomplished exponent. It is this dual-edged sword that Alice Cooper wanted on his team.
Alice Cooper and his team had been engaged in battle for the previous couple of years, the mainman clawing his way back from a career that appeared to be heading for the toilet with a string of relatively unsuccessful albums in the early part of the '80s, albums such as 'Flush The Fashion', 'Zipper Catches Skin', and 'Dada'. Then he met up with muscular guitarist Kane Roberts (who plays on the new LP and co-wrote one song with Alice), changed record companies - from Warners, with whom he'd been allied for 15 years, to MCA - and deliver two hard rock albums, 'Constrictor' and 'Raise Your Fist And Yell', that returned him to his mid-'70s heyday, both musically and theatrically, as well as in terms of audience appeal.
The accompanying shows were dubbed 'The Nightmare Returns' as Alice once again found himself playing to stadiums filled with the faithful alongside new acolytes and the plain curious. But Cooper had to move on, to reach a wider audience or find himself sucked down into the pit once again. The myth, if it is to stay mythological, needs constant reinventing. And there are few more inventive performers in the Rock'n'Roll jungle than Alice Cooper.
But radio is the key here, at least in America, and most specifically car-radio. Americans listen to their car-radios constantly. They turn them on as automatically as the ignition. Alice Cooper is no exception.
"The way I judge a record is this: when I'm driving my Corvette, if I hear something that makes me want to turn up the radio - to me that's a great record."
" 'Beds Are Burning' by Midnight Oil, 'Dude (Looks Like A Lady)' by Aerosmith, and all the Bon Jovi singles were great - 'You Give Love A Bad Name' was unbelievable. 'Heaven's On Fire' by Kiss, 'I Hate Myself For Loving You' by Joan Jett... Eight out of ten records I found myself turning up were co-written by Desmond Child. So I said: 'I've got to get in touch with this guy because he's writing the kind of music I would like to hear Alice doing on the radio'."
In the meantime, behind the scenes, Alice Cooper's contract with MCA was up for renewal and a new player entered the ball park.
"Epic Records, those guys have been so good. They knew that our contract was up with MCA so they came in and said: 'We're ready to go to the wall for this'."
'This', of course, being 'Trash' (released in the UK on August 7). Alice Cooper was never exactly at home with MCA, nor they, it seems, with him.
"They had no concept of what to do with Alice Cooper. I would get to radio stations and they wouldn't even have a copy of the single. I'd go, 'This is really stupid, I'm just going through the motions with these people'."
"Granted, there wasn't really a single on either of the records I did with MCA, because that wasn't what we were going for. We were going for the hard rock heart again: Alice was back and Alice was still ROCK! And we established that."
Just a brief aside here, this statement illustrates two interesting points about Alice Cooper - or rather, Vincent Furnier - and his speech patterns. Firstly, he deflects the credit for his success away from himself by using the collective 'we'. The whole Alice Cooper operation is certainly a team effort, but ultimately it all comes down to one man. However, Furnier preserves an endearing modesty.
The second observation is that he always refers to Alice Cooper in the third person. Furnier recognises Alice as a completely different entity. It may be his Jekyll and Hyde approach to his alter-ego that allows the offstage man to cope with this duality and retain his sanity.
But onward. Alice Cooper wanted to push his career forward having re-established his rock credentials and decided that a shift away from the gore-drenched horror product of his resurrection was also required.
"It was the same thing with the show being so full of blood," he confesses. "I really wanted to do two full world tours that were totally blood lust, and it was fun. Now a lot of people have asked me: 'Are you going to do that again?' and the answer is no, we're not, because I'm not going to turn into Slayer!"
"It's time to give them a different look; what is Alice's view of sex? So 'Trash' is basically the sexual outlook of Alice...."
With his sights set firmly on writing an album about sex, and a new deal signed, Alice decided to go on holiday...
"I was in Hawaii. I'd just finished the second world tour in two years and I said, 'OK, I'm going to rest now for a while'. I spent about three weeks there and then I said, 'I gotta get this guy Desmond Child on the phone!' Ha!"
"Shep (Gordon, Cooper's manager) said: 'I thought you were going to relax?!' I
said 'I was, but I think this is the guy I should be writing with!' "
So the great Desmond Child search began. Fortunately for Alice, someone at Epic had a girlfriend who worked for Child's publishers. Child was then tracked down to a commune somewhere in the back of beyond (probably Virginia - Geographically sound Ed).
"Desmond was into a kind of community he was living in then... on a different planet from me! When I first approached him and said, 'why don't we write together?' he was confused because he was into this Earth Mother kind of thing, that everything was great and wonderful. And yet, here was this character, Alice, who was opposite to that in every way. Ha!"
"Meeting me was a culture shock for him, but of course I'm Mr. Charming at all times. So he said: 'OK, I want to work with him'. But I think it took a little soul-searching on his part. He said: 'I don't want to do any of this Devil stuff!' and I said 'well neither do I - I don't DO any Devil stuff!' "
"He had the same image everybody else did after hearing those horror stories about Alice Cooper. But once he got to meet me he realised.... I'm just Alice... JUST ALICE!!!"
Having tracked down Desmond Child, Alice lost no time in getting on with some serious writing.
"So we started writing and it came so easy! Every time he would write a melody line I would come up with a lyric to match it. We could sit and write for hours, days and he was just fun to work with."
"But I knew I wanted this guy because he was, to me, the key element. I said, 'All we have to do is inject Alice's voice, attitude and lyric into this kind of music and that's the record I've been trying to make for a while'. I think 'Trash' is that record. It's the closest thing to 'Billion Dollar Babies' (1973) that I've done."
Since the attribute that Alice as seeking via Child was 'radio-ability', he is liable to be charged with 'selling-out' when the airplay arrives, as it surely will.
"But there's nothing wrong with radio-ability," he contests. "When I was at my biggest I had records in the Top Ten. There's nothing wrong with having a commercial record out because commercial is as good as you make it."
"And what's wrong with commercial anyway? Everybody's trying to get on the radio. Besides, the new album doesn't sound like Tiffany! It doesn't sound like Bomb The Bass! It sounds like Alice Cooper - it's my version of what commercial is."
"I think the attitude on 'Poison' (current UK single) or 'House Of Fire' or any of the new songs is totally Alice. So we make our own commercial. The thing is, when you have a hot hand, whatever you say goes! Look at Guns n' Roses! If they were not hot those records would not be up there. I think 'Welcome To The Jungle' is one of the best singles ever! But I don't think 'Patience' belongs in the same universe as that song. It's just the fact that they made it commercial. So they could put out anything right now and it would be commercial."
The line-up of helping hands that Alice assembled for the new record was a formidable one indeed. For instance, on the title track there's that guy from New Jersey, what's his name?
"Jon Bon Jovi was perfect to sing the high part on that. It was good for him too because I think he wants his image to be a little more 'street'. People forget that Bon Jovi are a real rock'n'roll band. When I was over staying at Jon's house we were up till five in the morning in New Jersey bars; they were jamming till the sun came up - every night! So got a whole different view of the rock'n'roll animals that these guys are."
"Same with Aerosmith. They've cleaned up their act so much now and I've always been in parallel with them - the same alcohol problems, the same drying out and coming back.... It's ridiculous! But I've never gotten to do anything with their singer Steven Tyler, who I always thought had the best voice in rock'n'roll! Then finally, the song came along, 'Only My Heart Talkin'', and I said, 'This'll be perfect for Steve and I to sing on, it'll be history!'"
"I think it was the first time that Steven or I could ever, in the history of our bands, be sober enough to be in one room, at the same mike, doing the same song in the same key!"
"And Joe Perry (Aerosmith lead guitarist), again, ten years ago you'd never have said; 'Come in and play guitar on my album'. The same way that they'd never have said; 'Alice, come in and sing on our tape!' Because we were too messed up. Now you listen to those guys and they're just playing their brains out! So Joe's playing on this thing too. It was great to see everybody back and healthy."
"I don't think 'health' is a bad word in rock'n'roll anymore. It doesn't mean we're MENTALLY healthy, but physically we're healthy. Let's live to enjoy it. Let's not burn out in a big flame!"
Alice Cooper's views on such topics as sex and drugs and rock'n'roll have changed since the hedonistic days of the '70s. But on 'Trash' he concentrates on just the 'sex' part of that triumvirate because, "It's the common denominator everybody has!"
Alice, "Has been to a lot of places. We took Alice to Hell; through the Nightmare; through the Billion Dollar Babies thing. This time we're taking Alice through... 'trash! Through a sexual fantasy land."
Between them, Cooper and Child have concocted a helter-skelter journey through an assortment of bizarre and collective sexual experiences, such as:
"I asked myself: 'What was the hottest thing, sexually, in my life? Or in anybody's life?' I think it's when you're 16 in the back of a car! That was where 'Spark In The Dark' came from: A Summer night, the most uncomfortable positions in the world...."
"Then it gets into more sophisticated areas os sex, like 'Poison'. 'Poison' is definitely a letter to Penthouse that's really out there, a dream sequence kind of thing. 'Bed Of Nails' is a satire on S&M - the guy loves the girl so much, and she loves him, but there's so much pain involved in the relationship, physical and mental, that he says: 'when all else fails (they've tried everything) I'll drive you like a hammer on a bed of nails!' Every girl I've played that to goes: Ooh! They really like that line!! A panty-dropper', we call it."
"'This Maniac's In Love With You' is a song that does go back a little to Alice's horror thing. It's almost like this guy is stalking someone, he loves them so much he's possessed by them. He says: 'Your biggest fear has just come true, this maniac's in love with you!' It's almost like: Jeez! Is this good or bad?!"
The mixture of sex and horror is a long established Alice Cooper (even the name is sexually ambivalent) tradition. Which kind of begs the question how this new album will be prepared for live presentation? And where does this appealing character stand on the morality of such a tender subject as sex? While the LP leaves the listener to his or her own devices, the show, I am assured, will continue to present Alice Cooper as the star and victim of his own morality play.
"Alice ALWAYS gets punished at the end. In fact, when we get into preparing the tour, we always start at the end: 'How are we gonna kill Alice?' Then once we kill Alice, we say: 'What's he gonna do to deserve this?' Then we plan out all the despicable things that Alice is going to do. It was always a morality play - and it will be on the next tour!"
The tour is unlikely to hit these shores before next year, but in the meantime, what about the thorny subject of sexual morality? The question offers up some surprising answers. This is, after all, an older, wiser Alice Cooper, one who seems to frolic perilously close to the abyss of responsibility.
"You talk about sexual morality - now we have rules! We didn't give ourselves these rules. I think that AIDS came along, as horrible as this sounds, to restore the perspective on what sexual etiquette is. It's almost as if it's designed to say: 'Everybody get back in line'."
"I personally think it's almost cosmic that this AIDS thing came along at a time where morality was getting to the point where sex was no big deal anymore. Now sex has got to be more selective, more romantic."
"It's going to come back down to dating. Maybe you date her five times before you go to bed with her, and that makes the sex even more intense! Because it can't just keep going in one direction. It's like masturbating ten times a day, and pretty soon you go: Big deal, who cares anymore? What's the difference between that and having ten girls a day? If you have to have a different girl everyday, you're getting into a sexual addiction. Just like a drug addiction."
"Look at it this way: In the '60s and '70s not that many people died from drugs because people smoked grass. Smoking grass is like masturbating! Of course, if you want to get into harder sex, you gotta pay the price; if you want to get into harder drugs, you gotta pay the price!"
"So there's soft sex and there's hard sex, soft drugs and hard drugs. I also used to say that alcohol's probably the most dangerous drug you can take! Because it's so available. It's the same thing with sex - it's so available. But now it's deadly!"
"Maybe this is the age of moderation..."
What's this? Alice Cooper proclaiming the joys of 'moderation'? Are we about to see the setting up of the Alice Cooper Dating Agency?
"Ha! Every song on this album is about a one-to-one relationship. It's not: let's-go-out-and-see-how-many! It's always: When you have one that's enough of a challenge. One person who you have to have sex with and relate to in every single situation can be horror! It can also be total ecstacy."
"And Alice goes through different kinds of relationships all through the album. 'Hell Is Living Without You', that song is '60s Psychedelia. 'Trash' is total '80s street scene in places, total rock'n'roll. Probably the best rock'n'roll track on the album (also the B-side of 'Poison'), 'I'm your Gun' is great juvenile imagery, and so see-through! 'I'm your gun/Pull my trigger, it gets bigger/Then I'm lots of fun/I'm your gun'."
OK, so maybe the guy hasn't mellowed that much. Indeed, he stresses:
"I hope I'm not speaking as an adult here, but the thing is, these days, kids have got to think like adults! Because what they're doing is life-threatening and life-changing. If you're 15 years old you can die from sex, and that's a new thing on this planet."
"Needles could kill you if you took too much Heroin. Now needles can kill you in two ways: You can die from the Heroin, or you can die from AIDS, so it's doubly dangerous. This is going to have to be an age of more responsibility, because if it's not it's going to end up as a life threatening thing."
And Alice Cooper was never intended to be life-threatening. Alice Cooper always meant to give you a glimpse into the more bizarre sides of life.... but you could do it by proxy because there was Alice, one step ahead of you, opening the doors and shinning a light into the darkened room beyond. It was fun, it was scary, and it was rock'n'roll too. But most of all it was fun.
Alice Cooper describes this album as being "Like a psychoanalysis of what's going on right now". As our interview is drawn to a close by the arrival of the next journalist in line, Alice is suddenly made aware of his position. He is lying on his couch, staring at the ceiling, telling me about the cathartic experience of writing an album about his journey through a sexual fantasy land. For the last hour I have been his psychoanalyst. This is my report. I may yet offer it as a thesis for my doctorate. What do you think?
New York, it sure is a wonderful town....