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Originally Published: November 2000
Author: Aaron Lupton
He's responsible for the death of countless babies. He's been romantically involved with a corpse. He's fought off black widows, he's hung with Vincent Price, he's survived attacks at the hands of Jason Voorhees, and every night he's had his head removed in the guillotine.
Yeah, it's hard to deny that Alice Cooper really did drive a stake through the heart of the hippie generation. It's probably more accurate to say that he cut it to bloody bits with a machete. Before goth, before metal, before punk, the world trembled at the terrible antics of the emaciated man with the upside-down clown makeup and a sadistic sense of humour. Emerging from the flower power craze of the late 1960s, Alice Cooper managed to piss off both the peace loving hippies and the conservative rednecks while somehow becoming one of the most successful names in the history of rock and roll. Something this outrageous just had to be recognized, and it is no small fact that Alice communicated with his massive audiences through the style and attitude of horror.
He hung himself from the gallows, he sang about necrophilia, and he crucified his demons onstage while he welcomed the world at large into his personal nightmare. In doing so, Alice inspired all sorts of counter-culture icons and lords of infamy. Without Alice there would be no Johnny Rotten. Without Alice, there may not have even been a John Carpenter. Or a Wes Craven.
Alice Cooper stands as the single most dominant influence behind the incorporation of horror into pop music, even if he exploited the genre primarily for its shock value. Now, three decades and 25 records later, the master of shock rock returns with a new album called Brutal Planet, his old cruel tricks intact and a few new ones to boot. We won't deny that his best material is in the rear view mirror, but whatever he chooses to do, Alice Cooper will always stand as a giant of the genre.
Rue Morgue spoke to Alice Cooper in September.
Horror was always a big part of Alice Cooper. Are you planning to incorporate horror visuals into the stage show for Brutal Planet?
Absolutely. In fact we brought back the guillotine especially for Brutal Planet. It's very effective. We slicked it up so it actually works better now. We're working with an organization called Distortions who actually did a show in Denver called Brutal Planet, which was a walk-through, but it was the best walk-through haunted house I've ever seen in my life. You walked in, the doors close, you're standing on this steel grate and it was like being in the Nostromo from Alien. The floor started shaking, the heat for the lights was up - all your senses were attacked in the first five seconds and you really wanted to get out of there, and that was the beginning of the ride! They also had bodies that looked like they'd been nuked, bodies that had been melted into toxic waste cans. So when we decided to put Brutal Planet together as a show we went right to them and said "okay, we want the stage to be like the haunted house."
If you're bringing back the guillotine, does this mean you're bringing back the morality play to the stage show?
It always has been a morality play. The character that I play in Brutal Planet is like any good horror movie, because any good horror movie is a good comedy. I think for every good scare you should get a good laugh. One of the only movies without a sense of humor was The Exorcist. This movie had something to it, and I think the reason it was scary was because of the possibility. We all had that possibility in our heads, you know, demon possession. It's very real. Everyone knows Jason's not going to happen and everyone knows Freddy Kruger's not going to happen, but this [points to the issue of Rue Morgue magazine with Linda Blair on the cover] is possible. That gave us that little chill of reality. Same with The Blair Witch Project. Funny thing about the Blair Witch thing, when you break it down, it's three lost kids in the woods with a witch. It's an old Grimm's fairy tale. It's the oldest tale in the world. But take any other horror movie....
How about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Yeah, hysterical. It couldn't be funnier.
You really think so?
Oh yeah. Leatherface with the wacked-out old mask, I was on the floor laughing. I kept saying "this is really good!" But Suspiria, that was one that didn't have a great sense of humour to it. It was a very creepy movie I thought.
How important is humour to you?
Very important. I think the audience needs to have a relief. It's important to scare them but you need to give them a relief. At the beginning of Brutal Planet I play this warlord, and I've got a samurai sword and a Russian admiral's top coat on. This guy is a piece of every war that's happened in the last fifty years. Makeup and the hair and bones everywhere, and he's just like a road warrior. But they cut his head off, pretty graphic. The audience gets some on them.
It seems like there's a history of comedy for Alice Cooper. There's something really funny about the lyrics to songs like I Love The Dead and Cold Ethyl, even though they're about necrophilia.
It was so over-the-top that it had to be funny. Ann Landers wrote a big article about Cold Ethyl and in it she said, "how dare Alice write this?" I wrote her back and said "Dear Ann: if there's an enormous rash of necrophilia that happens in the next year because of this song, please let me know. 99.9 percent of the rest of us know it's a funny song!" The song that was scary to me was Steven because there was a claustrophobia about it. Here's a kid that's in a nightmare, he can hear his mom calling, but he can't wake up. You know that kind of nightmare, where you're waking up and you can almost grab, and you can hear someone who's like your girlfriend or your wife or your kids talking, and you're almost out of it but you can't wake up. That's what I wanted that song to be. I wanted it to be "just get me above this water so I can take a breath." And that's what made it claustrophobic.
The Ann Landers story is a perfect example of the shock value of horror and Alice Cooper is always being called the master of shock. Do you think you could have been just as horrific and frightening without exploiting shock value?
It wouldn't have been fun. You can be classically scary, like Vincent Price, but I can't think of too many movies with Vincent Price or even Boris Karloff that were really shocking. For the time, they were really scary. I think the shock value started coming in from my end when I started watching early Hitchcock movies, where part of the fun of it would be being set up. Hitchcock would set you up, set you up, set you up, and then nothing would happen... and then it would happen! You would think you were off the hook, and then it would happen when you weren't expecting it. That's when I started thinking "that's how you do it." Don't give it to them right at the right time, give it to them when they're off. But the classic horror movies really weren't shocking. Shock value is when you can take something that's normally a taboo subject and just stick it in somebody's face. The closest thing to shock we have is Marilyn Manson, and all he did was find new buttons to press. He even pissed me off. I mean, I'm Christian, and the idea of tearing the Bible up on stage really pissed me off, I can't believe that somebody actually pissed me off! My own protogé pissed me off. I admire the fact that he was able to push those buttons and the whole thing about being a Satanic priest, well, it spoke to my religious side, where I really didn't like it. But theatrically I really did like it - I thought he was doing something really interesting. It's hard to shock an audience now. CNN has really made us shock-proof. When you can sit and have dinner with your family and watch Bagdad being bombed, live, there's something about that that kind of diffuses everything else.
Do you believe that horror can be in any way a threat?
Is there horror out there right now that goes too far, to the point where it just isn't entertainment anymore?
I spent a lot of time in my lyrics warning against Satanism, because I don't believe in the concept of Satan, I believe in the being of Satan. I believe in the being of God. And I think that we're in the middle. We're being pulled this way, and we're being pulled this way. And this way's winning [referring to a hand being pulled downwards] because Satan offers us everything we want, God is offering us everything we need. So when people start playing around with the 666 and the upside down crosses and all the blasphemy - I'm at a point in my life where I can go "be careful, you're inviting something in and you don't know what you're playing with." I love that part in The Usual Suspects when Verbal says "Satan's greatest trick is making people believe he doesn't exist." And that's exactly right. So I do lyrics that say "be careful." He's here, he's right here and he's going for your throat, and it doesn't look like it but he in the end wants to own you. And that's pretty horrific, that's real horror when you think of it. If you believe in a real Satan, then you believe in a real character that's trying to destroy your eternity. What's more horrific than that?
Going back in time a little, tours for the Constrictor and Raise Your Fist and Yell albums were labeled The Nightmare Returns. This was also a time when you finally conquered your problems with alcohol.
Right, but they were tributes to splatter movies. Those albums came out in the early to mid-'80s when splatter movies were at their height. I mean Kane Roberts and I, that's all we did was watch every splatter movie there was. And our stage show was so bloody that people in the first two rows were literally soaked. But I think people got the idea of it. It was like Evil Dead. You know how the beginning of Evil Dead was so scary? Then it got so bloody that it got funny. You couldn't believe there could be any more blood, and then the pipes break and it covers everything.
Yeah, and then people are getting chunks of flesh ripped out of their legs and blood is pouring everywhere...
It was hysterical! It got to the point where I was actually laughing my head off at Evil Dead.
Do you see yourself as a horror icon?
I think that I am. I think that people want me to be the Vincent Price of rock'n'roll. I've taken on that role and I don't mind it. When I first invented the character of Alice it was because there were so many rock'n'roll heroes and no rock'n'roll villains. I looked around and I saw a lot of Peter Pans but I didn't see a lot of Captain Hooks. You know, I'll gladly be Captain Hook, I have no problem being that. I invented the character because I wanted him to get all the good lines and I wanted him to be more fun to watch than Crosby, Stills, and Nash. And I wanted it when you came to see Alice for there to be a sly wink in your eye about what this was going to be, and what was Alice going to get away with. I wanted Alice to be the guy they talked about at school, but you know, you were always going to exaggerate what happened. If it was a five foot snake, it was a twenty-five foot snake. If Alice got his head cut off, he got his head cut off and it rolled into the audience and bit somebody. Give the audience half a chance and they'll invent half of your show.
Is horror something that still excites you? Do you still go see horror films?
Oh, I go see every horror movie. I just saw Godzilla 2000 which was hysterical. Tell me that this is not your favourite line in the movie: "I think there's a little Godzilla in all of us."
Yeah, a couple of our writers went to see it and they thought it was hilarious.
Everyone in my theatre just laughed out loud. Oh, and the other one "This missile will go through him like crap through a goose." For a Japanese guy to say that, it was just so out of context. I did like The Cell - it was very well done. I liked it because they kept it creepy enough. Bless the Child had some good special effects, with those things flying around the house, the rat-bats or whatever they were. I look for special effects more than anything else. There were a series of movies, From Beyond and those movies that Jeffrey Combs did that were really well done.
Has anyone replaced you in your role?
I think some people think they have. Marilyn Manson's videos are pretty scary. The girl who does those, Floria Sigismondi, does some great special effects. She was going to do ours. To me, those videos are the scariest part of Marilyn Manson. Something very unnerving about them.
So is it an insult or a compliment when people continually refer to Marilyn Manson as an Alice Cooper rip-off?
Well I think he's the modern day one. I mean, that's certainly what he's going for. Musically I don't think he'll ever stand up to us, I mean, we had fifteen top ten records.
And a lot more variety.
Yeah and I think the thing with Alice Cooper is that we leave the audience with a taste in their mouth. Sure, I don't mind scaring the audience. I might shock them, but I always left them with balloons and confetti. I always left them with "what a great party that was!" That's what I like about Rob Zombie. I like Rob Zombie because there's an obvious sense of humour to what he's doing even though he's pretty creepy when you see pictures of him. Slipknot - I figured out Slipknot the first second I saw them. I said "where are these guys from?" They said "Iowa." I said "Well that makes perfect sense." They said "why?" I said, "well what's in Iowa?" Corn. So what's in a cornfield? Scarecrows. That's what these guys are; they're walking scarecrows.
Yeah, they're just mirroring what they grew up with. But it's good stuff. Great masks. GWAR was always great. There was no music to go with it but they were fun to watch. Now here's a good movie [points to a picture of Stephen King]. Did you ever sit down and watch the entire Salem's Lot? That was one of my favourite movies. I don't know why. The first half of it, nothing happens. And then Barlow comes in and - look at that face, that's one of the scariest faces I've seen in my life! I'm sitting there with my wife, and the guy's in jail and he hears something, wakes up, and all of a sudden, "roarrrr!" I'm like, fuck! It literally took my breath. It's just great stuff.
Do you have any favourite horror movies?
Suspiria is one of my very favourites. Again, I'll go with Salem's Lot. From Beyond has some of the best special effects I've ever seen.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to Rue Morgue, Alice.
Thank you. And thanks for the reading material.
Life and Crimes
The Definitive Alice Cooper Timeline of Terror
1968 - A group called The Nazz changes their name to Alice Cooper. There are several theories omn the origins of this name, but the most popular has the band playing with a Ouija board one night, the pointer suddenly becoming possessed, and spelling out the name. It was then decided that vocalist Vincent Furnier was the reincarnation of Alice Cooper, a victim of the Salem witch hunts. The seeds were planted early on for the band to eventually become synonymous with all that was macabre in rock and roll.
1969 - The Alice Cooper group release their debut album, Pretties For You, on straight Records. Levity Ball, a song inspired by the film Carnival Of Souls, displayed the bands potential for creating creepy visuals with their music, an ability that would come to the foreground with the 1971 double release of Love It To Death and Killer. The infamous Toronto Varsity Arena chicken incident occurs. After a fan threw a live chicken onstage, Alice threw the fowl back to the crowd, mistakenly believing that chickens can fly, where upon it was ripped apart by rabid fans. This event immediately spawned horrific tales about Alice Cooper decapitating live chickens on stage and drinking their blood. From here on, Alice Cooper was no longer an androgynous troop of outlaws playing twisted music - Alice Cooper was a sick, demented, homicidal maniac.
1971 - The Alice Cooper Group releases their first album, Love It Death, under the direction of Bob Ezrin. The Ballad Of Dwight Fry, a six-plus minute masterpiece detailed the complete mental breakdown of a fictional character named after the famed actor in both Frankenstein and Dracula. Alice used multiple vocal stylings to correspond with Fry's mood swings, emphasized by some of the creepiest lyrics ever written. This was probably the group's first true horror song (along with Black Juju, also on Love It To Death), and it exposed a ghastly side that would remain with Alice throughout his career. Killer was Alice Cooper's darkest, most menacing, and greatest musical achievement. While far from a coherent story, Killer was written as a soundtrack for the stage show, resulting in an album heavy on atmosphere and visuals. The bizarre meanderings of Halo Of Flies, the dark drama of Desperado, and the plain evilness of the title track were all masterpieces in musical horror. A little song called Dead Babies had a corresponding stage act in which Alice chopped the heads of baby dolls. During the tour, Alice ended each performance with his own hanging. Also, during this tour, Alice switched his makeup to what in now widely recognized as his trademark killer-clown face.
1973 - The Alice Cooper Group's sixth album, Billion Dollar Babies is released. Gore hounds will remember this one for the sludgy, depraved Sick Things, and who could forget I Love The Dead, the ultimate homage to necrophilia. For the tour, Alice Cooper willingly put himself on the receiving end of a guillotine, probably the most violent and widely recognized of his grotesque illusions.
1975 - Vincent Furnier legally changed his name to Alice Cooper and releases his first solo album. The project in question is a fluid mix of drama, music and film, and perhaps the first ever horror-rock-opera. Welcome To My Nightmare was a morality play concerning a boy named Steven, who was an evolution of Alice's Dwight Fry character. An ambiguous story, Steven seemed to embody multiple personalities: a man unable or unwilling to accept manhood, a boy trapped in a nightmare, and a man guilty of murdering his wife. The themes were exemplified on the album's center-piece, from the creepy-as-hell circus music pf Years Ago, to the chilling machete sharpening and dripping blood effects on The Awakening. Still, the most memorable moment on Nightmare came during a little piece connecting Devil's Food and Black Widow in which Vincent Price maniacally rants about the rise of the arachnid in question. While the album again served as a soundtrack for the stage show (which featured giant black widow spiders, a Cyclops, as well as a zombie film which Alice deceivingly appeared to jump in and put of) it was also the lead in for the Grammy nominated Nightmare TV movie. This was a total cheese-fest mélange of videos designed around the Welcome To My Nightmare album.
1978 - Alice embarks on his Madhouse Rock tour in support of From The Inside. Despite implications in the name, the themes presented in the stage show are merely the experiences Alice had with various inmates of the institution in which he checked in to dry up. While not particularly horrific, Alice Cooper and his stage show would now enter a period that became increasingly bizarre and put of touch with mainstream rock. Thus begins the Alice Cooper-as-cult-personality era.
1982 - Alice releases Zipper Catches Skin, an album that contained Tag You're It, a tribute to the rising popularity of slasher fims, and a foreshadow on the Constrictor/Raise Your Fist And Yell albums. Also of importalnce was the track I Am The Future, the theme song for the violent dystopian Class of 1984. Although far from a classic Cooper song, Alice's place in the film revealed that he was a true cult figure and the original splatter punk icon.
1983 - The last of Alice's cult album's, Dada was inspired by Edgar Allen Poe and centered around character named Former Lee Warmer, a cannibal locked in the attic who is cared for by his brother. Completely bizarre, Dada was in the same musical schizophrenic vein as the other early '80s Cooper records. This album showed us that Alice wasn't just a marketing tool for the horror industry, but someone with a twisted imagination of his own.
1984 - Alice Cooper stars in a Spanish horror film called Monster Dog. The movie sucked hard, but it remains Alice's only starring role in a non-musical film. Appropriately, it was a horror film, one that every true fan of Cooper has seen.
1986-1987 - Alice Cooper quits the bottle for good and makes a musical commitment to splatter films. 1986 sees the ultra-cheezy pop-metal album Constrictor, an album book-ended by songs Teenage Frankenstein and Man Behind The Mask, the theme song for Friday The 13th Part VI: Jason Lives. Alice would continue his association with the hockey masked killer by adding both songs (along with another, Hard Rock Summer) to the movie, and adding him to a roster of villains in the upcoming tour. Alice also stars in Prince Of Darkness, as the leader of a gang of street people possessed by the devil. He wrote the song of the same name, and it found its way on the second side of 1987's Raise Your Fist And Yell. Another '80s metal album smothered in fromage, Raise Your Fist actually had two very dark, authentically chilling tracks in it: Gail and Roses on White Lace. Leading into Gail was Chop Chop Chop, a guilty pleasure for any Cooper fan, and another ode to the knife. Alice celebrated his return to horror with The Nightmare Returns tour which kicked off in Alice hometown of Detroit with a live MTV concert Halloween Night. He would hype his concerts by promising to soak the first several rows in blood, but this late '80s metal schtick could never equal the original Nightmare. Though the level of wankery was high, this is still a very interesting era for Alice Cooper. His association with the slasher phenomenon, and his music-theatre connection was essentially done in the vein of most '80s horror: senseless violence and lots of comedy.
1994 - The release of another Alice Cooper team project, this time under the banner of The Last Temptation. Alice Cooper's first concept album in a long time, Temptation told the continuing tale of Steven, this time using a dark, nightmarish plot as metaphor for lost innocence. Accompanying the album was a comic book series by Sandman creator Neil Gaiman. The release was a unique idea for Alice Cooper (although Marvel had dedicated a comic to Alice in the early '80s) and was significant for being one of the first time the Alice Cooper character had attempted to be frightening without resorting to shock. Of course, much of Temptation was another attempt to redo the original Nightmare project, this time with Alice's newfound Christian beliefs.
1997 - Alice Cooper records his second live album, Fistful Of Alice. The evening marked a duet (on Feed My Frankenstein) between Alice and rising horror music guru Rob Zombie. It's interesting that Rob Zombie recognized (and continues to pay respect to) Alice Cooper as a pre-eminent horror icon, considering that Zombie has made a career pushing the dark vibe. The two later teamed up for another (Grammy nominated) duet for The X-files, probably on overlooked moment in history of horror music. Zombie would later comment: "The circle was complete: the student met the master."