Originally Published: July 24, 1997
Long before Marilyn Manson, Alice Cooper was simultaneously thrilling and horrifying audiences with his brand of shock rock. So what is Alice up to today?
As the pre-eminent pioneer of shock-rock in the late 1960s and the early 70s, Alice Cooper knew a thing or two about creating controversy.
The androgynous singer and the gender-bending band that bore his name dressed in drag on the cover of "Pretties for You", their 1969 debut album. Cooper (real name: Vincent Furnier) French kissed live snakes during his concerts, performed songs about sexual confusion and dead babies, and utilized such props as razor-sharp sabers, straitjackets, mock electric chairs and guillotines.
"We broke the door down for theatrics in rock 'n' roll", said Alice Cooper, 51, who performs Wednesday night in the Sycuan Casino parking lot in El Cajon. "David Bowie and Elton John weren't theatrical (back) then. We paved the way for a lot of people- Bowie, Kiss, Iggy (Pop).
"But I never had a feud with any of them, because they didn't do what Alice did. Alice was the ultimate American Frankenstein, 'A Clockwork Orange' one moment, 'Leave it to Beaver' the next. And I liked that combination."
The son of a Detroit minister, Cooper also struck a nerve with his songs about teeen angst, among them "Is It My Body?" and "I'm Eighteen," a Top-40 hit in 1971. He subsequently scored with the anthemic "School's Out", "Welcome to My Nightmare", and "Under My Wheels", the last of which will open his Sycuan concert Wednesday.
Ignoring the obvious camp appeal for Cooper's satirical, horror-movie-inspired shtick, the conservative powers-that-be denounced that band and it's garish frontman as a threat to decency and family values. In response, Cooper and his cohorts continued to shock, and cackle, all the way to the bank.
"Our targets were sex, death, and money," said Cooper, speaking last week from a concert stop in Switzerland. "Those were the three things that made sense to me as targets of satire."
But yesteryear's controversy. however satirical, is today's nostalgia. And compared with such current, Cooper-inspired shock rockers as Marilyn Manson and the Sea Hags, or the carnival-freaks-on-acid antics of the Jim Rose Circus, Cooper's high jinks of yore seem quaint and almost innocent.
"It is funny," he agreed "I just talked to Jim Rose the other day. And he said, 'Either I have to put my show into a different perspective, or cut off one of my arms.' And I said, 'Yeah, I know what you mean.'
"I haven't seen it, but I doubt if Marilyn Manson's show is very controversial. The rumors are, not the show. But the rumor mill is half the fun. Yesterday, someone called me and asked, 'Do you really light a German shepherd on fire at your concerts?' This (kind of questions and rumors) has been going on for nearly 30 years with me."
To hear Cooper tell it, his shows always have been vehicles for fun, no matter how gory or overblown.
"People may leave with a little stage blood on them, but (also) with confetti," he said. "I don't think we leave a bad taste. When people come to my show, they say, 'Hey, that was fun,' and that's the difference.
"I always wanted my audience to walk away like they'd been to a real good party. And if want a look at the real insanity, what about rap? If you don't shoot somebody, you can't be No. 1. It's the most violent thing in music.
"What we did on stage as fantasy is the real thing now."
Assuming that is true, is Cooper distrubed by it?
"It's not my world; I don't know the politics of it," he hedged. "I don't understand why you have to be the 'baddest' guy."
Ahem. Wasn't Cooper "the baddest guy" in his 1970s heyday?
"But Alice was a fantasy character," said Cooper, who always refers to his stage character in the third person. "If I go into a McDonald's, people don't say, 'Why don't you have a snake around your neck?'.
"Well, some of them do. But the other 98 percent of the people don't. They know the difference between what they see onstage and off.
In fact, unless he were to enter a fast-food outlet in his trademark makeup and stage gear, few people would recognize Cooper, whose career has been decidely low-profile in recent years.
His last hit single, "Poison" came out in 1989. His new "greatest hits" live collection, "A Fistful of Alice," is his first album in three years. Featuring musical cameos by Slash, Rob Zombie, and other Cooper fans, it was released on Guardian Records, a small independent company.
A regualr churchgoer, Cooper immediately responded in the affirmative when asked if he considers himself a religious and moral man. He also acknowledged that he has dropped a number of vintage songs from his repertoire, specifically because he no longer feels comfortable with their lyrical content.
"There were attitudes I had in them then I don't have now," said Cooper, who made a memorable cameo in the film "Wayne's World" in 1992. "I think you are allowed to change your mind."
So why does this happily married father continue to tour and record as Alice Cooper? What keeps going?
"I think there needs to be an Alice, because Alice is one of the only remaining rock shows left," he replied. "We have visuals and believe in the old standards of big-production rock concert. We know how to do a show....
"If I ever get to the point where people aren't screaming and having a good time, that's when I quit. But I don't see that happening. I weigh 150 pounds, I still have all my hair and can fit into my pants from 1971.
"However," added Cooper, who has been drug and alcohol free for nearly 2 decades, "I'm in much better shape."
And what of a possible reunion with the original Alice Cooper band? Night he re-team with the former Phoenix high school track stars-turned-musicians with whom he rose to fame?
"I hate going backward," said Cooper, whose CD box set, "The Lifes and Crimes of Alice Cooper" is due out soon. "To me, I'm not retro. I do the old hits, but I'm still making good albums. Once you do that retro thing, you're history.
"But watch! When I'm 65, I'll put the (original) band back together. "Then it will be really retro.