Sir! - May 1973

(May 1973)

Originally Published: May 1973

Alice Cooper: The "Queen" of Rock 'n' Roll

Shubert theater manager Shep Gordon said, "broadway just isn't ready for Alice" who slides through his act with a forty-five pound boa constrictor curled around his pelvis

Author: Brett Asher

Eight months ago, a young Pennsylvania rock evangelist named Rod Gilkeson launched his one-man crusade against "perversion and violence in the recording industry." His chief target? A rock group named Alice Cooper, whom he labeled "in bad taste and offensive." Less than one month later, a church in a small Pennsylvania town advertised a sermon entitled, "Can The Church Compete With Alice Cooper?" Less than two weeks after this incident, seven thousand miles across the Atlantic, Mrs. Mary Whitehouse, a self-proclaimed protector of British morality, sent off an angry letter of protest to England's Education Secretary and the BBC claiming that a record, "School's Out," was "anti-law and order." "Thanks to the BBC, millions of youngsters are imbibing its philosophy of violence and anarchy," she complained. Two months later, Louis Araiza, a student at the University of Houston threw the school's Board of Trustees into a panic when the enterprising fellow found a loophole in the bylaws governing the Student Union at the university and had Alice Cooper elected "Homecoming Queen." And just recently, a segment of a late Friday night rock concert on Cincinnati television was pulled off the air mid-way and labeled "obscene ... a blatant invitation to violence and drugs." The subject of this unparalleled fury? The appearance of a rock group — and a lead singer — named Alice Cooper. And the scandal that has climaxed each Cooper caper has surpassed even the proportions of the Rolling Stones' first American appearance, when newspaper headlines broke with an amazing slap in the face to thousands of frantic parents with, "Would You Let Your Daughter Date A Rolling Stone?"

For Alice Cooper is indeed an American enigma. On stage, he is a hollow-cheeked, black-eyed queen of camp and parody, satirizing with violent thrusts of swords and knives our chaotic cultural wasteland. With a forty-five pound boa constrictor curled around his pelvic area, Alice the drag queen sidles through an act that is guaranteed to leave you gaping in amazement, shrieking and lusting for more, or just racing for the nearest exit. No one is immune from Alice anguish, in one form or another.

His albums have such unorthodox titles as Love It To Death, Killer, and School's Out; the individual titles such suggestive names as "Dead Babies," "Under My Wheels," "Desperado," or "Drive Me Nervous." But it's Alice Cooper's live performance that captures the true spirit of the "fun loving" group of "everyday guys" from Phoenix. The name of the game is "theater," and the subject is "death," and the vehicle is hard, nerve-bending, electric rock.

Puffy clouds of foamy bubbles cascade across the Glasgow stage on the first lap of Alice's European tour. The four musicians are lost in the seamy haze and only the sound of drummer Neal Smith smashing his gongs penetrates the hall. As the crescendo reaches a deafening climax, on slinks Alice, resplendent in crotch-tight gold lame pants, revealing the sinuous bulging thighs and tightened muscles. His death-black leather vest is loosely strapped together with thick thongs, and his jet-black, teased, straw-shredded hair falls below his shoulder and onto the bangle-braceleted muscular arms. He prances, struts, and waves his painted nails before the frenzied crowd, many of whom are garbed in similar shocking drag apparel.

As his pet boa, Yvonne, sensuously sidles around his master's legs, then disappears behind his back, Alice brandishes a realistic sword which he swirls around his own head, only inches from his necklaced throat. Michael Bruce pounds at his organ like an escaped madman, as Alice changes sword for knife, and a pile of garbage is unceremoniously dumped on stage, converting the Scottish environs into New York's rubbish-strewn West Side playground. Alice and the boys are transformed into the West Side Story's Sharks and Jets. Tapes echo the ghetto's anthem: "When you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way..." and the switchblade battle is faithfully reenacted on stage amidst the chaotic musical frenzy.

Alice lunges at each player, and they fall singly onto the floor, legs and arms loosely askew, groaning and moaning in anguish. Only Alice and drummer Neal Smith remain aloft among the tattered bodies of their cohorts. Neal lunges for Alice, and he falls. The drummer stands victorious, his hands held high, while the crowd cheers loudly. But suddenly Alice is up, off the floor, moving within a maze of swirly smoke. He half crawls toward the unnoticing Neal. Broken bottle in his hand, he stumbles, then strikes Neal between the shoulder blades. Neal tumbles to the ground, police sirens fill the air, and a guitarist springs to his feet to ask the frenzied crowd, "What shall we do with him?" Alice is guilty, roars the crowd, delighting in their roles as jurors. "Hang him!" The smell of blood penetrates the hall; the young stars could almost be imagined smacking their lips in anticipation.

The bracelel-encircled arms are bound with ropes, and the band drag Alice to the gallows, as the drummer thumps his death knell. One guitarist dons the cloak of the executioner and prods the superstar killer towards the steps of the gallows with a flaming torch. As the noose is slipped over his head, the crowd screams for blood. A tremendous crash echoes throughout the hall, thunder and lightning illuminate the stage, and their hero dangles lifeless. Smoke billows from under the gallows... the stage, even the police guarding the front rows are all immersed in the billowy wafts of rising smoke. But when it clears several seconds later a transformed Alice strides into the limelight in white suit with tails, and a big top hat, prodding his cane at the audience and urging them to vote for him for President. He slides around the stage, then proceeds to spit chewed up "Alice For President" posters at the wild throng. But the performance is far from over. The encore, "School's Out," draws the kids out of their chairs and into the aisles, dancing and storming frantically. as the band spews out their hit single:

School's Out for summer
School's out forever
School's been blown to pieces
No more pencils
No more rule books
No more teachers' dirty looks
Well, we got no class
We got no principáis
We got no innocence
We can't even think of a word that rhymes . .

The lyrics that set England on Alice's heels; the act that tagged him a violent maniac not fit to play pied piper to millions of adolescents who tag eagerly at his booted heels. Does this type of act typify the mindless violence in today's rock world, or egg kids on to perform their own beastly acts of hatred? "I don't think it incites violence at all," says Alice to me backstage, calmly stroking his boa. "It doesn't get me off watching someone else get violent, so why should it affect the kids?"

Yet affect the kids he does. To the uninformed he may be a transvestite drag queen propelling screaming banshee lyrics in front of a femme fatale band; but his albums have all been "gold" winners throughout the world and the group itself collected about four million dollars in the past year alone. "We're not really a group as you think of one." he explained to me. "We're a production; we're a show. We reflect all of the wild, modern things that go on around us. We're as visual as we are a sound because all of us combine the art where we started with the musical scene."

In case I might have wondered if Alice had invented a few of his bizarre "scenes" as he went along, he was quick to assure me that inspiration for the group's antics came not from Jack The Ripper file clips or from old Bella Lugosi movies but from televisión. "We grew up in a visual television age, an age where we saw men walking on the moon, and it became very difficult with all of us spending so much time in front of television to draw the line between what is real and what is not real." Add five former students with theatrical sensitivities to a heavily-oriented rock world and the results were — Alice Cooper. "The Beatles and rock, hard rock, electric rock...they all hit our sensibilities and life became a series of sights and sounds that were different from anything that had ever come before."

But the most noticeable feature of Cooper madness is the combination of male female characteristics Alice simulates. Alice, in real life, is totally "straight." Yet he firmly believes that "people are both male and female, biologically. The typical American thinks he is all male but he has to realize he has his feminine side, too. I learned this while sludying with a hypnotist who taught me to become three equal parts: male for strength, female for wisdom, and child for faith." If their stage act is perverse, and their following immense, then their early beginnings could be termed as American as mom's apple pie, hamburgers and fries, or Coca Cola.

Alice was born in Detroit, Michigan, the son of a missile engineer who would later work on guidance systems for the Apollo rockets. The family moved to Phoenix, Arizona when Alice was seven, and his father look on extra activities as acting minister in the Church of Jesus Christ during the evenings and worked as a missionary to the Apache Indians on weekends. It was in Phoenix, at Cortez High School, thal Alice joined forces with lead guilarist Glen Buxton and bassist Dennis Dunaway, occupying their spare time picking up girls in the high school newspaper office where they worked and racing their cars. All were from upper middle class homes; Glen's falher worked with Alice's dad on electric systems and Mike Bruce's dad sold Coca Cola. Forming a teen group called The Spiders, the boys played high school dances and CYO teen balls as their musical journey started.

But if their professional careers smacked of innocence. Their private lives were riotous. After the CYO dances at the teen halls were over. The guys occupied their time piling up fast cars, shooting bb guns, and drinking. Dennis eventually wrapped his '57 lavender Lincoln Continental around a telephone pole, and Alice claims to have totaled at least six cars himself. One such ruined specimen was the '66 Fairlane GT that blew up one night when Alice was blind drunk. He angrily tossed dirt down the carburetor and ruined it forever.

Life in the town of Phoenix was far from placid. Recalls Neal Smith, "We used to walk around the desert outside of town and see these old rubbers (prophylactics) lying in a hole. We'd shoot 'em with our bb guns... turn 'em inside out, hell yes, and smoke 'em, too. Sometimes we used to take rubbers to class. Blow 'em up and let them fly."

After wearing out Phoenix's musical scene, the boys split for Los Angeles, changed their name to Alice Cooper (according to one close source, Alice and the boys were playing with a ouija board one afternoon. When they asked the board to identify itself, it revealed it was the spirit of Alice Cooper, a young girl killed back in the 17th century for heresy) and fell under the wing of Frank Zappa (formerly leader of the Mothers Of Invention and leading avant garde musician extraordinaire) who thought they were just weird enough to record for his label. But Zappa evidently hadn't listened to Alice's music long enough, for mid-way through the session he split, leaving them with several unmixed tracks for their first LP, Pretties For You. "They (the record company) were getting thirty thousand dollars for an album, and paying us two thousand," recalled Alice's manager and good friend, Shep Gordon.

They sold 8,000 copies of Pretties; then sales dropped down to 3,000 for Easy Action, their second LP.

The group spent about two years traveling by car around the country "being hated everywhere," recalls Shep. But Detroit loved Alice, and the group chipped in for a house in Pontiac, Michigan. It was a year and a half since the relaase of Pretties. They were frustrated, and broke. "We didn't have a dime in our pocket. We were living on $15 a week for twelve people. Spaghetti, and that was it. We had a big pot that we used to carry with us and a burner and we used to make spaghetti every night."

But Detroit offered them the right type of gigs: At a pop festival, they followed Arthur Brown, the musical God Of Fire, so the audience were primed for any perversities Alice could throw at them. The group staged a fight onstage and beat up some toy rubber ducks; the ducks were thrown to the audience, who imitated their musical heroes and likewise proceeded to rip apart the ducks. Then groups of bikers poured off their motorcycles and dispersed throughout the seething crowd, kicking in heads and bashing teeth. Needless to say, Alice was scared stiff.

From Detroit, it was only a matter of time before Alice made national news by hacking baby dolls, setting up realistic electric chairs on stage, and throwing disemboweled chickens into the audience, as his first major hit, "I'm Eighteen," zoomed up the charts. On calmer nights, he might merely shake a can of beer and spritz it around the first five rows, soaking the enthusiastic fans who immediately cheered for more... while their dazed parents wrung their hands and cried for revenge.

Alice's parents are his strongest fans. His father is hip enough to understand what Alice is doing... but sensitive enough to want to keep his real name a secret. For, although his parish members knew Alice as a child, "around the church his name isn't taboo, but we don't talk about it."

His father sheds some light on Alice's past. "He's always been a showtype kid. He was always imitating somebody and having garage shows for other kids on the block."

His father reveals that Alice's early inspiration came from TV shows like 77 Sunset Strip or Peter Gunne. "Alice was always walking around the house talking like Kookie (the young character from 77 Sunset Strip). I thought he'd grow up to be a comedian." his father smiles.

Alice's father managed the boys before they found Shep Gordon, and he was intimately aware of the violent nuances of their act from the beginning. Yet he understood the rationale behind their most fiercely anti-social numbers. "He's had a religious upbringing," his father insists.

'Dead Babies' can turn you off, yes, but that's the idea. The idea behind it is child neglect — you know, with the parents going out and drinking and having a good time while little Betsy takes a bottle of aspirin. Child neglect is murder, and how are you going to depict a baby swallowing aspirin? You've gotta hit the audience with a two-by-four."

That "two-by-four" was perhaps the most horrendous piece of Cooper madness in their short but controversial careers. Alice compares a parent who literally starves his child of affection to a murderer, a practitioner of child neglect; Alice's stage act reflects a parent physically murdering the unwanted child. The savage-eyed apostle of violence hacks a baby doll to smithereens on the stage; tiny capsules of blood look-alike burst, and the red slimy liquid shoots off into the air, onto the stage, and into Alice's face as he proceeds to bite and rip the doll's insides to shreds.

If this type of mayhem is what the boys indulge in onstage, what do they do for laughs off-stage? Well, when they're not touring or recording, they spend their time with their girlfriends and assorted friends in a forty-room mansion in Greenwich, Connecticut, indulging in Marx Brothers horseplay. A replica of Alice dangling from the gallows has scared off more than one visitor, and the rooms are decorated with Nazi flags, stuffed animals, stuffed deer's heads on the wall, velvet and silver wallpaper, and a collection of artillery. A giant St. Bernard, Gretchen, follows closely on your heels as you step past Alice's lizard boots and marble mantlepiece, around his fireplace and into "The Bathroom." The walls are covered with green mirror-tiles from floor to ceil-ing; the bathtub is lined with beautiful mosiac tiles and there's also a six-headed shower. A mynah bird cautiously watches you from the corner of the art nouveau suite. On top of the toilet? "Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex (But Were Afraid To Ask!)" But they don't get to spend much time in Greenwich, for their concert tours keep them on the road for weeks at a time.

Their recent European tour, for example, heralded Alice's pop stature and his social status: their concert at Paris' impressive Olympia Theater was followed by a massive Jet Set bash hosted by Omar Sharif (he's an old friend and sponsored a similar party on Alice's first European tour) and French singer Regine. Guests included Fierre Cardin and a bevy of dukes, duchesses and princesses. Alice's fifty-two seater jet carried the motley crew to such international cities as Glasgow, Amsterdam, Zurich, Munich, Rotterdam, Copenhagen, Berlin, Frankfurt, Hamburg and many others. Each concert had been sold out within hours after European box offices opened, and the group was labeled "Hurricane Alice" by the Scottish press, who had reason to fear Alice's arrival: the violence of Glasgow fans was well known. Only weeks before Alice's arrival, a young girl was carried out of a soccer match with a knife in her head.

But European fans were hard put to outdo their American counterparts. With the rumor that Cooper madness was coming to New York's Palace Theater in February for a week's run, over 15,000 ticket requests flooded the Broadway box office, forcing Alice's promoters to move their spectacle to the larger Broadway Theater. Painting had been completed on the Alice Cooper billboard, visible to hundreds of thousands of celebrating New Year's Evers. But despite the Medusa head high above Times Square, despite the year's work and thousands of dollars poured into the Broadway spectacle (set designs, lavish costumes, Mariachi dancers) the head of the Board Of Directors for the Shubert Theater chain quickly plugged up the Cooper dam by squirming out of his contract with Alice. Although the show had received no advertising in the press, ticket requests, he claimed, were tying up his entire staff. And the vision of thousands of swarming Cooper-ites engulfing his Broadway temple made his hair curl. "Broadway just isn't ready for Alice," manager Shep Gordon sadly concluded.

But the boys refused to take the news sitting down. While around the clock negotiations kept the Cooper clan searching for a home for Alice in New York, the group took to the studios for final mixing of their new LP, Billion Dollar Bables. Carrying on in the true macabre Alice style, some title cuts from the forthcoming LP include, "I Love The Dead," "Sick Things," and "Raped and Freezing." And the inside sleeve features, in glorious color, a picture of the group surrounded by one million dollars in real American cash (photographed by David Bailey, well known British shooter of the stars). The idea for the LP, Alice told me when he returned from his European tour, was suggested by a money-oriented world he has viewed through his travels. Indeed, the major theme for the album suggests that, in every country, money is the universal tongue... and the greed it inspires is universal. Alice is, indeed, one of rock-dom's mighty Billion Dollar Babies — the result of a world gone berserk with its thirst for the outrageous, the novel, the kooky.

Controversial? Yes. Bizarre? Yes, they are that, too. Perverse and obscene? Yes, often sadistically so. He plays at being crazy, gay and frightening. Yet behind the antics there is a serious stab at something frighteningly real to many thousands of young people across the world. Perhaps, as Life magazine critic Albert Goldman has suggested, "he becomes the scapegoat for everybody's guilts and repressions. People project on him, revile him, ridicule him and some would doubtless like to kill him. At the same time, he knocks out the young boys with the daring of his act and the rebelliousness of his image. After all, the ultimate rebellion of our time is the simple refusal to be a man."

But perhaps one fifteen-year-old girl best explains Alice's incredible popularity. "A lot of young people don't think Alice is corrupting their morals," she writes. "In fact, Alice teaches me an important lesson. Behind the incredible side-show lies a sensitive painter of eerie spells who can mesmerize me. I walk out energized, yet peaceful from the catharsis Alice has provided. Through his act, he has expressed the violence, the frustration within us all. When I see him destroy a doll, I don't think 'I want to kill, too.' I think, 'Alice has removed my own frustrations."

Is he giving birth to a strong body of stoned-out killers, as critics suggest? Or performing a cathartic service that just might give birth to a contingent of healthy, un-repressed youngsters?