Times, The

Originally Published: May 23, 2001

Wembley Arena

Author: David Sinclair

ALICE COOPER likes to have something in his hands when he is singing, and during the course of his show at Wembley, last Friday, he made various threatening gestures with a riding crop, a whip, a sword, a cane and even a pair of maracas. But the funniest moment came when the master of rock'n'roll burlesque stepped forward to sing I'm Eighteen, defiantly brandishing a crutch. "I'm 18, and I like it!" yelled Cooper, now 53, but still managing to look and sound the part.

This, of course, is where having a well-maintained alter ego, as well as a sense of humour, comes in handy. For while Vincent Furnier can enjoy the middle years of his life socialising with politicians and enjoying his golf, when he steps into the role of Alice anything is still (theoretically) possible. With his long black hair and panda eye make-up in place he stepped on to a stage done up to resemble a sci-fi junkyard like a ringmaster entering a circus of phony horrors.

Various props and other bits of business accompanied numbers such as Pick up the Bones -where he rifled through a pillow case of supposedly human bones - and Dead Babies, which he sang while menacingly rocking a pram, before pulling out the little two-headed monster inside and impaling it on the end of a sword. During the ensuing Ballad of Dwight Fry, Cooper was encased in a straightjacket before being led to the guillotine to atone for his crimes.

As rock'n'roll theatre goes, most of this worked splendidly, although punching a Britney Spears lookalike in the mouth (in response to her invitation to "Hit me, baby, one more time") seemed low-rent, even for a show as politically incorrect as this.

Musically, too, Cooper has kept his end up through the relatively lean years, and the greatest hits element of the show -including energetic versions of No More Mr Nice Guy and Under My Wheels -was balanced by a high quotient of relatively new material, some of it surprisingly good. His band, a bunch of nouveau heavy rockers who were presumably still in nappies themselves when Cooper was enjoying his first success, seemed to enjoy themselves too.

Cooper prefaced It's the Little Things with a nicely judged dig at Marilyn Manson ("one of my misbehaving children"). And certainly, compared to a Manson gig, where such antics are still supposed to be taken seriously, this was family entertainment of the highest order.

Brian May, the guitarist from Queen, wandered on for a preposterously over-the-top encore of School's Out, during which Cooper burst a succession of enormous balloons which floated over the audience and on to the stage. It all ended with Cooper, wrapped in a Union flag, bawling "I wanna be elected." We could do worse.

Rest assured, Alice Cooper, rock's favourite cartoon monster, is still a guy who likes to play a round

When a man's drinking buddies have included Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendix, Elvis Presley, Keith Moon and Harry Nilsson, it is only polite to ask. "How did you survlve?.

Ask that question - of Alice Cooper and he adopts an I'm-still-counting my blessings look.

"In their deaths they kind of taught me something" says Cooper, a scuffed-at-the-corners but still fit-looking 49, "Every one of those people tried to live their persona off-stage. People like Hendrix, they lived and partied hard. That's a choice you make, if you think you can take that."

"There is a definite deathwish involved in it, Sometimes rock stars hit their peak and they think `I can't get any bigger. I don't want to face my decline, so I might as well burn out while l'm up here'."

Cooper, once plain Vincent Furnier from Phoenix, Arizona ditched his death wish years ago. The snake wielding, whip-cracking schlock-and-roll star, whose live act still ends with the beheading of its star by guillotine, gave up the juice for good in 1982. At that time he was drinking a quart of whisky a day and indulging in extensive lager breakfasts.

"There are four whole albums that I dont remember one single moment of writlng, singing, recording or touring." says Cooper, now a father of two and longtime golf fanatic. Golf became his new addiction. He was a regular on Hollywood's golf courses and made friends with the likes of Groucho Marx, Bob Hope and Fred Astaire. The height of showbiz respectability. Strange, then, to recaIl the Cooper who disembowelled female dummies on stage, was reputed to bite the heads off chickens ("untrue") and splattered his audience with fake gore.

"Alice Cooper has always been choreographed violence," he says. "You know who's going to win and lose. Anybody who has ever seen a real street fight will know it's not funny at all, it's pretty sickening. But if you see us live on our current tour you can see it's all totally put together, like the West Side Story's gang fight. It's nothing you don't see on every station on television every day."

The publicity certainly helped Cooper to become an icon, He has a dozen Top 40 UK singles hits to his name, beginning with 'School's Out', a No 1 in 1972, and ending, so far, with 'Poison', which went to No 2 in 1989.

"Alice was an American Frankenstein - everything that's bad about America wrapped up into one. The British public was fascinated by this character," Cooper says, in an attempt to pin down the secret of his "lovable villain". "What created this character was America. I was the one who absorbed all the the insanity and said `OK, this character's going to he a rockstar'."

Though he quit drinking and can reasonably claim to be in better shape than he was at 19, the long years of alcoholism are etched across his face. It it not a pretty sight, but it gives his onstage Alice leer the benefit of a debauched authenticity.

So there is dissappointment and relief in equal parts to discover that the man behind the persona of Alice Cooper is, in fact, quiet articulate and, frankly, a bit of a softie. And surprisingly, as the man who helped to inspire punk, he is keen to be seen as a serious artist. He writes short stories, has acted in several films and is now working on a screenplay.

Ol' black mascara eyes desire to be seen as more than a semi-theatrical rock novelty is never more apparent than when discussing that most unlikely of Cooper cover artist, Ol' Blue Eyes. "The coolest thing that's ever happened to me was Frank Sinatra covering You and Me. I just sat there at the Hollywood Bowl going `Wow' It makes you feel like a songwriter."

"I went backstage to meet him," says the star-struck Cooper. "It was just such a privilege. I mean, Sinatra invented the rock concert when he paid a hundred girls a dollar apiece to scream when he performed in the 1940s."