Times, The

Originally Published: July 20, 2008

Along came Alice

He's a born-again Christian, a fanatical golfer and the founding father of shock rock. But who is the man beneath the make-up Alice Cooper

Author: Dan Cairns

Alice Cooper has two laughs. One of them is a mirthless husk, and punctuates his conversation when he is sounding every one of his 60 years, embarking on a protracted "It wasn't like that in my day" moan. The other, though, is fascinating: an impish, delighted little squeak, it acts as a sort of descant to those moments in Cooper's anecdotage where he recalls the outrageous antics he got up to back in the days of his 1970s chart-topping pomp and majesty.

Good Alice, God-fearing, good-enough-to-turn-pro golfing Alice, can bang on like the worst type of clubhouse bore. This version rises at dawn to tee off, all fore-play and no fun. He is less an entertainer than a brand, with his own radio show, restaurant and bestselling golf book, and a new studio album, his 25th, about to hit the shops. He talks moderately but monotonously about the present, the future, but above all, and at length, the past and politics.

He hates music and politics mixing, and has been badly burnt by this in the past, not least when he called musicians campaigning for John Kerry in 2004 "treasonous morons". "You definitely get blackballed in this business," he reflects now. "Basically, the press is liberal, and you're supposed to adhere to that. I felt a real pressure. It was the same when I said, 'I'm Christian now.' Wow, what a reaction. But if you're in this business and you're honest, you'll pay for it.

A lot of my opinions about the Bush administration are like, 'What? Are you crazy?' I'm moderate, and I'm not political. And the most rebellious thing I ever did was to become a Christian." He laughs drily, but he sounds far from sanguine.

"I never understood rock'n'roll's connection with politics," he chides. "And I've got to be honest with you, rock'n'rollers can take themselves so damn seriously — all that 'What I wrote will change the world'. We can't keep giving them this credibility, as if they know more than anybody else. We don't. That's why we're rock'n'rollers. The guy picking up the garbage" — at this point, Cooper gestures distractedly at a dustcart passing by the London hotel room where we meet — "knows as much about politics as I do. But there is this mystique that if you're an entertainer, you know more. And I think there's an abuse of it. If a famous star decides that he's going to back a certain politician, all of a sudden the people that really don't know anything about politics [hang on, is this including the garbage man, or excluding him?], but really like his movies, they go, 'Well, I'll vote for him because the star knows about these things.' He doesn't."

Bad Alice, on the other hand, is a lot of fun. You could shoot the breeze with this guy all day. This version once painted Tinseltown red, dating Raquel Welch, drowning in alcohol, numbed by narcotics, beyond help in the way that anyone with several multi-platinum albums and a tongue-tied staff on their payroll is beyond help. He talks indiscreetly, self-deprecatingly and with a bracing disregard for modern niceties. One particular story, concerning a concert in Toronto in 1969, has set itself as a seal on his reputation. The happily scandalised press reported at the time that Cooper had thrown a chicken from the stage, having first — as you do — bitten off its head and drunk its blood. Later accounts scaled this back to the singer hurling the unfortunate bird into the air, assuming it would fly; landing instead amid a group of disabled people, the animal was promptly torn to pieces. Was the latter true? "Absolutely," Cooper cackles with undisguised glee. "That was the punch line. Not that I had killed the chicken, which of course I hadn't, but that the handicapped, the people who caught it, turned it into one of them. I mean, how scary is that?"

Somewhere in the middle of these two versions is, you feel, where Cooper now spends most of his time. He may long ago have learnt to ride the two horses in his life — Alice Cooper, the still-touring provocateur and vaudevillian; Vincent Furnier, the sober, Detroit-born son of a pastor — at the same time, but the duality cost him dear before he mastered it. In grumpy-old-man mode, he still gives off tiny sparks of mischief and malice, as if unwilling to wholly surrender to the life he has now built for himself. Conversely, when he careers off down the darker sections of memory lane, you sense in him a relief, a disbelief even, that he lived to tell the tale.

And, every now and then, you catch a glimpse of the person who was self-confident — and possibly barking — enough to have taken a stage show on tour that included boa constrictors, guillotines and hangman's nooses, and who insisted it was still rock'n'roll. In seeing that, you comprehend that no amount of Bible classes (which he attends weekly), or rounds of golf, or opening restaurants, will ever quite vanquish the zany, experimental alchemist still battling for control of Cooper's mind. Here, for instance, is the singer on his new album, Along Came a Spider, and the multiple murderer who is its central character: "I'm thinking, 'Okay, here's a guy, he's a genius serial killer, and he patterns himself after his favourite predator, the spider.' You trap, you kill, you eat. You know?" No, but do go on. "Now you've got that premise, then you go, 'Why? Why is that?' " Cooper suddenly leans in closer. "What would he do? What would he take from the spider? Well, he would kidnap the girl, kill her and wrap her in silk. That's what a spider would do. Only he would be a little more artistic than that. He would think, 'What colour are her eyes? Blue. Okay, blue silk.' You know, with a little bow on top? And then you realise: eight legs, eight victims."

Musically, the album is a rehash of Cooper's greatest moments — and frankly all the better for that. Who wants a wild artistic curveball, after all, when you can have the crunching chords, Slash guitar solos, glammed-up rock and hair metal of tracks such as Killed by Love, Vengeance Is Mine and I'm Hungry? As ever, Cooper will tour the album, a live performer who refuses to bow out. "When I was at journalism school," he says at one point, "my term paper was on the London Times v the National Enquirer. So it was either 'Tax cuts inevitable' or 'Boy born with dog's head'. What am I going to read? I'm going right there to the sensationalism. And if rock'n roll isn't sensationalism, what is?

If I'm ever considered this prophet of importance, I go, 'Guys, that's not what I do.' You know, School's Out, I'm Eighteen, No More Mr Nice Guy, they're fun. And the important thing about my shows, always, is that they're fun. The audience walk out of there, they've got stage blood all over them, they've got confetti stuck to the stage blood, you know? They go, 'That was the best party I've ever been to.' "

Cooper has been married for the past 32 years to Sheryl Goddard, whom he met when she joined his touring troupe. "I was going out with a battleship," he says. "Raquel Welch was a battleship. And she was a great girl. Sheryl weighed 90 pounds and had no idea who I was. She was a ballerina, classically trained; she was a Baptist. But there was a quality in her, maybe that she would watch Godzilla movies with me till three in the morning. I've never cheated on her; I've got three kids who have never been in trouble. They'll go to see Marilyn Manson, but they'll come to church with me the next day. If some guy comes up to me and goes 'Thirty-two years, eh? I'm on my fourth marriage', I go, 'Yeah, but you married four strippers.' " He squeaks louder than ever at this, and his long and surely dyed black hair shakes in time. He may not like to be called a prophet — he calls his creation a "cabaret-vaudeville-comedy-horror thing" — but Cooper, the original shock rocker, was just that. After him came a deluge that carried David Bowie, the Sex Pistols, Guns N' Roses et al into the charts. Deep down, you suspect he knows this. Good Alice is probably slightly appalled by the thought. And Bad Alice? Oh, he feels just fine.

Along Came a Spider is released on Nightmare on July 28

SOURCE: The Sunday Times Culture supplement, UK