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Originally Published: November 20, 2009
Author: Chris Ayres
Typical, isn't it? You fly to Las Vegas to have a nice quiet chat with Alice Cooper, but by the end of the night you're dressed in a zombie costume, splattered with blood, and trying to kill him in front of thousands of shrieking fans.
"Don't worry," the 61-year-old rocker reassured me a few hours before my cameo, "all you have to do is walk on stage, wave your arms around a bit, moan and bump into stuff - it really helps if you bump into stuff. Oh, and once you've helped kill Alice, he'll come back to life for the next act."
Before you ask: yes, Alice Cooper - real name, Vincent Damon Furnier - always talks about his musical persona in the third person. And yes, he gets killed on stage every night. Four times a night, to be precise - often with the help of "guest zombies" such as me. He's been doing this for the past 40 years, which means that he has orchestrated his own demise about 60,000 times, not counting the brief period in 1977 when Alice - or Vincent, or both - took a hiatus from touring on account of being locked up in a mental asylum. (The way Alice tells it, the incarceration was part medical necessity - he was literally dying from alcoholism - and part gonzo research project for his classic 1978 album From the Inside. It also led to the epiphany that "I was the alcoholic, not Alice".) These days, of course, Alice is a little saner - if degrees of sanity can be applied to a father of three who plays golf obsessively, drives an Aston Martin, goes to church and spends more on make-up than his teenage daughter does. He is heroically sober, at least. And he has long since given up going to bed with three groupies at a time, or dreaming up wild press stunts, such as buying the "O" in the Hollywood sign for $27,000.
You wouldn't guess any of this from his epic Theatre of Death tour, which lands at Manchester Apollo this week with all the subtlety of a Boeing 747 loaded with nuclear weapons crashing into the Moon. As well as the guest zombies, there's a provocatively dressed nurse, a giant syringe, duelling guitar warriors and enough fake blood to remake Saving Private Ryan. The set list covers everything from Alice's first major hit, I'm Eighteen, to the Eighties pole-dance classic Poison, not forgetting his more recent work, such as Along Came a Spider from last year.
When I meet Alice the morning after the Las Vegas gig in his vast high-roller's suite at the Orleans hotel, he tells me that he loves doing shows in Britain, because it reminds him of the time in 1973 when Mary Whitehouse and the Welsh MP Leo Abse tried to ban him from entering the country on the ground that he was peddling "anthems of necrophilia". The controversy transformed his career in Europe. "We couldn't have paid them to do that," he laughs. "I mean, one of the fantastic things about our show was that none of it was actually bannable. There was no swearing, no nudity. But before Alice Cooper, there'd never been Goths. It scared the hell out of everybody."
Still, Whitehouse and Abse very nearly had their dream come true when Alice was almost killed by a prop malfunction during one of his British shows. Back then, the gimmick was that Alice would hang himself every night from a home-made gallows. In reality, though, a hidden wire would stop him from actually falling so far into the noose that it strangled him or broke his neck. "We'd made the thing ourselves, and used piano wire as the support cable," Alice recalls. "But what we didn't figure is that if we used it 300 times, the wire would eventually lose its strength. Then one night in London it snapped. Fortunately, I instinctively put my neck up and slipped right through the noose. I fell 6ft, hit my jaw. Man, was I lucky!"
It wasn't the only near-fatal prop failure. Other infamous Alice Cooper mishaps have included the time he accidentally stabbed himself in the leg with a sword ("I looked down and thought, 'Well, it's already in there, so I might as well carry on'") and the time that his boa constrictor suffered onstage diarrhoea, which made the roadies - dressed as clowns - vomit. ("Johnny Rotten came up to me after and said: 'Alice, that was the most magnificent thing I've ever seen in my entire life'") And then, of course, there was the Chicken Incident of 1969, which did for Alice's career in North America what the proposed Whitehouse/Abse ban did in Britain. To this day, Alice says he doesn't really know how it happened. "I've always maintained that nobody goes to a rock concert and brings a chicken," he shrugs. "But all of a sudden at this gig in Toronto there was this white chicken on stage. Now I'm from Detroit - never been on a farm in my life - so I didn't know what to do with a chicken. I just thought, well, it's got wings, so it should fly. That's why I picked it up and threw it off the stage."
Bad idea. For the chicken, at least. "It just plummeted," Alice sighs. "Then the front row ripped the thing to pieces. The funny thing was, the first three rows were for people in wheelchairs."
At the time, Alice Cooper was signed to Frank Zappa's Straight Records, and he got a call the next morning from the Great Man himself. Alice recalls: "Frank said: 'Alice, did you kill a chicken?' I said: 'Colonel Sanders kills a billion chickens a year.'" But Zappa wasn't worried about the chicken, he was worried about something else. "He said to me: 'Whatever you do, don't ever tell anyone you didn't do it.'"
Thus the world's first Goth rock legend was created. In those days, of course, it was the band that was called Alice Cooper, not Furnier himself. They came up with the name because it sounded like a sweet little old lady and was amusingly incongruous. "Then my mother did a Ouija board session and asked, 'Who is Alice Cooper?' and it spelt out 'Vincent'," Alice laughs. Later, when the band split up over a disagreement about how much money to spend on what became the 1975 Welcome to My Nightmare tour, the singer was allowed to carry on performing using the name as his own. It worked out well for everyone in the end: Alice's ceaseless touring and blockbuster solo albums have ensured a lucrative stream of royalty income for his former collaborators. Everyone is still in touch, and a reunion is probable.
Born in Detroit but raised in Arizona, Alice was never a likely rock star. His father was a pastor, and his grandfather had been an evangelist for 60 years. Unusually, however, there were few culture clashes in the Fernier household. "My dad and I were the best of friends," Alice says. "He dug music a lot. He loved the British invasion, in particular. And he listened to our music, too. He knew Alice Cooper wasn't Satan."
It was at high school that Alice learnt how stage props could enhance a musical performance. "One of my teachers had a guillotine, and if you were late, he'd put your head in it. I was late all the time. So when I was in the Earwigs [his first band, formed when he was 16], we put that guillotine on stage." From then on, the stunts became ever more extreme, with Alice turning the traditional pop concert into a vaudevillian spectacle. But by the time the Alice Cooper band was a million-selling phenomenon, the excesses were no longer confined to the stage.
Alcohol was the primary indulgence. "I was a funny drunk," Alice insists. "I never got angry, never got mean, I was just on this nice golden buzz. But then I'd wake up and throw up blood. I didn't eat a lot, that was the problem. The drink fools you into thinking you're eating." And drugs? "I was never a druggy. I always had a paranoia with drugs. But that didn't mean we didn't try everything. In the end, though, I said to the band: 'Let's stay away from things that are illegal.'" Dressing the way they did, Alice reasoned, they would all end up in jail otherwise. "So instead I'd get through two six-packs of beer in a day, no problem, and at nine o'clock in the morning I'd be at the whisky."
Alice even bought his own drinking club in LA, Hollywood Vampires. "When John Lennon had his 'lost weekends', he'd show up in LA and we'd hang out there," Alice remembers. "Keith Moon would come along, too. We'd have this game called What's Keith Moon Going to Wear Tonight. With most people, about 30 per cent of what you hear is true. With Keith, pretty much everything you heard about him was true."
As for Lennon: "He was John, y'know? Very cynical. And he'd get serious, want to talk about politics. I'd tell him: 'John, I'm the least political guy you'll ever meet.' I hate politics. I'm a rock star: my job is to take people in a different direction altogether."
Eventually, the drinking caused Alice to drift away from the people close to him, including his father ("He couldn't condone the lifestyle of sleeping with every woman in LA and being an alcoholic") and his wife, Sheryl, a former ballerina eight years his junior, who tried to leave him.
The couple had met when Sheryl, whose father was also a minister, auditioned for a role as a dancer in Alice's stage show. They bonded while watching TV backstage. But the boozing was threatening to destroy the relationship. "It had got to the point where I was just lying in bed and drinking and watching cartoons all day," Alice admits. Hence his 1977 trip to a New York mental institution. It was Sheryl who committed him - and the memory is still vivid: "My hands were shaking. They had to help me sign my name. Everyone had white coats on, and for 72 hours I couldn't leave. Everyone in there was rich. They went there instead of going to jail."
He relapsed catastrophically not long after he got out. "We were on our way to Lake Tahoe and I had a sip of Sheryl's wine. By the end of the night, I had a bottle of whisky hidden in the house." But he cleaned up again, and never went back.
Reverting to the Christianity of his youth helped. It also convinced him of the benefits of a stable family life, without which he believes that he would almost certainly be dead. "I feel like Benjamin Button: I'm ageing in reverse," he says of his sobriety. His elder daughter, Calico, 28, is an actress and singer; his son Dash, 24, is a student at Arizona State University (he's also in a band, Runaway Phoenix); and 16-year-old Rose is still at high school.
"I felt like I had to have some conviction in my life," Alice says when asked why he suddenly became the world's least likely family man. "It's like they say, if you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything . . ." But how does he vent all those pent-up rock-star frustrations? "Golf," he replies, with a straight face. And, of course, being killed by zombies every night.
It's a strange existence, but it works. "It's just another kind of addiction," he says with a shrug. "Golf is an addiction. Touring is an addiction. Not drinking has become a kind of addiction. And I've been with Sheryl for 33 years and never cheated on her once. That's an addiction, too."
Alice Cooper is touring Britain with his Theatre of Death show from Tues to Dec 6 (livenation.co.uk)
(Originally published online at the Times Online website, on 20th November 2009.)