Originally Published: December 22, 1996
Alice Cooper will never forget the night of Dec 13, 1973 when his band performed at the Toledo Sports Arena. As he later put it in a song: Welcome to my Nightmare. The show got off to a bad start, and went downhill from there.
The moment Cooper took the stage, the frenzied Sports Arena crowd of 7000 began pelting the legendary rock showman and his band with all sorts of projectiles, including eggs, flash clubes, and hairbrushes.
Suddenly, in the middle of the second song, there was a loud explosion near Cooper's guitarist, Michael Bruce, shattering a stage light and sending broken glass flying through the air. Bruce suffered hand and facial cuts.
"It was very memorable", said Cooper, who returns for a concert at the Sports Arena with Ted Nugent.
"It was one of those things that could have happened anywhere, but the guy could have had his fingers blown off", Cooper said from his home in Arizona. "That would have been a terrible way to end a career".
Cooper said the force of the blast was quite powerful, something like a cherry bomb.
"I said, 'Gee, that's enough!'" he recalled. Then he turned and led his colleagues off the stage.
The abrupt halt to the concert sparked a small riot as irate fans broke Sports Arena windows and hurled rocks, bricks, and bottles at police and their vehicles in the parking lot. Five people were arrested.
Since then, whenever Cooper has been asked to name his least-favorite city, he usually picks Toledo. He once vowed never to play here again, although he eventually relented and performed in the city in 1986 and '87.
Mayor Carty Finkbeiner, aware of the long-term ill will between Cooper and Toledo, last week acted to heal the wounds by issuing a proclamation honoring the 48-year-old rock star, declaring Saturday to be "Alice Cooper Day in Toledo".
"Well that's really nice", Cooper said when told of the proclamation. "I'll never knock Toledo again".
The singer, who rose to fame in the early 1970s by mixing horror-movie theatrics with hard-hitting rock and roll, pointed out that his hometown, Detroit, also gets a bum rap in the media.
But it's such blue-collar Midwest cities as Toledo, Detroit, Cleveland, and Akron that are "the heart of rock and roll", Cooper said.
"If I've ever judged Toledo, I've also praised it for being a rock and roll audience", he said. "In Los Angeles or New York, they go home and take off their designer suits, put on black leather jackets and Levis, and go to the concert. In Detroit and Toledo, they wear their leather jackets and Levis right from work".
Cooper was born Vincent Furnier, in Detroit, but his family moved to Arizona when he was a young child. Later, when his music career was faltering, Cooper moved back to Detroit.
His father and grandfather were protestant ministers, but Cooper said they didn't discourage his passion for rock and roll.
"My dad was hip", Cooper said. "He could tell you any verse in the Bible. I could quiz him by reading any verse and he would know the chapter, who said it, and why they said it."
"And if you asked him who played bass for the Animals, he'd say Chas Chandler. He wanted to be interested in what I was interested in, and he knew I was interested in music".
Cooper was a long-distance runner on his high school track team and formed his first band with some teammates.
They combined theater and rock music "from day one", he said, "from the very first time we played as a band" at a school talent show. Everyone wore Beatle wigs, and at a Halloween variety show they brought a guillotine onto the stage.
By all accounts, Cooper was the first rocker to emphasize theater as much as music. He said it was a way to compete with the power-house rock bands of the 60s such as the Yardbirds, the Who, and Jimi Hendrix.
"Why not use visuals to make the stage come alive? The Yardbirds and [Jimi] Hendrix hadn't done that", Cooper said. "Nobody had taken the stage as sort of an empty canvas and decided to paint it".
He laughed at the persistent rumor that he named the band after a 17th-century witch whose named appeared on a Ouija board.
"I think it was a Scrabble board", Cooper said with a laugh. "I was stuck with the letters, A-L-I-C-E and I thought, 'What am I going to do with these?'"
Obviously having fun with the idea, he added: "It was either a Scrabble board or a bowl of alphabet soup".
He started wearing ghoulish makeup and using electric chairs and guillotines as props. He staged mock beheadings - includng some in which he became the victim, with the executioner holding up a wax likeness of Cooper's head.
Cooper chopped up baby dolls with butcher knives and pranced around the stage with a monstrous snake draped around his torso.
But it was always an act, sheer entertainment, he stressed. Even more than that, it was comedy.
"People took Alice too seriously", he said. "It was comic".
While Cooper admits his stage shows leaned toward "the dark horror side", he had definite limits.
"There weren't any 666's on my stage, or upside-down crosses. I would be way too afraid to do that - and besides, it wasn't in my heart".
Whenever he refers to Alice Cooper, the stage character, Alice Cooper the person uses the third person.
"The character of Alice was always a Captain Hook kind of villain, scary but lovable".
The targets of his lyrical attacks were usually sex, death, and money, Cooper said.
"Those are the most commercial things in the world. Any play, book, or movie, that's what it's about - sex, death, and money".
Speaking of money, Cooper said he brought home so much of it in the early 70s that it seemed ludicrous. The abundance inspired one of Cooper's more memorable tunes.
"We figured we were 'Billion Dollar Babies'," he said. "Here we are, here's this band that should never have crawled out of the cellar, and we were making more money than the Beatles".
"In 1971, 72, 73, 74, it was coming in in truckloads. We would laugh at it. 'What's wrong with these people?' We'd laughingly refer to ourselves as 'Billion Dollar Babies'."
Cooper was fortunate to have chosen the level-headed Shep Gordon as his manager.
"He wouldn't let me buy, like, eight Ferraris. He said, 'Buy a house. Buy yourself a nice car, a Rolls Royce or whatever. Buy all these things that if the money were gone tomorrow, you'd still have them'."
Twenty-eight years later, Gordon is still Cooper's manager.
"And he's still my friend," Cooper said. "Most rockers have had to go to court with the managers".
Cooper's biggest pitfall in the 70s was alcohol. He said he drank a case of beer in a day, and often polished that off with a couple of bottles of whiskey.
But that was the old Alice.
"It's been 15 years since my last drink", Cooper said.
Today, he runs four miles a day and weighs a wispy 150 pounds. That pays off at concert time.
"People say, 'You're 48 now. Things have slowed down.' I always tell them to come see the show. Tell me what has slowed down...I'm in the best shape of my life", Cooper said.
He also has popped up on television and movies, and last week filmed an episode of "Pearl".
One of his most famous scenes was in "Wayne's World", in which the film's adolescent stars anxiously go backstage to see Cooper, expecting to be shocked by rock star bacchanalia.
The shock comes when they find Cooper and his band engaged in an intellectual discussion on the history of northern Michigan.
"It's very funny", Cooper said. "People want to believe the stereo-type...."
"People thought we were doing satanic rituals in the hotel room. It was just the opposite. We were drinking beer, eating pizza, and watching football".
It's even more tame backstage today. Not only is there no beer, but Cooper said he became a Christian years ago and is an advocate of "the family system".
His 1994 release, "The Last Temptation", featured an unmistakable spiritual theme", Cooper pointed out.
"If you listen to the message in that album, it's not offending anybody who's a rock and roll fan. It's saying, 'Hey kids, the ante is up. Life is like a poker game. What used to be fun and kind of dangerous is now really dangerous".
"It used to be where if you got in a fight with a kid, you'd get punched and have a bloody nose. Now he comes back to school with an Uzi [machine gun]. It used to be where if you had sex with a girl, maybe she got pregnant. Now you die. Everything that used to be a little fun is now deadly. You can't live your life without consequences".
While it may be "uncool for somebody in rock and roll" to speak up for family values, Cooper said he listens to his fans and they yearn for family support. It's only when parents fail to make a commitment to each other and to the children that youths turn to gangs.
"Why let a gang be your family? Let a family be a family", Cooper said.
Cooper compares his career to that of controversial basketball stars like Dennis Rodman and Charles Barkley.
"If you're getting 20 rebounds a night, or scoring 30 points a game, you can dye your hair green. You can wear a dress. Because you can back it up."
"If I did a show and my songs were just 'so what', I wouldn't have been around for more than two or three years. I would have been a novelty act. But I've had 20 gold albums, and some platinum albums, and 10 or 15 radio hits. That's what gives you longevity."
As far as influencing a generation of "shock rockers", Cooper has mixed emotions.
"Well, when you look at KISS, they're pure show business. And so are we. We're old guard. We give the audience more than their money's worth. But it all has a sense of humor. Paul [Stanley] and Gene [Simmons] know that they're comic book characters. But their music is good. Take the makeup off and they're still a good band."
"You leave an Alice Cooper show and say, 'Wow. That was a roller coaster ride. It was fun'."
On the other hand, he said, fun is not something you'll find in the music or the stage show of today's biggest "shock rocker", Marilyn Manson.
"With Marilyn Manson, there's a much more negative feel to it. It's more destructive."
Cooper said he realized he lost the ability to shock an audience when he started watching the daily news on television.
"I wake up and watch CNN and I say, 'Gee, this is horrific.' I cant be more shocking than CNN."