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Originally Published: July 1980
Author: Anthony Mora
I first saw Alice Cooper in 1968 at Los Angeles' Whisky a Go Go. It was the height of the long-hair, peace-sign, love-in era.
Black lights, psychedelia and attaining higher consciousness were all in vogue. Guys were wearing paisley shirts and buckskin jackets; girls were wearing granny dresses. The Byrds were the main act at the Whisky that night, and the audience was waiting impatiently for the first act to do its set and get off. The before-set music stopped, the lights dimmed, and Alice Cooper was introduced. Alice ran onto the stage wearing spiked high heels, a dress and woman's make-up. The band was dressed in black leather. Their first song was atonal, choppy, screaming aggression. Within minutes, a steady stream of people began to exit. The act was bizarre, silly sensationalistic and certainly distasteful to a Byrds audience. By the third song the club was nearly empty. By the middle of the fourth, I was standing outside on Sunset Boulevard. The seeds had been sown for what was soon to become an LA phenomenon: walking out on Alice Cooper.
I first met Alice Cooper in 1980 - for this article - at his Benedict Canyon home. Twelve year had gone by and Alice has gone from LA-circuit clown to one of the most successful rock acts of his time as the grand ghoul of theater-rock. The early props (mops, doors) have evolved into guillotines, boa constrictors and hangmen; Cooper's supporting cast is now as large and elaborate as a Las Vegas circus act. The interview tool place in this large game house situated in the back yard of his home. Inside, the room is literally covered with tour paraphernalia - mementos, tapes, photos, costumes, masks, toys - an assortment of fun, basically functionless gadgets.
Cooper, known in his pre-rock days as Vincent Damon Furnier, is bent over the pool table about to attempt a shot using a baseball bat as a cue. "It's not as easy as it looks," he smiles. He still has long brown hair and is extremely thin. He grins as he makes the shot.
A New Alice Cooper album, Flush the Fashion, and film, Roadie, are near release. It was again time for interviews, reviews and all the rest of the now well-practiced media onslaught. Cooper brings us each a Coke (as in cola). I turn on my tape recorder and, seating ourselves in front of a huge TV screen, we talk.
"Having the audience walk out on us in the early days was great," Cooper laughs. "It became in - chic - to walk out on Alice Cooper. But before anyone could walk out, they had to pay to get in, so the club owners were happy and we were making some money. Also, we were getting a name in the city. Not the most positive name, but people knew who we were. In those days I'd use anything in the act that got thrown on stage. Like those chickens. Hey, I'm from Detroit; what do I know of chickens? I thought they could fly - I mean, they got wings, right? So I threw this chicken up, and plop! It fell down. But I sure didn't tear that poor bird up. The audience did. Of course I neve denied tearing it up. I never deny anything. I get some of my best press that way. I'd never do anything like that. But then, Alice might."
Alice Cooper - a bizarre, painted, bigger-than-life vaudevillian rock horror clown - had had a definite Jekyll-and-Hyde effect on Vince Furnier. Cooper is always spoken of in the third person, which gets a bit confusing. On the one hand, Furnier's alter ego has made him a very wealthy superstar; but it has also had a tendency to dominate and over-shadow his seperate personality.
"In the early days the act's main draw was its aggressive, bizarre behavior. I began to believe I was letting my audience down if I wasn't that aggressive at all times. In those days I was hanging out a lot with Jim Morrison. I really liked the guy but he had a negative effect on me. He believed that you had to live the role at all times, and I began to pick that up. I started to go out in my leather, do outrageous stuff, get into fights in bars - all the thing that I thought Alice should do. As the act grew and became a greater success, it became more and more difficult for Vince the person to find a place in the shadow of this Frankenstein monster. I began to be Alice 24 hours a day. I found myself drinking a lot then. It got so that I never went anywhere without a bottle. That fucking drink became my best friend."
At 32, the veteran of constant hustling to break through, early days of one-nighters on the road, emotional and physical excesses of rock music and a 10-year bout with alcoholism, Cooper wears the scars of battle. He's underweight, and walks with a slight stoop; his eyes often betray weariness. He has lived his music for more than a decade now. His act began with a vengeance, an uneasy anger that made most of his audiences uncomfortable if not downright sick. The Alice Cooper of the late '60s was looked upon as a parody, a joke (and a bad one at that). Cooper's music was viewed as a secondary, perhaps even unnecessary, part of his show. People would show up for a laugh or to join the walk-out-on-Alice club.
"Very few people really gave our music a chance in those days, and I was working with some great musicians. Everyone assumed that since our act was so theatrical and outrageous the music just had to be bad. That's stupid. Rock is and should be theatrical. As long as a band can play, why shouldn't it be visual, too? If you take Paul Butterfield, hang him upside down and paint him green, he can still play great but the show would be more interesting. It's that simple. My concept was always very theatrical. When Zappa saw us, the idea was already there. Frank was interested because he saw the band from Phoenix literally drive hundreds of people out of a room. Guess that's what sold him on us. He told me that the music we were playing was so strange and illogical that not even his band could play it. But we knew nothing about music, so it made sense to us."
Through playing on the LA circuit and working on a cult-oriented album with Zappa, the Alice Cooper phenomenon began to grow. The act was still viewed as a farce, but it was beginning to develop a following and pick up momentum. It became chic to hangout or be seen with Alice. A reverse snobbery developed where established rock legits would hang out with the strange rock character just to see what he'd do next. The band became a monetary and socially successful whipping boy. Soon Alice Cooper began touring.
"We were so off the wall and ridiculous on stage that no act wanted to follow us. Once we were through, the stage was a mess. More of less by default we began to go on before the main act. And even they had a hell of a time trying to follow up. Those were the days of the one-nighters, you know - Motel 6, all the steak and shrimp you wanted for $1.25, all you have to do is open the can. We hadn't graduated to the Holiday Inn yet; it was scrounge time. Audiences in the rest of the country were much more confused and perplexed by Alice than the folks in LA. LA is jaded; I doubt there is anything you can do to shock an audience in LA. In Kansas the cops climbed on stage and stopped the show because of the noise. That put us on the map. Alice was a martyr. I loved that."
The band left LA to relocate in Detroit, Cooper's home. There he teamed up with Bob Ezrin, signed with Warner Bros., and enjoyed his first taste of success. "Eighteen," a single from Love It to Death, the first album Cooper and Ezrin worked on, rose to the top of the charts; as with a later Alice Cooper song, "School's Out," it became a teen anthem. Cooper was becoming the Francis Scott Key of shock rock.
As he gained more success, his long-time concept of horror-theatre rock took shape and became a reality. The money for the crazed, lavish productions came from the band. "We financed all of the theatrics, all the shows ourselves. That way we had no record label telling us what we could or couldn't do. The risk was our, but the show was ours, too." By the time the Billion Dollar Babies tour took to the road in 1973, an Alice Cooper concert had become synonymous with a traveling carnival - Barnum and Bailey on acid. A vaudevillian show complete with dancing spiders, chickens and Nixon look-alikes required $600,000 worth of stage and sound equipment, along with the essential guillotines, electrocutions, boas, bats and mascara. The tours became as intricate as full-scale Broadway productions, making incredible demands on road crews.
"On our show a roadie doesn't just have to worry whether a tube is going to work or not. He's got to be sure that a noose is going to work, or that a prop is in the right place at the right time. My guys are experts. If they somehow fuck up or anything goes wrong, they take it personally. They're totally committed. The song "Road Rats," which (plug time) I do in the film Roadie, is my tribute to roadies. They're great. They're like bikers; they always go out wearing their colors. I'm sure they have some weird initiation that none of us know about, like they have to eat a wrench or something. It's a whole culture unto itself. We have the absolute best. We have to. Our tours are so demanding, so intricate."
By 1977 the Alice Cooper tour was grossing $3.5 million. His records were also becoming consistent money-makers. Alice Cooper had become a phenomenon. The rock monster began to travel in the elite circles of the American establishment. The mascara, long stringy hair and snakes seemed to coexist easily with Hugh Hefner parties, Palm Springs golf classics and Tonight Show appearances, raising the suspicion that perhaps Furnier was the most middle-of-the-road character in rock. As bizarre as horror-show Cooper seemed on stage, he seemed just that much more amiable off. The more Vince Furnier surfaced, the more his likes and tastes seemed classically American bourgeois.
"Alice is as American as baseball," Cooper declares. "Kids love him, old ladies love him. By now he's an American tradition, which is great. Exactly what I wanted. I'm such a fucking nationalist it's ridiculous. Anywhere else, except maybe London, I get bored. I mean where else can you go out and get pizza and licorice jelly beans at four in the morning? Hell, in New York or LA you can go out and get anything at any time, as long as you get your shots afterwards. And TV - where else can you watch TV 24 hours a day? I have to have a TV set on at all times. That's where all my tastes come from. I never wanted to meet rock starts. I always wanted to meet people like George Burns or Groucho Marx."
It must have been a comforting sight to all the frightened moms and dads to see pictures of the notorious Cooper, beer in hand, with the likes of Johnny Carson, George Burns and Art Carney, not to mention Helen Hayes and Mae West. Obviously there was a spark of the good old boy in him somewhere.
Sadly, by that time, the beer in hand had become more of a crutch than a sign of Americana. In 1978, soon after his marriage to Sheryl Goddard, Cooper admitted himself to a rehabilitation hospital in New York. During the time Sgt. Pepper was being filmed, for which Cooper was granted a three-day hospital leave to shoot his scene.
"At that point, committing myself was a simple act of self-preservation. I was physically dying. I never ate. I had a bad case of gastritis, and was carrying around an extra 15 pounds of straight alcohol. It actually came to the point where it was either the bottle or me. One of us had to go. I had just returned from Mexico with Sheryl where we had been married by both our fathers; they're both ministers. I knew that it was time. It was the acid test of our marriage. If we could go through that, we could make it through anything. It was a strange time, but I did it. Now it's over, and I don't drink anymore. I can't; it's like taking poison. A lot of if had to do with the realizing that I'm only Alice for 90 minutes on stage, and the rest of the time I don't have to go around being cool or hip. I can just be me. Sounds silly, but not understanding that almost killed me."
After the rehabilitation, Cooper returned to his Beverly Hills home a sober, married man. The days of drugs, alcohol and groupies were reportedly behind him. "Groupies were fun, especially at first. It was a status thing to have a groupie one day that had been with a big band the night before. I mean, you're on your way up and you're with this chick who had spent the night before with the Rolling Stones or something like that; proves that you're making it. After a while it gets odd, though, waking up and not knowing who the chick is next to you. It gets so you can't stand it. I once had a doctor write a note saying I had some strange disease, that I was violent when I woke up, so I'd tell the chick it was okay if she slept with me but she couldn't be there in the morning. I mean it actually does kind of get you sick. I'm really a romantic anyway; I'm a one-woman guy. But I had fun, though."
In 1978 Cooper teamed up with friend Bernie Taupin on From The Inside, which Cooper calls his sophisticated album. The works received a rather cool public reception.
"I like the album I did with Bernie. I believe it was one of my best. It was a bit of a departure from my style and I think it got through to a few people. This new album, Flush the Fashion, is much harder, much more Cooperesque. I hooked up with Roy Thomas Baker who had produced Journey, Cars and Queen. I knew that we'd hit it off as soon as he told me that he owns 22 TV sets. He's into all types of gadgets and mechanical things. We were able to work well together. He captured exactly the sound I wanted. The album is crisp, almost live. There is very little overdubbing. It's a change for the '80s, back to simpler, cleaner sound. My look and show will also reflect a starker, less overly theatrical feel. The '70s were so over-produced in every way; I think people are sick of it, ready for a change."
The Alice Cooper of the '80s has his hair tied back, is discreetly made up and wears a black leather jacket. It's almost ironic: twelve years ago he helped revolutionize the style of the LA scene; now he dons a pseudo-punk street image, a look that has become more commonplace in the '80s LA circuit. The new look, though, is every bit as theatrical and foreign to Vince Furnier's character as the long-haired rock ghoul of the '70s. Cooper spent 20 minutes outfitting himself in his new garb for photos, like a warrior preparing himself for battle - or, more aptly, like a kid on Halloween night. His hair was pinned back to look short and make-up applied for a tougher look. Cooper was on and having fun, suggesting as many ideas for shots as the photographer.
The rest of the interview took place while watching portions of the dismal Sgt. Pepper on a huge TV screen, shooting miniature toy soldiers with BB guns (as befits his rank, Cooper used pellets), shooting pool and rummaging through his game room looking at photos and old tour props. On the wall is a photograph of Cooper with Salvador Dali.
"Dali's one of my heroes," Cooper grins. "He's one of those people who doesn't disappoint you when you need him. He's everything you'd expect him to be. Once we went with him to the St. Regis. When he walked in there, it was like he owned the fucking place. Everyone all but bowed. His hair was in rollers; he was wearing a giraffe-skin jacket, turquoise pants and Alladin shoes. His wife was in a full-dress tux, complete with hat. They were surrounded by all these pretty little kids that they left at the door. IT was like a surreal film. Dali loved my show because he thought it was so confusing and made absolutely no sense at all."
The mass confusion of cheap theatrics of an Alice Cooper show is what makes it work. It's like watching Gilligan's Island while filling yourself to the point of nausea on Twinkies and Coke. You can't do it all the time, and sometimes it even tastes like shit while you are doing it. But it's so hedonistically garish and out of control that it's fun. Alice Cooper is America's soft-core answer to Rome's arena.
Despite Cooper's entrenchment in Hollywood society, he is not quite ready for Disney World. "I'm not concerned about being an established performer. Mother still hide their kids from me in airports and the rumours are still hot and heavy. People remember that I'm the guy responsible for all these creeps hanging around now. Someone the other day called me the grandfather of punk. I mean, father maybe, but fucking grandfather? I'm still the best around and that's why I keep going. I'm like a gunfighter; every time I'm about to put my leathers away, there's always some punk band that thinks they're better. I love the challenge. If I thought there were anybody else out there better then me I wouldn't be playing. I've got a reputation to keep. Our last tour was number one box office draw. We're one of the few bands around that can tour without and album to promote. We're more like a traveling carnival, an event."
After a while Sheryl appears with a bowl of vegetables and a Coke for Cooper (monitoring the TV screen to catch his brief part in Sgt. Pepper) and sits in his lap. "I watch TV all the time," he mumbles between mouthfuls. "It's great. I mean I'll watch anything: exercise shows, test patterns. Even if I'm not watching it has to be on. I rarely listen to albums or the radio. Sometimes I'll put on Burt Bacharach or something like that. Every now and then I'll put on something like Public Image, but that's more like just for shock value. The only new album I'm really listening to right now is Mi-Sex."
I left Alice Cooper, shock-rock terror, sitting in his Beverly Hills home quietly watching TV with his wife. This is the man once described as "the horror of every mom and dad in America." It was difficult to imagine why.
"Alice will go on forever - at least till I'm 66. It's an American tradition. Before Groucho died, he told me that Alice was the last chance for vaudeville. I mean, how can you seriously not like Alice? That's like saying you don't like boa constrictors."