Venue

Originally Published: July 07, 2000

Shock Rock Superstar Alice Cooper

Author: Robin Askew

The son of a preacher, 52-year-old Vincent Furnier first transformed into transvestite sicko Alice Cooper back in the late '60s, promising to "single-handedly drive the stake through the love generation". But it wasn't until the brilliant triumvirate of album, 'Killer', 'School's Out' and 'Billion Dollar Babies' in 1972/73 that the band became a platinum-selling monster and major target of the US religious right thanks to a stage show that incorporated an electric chair, guillotine and snakes.

After the ambitious 'Welcome To My Nightmare' tour of 1975, Alice began a slow decent into alcoholism and madness, resulting in a spell in a psychiatric institution, before making a remarkable comeback that peaked with 1989's chart-topping 'Trash' album.

His influence can be detected in everything from punk rock to the myriad of pretenders to his throne, such as Marilyn Manson. But not one of them has ever written a song as good as 'Only Women Bleed', 'The Ballad Of Dwight Fry', 'Under My Wheels', 'Cold Ethyl', 'I Love The Dead' or, of course, 'School's Out'. Alice's first album in six years, 'Brutal Planet', is out now on Eagle Records and he plays Newport Centre on July 11. The show is sold out. We are, as Wayne and Garth so aptly put it, not worthy.

'Brutal Planet' is a lot darker and heavier than anything you've done before. Where did all that come from?

Well, I've taken my character Alice into so many different places. I took him to a nightmare. I took him to school on 'School's Out', I put him through a mental institution. This time I said I wanted to take him into the future. What is Alice's picture of the future? It wouldn't be the same as mine. My idea of the future is a much more optimistic. Alice's view is a little more 'THX 1138'. It's a glimpse of a mini-utopia that's gone wrong. If I was going to have a conversation with Alice and I said, 'Well, why do you think that?' he would say: "Look at Columbine, look at Kosovo, look at Rwanda. Look at genocide. It's flourishing all around the world. If it keeps going like this, in 50 years we'll all be road warriors." It's a heavy subject, but at the same time my job is to make it entertaining.

It's also a very modern sounding album. Does that mean you're listening closely to what's going on in heavy metal?

Oh, sure. I'm not gonna make a '70s album. I'm not gonna go backwards. It's nice to have legendary status. It's nice to be a general. But I don't want to be stuck. I've had people saying, "Make an album like 'Billion Dollar Babies' or 'School's Out' or 'Welcome To My Nightmare'." But I've already made those albums. Why would I want to do that when there's bands like Limp Bizkit and Rob Zombie? I'm competing with these guys. So I put out this album as fair warning that Alice is just as vehement as ever about his sound. I don't mind challenging these bands. It's funny, because I look around as other guys who are exactly my age - Steven Tyler from Aerosmith, Ozzy Osbourne, AC/DC. They're all making records that are as good as anything they've ever done. I don't buy into the fact that if you're 52 years old you're going to go backwards. If anything, we have the experience to go forwards. I love plugging into that new sound. But if you take all the production away, it's still an Alice Cooper hard rock, guitar-driven album.

Does it get more difficult to create stage shows that shock people?

You know, I don't try to shock. I quit trying to shock people in 1986 after the 'Nightmare Returns' tour. I'd plugged into that splatter movie kind of thing that was going on and it was fun, because I found that those movies were generally comedies. So my show was scary, but it was funny at the same time. Which I enjoyed. But after that, I wasn't really trying to shock the audience any more. I don't think I can be as shocking as CNN. Reality is more shocking than any fantasy I can develop. So I think the shocking thing is dead. But you still have to entertain the audience. If you're gonna say 'Brutal Planet', you'd better give them a brutal planet.

Did you ever come up with an idea that you decided was too sick to inflict on an audience?

Oh, even Alice has his boundaries. I never really got into politics except for 'Elected'. But that was purely satire. I never go into anything religious, because I always felt there were boundaries there.

Wasn't there a show where you sliced open the belly of a female dummy and yanked out a baby?

You know what: I never did that. Everybody keeps talking about that and I say, "What show was that?" In the current show we do a song called 'Dead Babies', but we set the audience up. They see the baby carriage and they see Alice out there and they go, "Oh jeez, what's going to happen?" He takes the nurse and puts her in the trunk of a car and he's alone with the baby. But when he does pull the baby out, it's got two heads. One of the heads is a dog and the other is a horrific mutant thing. It's not really a baby at all. It's a monster. So I like tricking the audience into thinking one thing and getting something else. It was so easy to shock an audience in the '70s just with the name Alice Cooper. Everybody was the Buffalo Springfield and The Doors and the Iron Butterfly. When Alice Cooper came out it was, "Wait a minute. What is this? Here's five guys and they've all gotten make-up smeared on and supposedly they're not gay. How insane is this?" We were like a study in contrasts. Everything they felt we were, we weren't. And sure, the stage show was shocking in the '70s. I don't think it would be shocking now.

You once nearly hanged yourself onstage, I believe

Almost. I had to learn every one of the death scenes - the hanging, the guillotine and all that - from Hollywood stunt men. These guys do it for a living. It's pretty dangerous if it goes wrong. I mean, the guillotine blade only misses me by six inches. And that's a 40 pound blade. If I'm in the wrong place at the wrong time, that could really go wrong badly. So every night it really is a little dangerous up there.

So when you watch 'Spinal Tap', do you laugh or cry?

Ha ha ha. Listen - my stuff is so tested. Believe me, I've got guys who do nothing but test the equipment. But I guarantee you one thing - every metal band and every theatrical band totally related to that movie. And when I put this show together, I said: "This show has got lots of Spinal Tap potential. If this doesn't open and I get stuck in here, we're gonna have to play it for funny." I always tell the band and the crew: "If this happens, we go the other way with it. We play it as comedy."

You've accused Marilyn Manson of being more icing than cake.

I say that to a lot of bands. I tell them, "If you're going to have any kind of lasting power out there, don't believe that it's in the visuals. Because that's something that anybody can do. You have to have the music to go with it. You have to have the cake before the icing. "We learned that the hard way. We went out and were very visual at the beginning. And I totally admit it - we weren't as good as the other bands. But we became a really good band. We spent 90% of our time on the music.

John Lydon claims to know the words to every Alice Cooper song and rates 'Killer' as the best album ever. Does that surprise you?

You know, it's very funny: I think I have the strange distinction of being the only person that John Lydon likes on the planet. I don't think I did anything special to deserve that. He saw the show. He realized it was half tongue-in-cheek and half serious. I was very impressed with the Sex Pistols coming out and saying, "We're a scam." I loved that. I thought that was so refreshing that they said, "Look - we're a scam to take your money." I thought, "These guys are funny. I hope people are getting this."

Is it true that Groucho Marx, Mae West and Fred Astaire used to come to your shows?

Yeah, well, knowing nothing about rock'n'roll, all they saw it as was showbiz. You're on stage, the lights are on you, there's an audience out there. What are you gonna do? These people have been 60 years in the business. They've seen everything. It didn't faze them one bit. The press asked Groucho about it and he said, "Alice is the last hope for vaudeville." To me that was a great compliment, the fact that Groucho would recognize it as vaudeville. Because OK, it was - it's hard rock vaudeville. I'll take that. Same with Fred Astaire. To me, he was one of the great performers of all time. He looked at the show and said, "Yeah, it's got rhythm. It swings." That's good enough for me. To get a compliment like that is like the Beatles saying, "Great song".

You were great mates with Jim Marrison, Keith Moon, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin in the '60s. How come you survived and they didn't?

Well, it's a very simple thing. It's lucky I was born with a logical mind. These guys were literally big brothers. I was the young kid on the block. They were the guys I drank with. They let me come to the recording sessions. Jimi Hendrix introduced me to my manager 30 years ago. And every one of them died trying to be their character. That was the one thing they all had in common. They all died trying to do an imitation of life that they were doing onstage. When Mick Jagger goes onstage, he is magnified ten times. Suddenly he's MICK JAGGER, right? But you have to leave the character on stage. I learned to leave Alice on stage. Alice could do anything he wanted for an hour and 45 minutes up there, but he wasn't allowed to come home with me. Alice's deal was: go play golf, go shopping, go do a comedy show if you want to, but don't bring him on stage.

Did you really play golf with Genald Ford?

Er, I played in a tournament with him. I played with all those guys. I'd never touched a golf club till I was 30 years old. I came from Detroit. We only had three sports there: baseball, football and grand theft auto. So golf was the furthest thing from my mind. I was like, who'd want to do that? But I go so bored on the road one day and I had an old Irish lighting director who played golf. I said, "I'll do anything to get out of this hotel room." And I went out, picked up a club and hit the ball straight down the middle. And I was addicted. I won 13 tournaments in Arizona last year.

Do you still get hassled by the religious right in America?

The religious right is a very interesting group of people. In a lot of ways, you have to live these people down. I am a Christian. I always have to tell people I'm a Christian, but not like you see on television. Because a lot of times these people on television are crazier than anybody I've ever seen. They're really insane. And they give Christianity a bad name. I still get lots of problems from the Christian right. They seem to think that anything that's not Lawrence Whelk is a deadly sin. I just don't see it like that. I dare anybody to listen to my lyrics and find something in there that promotes Satan.

You and Lemmy are both sons of preachers. Have you ever sat down and compared your experiences?

Ha ha ha. You know we should sometime, but you never get enough time with him. He works more than we do, which is kind of hard to believe. I don't think there's ever a time when Lemmy's been off the road.

You majored in Journalism. Does this help when it comes to dealing with the press?

Well, it was something that I totally understood. Especially when I first came to England. I realized that the press was totally sensationalist. I absolutely love the Sun and the Mirror, and that's because they're really good at what they do. For me, if I've got a choice between reading about tax laws or 'Boy Born With Dog's Head', I know where I'm going. And that was perfect for Alice Cooper. I told them everything they wanted to hear. I said, "Guys, this sells papers." And they totally dug that.

You've always been more successful in Europe than America. How come?

If we sell a million records in America, we sell two million in Europe. You have to remember that England accepted us before America did, on a really big level. When we came over there we were so much the American Frankenstein - we were everything that was bad and good about America all rolled up into one - and the Brits really liked that. They liked the tongue-in-cheek sense of humour. They dug the Hollywood stunts. So I have always been loyal to the Brits because they've always been totally loyal to us. I know London better than I know New York City, I've been there so many times.

The early '80s were a weird time for you with alcoholism, all those strange albums and appearance on virtually every naff game show. How do you look back on that now?

There's always something in your career that you're not expecting. Sure, when you're a kid you go, "I wanna big mansion and I wanna Rolls Royce and I wanna a model for a girlfriend, and a number one record and I wanna be an alcoholic.. Hey, wait a minute. Playback. I wanna be an alcoholic? That's not in there." You don't see that coming. That's being blindsided. You know you're going to become a drug addict if you're putting something in your arm, but when you're just drinking with the boys your don't realize that it's becoming part of your life and pretty soon it's becoming medicine. And so the alcoholism is, of course, the one thing I would have avoided in retrospect. Anything other than that I would not have changed. Even the albums. I think I held my own during the disco period, because I didn't cave into it. I made hard rock albums. Even though they didn't sell, we didn't sell out. We said, "Hey look, this disco thing will blow over and it'll come back to hard rock." Which it did."

Do people still come up to you in the street and say, "We're not worthy!"

Oh, how many times a day? Twenty? And I always say to them, "Do you really think that's the first time I've heard that today?" I'm stuck with that forever. But it's fine. I could be stuck with a lot worse things.