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(September 23, 1999)
Originally Published: September 23, 1999
Author: Alex Erasmi
"I know the words to every Alice Cooper song." - John Lydon, a.k.a. Johnny Rotten
The bulk of Alice Cooper's career has been spent walking the fine line between legend and self-parody. Those who remember the initial rush of legitimate classics like "Eighteen", "Under My Wheels" and "No More Mr. Nice Guy" have generally chosen to freeze Cooper in that time period, still holding him in high regard despite more than two decades or erratic and largely forgettable music.
His recent four-disc retrospective The Life & Crimes of Alice Cooper is a sprawling tribute that traces Cooper's musical output form his early high school band The Spiders through his '70s glory years and up to his later successes.
It is a retrospective that shows two distinct sides to this complex performer. Providing ample evidence that Cooper was and still can be a legitimate rocker while at the same time documenting just how often he has allowed himself and his musical persona to become a shameless corporate entity, creating music that merely echoes the sound that he had once helped define.
Late last month, I had the opportunity to speak with Alice Cooper via telephone from Hollywood, California, where he's working on an album of new material. Over the course of our conversation, I would glimpse the different facets of Cooper's persona.
At times he would be all business, rambling through stories that he had most likely told a thousand time before, because he know it makes good copy. Other times he would sound legitimately excited and enthused, as if he was the subject of his first professional interview, revealing aspects of himself that many of his peers would never dream of.
Either way, Cooper seemed to enjoy talking about the various highlights of his career, which is now well into its fourth decade.
"I thought my voice sounded so weird on tape," recalls the artist formerly known as Vincent Furnier about his first experience in a recording studio. "It didn't sound that way to me in my head. While that was exciting, the real thrill was the first time I actually heard it on the radio. It was in Phoenix in the mid-'60s.
"I was in the car with two other guys from the band on our way to rehearsal and on the radio they're playing the top-40 hits of the day by The Beatles, The Stones and The Animals. Out of the blue, the announcer said, 'and now here is "Why Don't You Love Me", the new song by The Spiders.' Our first reaction was, 'How can they possibly play our song next to the Beatles?' We almost wrecked the car. It was the greatest glow I've ever experienced."
Several years later, the band would again find themselves next to The Beatles (well, one of them at any rate). It was at the now-legendary Toronto Rock & Roll Revival concert where the relatively unknown group (which had adopted the moniker Alice Cooper, reportedly in tribute to the 17th century witch inhabiting Furnier's body) found itself squeezed in between The Doors and John Lennon. It was a big concert for the soon to be ex-Beatle as this performance marked his return to the stage since his band had quit the road three years previously.
It would end up being the show that would help put Alice Cooper on the map.
"That was the one with the chicken fiasco," recalls the singer a ob ut the now infamous incident in which Cooper had brought a live chicken on stage as a prop and in the heat of the moment hurled the bird into the crowd - who, already agitated by the group's bizarre stage antics, ripped the poor beast to sheds.
"It got us national acclaim. It his the papers the next and nobody wrote about The Doors or John Lennon, they only wrote about this band that killed a chicken on stage, even though we didn't do it. It was hysterical that that was what ended up stealing the show."
While that incident helped to raise the profile of the band, it was another Canadian connection that would eventually help the group define the sound that everyone would come to know as Alice Cooper.
"Bob Ezrin came along and told us that we needed to take six months off and just work on our sound." states Cooper about the Toronto-based producer who not only helped to define the style of the fledgling band, but who would also go on to produce some of the biggest albums of the '70s.
"He was our George Martin. He gave us our signature sound. Everyday we would go into the studio and write a song and Ezrin would rip it to pieces. We would argue with him all day - but in the end, we would find that he was right almost every single time. He really know what he was doing with us. We had a lot of raw talent but no direction. We finally ended up listening to him and from Love It To Death, we had nothing but gold and platinum albums."
There can be no doubt that without Ezrin's talents, we may have never even heard of Alice Cooper. No act has ever made it big without a little luck, however. In their case, good fortune came in the form of some new Canadian broadcasting regulations and one slightly desperate program director. These factors were pivotal in enabling the fledgling rock act to help change the shape and face of rock and roll.
"Our first big national record was 'Eighteen', and that broke at CKLW in Windsor whose signal went out over Detroit, Chicago and all of the mid-west," muses the vocalist on how the group achieved its first real hit.
"One of the reason's the station picked up on it was because Bob Ezrin was a Canadian. Technically, it didn't count towards Canadian content, but I guess someone thought it counted. It was the greatest thing that ever happened to us. We will always have a soft spot in our hearts for Canada."
While the music is the most obvious examples of the legacy of Alice Cooper, his stage presentation and flair for dramatics also helped to usher in a new era in live music. The influence of Alice Cooper as a performer has been made tangible in everyone from KISS and the Sex Pistols to Rob Zombie and Marilyn Manson. His over-the-top rock theatre is the one aspect of Alice Cooper's career that has never failed to satisfy his fans and may, in the end, be the primary reason why so many of them continue to remain loyal.
"I can take pride in the fact that I knocked the barrier down," Cooper beams after a moment of reflection. "I don't take responsibility for whatever crept through once I opened up the door, but I'm very happy of the fact that I introduced theatre to rock and roll and that it worked."
From snakes and feather boas to nooses and guillotines, Alice Cooper has always been counted upon to meld the macabre and the absurd in his staging, with each subsequent tour topping the last. His current production, Alice Cooper's Rock & Roll Carnival, it reportedly his most ambitious project yet.
"We will be doing a very high-energy show that will be rich in Alice Cooperisms," laughs the vocalist, about how much of the concert's visuals will be made up of fan favourites. "It will be very Cooper-esque."
(Originally published in View - "Greater Hamilton's Weekly Alternative" - Vol. 5 No. 38 on September 23rd, 1999)