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Originally Published: May 24, 1999
Author: Ric Napoli
Probably one of my earliest rock and roll memories involves receiving two records for Christmas when I was about 11 years old. Bless their hearts -- my brother and sister, both a bit older than me, had taken the occasion brought about by the giving season to dose me with two classic Alice Cooper albums: Cooper's recent Alice Cooper Goes To Hell, and the mid-'70s masterpiece Welcome To My Nightmare. I eagerly listened to both discs, and although I probably didn't quite fully understand them (the black humor of "Cold Ethyl" was lost on this youth), I was hopelessly hooked on Alice. Granted, I've never considered myself much of a heavy metal fan, but Cooper's allegiance with the Camaro set never really registered with me. Alice was about having fun, where most metal seemed pointlessly dark and brooding. And while eccentrics like Ozzy Osbourne were going on about their dalliances with the devil, Alice Cooper was about as creepy as a morning spent watching old horror movies on the World Beyond. To me Alice Cooper was always just another branch (albeit a VERY gnarly, spider- infested one) on the great big tree of rock and roll; his roots reaching deep into the earthy music of the Rolling Stones, the Pretty Things and the Yardbirds.
It's always been the music of Alice Cooper, both the band and the individual, that appealed to me right from my first listen. In the late '60s Dennis Dunaway, Michael Bruce, Neal Smith, the late Glen Buxton and Vincent Furnier did a striking job at birthing a teenage Frankenstein called Alice, grinding his ego down to pure id and hotwiring his libido for success. They also wrote some eternal rock and roll songs while they were at it. In times of my own teenage lament there was always "Billion Dollar Babies" or some Alice Cooper "luney tune" with which to blow off some adolescent steam. Funny how carving your initials into your desk 'a la School's Out used to suffice over planting a propane bomb in the cafeteria.
Taking such adoration into account, I'm pleased to see that Warner Bros. (in association with Rhino Records) has finally done the Coop justice with a well deserved 4 CD retrospective covering the Alice Cooper experience from the unlikely impetus of a Cortez High talent show to Alice's current reign as elder statesman of shock rock. Overseen by Cooper's assistant Brian Nelson, The Life and Crimes of Alice Cooper gives us a dissection of Cooper's career that only a true fan could have conceived. Using alternate takes, demos and unreleased material alongside the hits, the box set dazzles with a beautiful full color booklet featuring liner notes by Nelson, track by track commentary from each member of the Alice Cooper Group (as well as producer Bob Ezrin), and a very entertaining essay of sorts from John Lydon (it was "I'm Eighteen" that played from the jukebox as Lydon "auditioned" for his place in Malcolm McLaren's great rock and roll swindle). Peppered amongst all this are comments and tributes from various celebs, and photos of Alice performing multiple atrocities (in the campiest of manners, of course). This box is an absolute Alice Cooper fan's wet dream (or, as the case may be, an extremely fetching nightmare). Before I turn the forum over to Alice allow me to place emphasis on what a thrill it was to talk with the man, the myth, the legend. Much thanks go to the one and, most certainly, only Alice Cooper for taking the time to indulge the Zia Zine in a little Q & A.
What made you think that now was the time for an Alice Cooper box set?
I'm thinking that I'm probably one of the last remaining '60s -'70s artists still working that hasn't got the box set out. It was supposed to be out two-three years ago, but now I'm kind of glad it took this long because there's a lot more anticipation on it; it was like, "When is Alice ever gonna put this thing out?" And they did a great job of putting it together.
The Life and Crimes of Alice Cooper is a beautiful package.
Yeah, and it's full of great stuff; I think it's a very satisfying package.
What was your involvement in picking the content?
Well, the great thing about it was that when we decided to do this thing, my first thought was I'm gonna go back and pick out my favorite songs. I would've picked out the weirdest things you could've imagined, and probably would've left off all the hits and other things. So I put Brian Nelson [Cooper's assistant] in charge of it. Brian is the biggest fan, he's been the number one fan since 1980. And he's more in touch with the fans than I am, so I just said "Brian, why don't you do this? You produce it, you get the pictures." He has more of a hand on the pulse of the fans. When we went to four CDs I said good, I want to pick ten songs of my own. Ten little gems. Like "Tag, You're It", "Man With The Golden Gun", "Former Lee Warmer", "Serious"-- songs that I always really liked but thought never really got the chance. So I'm glad we went to four CDs.
One of the things I noticed while reading through the set's liner notes was the emphasis placed on Bob Ezrin and his production techniques. I found it interesting that the approach he often took applied itself to bringing greater depth to the Alice character. He seemed to encourage an element of method acting in how the tracks were recorded.
If there's anybody on the planet that can play Alice better than me it would be Bob Ezrin. That was a very big part-- Bob was our George Martin. He listened to songs we brought in and dissected them, and he would put in-- a sort of classical edge to them. But at the same time he had a very demented mind. When we did "Dwight Fry" he insisted that I wear a straightjacket. That was a true story. We recorded with live rattlesnakes. We'd put a mike down there and the things were striking at it! But in order to get that sound we needed real snakes.
So you provided the Alice concept and he helped you flesh it out.
Right. We'd sit there and talk about it. We'd say, "Who is Stephen, what's the deal? Who is Former Lee Warmer and why does he live in the attic? And why does he need to be fed, and what does he eat?" We'd do that for each one of these characters, and the more we talked about it the creepier it got. He was, I would say, my accomplice in a lot of the lyrics.
I was watching the PBS documentary History of Rock N' Roll last night, the episode featuring you and Iggy Pop. It seemed to draw a lineage from Jim Morrison and his interest in the Theatre of the Absurd through Iggy to you. Were you influenced by anything like the Theatre of the Absurd?
I wasn't aware of the Theater of the Absurd at all. I was a fan of really bad horror movies. I was an art major, so we kind of combined Salvador Dali and Castle Films all into one kind of American Frankenstein character. I kind of looked out there and said, "Everybody out there is a hero. I want to create a villain, the first commercial rock villain." And Alice was that. I looked like what the character should be. To me, it was fun to play this guy because he didn't have any rules.
Speaking of playing "that guy", how did a track star from Cortez High School go on to become a gender-bending iconoclast? Did you have any musical interests before that?
You know, I loved the Beach Boys, I loved the Four Seasons, and of course when the Beatles came out I went, "Wow, that's it!" I was at the perfect age, fifteen, and sitting there going, "I don't want to work at Safeway." The bands, we did a joke one time for the lettermen's club 'n we were all lettermen n' we put on Beatle wigs and did the whole thing. And then I said, "You know what? We could probably make money doing this. If we just played parties we could probably get 20-40 bucks a party." From there we rehearsed a little more, and pretty soon we were headlining the top club in Phoenix and opening for the Yardbirds and the Lovin' Spoonful.
What was the music scene like in Phoenix back in the late '60s?
A very cool rock n' roll scene. We played a 1,000-seat club, and all it was was Coca-Colas and dancing. If it was a rock n' roll show they'd just come and watch you, but if it was a dance band they'd come and dance. Normally, 1,000 people would be dancing, but when the Spiders [the prototype Alice Cooper Group] came on everybody would stop and watch the show. Every time I would bring something onstage-- like I'd find an old broom backstage and bring that on, or an old lantern or whatever-- I'd look at the audience and they'd be in shock at the stupid things I'd bring on. So the more I did that the more it developed, the theatrics.
Has opening Cooper'stown in downtown Phoenix brought you in any closer contact with today's local music scene?
Yeah, actually I've met most of these bands in town. As a matter of fact, I just had this big celebrity tournament and did a couple of songs with the Peacemakers. We did the Refreshments song "Bandito" and a bunch of my songs, and a bunch of standards. I actually told the guy I wanted to write with him, because I thought the Refreshments wrote some really good songs. I like the Pistoleros, I thought they made a couple of great records. I'm not one of those '70s band guys that sits around going, "Well in my day, boy" and "When we quit making records the music died." I don't believe that at all. I think there's a lot of really great bands out there. I love the Offspring, and the Wallflowers. I'm very eclectic; I like a lot of different things.
With the recent events in Littleton, Colorado and all the attention the mass media placed on Marilyn Manson and the current breed of shock rockers, since you're somewhat the founding father what's your take on that?
First of all, in the '70s when Alice first came out, our version of shock rock was pretty placid. The idea that I was Alice Cooper and had eye makeup on, that was the biggest shock thing. The fact that I was sort of old-school monster rock, I don't think that was very-- Alice was never satanic, Alice was much more RKO '30s and '40s-scary. And everyone knew that the Alice Cooper show was a show, and they also knew that Alice was a character, and when they came out of the show they were laughing and having fun. It never left you with a bad taste in your mouth. My idea was to always leave the audience inspired, not depressed.
Do you think there's been a little abuse of the freedom you brought to rock and roll?
(laughs) I think what it is, is every generation the ante gets higher. I mean, look at rap. In order to have a hit record, it seems like you have to shoot somebody in order to have any credibility... I don't necessarily think that's true. People are taking it further and further, where it doesn't necessarily have to be taken further. And it's like that with movies, how much we can get away with on television, how far we can press the envelope-- I don't know. I kind of left the shock business, I would say, in the late '70s. I wasn't trying to shock the audience anymore. I looked around and said, This audience is unshockable. CNN is more shocking than me, so my idea now is to entertain the audience. I got more into illusions, I got more into depending on the hit factors of my music. I was still giving my audiences a great show, but I wasn't trying to do anything to make them go, "Ooohh, shocking!" That was over for me. Then it was a matter of wanting to be the ultimate showman. I wanted the audience to go away thinking, "That was a great experience, a great theatrical experience." Now when I see where theater's going I can't sit around judging it, but I think you have to be careful about what you say. If you're an artist, you have to be responsible for what you say.
Penn Gillette made an interesting comment in the liner notes of your box set. He said you never used sets or effects frivolously. There was always a purpose behind something you did onstage.
To me that was a cheap way to go-- bad language and nudity were cheap shots, and I wanted a classier reaction from the audience. In other words, anybody can do that. I wanted them to sit there and go, "Wait a minute, he was just standing there-- how did he get over there? I wanna know how he came through that screen!" That's always been fun for me; the reaction of [makes a gasping noise] was better than the applause. I always liked to get the gasp-- How did he cut his head off like that? It was so close!
The linernotes point that out as well. Alice always got what was coming to him.
It's a morality play. No matter what he did during the show, Alice always got his just desserts. There was a moral behind the story, that as much fun as it was to get away with everything, you never get away with it. In the end Alice either got his head cut off-- convincingly, and in the best of taste-- or he got hung or electrocuted. But he always came back, resurrected, in a white tux and tails, doing "School's Out" with balloons and confetti. To me, that was great. That was at the end of the show-- Everything's okay now. Go home. (laughs)