East Coast Rocker 9/23/09 Feature
THE INDESTRUCTABLE THREE-DIMENSIONAL CABARET VILLAIN
Alice Cooper – Over Sixty, Clean & Sober, and Still Kicking Ass
If a nom de plume can be an enigma, then Alice Cooper is its riddle.
He is the flash-in-the-pan that is mere months from entering a sixth decade of volume-addled irony that is best described in his memorable tune, “Guilty”, as “waking up the neighbors with a roar like a teenaged heavy metal elephant gun.” He started out in the late-sixties scaring hippies and cracking up Frank Zappa, garnered admiration from Groucho Marx and Mae West, drank with John Lennon and Jim Morrison, and broke Rolling Stones touring records on the way to literally becoming an icon.
Alice Cooper is an American original; rock and roll’s Jesse James wrapped up in Charlie Brown angst and jammed inside Dracula’s unblinking gaze. The victim and the predator, the goofball and the kingfish, he has died a thousand times on stage by the rope, the guillotine and the odd Cyclopes, only to be resurrected in time for the Muppet Show. He became Salivador Dali’s artwork and Dylan’s “great unrecognized songwriter”. Without question he’s unleashed a generation of imitators acting out an endless homage from KISS to Marilyn Manson to Lady Gaga.
To us seventies kids fresh from the city streets rolled into the suburban dirge, The Coop was our resonant screech of infinite rebellion. He had us with “School’s Out”, cemented our devotion with “Elected” and scared the living shit out of us with “Years Ago/Steven” – to this day I cannot smell Lemon Pledge without getting a chill up my spine, vivid memories of a pre-teen innocently polishing his dust-caked dresser in grounded exile while their haunting strains wafted from my childhood Victrola.
Thanks to this magazine, I get a crack at my man, the skinny kid from the deserts of Arizona who, with a little make-up and a cheek-planted tongue, came to embody our most beloved nightmares.
james campion: Have you ever considered your lineage to Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp in American pop culture? When you think of Chaplin’s image today, portrayed in posters or statues, it’s always the Tramp. Also, in terms of the times; how Chaplin created this hobo character, which mocked the excesses of the Roaring Twenties, the way Alice certainly lampooned the excesses of the Me Decade, as both its villain and victim.
Alice Cooper: Oh, yeah, Alice was definitely a created as an American character, and I think he started out being a victim, because I was a victim. I was an alcoholic at the time, but never recognized it. When I invented Alice I guess it was subconsciously. Alice was always stooped over, always getting killed. The press was never real favorable. For a long time there was really nobody in Alice’s corner, so I kind of created him to be that whipping boy. Later, when I became a non-alcoholic, I created Alice to be Hannibal Lecter, and suddenly a different posture, different attitude. So there were two incarnations of Alice. But yeah, I don’t see why a hundred years from now someone shouldn’t be playing Alice, like somebody playing Captain Hook.
It’s interesting hearing you refer to Alice in the third person and that sort of lends itself to the idea that you can be possessed by whatever Alice you want for the short term to make certain social comments or present ironies.
“Alice was a necessary character because you couldn’t have a rock and roll drama without a villain.”
Alice was a necessary character because you couldn’t have a rock and roll drama without a villain. I mean, there needs to be heroes, villains and victims, and Alice needed to be a visual villain. There wasn’t one personified villain in rock and roll, so I said, “Well, I will gladly be that!” And the great thing about being the villain is usually the villain has a great sense of humor.
That brings me to your many imitators over the years. It seems to me that they’ve almost always failed to display the sense of humor, irony or satirical twist that Alice brought to light. Marilyn Manson, for instance, always came across to me as an overly serious rebellious figure, but without the necessary tongue-and-cheek quality that makes for more entertainment than manifesto.
Yeah, I kept waiting for the punch line. (laughs) Now, someone with a good sense of humor is Rob Zombie. Rob’s a tattoo parlor come to life. His stuff is so animated. He has as much reverence for Bela Lugosi as he does The Munsters; the scary and the absurd. He’s like my brother. We have exactly the same sense of humor. Frank Zappa was like that. Zappa had a real sense of absurdity, for the right reasons. He understood absurdity, what cannot be explained. You look at it and it’s purely absurd for the sake of being absurd.
A British rock journalist told me years ago that especially in the rock and roll world, if it has that “What the hell is this?” quality it’s likely to be something worth listening to or watching out for. I would say that somewhat describes the Alice Cooper mission statement.
Yeah, I think so. You know the guys in the Alice Cooper band were lucky to start out in high school as art students and journalists. We were verbal and had a certain artistic way of looking at things, so when we put it in a band it suddenly came together. Maybe because of this we got the joke sooner than anybody else. I mean we were very serious about playing in a rock band and making great music, but I always saw the absurdity of it and capitalized on it. I remember the first time I read Kurt Vonnegut and went, “What is that? There’s something very funny about this, but I don’t know what it is but I like it.” Like the first time you see Monty Python and it upsets the entire boat and you’re laughing and just really inspired by it. When the Beatles first came along I was like everybody else, I looked at them and said, “What is that?” (laughs)
Yeah, like me trapped in my bedroom listening to “Welcome To My Nightmare” on a gloomy autumn day, dusting my dresser. To this day I cannot smell Lemon Pledge without getting that same chill up my spine.
(sinister chuckle) How odd is that? (laughing harder) No, I understand that. There was a certain sexual side to my life when I was a kid; every time I went into a public bathroom and smelled those little urinal cakes… Oooh, remember when everything gave you a hard-on?
Ah, that brings me to the music. For me, the finest anthems of the rock genre are “My Generation” and “School’s Out”, both having two of the greatest lines; “Hope I die before I get old” and “We can’t even think of a word that rhymes.”
Now, I’ve not had the privilege to ask Pete Townshend about the former, but when you wrote that or sang it or listened to it back did you think, “What a fucking great line that is!”
Yeah, it really was one of those coloring out of the lines; ”We got no class, we got no principles, we got no innocence, we can’t even think of a word that rhymes!” Because I couldn’t! (laughs) I could not think of a word that rhymed with principles, and I went ”Okay then…”, and it perfectly illustrates the character’s dumbness. (laughs) Paul Rothschild, who produced the Doors and Paul Butterfield and Love, and who we’d tried so hard to get to produce us, told me years later that when “School’s Out” came on the radio he was driving in his Porsche and he pulled over and said, “That’s the greatest line I’ve ever heard.” (laughs)
Well, if nothing else, it captures the entire “Who cares?” bit.
It just fit in. It was the last piece of the puzzle on that song. It’s like the stuttering in “My Generation” I loved that. And that line, “We can’t even think of a word that rhymes” was kind of the capper on that one.
What do you think was your best stage show idea?
Well, everyone asks, “What’s your best stage song?” And I always answer “The Ballad of Dwight Frye”. Only because it puts Alice in a straight-jacket under a cold blue light singing about being in a mental institution and you can feel his claustrophobia and the struggle to get out. It’s a real theatrical experience in that he’s going, “I’ve got to get out of here I gotta get out of here I gotta get out of here!” And when he breaks out there’s this orgasm within the audience, because they’re feeling as claustrophobic as Alice. You can feel the veins in his neck popping and when he finally breaks out of that thing, they all break out too. They can breathe again. With all of the bigness of the show, with explosions and everything that’s going on, for those few seconds there’s just this one guy in a straight-jacket beneath a cold blue light struggling to get out. It brings it all down to a pinpoint on stage. And then when he gets out of it, of course, it explodes with the color and light and everything again. It’s a real release for the audience.
Hell, you can feel it on the record.
(laughs) I actually recorded it in a straight jacket. I told Bob Ezrin (legendary producer of many Alice Cooper classic albums, as well as Peter Gabriel, Pink Floyd and Kiss) this song should be done in a straight-jacket, and he said, “Let’s record it that way then!”
Are you comfortable being lumped in, and I mean this in the best way, with that whole Metal crowd, the hard rock crowd, because I’d always considered you even way back with the Alice Cooper band through your solo career as more of a cabaret performer with electric guitars.
“With all of the bigness of the show, with explosions and everything that’s going on, for those few seconds there’s just this one guy in a straightjacket beneath a cold blue light struggling to get out. ”
I look at it this way; we always wanted to be the Yardbirds, to be as good as the Stones, so in that sense we were truly a hard rock band. We were never a Metal band. We were a hard rock band, and we wanted to be as good a rock band as anybody out there. We wanted the swagger. We wanted the snotiness. Guns & Roses had it. Just to get up there and be a snotty rock and roll band, but to be a really good one. The Stones had it. It was built in. And I wanted that to be part of Alice Cooper. The theatrics overtook it, but in my heart we were just a snotty rock and roll band.
Could you ever foresee shedding Alice? Obviously it has to happen eventually, you clip off the hair, get out the golf clubs and say, “Thank you very much, I’m done.” You ever see that happening, and would you miss the old boy?
I guess I could see that. I’ve always said the only time that’s ever going to happen, honestly, is if I physically can’t go on stage and do it, or if nobody shows up. (laughs) Then I know it’s over. If nobody’s going to show up to see it, then there’s no more reason to do it. But so far that hasn’t happened. I think there will always be an audience for Alice. So it’ll take something physical to stop me, and right now I’m probably in better shape than I’ve ever been in my life. (laughs) So I don’t see any end to what’s going on right now. It’s the hardest show we’ve maybe ever done physically and I’ve never been in better shape, so I feel great about it.
It could come full circle for you. I remember you telling a story once about one of your first gigs when you cleared the joint. (laughs)
Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I don’t mind admitting we were a horrible band, but we worked harder than anybody to be a great band, and that’s the way I look at it now. I only work with the best musicians, because I want them to be as good as the songs are. Bob Ezrin had a lot to do with making us good songwriters and hopefully the next couple of albums I’ll be working with Bob again.
That’s great news.
Yeah, and you’re going to really love this new show. This new show is so crazy that every night I can’t wait to do it, because it’s so insane.
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