Alice Cooper: Summoning the storm
Alice Cooper is in a hotel room in Virginia, fearing the worst. A big storm is about to come ripping through the state. Twisters, they say. Howling gales. Relentless rain.
I imagine him gazing nervously out the window, a boa constrictor draped like a scarf around his skinny neck.
Cooper is on tour, and bad weather plays hell with outdoor venues.
"We did a show in Finland one time with Motley Crue and a bunch of other guys…" he tells me in a slow Detroit drawl, and I know a splendid tale is on the way (I've talked to this so-called "architect of shock rock" several times before and he always spins a good yarn).
"Anyway, the weather got real bad, then a tornado took out both stages! Fortunately, it happened before most of the people got there, so no one got hurt."
It was, naturally, a case of 'the show must go on'.
"All the onstage equipment was smashed, but Slayer had all their equipment in their bus, so we took it out and played amongst the rubble. It was amazing! We did a set, Iggy Pop did a set, Iron Maiden played, in amongst all this busted stuff. The place was destroyed, but everybody stayed to listen."
Rock'n'roll amid the rubble. Power chords and twisted wreckage. Given that Cooper's act has involved all manner of drama and mayhem in the past, the audience probably thought the whole thing was staged.
"Yeah. Exactly! If we could do that every night, that'd be something, right? Imagine that. Summoning your own storm!"
Electric chairs and guillotines. Fake blood and real boa constrictors. Chainsaws, fire, knives. Dismembered dolls. Giant spiders. Syringes full of lethal-looking gloop. The occasional electrocution, with our hero fried by a million volts in a shower of sparks.
Alice Cooper pioneered this sort of hard-rock horror-show palaver, and plonkers like Marilyn Manson and Slipknot merely followed in his wake.
Though very warm, funny and articulate in person, Alice is the granddaddy of gore-splattered gloom rock. Without Cooper, the 80s and 90s might have looked and sounded very different; he helped spawn an endless parade of frowning goth and emo bands in panda-eye mascara and funeral attire.
"Well, those guys are all big fans. When I meet them, they always say – 'Hey, man, when I was growing up, all I listened to was Alice Cooper and Kiss.' We were the guys that made it commercial enough so a band could be theatrical and tour to big crowds. But a great look is just the icing. The cake is great songs, and we had 14 Top 40 records. We worked real hard on the music, not just our stage show. If we did a ten hour rehearsal, we'd spend nine hours on the music and one hour on the theatrical stuff."
Which, when you think about it, is a bit of a worry, because the "theatrical stuff" is pretty complicated. The stage at an Alice Cooper show is a Health and Safety nightmare. Not only is it loud enough to make you go deaf; there are sharp things everywhere that can kill you.
"Yeah, like the guillotine. That's a forty pound blade, real sharp, and it misses me by about six inches. It's the real deal, man. If I didn't do that trick right, it really would cut my head off. Every single night, it adds a little excitement to the show for me."
Excitement is what Cooper has been after right from the start, he says. He wanted to stand out from the other rock bands of his day, and figured covering himself in buckets of blood was as good a way as any.
"Really, our style is a mix of horror movies, vaudeville and comedy, married to hard rock. I looked at the music world and there were too many heroes. I thought- 'We have 5000 Peter Pans here, so I will gladly be Captain Hook'. And if you're gonna be this real dark character, you can't just sing about it. If you're gonna do a show called Welcome To My Nightmare, you have to give the audience that nightmare. So when we do this stuff, it's like a Broadway play, except… it's relentless! If you turn your head, you're gonna miss something."
And if a band member turns their head at the wrong moment, they might miss something, too - their arm, their head, a finger. There's a lot of potential for serious injury, reckons Cooper.
'You're gonna get stitches'
"Every time I get a new member of the band, I tell them three things: you're gonna see the world, you're gonna get paid, and you're gonna get stitches. It's dangerous up there, so at some point, you will be at the wrong place at the wrong time and get hurt. And it's true! At some point, every single member of my band has needed stitches. I mean, I don't use rubber swords, I don't use rubber knives. The guillotine is real. It's easy to get badly cut, you know?"
That's hilarious. I imagine an enclave of former Alice Cooper band members somewhere in LA, all sitting around with absent body parts, sharing war stories: 'One minute I was playing Only Women Bleed; the next, my arm was gone.'
"Yeah, exactly. They look at it as a badge of courage, doing this show. They got the scars to prove it."
When Cooper started out, it was a badge of courage just making this music. His career began in Arizona, where many locals treated non-conformists with open hatred. If you had long hair and didn't play country music in your pick-up truck, it was more dangerous off-stage than on.
"Listen, in 1965, we would play in places like Tucson, and there was no such thing as going to a restaurant by yourself. If you were hungry, you had to go out with everybody, just for protection! The rednecks would beat the hell out of you if they found you alone. I knew two guys who got beaten to death because a coupla drunk cowboys took exception to how long they grew their hair! Fortunately, I'm from Detroit and a couple others in the band were from Cleveland, which are both tough cities, so we had street smarts. (Original lead guitarist) Glen Buxton never left the house without a switchblade."
Now 69, Cooper was born Vincent Furnier in Detroit in 1948. Before he personally adopted the name in the mid-70s, Alice Cooper was the name of his band, formed in Phoenix in 1964.
Their early days were spent slogging around dive bars, delighting local misfits while affronting the mainstream. The band's mix of ragged glam rock and violent stage theatrics set them in stark contrast with the mellow hippie bands of the early 70s.
"We were into fun, sex, death and money when everybody was into peace and love," Cooper told one biographer. "We wanted to see what was next. It turned out we were next, and we drove a stake through the heart of the Love Generation."
Their music was tough and loud, shocking and new, proudly anti-social.
Consequently, in the late 70s, when many punk bands were expressing their disgust with how moribund rock'n'roll had become, Alice Cooper was one of very few US hard rock acts to get a free pass.
The Damned and The Buzzcocks declared their love. Johnny Rotten auditioned for the Sex Pistols by singing Cooper's School's Out in manager Malcolm McLaren's clothes shop, and later pronounced Cooper's 1971 album Killer "the greatest album of all time".
"The punks loved us, that's true. What they were revolting against, really, was prog rock bands like Yes, King Crimson and Genesis. And I loved the way punk included everybody, because you could pick up a guitar and learn to play those songs. But what people overlooked was how funny punk rock was. The Sex Pistols were hysterical! That band was every bit as manufactured as The Monkees, but just like The Monkees, they made some great records."
Alice has made his share, too. For a short while there, during a time of raging hormones and bad skin, I was a fan.
In 1976, aged 14, I went to a late-night screening of his Welcome To My Nightmare movie. Equal parts broadway musical, horror movie and concert doco, with narration from horror movie star Vincent Price, Nightmare was a blast.
A visibly drunk Cooper plays a maladjusted adolescent named Steven whose bedroom morphs into a graveyard. As if puberty wasn't enough to deal with, young Steven must contend with dancing skeletons, giant spiders, malevolent puppets, faceless silver demons and a nine foot cyclops, all leaping about to a thundering hard rock soundtrack.
Loud and lurid, more silly than scary, the movie rocked in a way that mid-70's Whanganui most certainly did not. I went out and bought the soundtrack album the very next day.
Praise the Lord!
But some of these songs are no longer part of Cooper's repertoire. Alice has given up singing songs about loose sex, boozing and, thankfully, necrophilia. These days, the blood-soaked Dark Angel of Rock is a devout God botherer.
The son of a Detroit preacher, Cooper is a recovering alcoholic who spent much of his early career hoovering up drink and drugs and partying hard. His health deteriorated to the point that he began coughing up blood. Realising that his addictions were likely to kill him, he returned to the church during the 1980s.
"Yeah, well, that's true. Some things I was promoting as a young man, I no longer promote. I only do songs I still believe in. But there's 30 albums, so playable songs are easy to find. I have no problem with any of my big hits, for example. I got pretty dark and deep, but those songs were anti-Satanic, ultimately."
Most of his lyrics are merely updates of age-old narratives about good and evil, he says, and pretty tame compared to what the Bard of Avon was doing in the 16th Century.
"If you look at MacBeth, it's about witches and Satanic stuff and incest and murder, and I think- 'Jeez, I never went that far!' So you'd have to say that Shakespeare is a lot more corruptive than Alice Cooper."
Strenuous prayer off stage, and gratuitously grisly morality plays on stage. The way Alice tells it, his life these days largely revolves around these two things, which fit elegantly together, hand-in-glove.
Three things, actually. I forgot to mention golf. Cooper is obsessed. His 2007 autobiography has the priceless title Alice Cooper: Golf Monster.
"Yeah, I play six days a week. Some people get up and, like, jog or go to the gym or do yoga; I play golf. It's an addiction, and a lot more healthy than when I was addicted to alcohol because it's not gonna kill me. Golf's a game you never get tired of. You go out there each day and try and do it better than the day before. You smack a ball and watch it sail down the fairway, and it just feels really good."
It is, however, a bit of a disconnect, image-wise. On the one hand, here's a guy who's spent decades racing around concert halls in ripped dresses and ghoul makeup, dismembering dolls and stroking snakes, faking his own violent death on a stage awash with fake blood.
On the other hand, he's an obsessive practitioner of a sport many associate with elderly uncles in sensible shoes and checked polyester slacks.
"Yeah, but the funny thing is, guys who play golf are the hardest-rocking badasses I ever met in my life. Lou Reed played golf. Iggy Pop plays golf. Bob Dylan and Neil Young play golf. Even the most hardcore death metal band imaginable will have two guys in it who play golf. I've gone out and played with Thin Lizzy, with Meat Loaf. Frank Zappa's son Dweezil is a very good player. The drummer from No Doubt can really hit the ball, too. It's a rock'n'roll sport, man."
Cooper will be bringing a selection of putters and drivers when he tours here in October, hoping to squeeze in a few rounds between shows. Former Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley will be at his side, quite possibly as his caddie.
This will be Cooper's 13th local tour. He first played in New Zealand forty years ago, in March 1977, breaking attendance records at the time.
"That show was chaos! It was the Welcome To My Nightmare show, and people walked away with their minds blown, I think. We'd never played New Zealand before and had no idea what you guys might expect. At that point, all these crazy stories were circulating about us, and there was no internet, so these stories just took on this weird life based on urban legend. It was all very overblown and weird, like- 'Alice Cooper is feared by parents and hated by the clergy' and 'Alice Cooper dismembers chickens and drinks their blood' and so on. Every day I'd hear a new rumour about myself and be amazed. But we never denied anything 'cos those rumours helped sell tickets. People love to be shocked, right?"
Alice Cooper's 40th Anniversary Spend The Night with Alice Cooper tour plays Auckland Trusts Stadium on Friday, October 27 and Wellington TSB Arena on Saturday, October 28. Special guest Ace Frehley (Kiss) plays both shows.
- Sunday Star Times