Alice Cooper on KISS, Marilyn Manson, Johnny Rotten, and the Peter Pan syndrome



By Steve Newton

Last month, a feature-length movie about four rabid KISS fans, Detroit Rock City, was released across North America. It was basically a Gene Simmons–bankrolled homage to his own band, which took glam metal to the extreme in the ’70s and won over legions of die-hard fans in the process. But you have to wonder, if it wasn’t for Alice Cooper—who practically invented theatrical hard rock—would KISS even have existed? The original King of Nasty Rock doesn’t think so.

“There would have been nothing to build upon,” says Cooper, calling from his home in Phoenix, Arizona. “But when [KISS] came out, they did something that I considered to be very smart—they didn’t try to say that they invented it. They started out by saying, ‘Look, if one Alice Cooper works, then four oughta work.’ It wasn’t like, ‘Alice who? Gee, we never saw his show. Oh, he wears makeup, too?’

“But they did the whole pyro-Kabuki–comic-book characters,” adds Cooper, “whereas Alice was much more musical, for one thing. And I always thought that Alice was more Phantom of the Opera, a little bit more cerebral, a little bit scarier, because you never knew quite where Alice was coming from.”

And you still don’t. In 1999, Cooper isn’t selling records as fast as modern-day shock-rockers Rob Zombie and Marilyn Manson, but he’s still a contender when it comes to on-stage diabolism. He’ll be doing his best to freak out Vancouver’s button-down types when he invades the opulent home of the Vancouver Symphony—the Orpheum Theatre, of all places—on Saturday (September 11).

“Sensationalism always works,” points out the Coop, whose early concerts always featured simulations of his death by electrocution, hanging, or, that old standby, the guillotine. “I always used to say, if you have a Disneyland on the left side of the road and an airplane wreck on the right, more people would go to the airplane wreck, because there’s some sort of morbid fascination in that. And the Alice Cooper show was like that. If you had the choice between the Mamas and the Papas on this stage or Alice Cooper on that stage, you would be much more prone to watch this Alice Cooper thing, because you’d be like, ‘What is going on with these guys?’

“And I think where bands like Marilyn Manson and Slayer miss the mark is when they forget that it has to have a sense of humour to it. I believe in always leaving the audience with a good taste in their mouth, not a negative taste. So that’s the big difference between me and those bands.”

Well-known for a twisted stage show and tunes about insanity, dead babies, and the joys of necrophilia, Cooper, the son of a preacher, has consistently drawn the ire of “family values” practitioners. Sometimes he’d even create controversy by mistake, as when the Alice Cooper Band posed for the cover of its Love It to Death album in 1971, and its freaky front man inadvertently had a thumb sticking out from between his legs. Cooper was just trying to hold his cape on, but the record label airbrushed out his offending digit, anyway.

“What a silly thing that was,” he recalls with a chuckle. “First of all, what an insult! I mean, they looked at my thumb and figured that’s my…my unit! If I woulda known that, I would have had a much longer thumb.”

With its combination of riff-driven rockers (“Caught in a Dream”), psycho ballads (“The Ballad of Dwight Fry”), and timeless teen anthems (“I’m Eighteen”), Love It to Death paved the way for the Alice Cooper Band’s rise to stardom. It came after two clumsy and rightfully ignored LPs, Pretties for You and Easy Action, recorded for Frank Zappa’s Straight Records.

“I consider the Love It to Death album the first Alice Cooper album,” the rocker says, “because when we hired [Bob] Ezrin to come be our producer, he changed the sound, the look, the feel—the whole thing. He was the one that defined what we actually sounded like.”

Love It to Death was followed by three more outstanding guitar-rock albums: Killer (also ’71), School’s Out (’72), and Billion Dollar Babies (’73). But after 1974’s Muscle of Love, Cooper split from his original bandmates—guitarists Michael Bruce and Glen Buxton, bassist Dennis Dunaway, and drummer Neil Smith—and embarked on a solo career.

“It was just the fact that I wanted to go on with heavy theatrics and they didn’t want to,” recalls Cooper of the breakup. “And I was not the leader, I was only one-fifth of the band, so I didn’t fire them or anything. It was just that we didn’t see eye to eye on what we were gonna do next. And when you look at it perspectively, I think that my idea was right, because I went on to do Welcome to My Nightmare then, and all those other big stage productions, which ended up being legendary. I wanted the band to be involved in that, but they just… I think they grew up or something! I just didn’t understand. I said, ‘Come on, it’s the Peter Pan syndrome here.’ ”

John Lydon, the perpetually whiny and enraged “Johnny Rotten” of the Sex Pistols, was another rock icon of the ’70s who refused to grow up. Lydon—who won his spot in the Pistols at an impromptu audition that had him miming to “I’m Eighteen” on a jukebox—wrote the flattering introduction to Cooper’s box set, The Life and Crimes of Alice Cooper. “Killer is the best rock album ever made,” spouts Lydon, who used to sing “I Love the Dead” over and over in London subway stations, accompanying himself on violin, with Sid Vicious scratching away on acoustic guitar.

“I guess I’m the only person in the world that he doesn’t hate,” quips Cooper. “But I’ve always found that he really understood the punk movement, because he had the sense of humour to go with it. I mean, he’s very funny. And if you remember that he’s playing a character, too—John Lydon was playing Johnny Rotten, whereas I play a character named Alice Cooper—they’re very funny, scary, theatrical characters.”

It’s a little hard to believe that Cooper, a 51-year-old golf nut, is still able to transmogrify into the comically macabre Alice after 30 years. But he’s proven himself a strong-willed survivor of ’70s excesses. The former Budweiser addict always managed to win his death-defying bouts with the bottle. According to the Life and Crimes booklet, in 1972 the Alice Cooper Band spent US$32,000 on beer alone.

“Yeah, well,” muses Cooper, “we have a little Canadian in us, you know. I mean, we weren’t druggies—the band drank beer! We would sit around drinking beer and watching TV. We’d watch West Side Story on one TV, football on the other TV, and Leave It to Beaver on another TV.”

At this point in the conversation, Cooper’s personal assistant—who’s been strangely monitoring our conversation the whole time—blurts out that the “clock is ticking” and we haven’t even talked about the upcoming concert yet. That’s when Cooper—who’s always claimed that people only really care about sex, death, and money—shifts into his salesman persona.

“We’re doin’ the Alice Cooper Rock and Roll Carnival Show,” he jabbers on cue, “and it’s like some warped carnival. To me the scariest thing in the world was those carnival guys. You know, you walk in there and you go, ‘Where do they find these people?’ So that’s kind of what this show is, only it includes all of the hits, and everybody’s involved in the show. If you’re anywhere near the stage, you’re in the show.”

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