Cooper-Duper

In Alice's wonderland, even trash turns platinum

Nobody stops Bob Hope when he makes one of his famous unannounced "walk-ons" in the middle of whatever talk show he happens to be taping a special next door to. Not even David Letterman bars Bob from playing through.

Nosiree, when Hope deems it appropriate to drop in on the latest late-night hot spot, it doesn't matter if the octogenarian quipster's jokes fit in with the show's hip format as poorly as a pair of green plaid slacks on Arsenio Hall. He's Bob Hope, dammit! A living legend in golf shoes.

It was the same thing whenever Alice Cooper showed up at radio stations during the Eighties to promote his various attempts at a comeback album. Deejays who hadn't played a Cooper pooper since 1980's "Clones (We're All)," his last single to crack the Top 40, would suddenly yank whatever Miami Sound Machine wowser they were spinning the minute the ever-lovable, still charismatic star walked into the control booth. So what if the veteran shock-rocker's Eighties albums seemed unfit for any format? This was Alice Cooper, dammit! A true rock 'n' roll original.

He dropped in on radio stations a lot, by rock-star standards. All his years of superstar schmoozing, guesting on everything from the Grammys to The Muppet Show during his Seventies heyday, had made Cooper a master at keeping his name on America's household word list, even without a song on the hit list.

Eventually, Alice's visits to Radioland took on a somewhat predictable pattern. The deejays would first slap on a Cooper classic--invariably "Eighteen" or "School's Out"--to announce the arrival of the surprise guest. Then Alice would launch into ten minutes of dependably entertaining anecdotes. His ability to tailor quips to any format was chameleonic: moonwalking jokes for the Top 40 crowd; make-up tips for the heavy-metallurgists; memory lane strolls for the classic rockers. Finally, the deejays would graciously ask the departing Alice to introduce his favorite cut off the new album. And then--when the star was safely out of the studio--they'd stash the album away somewhere like that tacky needlepoint pillow from your aunt you only put on the couch whenever the old lady rings the doorbell.

So last August and September, when the familiar ghoulish face began rolling up to the nation's stations in a garish garbage truck to dispose of copies of his latest album Trash, the deejays and program directors began making room in the closet for another needlepoint pillow. This time, however, it stayed on the couch long after Alice had gone.

Trash, contrary to its self-deprecating title, actually sounded pretty darn good to most radio ears. A lot of it had to do with Desmond Child, the rock 'n' roll Midas who had produced and cowritten some of Bon Jovi's biggest hits and helped Aerosmith engineer its comeback. Child handled the production on Trash, cowrote nine of its ten songs, and brought in Jon Bon Jovi, Steve Tyler and other leading-brand rockers to lend back-up support on the songs. Alice himself, clean and sober after years of legendarily heavy boozing, sounded in better voice than ever.

Whatever the reason, just five months after entering the Billboard charts, the platinum Trash has become Cooper's biggest-selling album since 1973's triple-platinum Billion Dollar Babies. He's back to big-time shmoozing now, having recently cohosted the American Music Awards. And his current tour has been packing arenas and theatres worldwide.

"It's sort of like winning a championship again," says Cooper long-distance from a hotel room in Milwaukee, far too busy touring to shoot the breeze in person as he's usually done for reporters in his hometown Phoenix. "I feel like a middleweight boxer who got knocked out, came back, got knocked out again, then went through a long period of rebuilding and putting myself back together. And now I'm in contention again. And I feel like I'm better than I've ever been."

It's a perch many on-top-again rockers might use to roast the radio and record rats who shrugged them off in the lean years. But Alice shows no malice toward all the deejays who only played his records while he was sitting there watching them, or even the former label (MCA Records) that did next to nothing to promote him during his long tenure there. And that Mr. Nice Guy attitude, in the end, may just be one big reason why Cooper was welcomed back so quickly by the powers that be in the entertainment biz.

"Well, I didn't really make any enemies, to be honest with you," says Alice. "Even when I was at my lowest points, I never passed the blame off to anyone else. If something went wrong with an album, I pretty much just took the brunt of it myself and said, `Okay, I goofed!' I didn't go out of my way to burn any bridges.

"And you know, after a while," Alice adds with the voice of experience, "that does pay off."

"I HEARD THROUGH the grapevine that Alice was a fan of our material," Jon Bon Jovi told New Times back in September, by way of explaining the collaborations that wound up on Trash. "And, of course, everyone's a fan of Alice Cooper."

After years of celebrity, Cooper had become used to accepting the accolades of longtime fans. But the people who seemed to like him most were the people who could do his record sales no good: thirty- and fortysomething yupsters who grew up on his outrageous garage-band rock and subsequently moved on to more mellowed, mature pop. They still loved Alice--as a character. The way they still loved, oh, the Tasmanian Devil. But they didn't watch cartoons much anymore and they didn't go in for the wildman-rock Cooper still specialized in.

"The old fans remember where they were when Alice was their rebellious mentor," Cooper shrugs. "They remember when he was the guy who said it for them. But I hate nostalgia myself, more than anything."

In effect, he was a rock star stuck between generations: The people who still held a warm spot for him wished he had kept on doing the ballads he did to pass time through the disco era, and the young hard-rock audience couldn't remember anything he'd ever done except "Only Women Bleed" and "You and Me."

Bon Jovi's support, then, was a godsend to Cooper. The Bonj was just old enough to remember Alice in his championship days. "Oh man, I remember playing Welcome to My Nightmare so much on my eight-track I wore it down to where you heard two tracks at once."

Bon Jovi was hot and happening enough with the record-buying kids to deliver Alice the audience he needed simply by attaching his name to a Cooper album. It's an association the rocker does not dole out lightly. "Yeah, it's possible I could get exploited as a kind of career reviver," he admitted. "But Alice--that's the kind of thing you can put your name on and it's credibility for both of you. I mean, for the opportunity to work with him, I woulda driven to Phoenix to pick him up myself!"

Alice was equally awed by the young rock champ and his red-hot producer. "At first I thought, you know, maybe these people could care less about working with Alice Cooper," says the modest star. "But then I get there and I find out they were terrified of working with me!"

Eventually, the mutual admiration society settled down long enough to get some work done. Child, in particular, grew comfortable enough with Cooper to offer criticism: Give the boa and guillotine a rest, Child advised, and give the kids what they really want--sex! The result was an album steaming with more colorful boasts of sexual prowess ("You'll be the target on the bed/I'll be shooting hot lead," "I'll drive you like a hammer on a bed of nails") than you'll find on most rap records.

Was this truth in advertising by the 42-year-old married father of two?
"I didn't even think about that when we were writing the songs," laughs the object of a lot of sudden groupie intrigue. "A lot of it was done in satire. And certainly some of the songs, like `I'm Your Gun,' were purely sophomoric--you know, `Pull my trigger/I get bigger.' But I like the idea that a song as sixteenish as that is included on the album. We tried to hit on a lot of levels of sexuality on the Trash album. On `Poison,' I was addressing the question, `Why do some people get out of abusive relationships and then the next thing you know, they're going out with a biker?' What is that masochism about? Is there an infection in them, where orgasm doesn't mean as much now without a bit of abuse? And you know, that was a fascinating issue to me. Of course, I don't think a fifteen-year-old kid is gonna listen to the album and get that."

INDEED, NOW THAT ALICE has the ears of the new generation, will his satirical and surrealistic slant on life play in Pimpleville? This is, after all, a hard-rocker with an artistic bent far beyond the finger-painting of most of today's MTV metal bands.

Let's face it: Would Salvador Dali have gone ga-ga over Great White the way he did over Cooper's Seventies shock-rock act? Would Cooper fan Groucho Marx have gotten a good chuckle from the precision double-entendre of Skid Row?

"I think sometimes we do overshoot the audience," Alice admits. "That's why it's good I have somebody like Desmond to pull me back. Because we'll start writing something, and I'll go on a rampage--`Oh, yeah, we'll do this, and then we'll do this, and oh, this'll be so clever.' And then Desmond will say, `They're not gonna get any of that.' Sometimes it's a blow, 'cause he'll be talking about what I think is the best line in the song. But then he'll say, `Now, if you say it this way, everyone will get it.'"

Occasionally, Alice misses the days when his audiences were sprinkled with arty Dalis. "He had seen the show and felt that it was extremely surrealistic," Cooper recalls of the late painter. "And he really got the idea that if you pull out a crutch during a song like `Eighteen,' it has no apparent reason for being on-stage. And yet, when you put the images together, the audience has to make up their own story."

Not that the sixteenish sex preoccupations of his new hit songs have limited Cooper's wild imagination any. "The Alice Cooper show is still a very surrealistic piece of work," he insists.

Cooper's description of the current stage act supports the claim. For example, hundreds of rock stars over the years have employed visual aids on stage to underscore the sexual themes of their songs. David Lee Roth sang with a huge microphone protruding from between his legs. The Rolling Stones toured with a giant inflatable phallus in the mid-Seventies.

But who else but Alice would think of illustrating the old horizontal Lambada this way:

"I'll bring out pool cues and giant balloons full of confetti," he laughs. "I'll bombard 'em with all kinds of images during the show. And in the end, you ask 'em what happened and maybe one in fifty will get what I was going for.

But the other 49 stories are even better!"

Alice Cooper will perform at Mesa Amphitheatre on Tuesday, April 10. Show time is 7:30 p.m.

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