School's Out

He may be the godfather of shock rock, but Alice doesn't live there anymore

In 1982, Pete Townshend sat down for one of his many lengthy interviews with Rolling Stone magazine. The primary topic of conversation was Townshend's prolonged battle with the bottle, which had recently sent him to a clinic for treatment. Along the way, however, the Who's guitarist got on a rant about rockers who took the art of performance too far. Foremost on his mind was the famous early-'70s story of Alice Cooper biting the head off a live chicken onstage at a Toronto rock festival. For Townshend, the alleged act was unforgivable. "I'll never tip my hat to him on the street," Townshend said of Cooper.

Well, Alice Cooper still patiently explains to all those who ask--most recently RuPaul on VH1--that the incident didn't really happen, at least not the way it was reported. But the Townshend pot shot only reinforced the idea that Cooper, unchallenged godfather of shock rock though he may be, still hurts for respect.

Scottsdale's most famous golfing rock star must sense this. There's a particularly revealing moment near the end of his new live album, A Fistful of Alice--recorded at Sammy Hagar's Cabo Wabo Cantina in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. In the middle of "Elected," one of the gloriously irreverent early hits that made him a star, Cooper puts a twist on his own chorus by turning an old statement into a new question: "Respected? No, I wanna be elected." Like Bill Clinton, Cooper knows that sometimes you have to settle for one or the other.

Alice Cooper and KISS.
The parallels between them never end. They were two of the biggest rock acts of the '70s, and the two acts that brought wildly theatrical showmanship to the teen masses. They got the airplay, the record sales, the groupies and the sports cars. Unfortunately, there wasn't much room left in the cupboard for critical acclaim. From our eve-of-the-millennium perspective, they look like peers, but Cooper occasionally reminds interviewers that KISS came a few years later.

"I think every generation is gonna invent their own version of Alice," he recently told the Island Ear. "KISS did a version with what they did. It was derivative, but totally different."

To rock scribes of the '70s, both of these acts represented crass exploitation of foolish young minds. KISS took its knocks for ripping off the New York Dolls, while Cooper got hammered for lifting from fellow Motor City resident Iggy Pop. Both KISS (Destroyer) and Cooper (Love It to Death) had their breakthrough albums produced by Bob Ezrin. And both acts persevered through three rough-and-tumble decades, defying the logic that pegged them as trashy adolescent fare.

Both Cooper and Gene Simmons, KISS' most forceful spokesman, are shrewd, articulate men who appreciate the absurdity of their success and wear their devotion to American junk culture like a badge of pride. On the 1995 PBS rock 'n' roll series, Cooper searched for a philosophy behind his band's early style.

"To us, it was a combination of comic books, every RKO horror movie we'd ever seen," Cooper said. "We were total students of trivial television. We never read anything that wasn't a cheap novel.

"We were really the epitome of the American cultureless society. All we did was we invented this Frankenstein named Alice Cooper that was really a reflection of that."

The problem with the cartoonish, larger-than-life images presented by Cooper and KISS is that they were geared exclusively to teen boys. Sure, most rock caters to a young audience, but the great artists manage to carry their audience with them into maturity. The Stones have done it, and baby boomers can still sing along with "Brown Sugar" or "Wild Horses" without embarrassment. With KISS, 15-year-old diehard fans disavowed the band by the age of 17, forced by peer pressure to look for a more sophisticated brand of angst.

For Cooper, the turning point came in 1975 with Welcome to My Nightmare. Up until that time, Alice Cooper represented the name of a band, not just a singer. This quintet straddled the fence between the protopunk garage bands of the '60s (the Barbarians, the Count Five) and the emerging wave of early-'70s British heavy metal (Black Sabbath, Led Zep). The results were rude, sloppy and exciting. From 1971-73, the hits came fast and furious--"Eighteen," "School's Out," "No More Mr. Nice Guy," "Under My Wheels," "Elected"--and Cooper began pushing the envelope onstage with elaborate death simulations involving guillotines, hangings and decapitated baby dolls.

The horror show got the band plenty of ink, but what really held the kids was the music's witty articulation of teen alienation. The protagonist in all the band's best songs was--like Cooper himself--basically smart, cynical, proudly confused and perpetually misunderstood. The image of "Alice," that horrifying product of American decadence, hovered over all this material, and offered great potential for irony. In "No More Mr. Nice Guy," Cooper is a considerate soul helping old ladies across the street, until society fulfills its own prophecy for him and turns him into a monster. In "Elected," the ghoulish freak becomes the candidate, and, at a time when Nixon was in the White House, it was hard to tell the difference.

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