School's Out

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

With Welcome to My Nightmare, Cooper not only dumped his band--a major musical loss--but dove headlong into the Vincent Price world of the macabre that earlier albums had handled with a wink. He also, for the first time, scored on the charts with a ballad, "Only Women Bleed."

From here on, we saw Cooper the pop craftsman, the guy who grudgingly admires the Bee Gees and calls Lauro Nyro "the greatest female songwriter of all time." This mellow period cost Cooper the bulk of his fans, but it provided one indisputably great pop song, "I Never Cry." On the new live album, Cooper revives this tune, and the song's gorgeous melody coaxes magic out of Cooper's 49-year-old vocal cords. It's by far the most tender performance on an album loaded with bombast.

So what do you do when your old fans outgrow you, as they did to both KISS and Cooper? Unfortunately, for both acts, it meant trying to rope in a new crop of kids, by any means necessary. When MTV surrendered to the lite-metal, hair-band craze of the '80s, Cooper and KISS jumped on the bandwagon and held on for dear life. Cooper relegated himself to grim-faced metal posing, and collaborations with hacks like Desmond Child, the man who almost single-handedly made radio unbearable for a decade. On A Fistful of Alice, Cooper pummels his one big hit of the period, the Child-molested, witless thumper "Poison." In the Island Ear interview, Cooper said, "'Poison' always blows the roof." More accurately, it just blows.

Perhaps Cooper is beginning to understand his true niche. On his latest tour, he's toned down the horror shtick, probably a good idea for a father of three who's been married for 21 years. God knows, there'd be little point in competing with Marilyn Manson.

"You can't really shock an audience anymore, so I'm out of the business of trying to, but entertaining them is definitely in," he says. "I got to the point of realizing that I couldn't be any more shocking than CNN."

What Cooper always did well--and what he still pulls off from time to time--was give voice to teen frustration. On his last studio album, he rediscovered this talent with "Lost in America," a Beavis and Butt-head fave that sounded surprisingly believable coming from a middle-aged guy.

The one new song on A Fistful of Alice, "Is Anyone Home?"--partially recorded at Phase Four Recording in Tempe--tills the same soil, to good effect. It offers a reminder that, when he's not trying to scream his way through the old anthems, Cooper remains one of rock's greatest singers. He even finds a link between the teen neuroses that made him famous and the paranoia and loneliness that fame can bring: "I live in a big dark house, and nobody's home/Just me and my mouse."

Maybe Cooper wants to reestablish credibility in a post-Nirvana world, or maybe he realizes that long after the theatrics are forgotten, he'll be judged on the songs.

"People forget that if the music isn't good, none of the rest matters," Cooper told the New York Daily News last month. For too long, Alice Cooper seemed to suffer from a similar case of amnesia. His creative future will be a test of his recovered memory.

Alice Cooper is scheduled to perform on Tuesday, August 26, at Mesa Amphitheatre, with Dokken, Slaughter, and Warrant. Showtime is 6 p.m.

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