Unsung Guitar Hero

Glen Buxton played a crucial role in rock history, but how many people know about it?

It was a Friday night, and Glen Buxton was jumping up and down with excitement as he watched boxing on TV. The only indication that anything was wrong was a pain in his side, which he mentioned to his younger sister Janice Davison over the phone that night. He thought he'd strained his back carrying luggage on a recent trip to Houston.

"He said, 'I'm going to have to see the bone crusher tomorrow; my back's hurting me,'" Davison recalls.

By the next day, Saturday, October 18, the 49-year-old guitarist had been overtaken by pneumonia, and he died quickly in his adopted hometown of Clarion, Iowa.

There are many sad elements to the Glen Buxton story, but maybe the biggest one is that many people in the Valley have never heard of him. Though he grew up in Phoenix, attended Cortez High School and played guitar for the most successful rock band ever to come out of these parts, he's a victim of rock's strangest injustice.

You see, Buxton played in the original Alice Cooper group, when "Alice Cooper" was the name of a band, and its singer still went by his given name of Vince Furnier. When the band agreed that Furnier should himself assume the name of Alice Cooper, as a way of answering that persistent audience question, "Where's Alice?," confusion reigned forever in the minds of rock fans.

It's hard to think of a comparable situation, unless you count the case of dimwitted fans who actually started referring to Deborah Harry as "Blondie." When Lou Reed's career is assessed, fans can point to clear demarcation lines: He played with the Velvet Underground from 1965-70, and he's been a solo artist from 1971 to the present. Yet, because Furnier/Cooper co-opted his band's name, and so dominated its public image, many of his fans believe he's been a solo artist for 29 years, albeit with a variety of backing bands. Few realize that he was a member of a full-fledged band for six years and a solo artist for the next 23. Not so coincidentally, Furnier/Cooper lost much of his rock 'n' roll grit when he sacked the band in 1974.

Buxton met Furnier and bassist Dennis Dunaway when they worked together at the Cortez High School newspaper, the Tipsheet. Buxton was the photographer, Furnier was the editor. They went on to form the Spiders, one of the wildest rock bands the Valley had ever seen, and after a brief period as the Nazz, they settled on Alice Cooper as a band name.

Buxton wasn't a full-blown songwriter in the sense that guitarist Michael Bruce and Furnier were, but he came up with the killer guitar riffs that heralded the arrival of their great anthems: "I'm Eighteen," "School's Out" and "Elected." His wicked guitar part for "I'm Eighteen" alone makes him Hall of Fame material.

In his controversial band biography, No More Mr. Nice Guy--which Furnier/Cooper has dismissed as a work of fiction--Bruce blames Buxton's deepening drinking problems and sense of detachment for Cooper's decision to go solo. Sadly, alcohol continued to play havoc with Buxton's life until the end.

"He would quit for a while and then he'd start up again, or he'd say, 'I'll just drink beer,'" Davison says. "But he wasn't supposed to drink after he'd had problems way back in the '70s."

Buxton tried putting other bands together, like a short-lived New York outfit called Shrapnel. Davison says that to the very end, "he always had a guitar in his hands." In the mid-'80s, he returned to Phoenix and played in a band called Virgin. Though his return to the stage was welcomed, old fans winced a bit to see one of rock's great underrated guitarists covering Yes' "Owner of a Lonely Heart" and various old Alice Cooper hits.

But what does a great guitarist do after playing to exultant stadium crowds by the age of 22, then seeing his lifeblood taken away by the time he's 27? Just being a guitarist in a bar band, which was what he'd started doing, didn't seem adequate anymore. But unlike his ex-bandmates, Buxton had a tough time just making a living after the band broke up.

"I just found out what happened with the money," Davison says. "When they were Alice Cooper, Inc., they had an account, and when the corporation broke up, they gave the money to the guys. And you have to pay taxes on it. And what did Glen do? He spent it, of course. So he had tax problems after that. He was living in Connecticut at the time and had to sell his house."

To get by, Buxton worked sporadically at a variety of jobs, including a stint at Goodyear in the '80s, where his ax was a soldering gun. After moving to Iowa, he worked for a spell in a factory, overseeing a machine that stuffed Publishers' Clearinghouse letters in envelopes.

Ironically, Buxton's life had taken a positive turn in the past two months. In August, he caught a Furnier/Cooper show in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the two old friends spent an hour talking up the old times. In early October, he reunited with old Alice Cooper bandmates Michael Bruce and drummer Neal Smith for a series of autograph shows and live performances in Houston. Davison says her brother "had a ball" reuniting with his old friends, adding that he showed his forgiving nature by playing again with Bruce, despite Bruce's unflattering portrait of Buxton in No More Mr. Nice Guy.

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