By Nicki Escudero
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By Brian Palmer
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Look through the north window of Alice Cooper'stown and the message is clear. You're greeted by a life-size cardboard cutout of the king of shock rock in black leather, welcoming you to his nightmare. In front of the cutout, the window sports an orange neon Alice Cooper signature, and directly beneath it, in purple neon, is a single word: PROPRIETOR.
In actual fact, Cooper is no more the proprietor of this bar than B.B. King is the owner of the Beale Street blues club that bears his name in Memphis. Not only is Cooper's financial investment in the business minimal (reportedly a mere $5,000), but his involvement in its day-to-day operations borders on the nonexistent.
That wouldn't be a big deal, except that it's Cooper's name and image that ultimately sell this place. It's the Cooper myth that compels scores of hard-rock bands from California to call the bar every week, hoping to get booked there. And it's Cooper's justified image as a good guy that motivates many local bands to play there, despite the obvious pitfalls.
Without the Cooper connection, it would be easier to see Alice Cooper'stown for what it truly is: the latest in a line of downtown restaurant/bars catering to the glut of sports fans packing BOB and America West Arena on a regular basis. Without the Cooper connection, it would be easier to argue that any group that chooses to play here gets what it deserves.
After all, particularly on sports-event nights, this bar is really made for bands that never tire of playing "China Grove" to chili-dog scarfers whose only brush with '90s music comes during time-outs at Suns games, when the PA blasts out "Whoomp! (There It Is)."
As a sports bar, Cooper'stown is an unqualified success, consistently drawing overflow pregame crowds. But it aspires to be more than a sports bar; it wants to be that late-'90s schizophrenic beast: the sports-rock venue. That's where the problems come in. The unfortunate result is that at this very moment, with Cooper riding high from the release of Rhino's outstanding career-spanning boxed set (to be celebrated at Cooper'stown on Thursday, April 29) and the May 2 premiere of a VH1 Behind the Music documentary devoted to him, several local musicians are cursing the bar that bears his name.
The real source of problems, as these musicians see it, is the other factor that separates Cooper'stown from the average downtown sports bar: the involvement of Evening Star, the Valley's dominant concert-promotion company. Danny Zelisko, the head of Evening Star, is a partner in Cooper'stown, and he entrusted the bar's live music to Tom Lapenna, his right-hand man.
Lapenna, perhaps unwittingly, immediately created a rift between local bands by booking one set of acts for a guaranteed fee, while simultaneously calling other bands and inviting them to "showcase" for free at the bar. When he found bands willing to play for free, he bumped the already-booked bands from their gigs. One of the artists bumped by this unusual booking practice was veteran blues man Hans Olson, one of the most respected musicians on the local scene.
"It seems like it's kind of a mess," Olson says of Cooper'stown. "I don't think he [Lapenna] is too used to booking local acts. He thinks people are just doing it for fun."
In fact, Lapenna does tend to take the attitude that local bands should be happy for the exposure that Cooper'stown provides, and should be eager to play for free.
"I think every band in Phoenix is overexposed," he says. "None of them draw people, unless there's a built-in situation. Forget about being paid. This was an opportunity for bands to play in front of a built-in audience. This was only on event nights.
"Danny and I didn't even discuss money for the first two months of booking the place, it wasn't about paying bands. And these are bands that can't draw people on their own anyway.
"If you want to call it an audition, so be it, but the way I read it, this was a showcase opportunity, because on any event night there's 250 people in the courtyard. So why wouldn't any band want to play there for free?"
Lapenna says the auditions helped familiarize him with local bands and see what works at the bar. However, one of the bands he contacted, Honey Child, should have been very familiar to him, because it had played the Evening Star-promoted HORDE festival last year, and had been offered several opening slots for national shows handled by the company.
Honey Child played a free audition, and was subsequently offered $100, plus a free dinner, for subsequent shows. "For a four-hour gig, with six band members, that's well below minimum wage," says Jason Montero of Honey Child.
The band turned down the offer, but Montero was dismayed to find that members of Olson's band were angry with Honey Child because the word had gotten around that Honey Child had played several free gigs, which had bumped Olson. For Montero, who deeply admires Olson, the misunderstanding was painful.
Singer-songwriter David Grossman went through a similarly painful experience when Lapenna booked him for five straight Thursdays after Grossman had played a well-received gig at Cooper'stown on March 19. Grossman enthusiastically promoted the gigs for weeks, only to get late word that all the shows were canceled. In fact, the first of those scheduled gigs has metamorphosed into Cooper's boxed-set release party. Lapenna blames the cancellations on the fact that Thursdays have turned into slow nights, but Grossman simply sees it as $1,000 that he lost because he trusted Evening Star, and, more important, the power of Alice Cooper's name.