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In the 1970s, Alice Cooper was the poster child of "the devil's music," a sexually ambiguous, mascara-smeared heavy metal demon with subversive lyrics and mock-drama stage theatrics. In 2011? Well, this year marks his 11th Christmas Pudding, an annual variety show-style bash featuring rock stars, magicians, and comedians that has raised more than $100,000 for Cooper's Solid Rock Foundation, a Christian ministry for at-risk youth.
Yep. Good and evil are just different sides of the same coin, and it's hard to find a rocker who embodies the idea quite like Alice Cooper.
Cooper went to high school in Phoenix, returned to the Valley in 1983, and has lived here ever since, opening the popular restaurant Alice Cooper'stown in 1998. He's continued cranking out albums, too. His latest, Welcome 2 My Nightmare, released in September, is a sequel to his 1975 album, Welcome to My Nightmare, the record that established Cooper as a cultural phenomenon. The album shows little of the philanthropic, sweet-as-a-button Alice, but that's the idea: The guy behind the character may have a heart of gold, but the Alice Cooper character has always been a monster.
Last year, Cooper earned a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his pioneering take on theatrical, comically violent rock 'n' roll, building stage shows with the sole intention of shocking audiences. It's worked to inspire, too: Rob Zombie claims his first "metal moment" was seeing Alice Cooper perform, and in 1973, Salvador Dalí was so fascinated by the singer that he created a work of art based around Cooper's brain.
"I have a picture of him explaining my brain to the audience," says Cooper. "And I said, 'Can you explain that to me a little more? I'd like to know what's going on in there, too.'"
No kidding. His shows feature guillotines, boa constrictors, gothic torture modes imposed on Cooper that "kill" him on stage, and buckets of fake blood — not to mention actual near-fatal experiences, like the time a malfunctioning hanging act almost killed Cooper in 1987.
"We started the band when we were 15," Cooper says. "I created Alice Cooper because I thought rock 'n' roll needed a villain. There were plenty of rock heroes." By the time Cooper was 18, the band had been welcomed into the pantheon of rock's weirdest, alongside The Mothers of Invention, The Doors, and Jimi Hendrix. He toured with Pink Floyd and once awoke to find Syd Barrett staring at a box of corn flakes, as if it were a TV, and laughing. "He was a paranoid schizophrenic," Cooper says. "Add acid to the mix and you get a much deeper problem."
Cooper acknowledges that he had his own issues with being consumed by his persona. Looking back, he views his stage antics as a mix of the ridiculous and brilliant.
"In 1970, we didn't have the Internet or CNN," he says. "Anytime you heard a story about Alice Cooper, it was some legend [and] usually bizarre."
Tales of blood-letting, chicken-slaying, and other macabre antics spread, but internally, Cooper was facing real problems. In 1983, after stints in rehab throughout the '70s, he decided to quit drinking in an effort to save his marriage.
"When I left the hospital, I went to a bar and had a Coca-Cola. I waited for that horrible craving and it never came," says Cooper. "I am a walking miracle. I haven't had a craving for a drink in 30 years."
Cooper continued making hits but threw himself into philanthropy, golf, and reconnecting with his Christian roots — his father was a pastor and Cooper was raised with a religious background. He even toyed with the idea of giving up rock 'n' roll.
But he found a way to balance his two sides, in part due to the Solid Rock Foundation that he and Chuck Savale established in 1995 to fund music and arts programs for at-risk youths. A new building is scheduled to open next spring to support even more programs.
"When you have kids in gang families, they don't have an out," Cooper says. "So we teach them guitar, drums, dance, lighting, sound, [and] all that stuff for free. All they have to do is show up, and we provide the skill set."
Christmas Pudding is a huge part of Solid Rock. It started when the elementary school attended by his kids asked Cooper and his wife, Sheryl, if they would help make the school's annual variety show a little larger.
"My wife and I have been in show business since we were 15," says Cooper. "It was natural to say, 'Let's go through the Rolodex and get friends like Glen Campbell and Megadeth here for a Christmas party.'" This year's Christmas Pudding includes Cooper and his band, along with The Tubes, Gary Mule Deer, former Korn guitarist Brian "Head" Welch, John Corabi (formerly of Mötley Crüe), and Bruce Kulick (formerly of Kiss).
Regular listeners to Cooper's radio show, Nights with Alice Cooper, know that he's rarely shy about expressing himself. Whether discussing one thing he regrets about his musical past (never learning to play piano or guitar), his favorite Valley golf courses (Legend Trail or Renegades Desert Mountain), or where his career may be headed ("Alice Cooper is almost destined for Broadway"), he's an open book, especially when it comes to his opinions about modern music.
"You can't shock much with rock 'n' roll anymore. I'm more shocked by CNN than Lady Gaga," says Cooper. "She puts on a great show, challenges us while being stylistic, and makes the records to back it up. It's like us; if we didn't have hit records, there would've never been Alice Cooper."
That would've been a damn shame. Because this little band from Phoenix wouldn't have ended up as the biggest shock-rock band in the world, changing the genre yet keeping their own unfaltering brand of music, all while proving that things aren't always what they seem.
Because for Alice Cooper, life on and off stage is a weird balancing act.
"I think it's interesting that I'm a Christian and Alice Cooper, but it's a challenge. And while my comical horror character isn't the same I played in the '70s, we've never stopped taking it a step further," says Cooper. "Think how many times I've actually almost died over the years. And now on stage every night, they kill me."