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.
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.
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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.