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Detroit vs. Phoenix: Which City Owns Alice Cooper?

In the realm of popular music, Detroit has always been a cultural powerhouse, churning out some of the most memorable tunes of the 20th century. Detroit can point to everyone from Bob Seger to Big Sean, and artists frequently integrate this identity into their music and brand. The idea is that by claiming a certain city you assume some of its characteristics. We will always equate Bruce Springsteen with New Jersey or 2pac with California gang culture.

Strangely enough, outside Arizona, "shock rock" pioneer Alice Cooper has often been associated with the gritty urban realism of Detroit. But as we all know, he is as Arizonan as saguaro and scorpions.

There are few artists who have made as successful a business out of defying the typical constraints of genre, and appealing to fans from a diversity of musical backgrounds as has Cooper. Along with the stage presence he is best known for, his discography reveals a remarkable ability to anticipate and move with the latest trends in popular music.

He was one the pioneers of the glam rock sound and aesthetic, along with contemporaries like the New York Dolls and David Bowie. When he metamorphosed into a hair metal act in the late ’80s – the most notable example from this period being his 1989 album Trash, which featured cameos from Steven Tyler and Jon Bon Jovi – he was joining the ranks of a movement he helped to set in motion. Even his brief foray into New Wave produced some truly great work, particularly his excellent, synth-driven 1980 single “Clones (We’re All).”

But just as he has managed to seamlessly navigate the contours of style and musical identity, he has aligned himself with both Detroit and Phoenix at various times throughout his career. Cooper was born in Michigan, but moved to Phoenix at a young age. He attended Cortez High School with two of his bandmates while the rest of the original Alice Cooper band attended several other schools around the Valley, and they began making music. Like many Valley teenagers, they soon found themselves drawn to the bright lights of Los Angeles, and spent several years attempting to carve out a place on the Sunset Strip. But the band failed to find an audience in California, and soon made the move to Detroit, where they would find favor among the city’s flourishing scene in the early 1970s.
In the media, he has been depicted in both ways. When he appeared on Man vs Food to play air guitar on an enormous hot dog at his Alice Cooperstown restaurant, host Adam Richman referred to Phoenix as his “hometown.” But when presented with a similar question by his friend Ronnie Wood of the Faces, Cooper answered seemingly without hesitation: “I’m from Detroit.” So which one is it?

Many would point to the fact that Cooper has publicly named himself as a Detroiter. But identity is more complicated. It must be based, at least in part, by how others perceive us. If you were born in the UK, for example, but moved to the U.S. at a young age and have an American accent, people would think you were ridiculous if you introduced yourself to strangers as “British.” And the analogy can be extended further.

Sonically, his early work like “I’m Eighteen” and “School’s Out,” is close to that of their Michigan-based acts like Nugent or Grand Funk Railroad. But the weight of this evidence fails to match up to the band’s formative years in the Valley. A cursory listen to the music of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony might leave you with the impression that the group is from South Central, when in actuality the group is from Ohio. Similarly, the fact that the original Alice Cooper band spent some time paying its dues alongside the MC5 and the Stooges does not make them a Detroit band. Cooper’s friend Stiv Bators, who also guest-starred on Trash, moved to the Lower East Side in the late ’70s with his band the Dead Boys. Like the Alice Cooper band, they were seeking to establish themselves among like-minded peers in a far off city. But the Dead Boys are not from New York. Like Bone Thugs, they form that small but important circle of cool bands from Cleveland.
Detroit has a long tradition of popular music, which is perhaps the real reason Cooper has shown such a willingness to maintain a connection with his birthplace. But to compound matters, the business of being “from” Detroit is a tricky one. This is partly due to the psycho-geographical divide between city and suburbs, usually demarcated by 8 Mile Road, which we are all familiar with from the Eminem movie of the same name. When I met freestyle rapper Swave Sevah backstage at an Immortal Technique concert – who claims both NYC and the Motor City – he initially perked up when I told him I was also from Detroit. But when he probed deeper, and I named the leafy suburb where I had grown up, he gave me a sideways look and made a 50-50 hand gesture to indicate "not really."

Being included among the ranks of Phoenix natives feels less competitive or exclusive. In determining where the man and his music are actually from, the most compelling pieces of evidence are the goofy black-and-white pictures of Alice and the rest, pretending to play their instruments at their High School talent show, or running on the Camelback track and field team. Or the more recent clips of Cooper enthusiastically participating in that supremely popular pastime of other Midwestern transplants, golf. Or the fact that this is where Alice’s family lives, and where he has chosen to settle.

When Alice Cooper appeared in Wayne’s World, it was in the wake of the Parents Music Resource Center's war on pop music, at a time when rock music was still perceived as dangerous and threatening to the establishment. It was supposed to be ludicrous that Cooper could horrify us with his outlandish live show, and then deliver a scholarly lecture on the history of Milwaukee. But that moment perhaps came closest to actually capturing who Cooper really is. He is the host of one of the biggest syndicated radio shows in hard rock, and also a devout born-again Christian. He is someone that everyone cites as an influence, from cheesy Hair Metal acts, to cooler-than-though punks like Johnny Rotten and Jello Biafra. He’s a guy who may have been born in Detroit, but is really from Phoenix.

Correction, 12:15 p.m.: Alice Cooper attended Cortez High School in Phoenix.
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Adam Woodhead