TV characters who became American institutions in the '70s had a nasty habit of growing stale as they "grew up." Hot Lips Houlihan morphed into the Susan B. Anthony of the Korean DMZ, while everyone's favorite bigot Archie Bunker devolved into a politically correct bartender so bland the show's writers had to kill off his dingbat wife, Edith, in desperation.
But at 48 years old, Alice Cooper--played by Phoenix native son Vincent Furnier for the past 25 years on stage and screen--shows no signs of ever maturing, even though he's been institutionalized. More than once.
About a year before Cooper had his first hit--"Eighteen," off his third album, Love It to Death--the self-confirmed TV junkie launched his boob-tube career with an ill-fated 1970 televised concert with Iggy Pop that was censored in several cities for "inappropriate conduct." Since then, however, Cooper has behaved himself on Hollywood Squares, and puts in frequent appearances on late-night chat programs and infomercials.
Now he's staging a summer rerun of sorts, capping his quarter century as the grandfather of theatrical rock with a greatest-hits tour. Three days into his "One Night, One Stage" joint outing with heavy-metal stalwarts the Scorpions, Ol' Spider Eyes, like Bob Dole, insists on referring to his public persona in the third person, as if Vince Furnier were doing the interview, and Alice Cooper was in the next room playing with his boa constrictors.
"It's a summer tour, so I want to have more fun with Alice," he says of the current tour, which emphasizes personality over props for a change. "I'm even talking to the audience. Alice never talks to the audience. It's more important to loosen up and not make it the normal, regimented Alice Cooper show. I haven't really emphasized the visuals this time."
What the tour's audience loses in guillotines and hangman's ropes it should gain in painstaking audio re-creations from Cooper's 20-album catalogue. Just go ask Alice.
"When I went to see the Stones' Steel Wheels tour, I realized I wanted them to do their songs exactly like the record," Cooper notes. "I didn't want them to jam, turn things around, do 'Brown Sugar' in a reggae vein.
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"I've always had bands that are guitar-heavy. But this tour band is guitar- and vocal-heavy, so that we can do 'Poison' and make it sound like the record without using tapes. We're doing a lot of older stuff like 'Only Women Bleed,' 'Billion Dollar Babies,' 'Desperado'--the songs we picked are classics. We can look at the audience and go, 'Whaddaya wanna hear?' I just listen to whoever screams the loudest."
Cooper says his tour repertoire consists of 40 album hits from which he picks at random until the last, tightly choreographed half-hour of the show. Anything less than a polished wind-up would be, in Cooper's estimation, "unprofessional." And professionalism in rock showmanship is a credo Cooper has stuck to since his Detroit days of sharing stages with Iggy Pop. It was a 1970 In Concert telecast with Iggy and the Stooges that got the Coop yanked off the air by several ABC affiliates, including ones in St. Louis and Cincinnati.
"It aired at midnight," he recounts. "We really didn't have the money for props then; all we had were sheets and pillows from the Holiday Inn." No matter--Alice covered the band with the sheets like furniture in a haunted house. Then the guys strategically slit a couple of comfy cushions and voilà! Instant controversy! "We staged a pillow fight, and we got banned; how innocuous is that?" Maybe it was Iggy's opening set that raised the eyebrows--Pop took overflowing handfuls of chunky peanut butter, spread it liberally over his bare chest, then dove into the audience after inviting them to lick it off. Alice and Iggy are old friends, but their battle strategies onstage in those days were diametrically opposite.
"It was always tough following Iggy," Cooper says. "The Stooges were great live. They weren't a great band, but they could wear an audience out with just four songs. But it never went anywhere after that. Whereas the Alice Cooper show built up to a finale. There was very little improvisation. The thing that made us show biz was that we didn't do anything that wasn't rehearsed.
"The best compliment I ever got was from Groucho Marx, who said, 'Alice Cooper is the last hope for vaudeville.' And it was true. We were doing rock vaudeville. People were so against saying rock was show biz. But any good rock was show biz."
Like the live shows, the glitter-era Alice Cooper albums were custom-built to work up to what they'd call in vaudeville a "wow finish." Between 1971 and 1973, the Alice Cooper group recorded four albums that defined rock theatre--Love It to Death, Killer, School's Out and the climactic Billion Dollar Babies. A film of the band's '74 tour, Good to See You Again, Alice Cooper, points up why "Alice Is a Group" didn't last long as a rallying cry. Although the theatrics--staged executions, baby-doll dismemberments, etc.--were flawlessly executed, the movie captures a band that often sounded sloppy and out of tune.
After 1974's disappointing Muscle of Love, Alice Cooper the lead singer did away with Alice Cooper the band and became Alice Cooper the rock entity. Alice has always claimed he learned in a Ouija-board seance that Vince Furnier is the reincarnation of a 17th-century witch named Alice Cooper. Starting with Welcome to My Nightmare--the ghoulish album and accompanying TV special that gave Vincent Price his pop-music debut eight years before Thriller--Alice fans had to look for their man solo in the "C" section of the record store. Alice's subsequent touring bands played out of the audience's view in sunken orchestra pits, Broadway-musical style (Ian Anderson must have slapped himself at this turn of events. If only he'd had the foresight to call himself "Jethro Tull" at the outset . . . ).
Prior to the split with his band, Alice had irritated the rock press--who felt Cooper should flip the entertainment establishment the bird--by playing golf with George Burns and inviting Liza Minnelli to guest-vocalize on "Teenage Lament '74." Revisionists point to School's Out as the first trouble sign. Despite a title track that advocated blowing up a public-learning institution and album packaging that included a ladies' crotchless panty (that one probably got more than one teenage boy in hot water), most of the music came off like Alice's community-theatre production of West Side Story. The first Alice Cooper album without a horror-show premise, School's Out didn't build to a "wow finish" so much as a "Wow, that's it?" The record's flat finale sounds like incidental music on a CHiPs episode.
Of course, Alice defends all of his artistic choices as being rebellious simply by virtue of his being Alice. Especially that sticky business about appearing on Hollywood Squares.
"Where's the one place Alice doesn't belong? On a show where the same contestants that are winning cars won't let their kids go to his concerts," he crows.
If pop-culture observers didn't get Alice's joke about appearing on a TV show, they all but gave up on the snake wielder when he became an easy-listening favorite in the mid-'70s with Barry Manilowish songs like "You and Me," "Only Women Bleed" and "I Never Cry." Now even housewives were buying Alice Cooper singles, even if flip sides like "Devil's Food" and "Go to Hell" were tailored to send their hair rollers flying.
"For five years, we put out albums with one ballad on it, and every time, the ballad became the hit," remembers Cooper. "Disco happened during that period, and suddenly there was no rock on the radio. If you were a rock band like Alice or Aerosmith, they would play the ballad. A lot of people interpreted it that I was going soft. I'd play the Aladdin and the press would say not only has he gone soft, he's gone Vegas."
After appearing in the box-office career jinxer Sgt. Pepper movie with the Bee Gees, Alice hit a commercial slump, and then he hit the bottle. His 1978 album From the Inside, recorded after drying out in a New York hospital for alcoholism, promised a clean and sober Alice from then on, but he "got crazy again" a year later. Today, Alice can't answer questions about this "blackout" without first quizzing his personal assistant Brian Nelson on chronology and release dates.
"I sorta remember Flush the Fashion, but I lost track somewhere during Zipper Catches Skin, Special Forces and DaDa. The scariest album we ever did was DaDa, because I can't remember doing any of it. Somehow we created this character called Former Lee Warmer. I listen to that album and I get chills. That's a really sick album. And I still don't know what it's about except that Former Lee lived in an attic and he got hungry. Then Former went around the house and family members started turning up missing."
Once Alice finally beat the bottle in '86, he gained a new generation of followers by aligning himself with the burgeoning pop-metal movement of the day. MTV took notice of Alice and his high-gloss, Desmond Child-produced (Cher, Aerosmith, Bon Jovi) commercial comeback Trash in 1989.
"I definitely came back as metal. I like metal. I didn't like the operatic metal. I was more of the Mick Jagger school whereas all these metal bands had trained voices, these sopranos. It was amazing to me. Like, why are kids putting up with this?"
Alice sings far below such QueensrØchean caterwaulings, in the manly middle range favored by modern metal bands. Good thing, too, since Alice admits, "I lost the top end of my voice. When I hear the screams in 'Public Animal Number 9,' I go, 'Wow, where was that?'"
His voice box may have mellowed with age, but Alice's stage demeanor has become, well, meaner. "Before, Alice was always a victim because I was a victim to alcohol. After the alcoholism thing, Alice became more the dominant character, taking the audience by the throat, where he wants to take them. And that's the way we've played him for the past ten years."
Of course, Alice Cooper has always been a character to be played to the hilt, and the macabre makeup and other trimmings that launched Cooper's career became defining themes of heavy-metal music itself. It's this simple: no Alice Cooper, no Kiss, Dio or Mstley CrYe. And no death metal whatsoever.
Cooper has pulled a number of celluloid cameos in recent years, but his most memorable was in Wayne's World, where aging headbangers Garth and Wayne meet Cooper backstage and fall like Jell-O at their idol's feet, chanting "We're not worthy."
Many of Cooper's peers have paid him similar homage, and the guest roster on Alice albums for the past ten years reads like a Heavy Metal Who's Who: Ozzy, Guns N' Roses, Steven Tyler, Bon Jovi, Joe Satriani. On Cooper's most recent album, The Last Temptation, Soundgarden's Chris Cornell sang and even wrote a track.
Also contributing to that album's song count was Phoenix's own Beat Angels, who co-wrote the album's leadoff track, "Sideshow." Angels lead singer Brian Smith's connection with the Coop goes back to the early '80s, when Alice and longtime guitarist Dick Wagner (who also played with Lou Reed) produced an EP by Gentlemen After Dark, Smith's band at the time. Now that recording Alice remembers making.
"Y'know, I liked that record," he says, matter-of-factly. Cooper classifies Smith as a "great guy. I think those guys write really good stuff. I insisted that they open the show for us in Phoenix."
As for the future, an Alice Cooper boxed set with rare and unreleased songs is in the planning stages, and Alice is writing a studio concept album on the lofty subject of spiritual warfare. "Anytime I do an album from now on, I want it to be about something. I'm tired of making random albums that go in all different directions and say a buncha different things."
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In the interim, Cooper has recorded one live album on his current tour (featuring guest artists Rob Zombie, Sammy Hagar and Slash), and says he has another in mind that would hold special meaning for some Valley residents:
"I want to play the senior prom at Cortez High School," he says, recalling the "Alma Mater" he gushed about on School's Out. "We may really do it next year and record it. Live at Cortez High. We'll finally put Cortez on the map."
If Alice isn't joking, the Cortez student body can count on him making the biggest prom splash since Carrie.
Alice Cooper is scheduled to perform on Sunday, June 23, at Compton Terrace in Chandler, with the Scorpions, and Beat Angels. Showtime is 7 p.m.