Music News

Hangin' With Mr. Cooper

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.

"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.