Interview with Alice Cooper: The Indestructable, Three-Dimensional Cabaret Villain

Alice Cooper 1 (Gabrielle Geiselman)If a nom de plume can be an enigma, then Alice Cooper is its riddle.

He is the flash-in-the-pan that is mere months from entering a sixth decade of volume-addled irony that is best described in his memorable tune, “Guilty,” as “waking up the neighbors with a roar like a teenaged heavy metal elephant gun.” He started out in the late ’60s scaring hippies and cracking up Frank Zappa, garnered admiration from Groucho Marx and Mae West, drank with John Lennon and Jim Morrison, and broke Rolling Stones touring records on the way to literally becoming an icon.

Alice Cooper is an American original; rock and roll’s Jesse James wrapped up in Charlie Brown angst and jammed inside Dracula’s unblinking gaze. The victim and the predator, the goofball and the kingfish, he has died a thousand times onstage by the rope, the guillotine and the odd Cyclopes, only to be resurrected in time for the Muppet Show. He became Salivador Dali’s artwork and Dylan’s “great unrecognized songwriter.” Without question he’s unleashed a generation of imitators acting out an endless homage from Kiss to Marilyn Manson to Lady Gaga.

To us ‘70s kids fresh from the city streets rolled into the suburban dirge, The Coop was our resonant screech of infinite rebellion. He had us with “School’s Out,” cemented our devotion with “Elected” and scared the living shit out of us with “Years Ago/Steven”—to this day I cannot smell Lemon Pledge without getting a chill up my spine, vivid memories of a pre-teen innocently polishing his dust-caked dresser in grounded exile while their haunting strains wafted from my childhood Victrola.

Thanks to this magazine, I get a crack at my man, the skinny kid from the deserts of Arizona who, with a little make-up and a cheek-planted tongue, came to embody our most beloved nightmares.

Have you ever considered your lineage to Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp in American pop culture? When you think of Chaplin’s image today, portrayed in posters or statues, it’s always the Tramp. Also, in terms of the times; how Chaplin created this hobo character, which mocked the excesses of the Roaring Twenties, the way Alice certainly lampooned the excesses of the Me Decade, as both its villain and victim.

Oh, yeah, Alice was definitely as created as an American character, and I think he started out being a victim, because I was a victim. I was an alcoholic at the time, but never recognized it. When I invented Alice I guess it was subconsciously. Alice was always stooped over, always getting killed. The press was never real favorable. For a long time there was really nobody in Alice’s corner, so I kind of created him to be that whipping boy. Later, when I became a non-alcoholic, I created Alice to be Hannibal Lecter, and suddenly a different posture, different attitude. So there were two incarnations of Alice. But yeah, I don’t see why a hundred years from now someone shouldn’t be playing Alice, like somebody playing Captain Hook.

It’s interesting hearing you refer to Alice in the third person and that sort of lends itself to the idea that you can be possessed by whatever Alice you want for the short term to make certain social comments or present ironies.

Alice was a necessary character because you couldn’t have a rock and roll drama without a villain. I mean, there needs to be heroes, villains and victims, and Alice needed to be a visual villain. There wasn’t one personified villain in rock and roll, so I said, ‘Well, I will gladly be that!’ And the great thing about being the villain is usually the villain has a great sense of humor.

That brings me to your many imitators over the years. It seems to me that they’ve almost always failed to display the sense of humor, irony or satirical twist that Alice brought to light. Marilyn Manson, for instance, always came across to me as an overly serious rebellious figure, but without the necessary tongue-in-cheek quality that makes for more entertainment than manifesto.

Yeah, I kept waiting for the punchline. (laughs) Now, someone with a good sense of humor is Rob Zombie. Rob’s a tattoo parlor come to life. His stuff is so animated. He has as much reverence for Bela Lugosi as he does The Munsters; the scary and the absurd. He’s like my brother. We have exactly the same sense of humor. Frank Zappa was like that. Zappa had a real sense of absurdity, for the right reasons. He understood absurdity, what cannot be explained. You look at it and it’s purely absurd for the sake of being absurd.