With New Tour & New Album, Rock Legend Opens Up on Reuniting with Original Band, The Illusion of Surrealistic Mania and a 50-Year-Old Song
When I sat down to chat with rock living legend, Hall of Famer, and all-around nice guy, Alice Cooper this week, I realized this was our fourth such go-round. We have discussed many things over the years; his legacy as the godfather of shock-rock, his battle over alcoholism, his upstart high school band that became the biggest rock outfit in the world, our favorite lines from his wonderfully satirical lyrics, his incredibly diverse and bizarre solo career, the parade of Coop imitators, and the pressure to out-do the out-doable on stage and on record. This time he wanted me to know that the master of the macabre, the villain of rock ‘n’ roll, and the bane of a generation of bewildered and apoplectic parents, has now become…(gulp!) wholesome? “Bring your daughter to the show,” he said with a chuckle when I mentioned my playing Alice Cooper records to my daughter Scarlet for nearly a decade, which has made her a tried-and-true fan at nearly ten. “I love the Coop!” she used to shout in her little girl voice, which by the way, master producer, Bob Ezrin would have no-doubt affixed to some weird 1970s Cooper recording. “It’s an all-ages show!” Alice pitched with the fervor of a 19th century carnival barker.
As long as those ages are up for, you know, the Alice Cooper treatment.
Since our first interviews, Alice has been on an annual touring bender that even a man half his age would find grueling. Unlike Bob Dylan’s Never Ending Tour, this comes with some accoutrements; namely high-concept staging, special effects, monsters, ghouls, all manner of predator, and at a crucial juncture the ceremonious execution and resurrection of our hero. He has also returned to the aforementioned mad-scientist, Bob Ezrin to produce an excellent new album, Paranormal, some of which features members of the original Alice Cooper band.
A creepy, black and white video for the song, “The Sound of A” was released the day we spoke, the central theme of which is everyone (all of whom wear different iterations of his iconic make-up) is Alice Cooper, or more precisely become Alice Cooper. The sound and images mesh perfectly into the art form for which this performance artist has tampered with extreme prejudice for nearly a half century.
And this is where we begin.
What part of the Alice Cooper psyche does “The Sound of A” and this fantastically creepy video comes from?
Everything about this song is weird. For instance, I wrote it fifty years ago.
[Laughs] It was a song that got lost in the mail somewhere and Dennis Dunaway, our original bass player, was playing a couple of songs in the studio and he played that one and I said, “I remember when you wrote that.” And he said, “I didn’t write that. You wrote it!” I said, “I did?” He goes, “Yeah. You wrote the whole song — music and lyrics.”
I had totally forgot about it. Bob Ezrin was listening and he goes, “I love that. What is that?” I said, “Bob it’s the first song I ever wrote. 1968.” And he says, “Let’s do it!”
It’s the only song on the record, I think, where we ever just let the band fly away. We decided that there is no ending to this song, so we’ll keep going and going….
I had Larry Mullen Jr. from U2 on drums and just all my guys on there and I said, “Just let it float away,” because we never do that. We always construct everything very formula-like. So, that song ended up being one of the most interesting songs on the album and it’s 50 years old.
It’s funny, because I listened to the whole album when it first came out, because I’ve kept in touch with Bob since I had worked on my book (Shout It Out Loud – The Story of KISS’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon, Backbeat Books 2015) and his interviewers were key to it.
He was keeping me up to date on what you guys were doing and when the album first came out I listened to it front to back and that song really stood out for me. The first thing I jotted down was it reminded me of Pretties For You (1969) or Easy Action (1970). It definitely has that pre-Love It To Death (1971) unstructured kind of psychedelia. I love it.
And it was pre-pre-pre Pretties For You…as creepy as that sounds. [Laughs] And another little, unique thing about it was at the time we were living in Venice, Calif. in this house where I wrote it and we had just done a gig with some band that we had never heard of called Pink Floyd and they ran out of money and moved in with us.
And the song has definitely got some Pink Floyd influence to it. I can really hear a little bit of Syd Barrett running around in there somewhere.
So, it’s got all kinds of pedigree, but at the same time it was just a simple little nothing song that, you know, ended up on Paranormal.
I love the ethereal eeriness in this visual presentation for “The Sound of A”. I know you are always a visual artist and this album really does lend itself to visual components like the video. I love how you occasionally see everyone’s face in it, but mostly the camera concentrates on seeing just their eyes and mouths, depicting the evolution of Alice’s make-up, with your features interspersed in there. It truly works thematically with this song.
Yeah. It’s almost Sci-fi, and you know the weird thing is that we used to spend close to a million dollars on videos, but I think this video costs maybe fourteen dollars. [Laughs] You know? It’s so bare, and yet it works with that song. It does have a Sci-Fi thing to it. I don’t know what it is.
Yeah. It reminds me of those early Sc-fi flicks like The Day The Earth Stood Still, we used to see as kids on Creature Feature or something.
Exactly. Exactly. Yeah.
There’s one thing I was dying to ask you since the last time we spoke and that is I have noticed that your organization is being extremely active on social media. That’s a huge part of what everyone does now, but I am harkening back to the original Alice Cooper, when you and Shep Gordon (manager and friend) would come up with these amazing ways to cause a scene, to catch attention, and I’m just wondering what the two of you guys would have done if you had this kind of thing available to you in 1971?
There was something very organic back then about doing the Hollywood publicity stunts, because like you said, we didn’t have the Internet. We depended a lot on urban legend. We depended a lot on people seeing the show, seeing an eight-foot boa constrictor, and then by the time it got around it was suddenly a fifteen-foot boa constrictor and it nearly choked me to death and it got loose in the audience. [Laughs] People just kept adding to it to the point where then you have a bonafide urban legend going on.
Every single show was something that. We would get to the next city and somebody would say, “Wow, I heard that you set a monkey on fire.” What? I mean, none of that ever happened, but we did enough in a show to make people believe things like that. They would just make up their own version of the show. That was just so bizarre.
And I kind of think that that’s what art is about. Make the audience use their imagination and make them invent new things. And that was fine. In a way, we were using their imagination.
It’s true. They brought their own perception to it. It’s surrealistic art. It’s bringing their perception to what you are doing on stage to provoke something in them. You were famously quoted early on; “We enjoy getting on stage and showing the public what their world has come to. Only usually they’re shocked.”
Oh. yeah. I am telling you, this is the honest truth, I used this chicken one time on stage and I didn’t even know the chicken was there and I threw it in the audience and thought the audience would take it home as a souvenir, but they tore it to pieces.
Yeah, I think the headline the next day was “Alice Cooper Bites Head Off Chicken and Sucks the Blood Out of It” or some such.
I talked to people once a month who would say, “I was in Texas when you had the chicken.”
But it was in Toronto, at the Rock and Roll Revival Show (Sept. 13, 1969).
But I would sit there and listen to all this. I didn’t want to, you know, stop them and say, “We never used a chicken except for once in the show!” I have had people tell me that I’ve used that chicken 500 times! They might have never even seen it, except that that is what they saw that night. You know?
And, of course you never want to let the truth get in the way of a good story.
Yeah. Yeah. It is the very idea of art making people use their imagination, when you throw so much at an audience, we gave them and we still give them so much visually, that we over-amp them, and then they go home and start telling everyone about the show and they’re making things up that they don’t even realize they’re making up.
It’s so true. How was it working on the record with the surviving members of the original Alice Cooper group again? Michael Bruce, Neal Smith, and Dennis? (Glen Buxton died in 1997 at the age of 49) Was it interesting to be in the same room and making music with those guys again?
It felt so natural. It felt so unforced. Dennis, Neal, and Mike have a certain style of playing that I was absolutely sure of what they were going to do, but I didn’t know if they were going to be a little slower or if they were going to be a little this, a little that. They were exactly the way we played the last time we played on stage in 1974.
In fact, here’s a great sort of look at it. In England, we did our regular show. My band is probably the best touring band out there right now. I’ve got the tightest band there is. And then the curtain would come down and then when the curtain would come up for the encore and it would be the original band and the audience would go, “What? That’s great!” The reviews said, “Unbelievable sparkling show. It just didn’t lack anything. It was amazing.” And then it says, “And then it got dangerous.”
[Laughs] Meaning that the original band got on stage and suddenly it was “dangerous”, because my original band, Dennis, Neal, and Mike play “Eighteen” and “Billion Dollar Babies” and those songs much darker. I think it’s just in the DNA. Even my band said, “Do you know when you sing with those guys you sing differently?” And I just went, “Well, great! That’s cool.” I don’t notice it myself, but I guess I do. I kind of lend my voice to what they’re playing.
That’s a fascinating insight. It really is. And why wouldn’t you sink right into that groove again? Some of you guys have been together since high school.
That’s funny. But you know, like I said, the crazy thing was when we broke up, we didn’t break up with any bad blood. Nobody was suing anybody. Nobody was angry. There was a little disillusionment about, “Well, what are we going to do now?” I was not the architect of the breakup at all. It was much more of a, “Let’s separate for a while,” and then I went on to do Nightmare (Cooper’s first solo effort, Welcome to My Nightmare — 1975) and it just went from there.
But again, there was no bad blood and there was no anger. I kept in touch with Dennis, Neal, and Mike all that time, so it was not unnatural for us to get together and play on stage or in the studio. And I told the guys in the studio, “We’re not going to layer this.” I said, “When we do these three songs, I want to play them live in the studio because I want the Alice Cooper sound live.” And the three songs that they did, (“Genuine American Girl”, “You and All Your Friends” and “Fireball”) sounded absolutely great in the studio.
It really does. It is quite remarkable how much getting back with the original contributors to the Alice Cooper sound can take you right there. What can the fans expect from the new show? I always ask you this and you always say, “I can’t give too much away,” but if you could let slip out a little teaser for what can be expected from this new tour.
Well, like I said, I have got the best touring band around. It’s the first time ever in the history of Alice Cooper that when I read a review it talks about how great the band is. It just absolutely reviews the band first over what happens on stage, which I love. I love the fact that the musicianship gets its due in this thing and I think that what it really is, is it’s just about everything you want to see from Alice Cooper and the only thing I can really do to change it around is to add some songs that you probably wouldn’t normally think you would hear. I added two or three songs in this version of the show that I think that the real fans will go, “Oh, man. I never thought I would hear that song.”
So, it’s fun to do that, because there’s at least 15 or 16 songs that I have to do. There’s no way I couldn’t do those songs. I only can only really play around with about four or five songs.
That’s true. Your catalog is so deep that you have to play the classics.
Yeah, they would kill you if you don’t play the classics. I remember when Bowie went out one time and he said, “I’m not going to do any of my hits.” And I went, “Boy, that’s bold.” Because they’re there to hear the songs. You know? And I don’t think that went over very well, because I think halfway through the tour he started doing his hits.
See Alice Cooper perform at Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown on March 9.