Rock legend talks cancel culture, an artist’s mission statement, bizarre pre-show rituals, becoming Alice, and all his favorite stuff.
Alice Cooper has been at this shock-rock thing for over half a century, and he has lost nothing off his fastball. I once described The Coop’s aura as the godfather of a “spiteful, sloppy, defiant, obscene, deafening burlesque freak show that cared less for anything healthy and decent than anyone or anything imaginable,” and that unhinged cocktail continues to serve as a glaring beacon for fringe kids from six to 60. At this point in his unlikely success story, Alice has become something of a reliable measuring device to see how much the majesty of performance art can challenge the vague parameters of popular music. Ok, maybe that’s too much pressure to put on him, but he can take it, just ask him.
Below is my fifth (or is it sixth?) discussion with Alice, a fun exercise I first experienced in 2009. Unfortunately, due to circumstances hard to fathom now (did anyone say a once-in-a-century pandemic), we have not spoken since 2018. What? That is way too long. There is a nourishing quality to speaking with Cooper that is not available in most rock star chats. When he starts to muse on whatever subject I toss at him, it is still hard to believe that this person/character that first rocked my world at 11 years old, is speaking with me. But there is also comfort in knowing that there is no pretense in Alice Cooper; except, y’know, the character thing. He shoots from the hip about alcoholism, God, vaudeville, horror films, as well as regrets, family, love, and life as easy as he might offer insights into his golf game or the weather.
He is back on the road with a kick-ass band and his sword and his guillotine and his snake and his songs about necrophilia, spiders, madhouses, thumbing his nose at teachers, damning false preachers, and hammering those parts of our daily construct that need to be taken down a peg or two.
And thank goodness for all of that, and for another few minutes getting inside the mind of Alice Cooper, who does not disappoint… again.
Happy belated birthday.
Oh, thank you. 74 never looked so good.
I have always seen you as a cultural barometer – both on the fringe and in the mainstream. Considering the high tensions in our culture with political correctness and “safe zones” on college campuses and the general tone that no one anywhere should be “offended,” where does Alice come down on this?
You know, it’s very unusual right now. I think that we’ve kind of forgotten freedom of speech. I mean, if you don’t agree with what is proper now, then you are absolutely blackballed. You’re not allowed to have an opinion anymore. I saw a movie the other day and it was called, No Safe Spaces, where they were talking to college students and some were saying, “If he doesn’t agree with what we believe, then he can’t speak at our school.” And that’s missing the point! You have this freedom of speech to affect other speech. You can choose to not show up, or don’t listen to him, and if you disagree, then you can let him know by booing. But he does have that freedom, that’s an American freedom. All of a sudden, we have this faction yelling “No!” Total intolerance to the point where if he doesn’t believe what we believe, he doesn’t get to speak, and I’m going, “What?”
At this rate, there won’t be any comedy after a while. In the seventies – and I’ve never had anybody disagree with this, by the way – when Mel Brooks was making movies, everybody was insulted. He didn’t leave anybody out, and as a result, everybody was laughing. We were less racial then than we are now, because now we pinpoint every single word that we say as possibly offensive. It doesn’t matter what you say. You can say, “It’s a nice day,” and it’s an issue. “Oh yeah, it’s a nice day for you, maybe, but not for me! I’m offended!” What has happened to us? We’ve become so politically correct that we’re almost robots. I believe in being politically correct, but at the same time, I think we’ve taken it to an extreme now, to the point where we’re bending so far over that you can’t really say anything. Everybody’s afraid to talk.
Now that you mentioned Mel Brooks’ films, there has been, for me, and you helped me get there in my youth, as did George Carlin, Richard Prior, or All in the Family or Laugh-In, this idea that art never need apologize. Art is the way to puncture through social barriers, especially in music, because you do see, even now, in any kind of pop music, performers get away with pushing the envelope more than comedians or filmmakers. So, do you think what you do as a musical artist has more of an impact in this sense?
I think it used to be that way, but, again, I think artists now are afraid to say anything. Honestly, we’re getting to a point now where everybody’s terrified that if you say one thing that sounds a little bit wrong, it hits the papers, and you are blackballed or you are a pariah. So, I think that you’re getting to a point now where it’s getting dangerously close to 1984 or THX-1138 or Fahrenheit 451, where we’re terrified to say anything. I mean, that’s just not America.
I think a lot of people forget what stuff was thrown at you in the seventies. It’s great that these days you’re performing year after year as a tribute to the fact that you survived all that. But there was a time, and I remember because I was there, where people were genuinely threatened, society at large, was threatened by you, as it was previously with Elvis. I specifically love the Alice character because you encapsulated all the great deviant art forms, rock music, horror, satire, the drag scene, surrealism, you made this vessel that was almost, I want to say, Teflon. You somehow were able to survive all that. How?
You know, I think it’s just because I don’t think I ever meant to hurt anybody. I always kind of saw the absurdity in everything. The same way, I see the absurdity in what’s going on now in our society – there’s an absurdity to it. It’s funny. And most people I talk to are actually making fun of this whole thing. You know, again, I truly believe nobody should be bullied. I never did that in my songs or my shows. I just said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if…” or “Wouldn’t it be scary if…” or “Wouldn’t it be dramatic if…” As an artist, you’re supposed to challenge the person looking at your art. If not, then it’s just Hallmark cards. I mean, what artist hasn’t challenged the system? Warhol, Dali, even, at the time, Shakespeare challenged the system. He was getting banned all over the place. Artists are supposed to act as a weird balance in society. And yeah, when we do, the audience wants us to speak out and be off center, because we’re the only ones that will. The audience will tell you, “I wish I would have said that!” We’re allowed to say it because we’re artists! We’re no different than anybody else. Except that we are. We are artists. And I, in my case, if I think about it, as you say, everybody was very wary of Elvis Presley, and then The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, all the time society was going, “Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait! I don’t know if I could buy into this.” Like you said, All in the Family, and then later, The Simpsons, Family Guy, all the stuff that challenges norms poke fun at it. And yet there was a lot of truths going on in there. This is what we tried to do.
Yeah, the one thing I always loved about the Alice Cooper group and your later work as a solo artist, is you were extremely self-aware of what you were doing. The revolution was built in. I recently read something you posted on Twitter on the anniversary of Billion Dollar Babies (the Alice Cooper band’s 1973 mega hit album) and how its title and theme came from everyone in the group looking at each other and saying, “This is crazy. We somehow made it and now we’re the biggest band in America!” This was the kind of irony that was always built into Alice Cooper. You understood the humor from the very beginning of what you were doing.
Well, yeah, if you can substitute that for ego [Laughs]. When we would go on stage, and I still do this with my band, I say, “When you go on stage, I want you to be ridiculously egotistical and over the top!” Because the audience wants you to be that for them. They want you to be from some other place. They want you to be an Avenger. Because you’re on stage with a guitar and an amp and you’re singing these songs out here and they’re not. They’re listening to it. But I also remind them that when you get off stage, leave all that on stage. So, when they meet you, and they talk to you, they understand the fact that… “Oh, yeah, well, this is him.” But on stage, Alice is this other thing, you know, he speaks for us, and he makes fun of us, and he brings up things that we’re afraid to say, but Alice said it. None of this makes the artists any smarter, it just makes us… artists. We have a different kind of license.
That reminds me, do you have a pre-show ritual? Do you have something that you’ve done from the very beginning, when you were in the band, even as far back as the sixties, all the way through your solo career? Because I know you’re a sports guy. I could see you having something that’s, I don’t want to say idiosyncratic, but is there something you always do before you go on stage?
Well, you know, it’s changed because a lot of situations have changed. The early days, there was no dressing room. [Laughs] You were back behind the stage, just getting ready, and you showed up in your costume and just went on stage! And then it got a little bit more progressive, where, all of a sudden, now that you’ve made it a little bit, you have a dressing room. So then, it was like, “Well, there’s actually food back here!” And now there’s this this whole thing with your rider, you know? Nowadays I have definite idiosyncrasies. When I first get to the venue, I watch nothing but Kung Fu movies. Really bad ones, though. I’m talking about ones made in 1973 and then there’s other ones that are just total fantasy ones that are so insane. I’ll sit and watch them until I’m numb. Then, and only then, do I start getting ready – at half an hour, exactly, one half hour before show time. That’s when I start putting the makeup on. Then I start getting dressed, the whole thing. And as soon as I get dressed, I throw knives.
I am an expert knife thrower. In fact, I am in the Knife Throwing Hall of Fame.
That’s fantastic. I did not know this tidbit.
Oh, yeah. The guys that run the Knife Throwing Hall of Fame watched me throw and they put me in there right away. Because I could put 20 knives within a twelve-inch area, easily, with no problem – and that’s kind of fun. Here’s the great thing… I put different photos of people in magazines up on the throwing board – especially if it’s a full picture of anybody, it doesn’t matter who it is, they get up on the throwing board. People walk in they go, “Wow, why do you hate this person so much?” And I have to tell them, “Oh, no, no, no, it’s an honor to be on my throwing board.” So, there might be Tom Cruise one night, and then the next night, it might be Betty White, you know, it doesn’t really matter. It’s just who’s ever got the best full-legs picture in a magazine is gonna get up there.
That should be its own Instagram post: The Alice Cooper Knife Board.
I’m telling you, it’s now become like a total pre-show idiosyncrasy, and when I’m done with the knives, then I can get ready to go on. I wait for about ten minutes before I finally go on, go into the bathroom, and pray. That’s very essential for me. And at that point, I walk on stage, but I’m still not Alice yet. As soon as I hit the stage and I make the appearance, then I become Alice.
You can feel that change?
Oh, yeah, absolutely.
It’s this absolute difference in my posture. There’s a difference in my attitude. There’s a difference in just everything. I take on the Alice Cooper character the same way if I were playing in any Broadway play, you know, you’re this guy off stage, but the people want to see Alice Cooper. So, okay, I’m the only one that knows how to play that guy, so I will assume all of the Alice Cooper characters, and he will be Alice for two hours and then as soon as I walk off stage, I leave him on stage.
I know you have to get going, so I have a couple of more for you.
Favorite TV show of all time? I know you’re a TV buff, if I had to press you, your favorite TV show is…
I love Dexter if you’re talking about, you know, Netflix or anything like that. Regular network TV? Wow, I haven’t really been watching a lot of network TV at all, but probably Ghost Adventures. I watch it because I always believe know your enemy, so I watch it and kind of take notes [Laughs]. But at the same time I know all those guys, and I tell them, “Guys, be careful, I don’t think you’re dealing with ghosts at all, I think you’re dealing with demons.” At the same time then if I want to watch something really entertaining, I love Killing Eve. Also, I started watching Reacher, which is really good, actually, because I read all the books and they’re keeping it accurate to the book. They even finally got a guy that actually looks like Reacher. In the book he’s 260 pounds and 6’7. Tom Cruise didn’t quite fit that bill.
Last one, I know you’re a car guy. Is there a favorite car you’re driving right now? What is Alice Cooper’s car of choice to tool around on a Sunday afternoon?
Right now, I am driving a DB11 Aston Martin that when you open the door there’s a little plaque on the bottom, that says, “Built in England for Mr. James Bond.”
It’s the same kind of deal that they were using in the movie Spectre, remember the move Spectre?
I think this is one of the cars that they were using in Spectre. So, the license plate is Spectre 3.
That is the perfect ending to our latest chat. I could talk all night, but instead I thank you, as always, for a little time.
Always great to talk to you because you’re creative with this whole thing. It’s always fun. It’s certainly a lot more fun than answering the normal questions [Laughs].
I really appreciate that. You’re my hero. You keep it up.
All right, man. I will.
ALICE COOPER TAKES THE NJPAC STAGE ON TUESDAY, MARCH 22! FOR TICKETS AND INFORMATION ON THE SHOW AND THIS TOUR, VISIT HIS WEBSITE!