Alice Cooper on the greatest music city in the world — and coexisting with the most dangerous man in rock ’n’ roll

click to enlarge Alice Cooper. - Jenny Risher
Jenny Risher
Alice Cooper.

As planned, Alice Cooper looks absolutely insane during a 1973 performance at the Sam Houston Coliseum in Houston, Texas.

He's wearing a thin, tattered, and mostly disgusting white cotton leotard with thigh-high platform leopard-print boots, his signature dead clown eye makeup, and something clipped to his bulge, which is unapologetically displayed with no discernible support from the sagging and frayed one-piece. The performance, a stop on the native Detroiter's massive record-breaking Billion Dollar Babies tour in support of his 1973 eponymous record that, as pointed out by Wikipedia, contains themes of “necrophilia, dental fear, horror, and sexual harassment,” was just one of many, if not most, in which Cooper did whatever the fuck he wanted.

During “Raped and Freezin,'” a song Cooper has likened to the Rolling Stones' “Brown Sugar” (though a Rolling Stone magazine review leveled that the song was too “unmelodic” and filled with too many “ridiculously arbitrary tempo changes” to be compared to the Stones; meanwhile, PopMatters called the track “a hilarious and gorgeously catchy” spin on “the whole sexual harassment idea”), Cooper wheels a headless mannequin torso on stage and proceeds to launch a gob of frothy spit down its neck, where its head would go.

As the loogie makes its way down the hunk of plastic, dripping between the set of pewter breasts, Cooper positions himself on his back beneath the torso to retrieve the spit he spat, which he does with an open mouth before gracelessly rolling onto his feet to complete the song's chorus: “Hey, I think I've got a live one! Hey!”

Gross? Sort of, though, to be fair, it was his spit. Sexual? Yes, but in a way that would confuse even the strictest of parents as to why, exactly. Crude? Honestly, not really. Strange? Abso-fucking-lutely.

“It was really the beginning of when we could afford props,” Cooper tells Metro Times from his home in Phoenix. “Before that, anything we found backstage was a prop. If I could find a mop, I could use it as a girl because it looked like her hair and everything, or I could swing it around and use it as a weapon, or I could ride on it like a witch, or whatever. A bucket or a pillow — anything I can find, we would improvise with on stage. Then when we got into '73, now we could afford to build the gallows and we could afford to build guillotines and things like that,” he says.

“Finally, we could start kind of creating the theater we really wanted to create.”

It may come as some surprise that creation — and not destruction — has been a driving force behind Alice Cooper, the unpredictable and villainous grease paint-wearing “Godfather of Shock Rock” who claims to have not infamously brought the live chicken that was ripped to nuggets by fans during his band's performance at the 1969 Toronto Rock 'n' Roll Revival festival. Vince Furnier is the earthly vessel for Alice Cooper, who speaks of Alice in the third person and is an avid golfer, husband of Sheryl (whom, after 45 years, he says he still flirts with and, on occasion, will whisk off to a cheap motel), and attends church every Sunday, Bible study every Wednesday, and prays every single day.

“My relationship with Christ is probably more important than anything,” he says.

OK — so Christ may not have gotten a shoutout in the liner note thank yous of Cooper's latest record, Detroit Stories, out now (though Creem magazine, the Shinola Hotel, and Soupy Sales did), but the 15-track record oozes with love of community, love of rock 'n' roll, and love of all things Detroit: the good, the bad, and the Slim Shady. But more on that later.

The record, Cooper's 28th, was recorded pre-pandemic at Al Sutton's Rustbelt Studios in Royal Oak, and found Cooper reuniting with producer Bob Ezrin and enlisting an iconic cast of Detroit players, like the MC5's Wayne Kramer, Grand Funk Railroad's Mark Farner, Johnny “Bee” Badanjek and Steve Hunter of Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, guitarist Garret Bielaniec, and jazz/funk bassist Paul Randolph. The record also features original Cooper bandmates Neal Smith, Dennis Dunaway, and Michael Bruce.

Cooper says he didn't set out to make a concept record when he began brainstorming the followup to 2017's Paranormal, a record that Consequence of Sound called “a well-intentioned concept, [with] a terribly unfocused conclusion.” But once he did, he decided to make a hard rock album — as if there is any other kind in Cooper's repertoire. (Imagine if he just leaned into the whole god thing and made a Christian rock record? Or what if when you played Love It to Death backwards and it was just, like, Cooper reciting Psalms? Now that's spooky.) Anyway, he knew he had to return to hard rock's holy land and the place where he called home until severe asthma relocated him to Arizona as a pre-teen — and the place he would return to once Alice Cooper was born from the ashes of a high school Beatles parody band.

“There was a time when Detroit was the murder capital. There was a time when Detroit was the drug capital. And everybody keeps forgetting Motown and hard rock came out of Detroit,” Cooper says. “The only reason that we moved back there in the early '70s was because we didn't fit in in L.A., we didn't fit in in San Francisco, we didn't fit in New York. The only place that made sense to us was Detroit.”

He says that it wasn't until performing at the 1969 Saugatuck Pop Festival, an event Cooper and his band were not technically scheduled to play, that he had found his people. The festival hosted performances by Bob Seger, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Arthur Brown, and two bands that made the Alice Cooper band feel like they had finally found their audience: Iggy and the Stooges and the MC5.

“I saw the MC5 and I went, ‘wow, who are these guys?’ And then I saw Iggy and the Stooges, and I went, ‘what the hell?’ I thought that we were the only ones that kind of created our own theater. And then we went on,” Cooper recalls. “And, you know, I mean, we were loud, if not louder than every other band, and we were even more in everybody's face and we projected this kind of villain character. And then they found out it was from Detroit. And I became the missing child.”

And the child? Well, he stuck it out in Detroit to record Love It to Death, one of the coolest fucking records of all time, and the band's follow-up to a pair of albums released by the late Frank Zappa, who allegedly saw Alice and Co. perform at Lenny Bruce's birthday party in 1967, and offered to sign them to his label after the band cleared the room in under three minutes. One of the Zappa-released records — the band's psychedelic and totally scattered 1969 debut, which, allegedly, not even Zappa understood, and that's saying something — got the true Lester Bangs treatment when the rock critic legend referred to it as a “tragic waste of plastic.”

“I always liked that review,” Cooper says. “To him, it didn't rock, it was too crazy, it was too insane. But later on, you know, when Love it to Death and Killer came out, then he was a big fan, because the albums rocked. I mean, they were really pure rock albums.”

Both Love It to Death and Killer turn the big 5-0 this year, something Cooper said he wasn't aware of until someone told him that Detroit Stories, which was supposed to be released in 2020, would coincide with two major Alice Cooper band anniversaries.

“I would never have known that,” he says. “I mean, I live much more in what's the next record and not what was the one we did 50 years ago. Now, when they told me that it was 50 years, I went, well, what a coincidence.”
click to enlarge “We didn’t fit in in L.A., we didn’t fit in in San Francisco, we didn't fit in New York," Cooper says. "The only place that made sense to us was Detroit.” - Jenny Risher
Jenny Risher
“We didn’t fit in in L.A., we didn’t fit in in San Francisco, we didn't fit in New York," Cooper says. "The only place that made sense to us was Detroit.”

Just because Cooper — who at 73, looks better in leather pants, blouses, and black eyeliner than we ever will — lives a zen-ass, in-the-present-moment life, with, you know, big youth pastor energy doesn't mean his mind doesn't often wander to the dark side. The guy is a walking, talking, rock 'n' roll history lesson. (We were going to say “a walking, talking, memoir-waiting to be written,” but Cooper has penned several books already, including Alice Cooper, Golf Monster: A Rock 'n' Roller's Life and 12 Steps to Becoming a Golf Addict. And no, we didn't read them, because, well, golf.) What we're getting at is Detroit Stories is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Cooper's own tales from the crypt. Oh, and apparently only 30% of what you hear about the man, the myth, and the legend who never bit the head off of a living thing — that was some other guy — is actually true. Or so he says.

For starters, Jimi Hedrix passed Cooper his first joint, and, pre-sobriety, Cooper would throw back Southern Comfort with Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, all of whom he refers to as his “older siblings.” Then there's the time when the Who's Keith Moon moved in for an unannounced week-long stay with Cooper and his wife after they had just tied the knot. During that time, the newlyweds would come home to Moon dressed as a French maid, or, in one case, clutching to the roof of his wife's car as she drove it, surprising her half-way down Benedict Canyon.

In what Cooper often refers to as “his best story,” the rocker was once invited to meet Elvis Presley and found himself in an elevator at a Hilton hotel with Liza Minnelli, Chubby Checker, and Linda Lovelace.

“You're the cat with the snake, right?” Presley asked before handing Cooper a snub-nosed Smith and Wesson .38 to give an unsolicited tutorial on how to properly remove a gun from someone's hand. The Smith and Wesson lesson ended with Cooper on the ground and the King's boot on his neck.

There was the time, too, in 1973 when Cooper was summoned by the great surrealist Salvador Dali, who demanded to meet with Cooper and his bandmates. When they met at the St. Moritz Hotel, Dali declared Cooper the greatest artist and proceeded to turn Cooper into a moving hologram. No, really — he festooned Cooper in $4 million in diamonds and handed him a sculpture of a brain covered in ants with a chocolate eclair running down the middle, and turned that motherfucker into a moving 3-D hologram.

And these historic rock 'n' roll run-ins don't account for everything Cooper did onstage, which, during the course of his career has involved the following: parading around with a live boa constrictor; hanging himself; stabbing baby dolls with swords; wearing a straight-jacket; wearing many a goofy hat; and, perhaps his most iconic stunt, staging his own beheading with a real guillotine. In a 1973 interview, when asked how far he would push his theatrics, a glassy-eyed Cooper, clutching a beer, told the Finnish interviewer that any show could be his last.

“I'm wondering about the day the guillotine doesn't work,” he said. “It has one safety catch. And if it doesn't work, it'll be a great show, but you can only do it once because they'll be pulling my real head out of the box if it doesn't work.”

When pressed as to whether Cooper wants to stage a real death — his or someone else's — during a performance, Cooper says no.

“I hope not,” he says. “I like me too much to die,” he adds, “I don't want to kill somebody. I'll let my snake do that. It's what he's hired for.”

Cooper says, in those days, the days of the Billion Dollar Babies tour (you know, the one that shattered previous tour records set by the Rolling Stones), it was much easier to shock an audience, because, well, there was no internet to numb them, nor was there an accessible way to ruin Cooper's many stage antic surprises.

“People believed everything they heard about Alice Cooper, and we even created some of the rumors and some of the myths around Alice,” he says. “We found that the more that the parents hated us, the more the kids loved us. So, we went way out of our way to do things. And yet — this was the insane thing — there was never any nudity on our stage. There was never any bad language. There was nothing Satanic. There was nothing like that. People created that in their own minds. I read reviews where people would say, ‘and then the snake got loose, and went in the audience,’ and, it was like, I didn't use the snake that night. But people saw that and they wanted it to happen and so they made it happen.”

“We found that the more that the parents hated us, the more the kids loved us.”

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No amount of blood, baby dolls, fire, snakes, spit, or scandal could diminish what was truly important to the Alice Cooper band, and no, we're not talking about belts (the dude really loves wearing several belts). Of course, we're talking about the music. For instance, John Lennon once told the shock rocker that his all-time favorite song was Cooper's “Elected” from Billion Dollar Babies. Oh, and in a 1978 interview with Rolling Stone, folk god Bob Dylan called Cooper an “overlooked songwriter” not to mention the tales of punk rock pioneers Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious who are said to have busked in London's subways, playing Cooper tunes. The theatrics, though, was a part of the band's DNA, stemming from their high school days and happened, as Cooper says, somewhat organically. The shtick stuck once Coop and Co. realized they were “exciting on stage,” and the stunts, props, and staged executions were inspired by the songs. Much of the tortured imagery that would appear before a Cooper audience was already written about in song form; it was just a matter of bringing the songs to life — or putting them to rest.

“We were not the band that would go up and go 'gee, I hope you like us tonight,'” he says. “We were always the band that grabbed the audience and shook them. But there really was a point where our notoriety was talked about more than our music. But we also knew one thing: If there was an eight-hour rehearsal, seven hours was going to be on the music and one hour would be on theatrics because we were up against Led Zeppelin, Cream, you know, Jimi Hendrix — every band that was so great. And we realized that in order to pull off the theatrics, the license to do that was to make sure that the band could stand up to anybody, could go on any stage and play, and would be considered one of the best bands out there. We spent all of our time on the music.”

Despite the fact that it may actually be more difficult to shock a modern rock audience (though, the world was seemingly very offended by indie rock's Phoebe Bridgers when she attempted to smash a guitar during her debut Saturday Night Live performance last month), Cooper says that doesn't stop him from creating his own brand of demented theater during his sets. In fact, he says his most recent outings are more theatrical now than ever before. But that doesn't include his performances with actor Johnny Depp and Aerosmith's Joe Perry, two players with whom Cooper shares membership in supergroup Hollywood Vampires. Cooper describes Hollywood Vampires, a band that is going on seven years and has much of their third album in the bag, as being “less theatrical, but more of a party,” and makes no mention of inner-band squabbles over scarves, skull baubles, eyeliner, or Patchouli.

“It's like we're the world's most expensive bar band,” he says.

Cooper doesn't hit the bar like he used to. Well, not at all. In fact, he recently landed his face and endorsement to an Arizona-based chocolate milk company, and he's going on nearly 40 years sober. Within that time, Cooper has learned to coexist with his angels, demons, and the character he unknowingly slipped into and has, on some level, willingly maintained for more than 50 years.

“I realized that it was impossible to try to keep that character up, especially in your everyday life,” Cooper says. “And so there was a time when I divorced myself from the character, and just said, look, from now on, we talk about Alice the third person. And when I get on stage, I'll be Alice Cooper. But when I'm off stage, I'm not going to be wearing makeup. I'm not going to be carrying a snake around or anything. That way, I could coexist with Alice much easier.”

And it's not just coexisting with characters that Cooper has mastered — Detroit Stories coexists with a handful of cover tracks. The record finds Cooper adding some grit to the Velvet Underground's “Rock & Roll,” some polish to MC5's “Sister Anne,” honoring the psychedelia of Bob Seger's “East Side Story,” and kept things pretty close to the original when it came to the seemingly sunny yet deceptively dark “Our Love Will Change The World” by Detroit indie rock band Outrageous Cherry.

Then came some tweaks. On “Hanging By A Thread (Don't Give Up)”, Cooper told The Detroit News that the song was originally written about suicide, but was later adjusted to reflect hope amid the coronavirus pandemic, of which both Cooper and his wife Sheryl are survivors of after contracting the virus last year. Then, on “Detroit City 2021,” Cooper reimagines his own 2003 track “Detroit City” to add some major name drops, like Suzi Quatro, Kid Rock, Eminem, and, yes, even Insane Clown Posse. (Which asks the question: why the fuck haven't Cooper and ICP collaborated? Oh, wait. They did!)

“Me and Iggy were giggin’ with Ziggy and kickin’ with the MC5/ Ted and Seger were burnin’ with the fever, and Suzi Q was sharp as a knife,” Cooper growls on the track. “The Kid was in his crib, Shady wore a bib, and the Posse wasn't even alive.”

As on the nose as it may seem (OK — it doesn't seem, it just is), Detroit Stories is more than a notch on a celebrated rocker's belt, and is more than a fake blood-soaked love letter to the city, its music history, ingenuity, and, as Cooper says, “lack of sophistication.” The record doesn't dare to break new ground, because it doesn't have to. Hell, Cooper doesn't have to. Sure, he may never crank out another “I'm Eighteen” or “School's Out” or “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” but his formula works as long as the guillotine holds up — in the case of his latest installment, Cooper honors what is, not was, nor what could be. To quote Detroit Stories' penultimate track, Cooper appears to have taken his own advice: “Just shut up and rock.”

“Detroit for a long time was the butt of the joke,” he says. “Detroit was the punchline. And it was always, ‘oh, no, don't take me to Detroit,’ you know, that kind of thing. Whereas now, if you thought like a musician, you can't wait to get to Detroit. I mean, it's that the energy in Detroit musically is the best energy in the country. Detroit is everybody's target city,” he says.

“This is a funny thing about rock and roll, you go on tour, and you're gonna play New York, and you're gonna play Cincinnati, and you're gonna play Nebraska, and all these places. But when a band sees that Detroit is coming up, that's the gig that they better go all out on because that's the rock and roll audience. And they do not stand for a band and go up there and just be soft and cuddly. You know, they want their bands to be in their face,” he says. “There's a certain amount of no BS about Detroit.”

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