A clown called Alice

So, the one-time scourge of Middle America and Mary Whitehouse is now a God-fearing, golf-playing father of three, is he?
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Five minutes into our interview, I wonder if I've offended Alice Cooper. We're talking about the old-school rock bands – his former partners-in-crime Aerosmith and AC/DC, who, like him, are still doing the rounds – when the word just slips out. I call him a dinosaur. "What are you talking about?" he laughs, waving my apology away. "People think of it as an insult, but, hey, I deserve that name. We all do. We've worked hard to be dinosaurs. Dinosaurs stamp on small bands. We eat little bands for breakfast. And there's a prize for being around so long. I'm 53 and I guarantee that when you see the show tonight, I'll be in better shape than I was 20 years ago."

We're in the small suburban district of Merrillville, two hours from Chicago. It's a town where the pre-postmodern mullet still thrives and the streets are awash with K-Marts, burger bars and aircraft-hangar-sized video stores. "Welcome to the Midwest!" Cooper grins. "You've arrived at strip-mall heaven."

Certainly, it's the last place you'd expect to find the king of schlock rock. Tonight, he's due to play at the Star Plaza, a 3,000-seater, concrete bunker of a venue. We're in the hotel next door and downstairs a large group of fans are gathering, each clutching records to be signed.

Cooper looks tired and his voice is croaky from five days of shows. Yet, with his long hair and thick eyebrows, both dyed jet black, he still looks every inch the rock star. Just visible under his eyes are the remnants of last night's make-up, that cadaverous mask that even now is as recognisably Alice Cooper as it was 35 years ago. Now I know what made Wayne and Garth drop to their knees in awe and utter those immortal words: "We are not worthy!"

He is happy being called Alice, although to his friends and family he's still Vincent Furnier, the God-fearing, golf-playing father of three. These days, he puts a distance between himself and the old Alice, whom he now refers to in the third person.

Not that he minds talking about him. On the contrary, the craggy features light up when prompted to talk about the early years, when he lived the life of the debauched rock god to the last letter. "I was Alice through and through," he recalls. "All I cared about was blondes, Corvettes, switchblades and choreographed violence. We were America's worst nightmare."

Furnier grew up in Phoenix, where his father and grandfather were both pastors. At Cortez High School he joined his first rock band, The Earwigs. Later, they renamed themselves The Spiders and began touring Arizona, mostly playing Rolling Stones and Yardbirds covers. In 1968 they relocated to Los Angeles and became Alice Cooper. He remembers their second gig under the new moniker.

"We played Lenny Bruce's birthday party. The Doors were there with Three Dog Night and Buffalo Springfield. We came on last and started with The Who's "Out in the Street". I was in full make-up and we were twice as loud as anybody. The audience were all on acid and they were there to groove. When they heard us they ran for the door. Five minutes into our set there was virtually nobody left. At the end there was just my manager, Shep, and Frank Zappa left. Frank said, 'Anyone who can clear a building out that fast, I want them on my label.'"

Vowing to move to the first town that gave his band a standing ovation, Cooper finally settled in Detroit, home to the MC5 and The Stooges. Word soon got around about the band that butchered baby dolls on stage. In Britain, Cooper was accused by the MP Leo Abse of "peddling the culture of a concentration camp" and Mary Whitehouse successfully campaigned to get their records banned. Then, of course, there was the notorious chicken incident in Toronto, where someone threw a live hen on stage. Cooper maintains that he threw it back, thinking it would fly. Instead, it landed in the crowd, who tore it to pieces.

"People said that I had killed it. The press got hold of it and I became 'Alice the Chicken Killer'."

Cooper still laughs at the hysteria that greeted his shows – he sent Whitehouse flowers for her trouble. What's more baffling, he says, is that the critics took so long to get what he was doing. "They said that we were doing all that stuff to cover up the music. It couldn't have been further from the truth. We were competing against Led Zeppelin, against Bowie and The Beatles. When we put one record out we were up against Simon and Garfunkel and The Supremes. This was tough competition. So to think that we weren't spending all our time on the music was ridiculous. The theatrics came easy."

Commercial success arrived with the 1971 single "I'm Eighteen" and for the next four years, the band didn't look back. There were more hits including "School's Out", "Billion Dollar Babies", two number one albums and endless tours. Cooper reckons that in one year they must have played to a million people. But as the myth surrounding Alice got bigger, the man beneath began to fall apart.

"I was hanging out with Keith Moon, Harry Nilsson and Jim Morrison," he remembers. "Every one of the rock guys that died from excess was a friend of mine and I was on the same road. I drank a bottle of whisky a day. For most of the time it was fun – I never missed a show. But finally it got to a point where I had a choice of either joining them or making ten, 15 more albums."

Cooper took some time off. He didn't go on stage for two years and when he finally did, he says he was terrified. After months of rehab he slowed down his drinking, though he didn't quit until the early Eighties. He took up golf to help take his mind off the drink and re-discovered God.

"It wasn't that I didn't believe in Him up until then, it was just that my career pulled me in a whole different direction. I was really the prodigal child. I was out there – I saw everything, I did everything; I was the poster boy for sin. Then it hit me that there was something more important."

Cooper's new-found faith called for a major rethink of his act. From then on, Alice Cooper became his alter ego, a spectacular stage construct warning us of the consequences of wrong-doing. Each night, after murdering a two-headed baby and bundling a scantily clad nurse (played by Cooper's 20-year-old daughter Calico) into the boot of a burnt-out car, the leather-clad Alice is put to the guillotine. Later, he is resurrected from a smoke-filled capsule wearing white tie and tails.

"It's pure entertainment," he says, his eyes gleaming with pride. "Mind you, there's such a propensity for a Spinal Tap moment. I come out of this contraption and it reminds me so much of the pod. Every night I get in that thing I say to myself 'Oh God, please let this open.'"

Still, fun as it sounds, you can't help wondering why he still does it. He's just released his 26th album, Dragontown, and has toured more times than he can remember. And the irony of the grandfather of gore prancing around the stage singing "I'm Eighteen" isn't lost on him.

"You know, I thought by now I'd be tired of doing it, too, but I'm not. I just can't get enough of Alice Cooper. I'm Alice's biggest fan!"

Besides, these days being Alice isn't all about hard rock and fake blood. Nowadays he's a household name, appearing on advertisements for the Marriott hotel chain and Callaway Golf. Three years ago, he opened his first restaurant in Phoenix known as Cooper'stown, a sports bar where you can order "No More Mr Nice Guy" Chipotle Chicken Pasta and "Megadeath" Meatloaf. A second one has opened in Denver and there are plans to expand further. Does this mean that he has sold out?

"Not at all!" he cries. "I love to put Alice in places where he doesn't belong. I love especially to put him in middle America."

But you're hardly middle America's worst nightmare any more.

"Probably not. I guess Marilyn Manson's taken a lot of heat off me." Ah yes. Marilyn Manson, the heir to the schlock rock crown. But, perhaps surprisingly, Cooper is disapproving. He says he's disturbed by "the whole anti-Christian thing. I would like to sit down with him one-on-one and say, 'Who is this God that you hate so much? – because it's probably not the same God that I'm talking about.'"

When I suggest that maybe this is the pot calling the kettle black, he says: "The difference is that I've been telling people in interviews that Alice isn't the real me. When Marilyn comes out saying, 'Well, Alice is only Alice on stage. I'm Marilyn all the time', that tells me that he's in the early, infantile stage of his career. The real guy will have to come out some time."

As for his own future, Cooper's under no illusions about his shelf life. "I think if the music business keeps going as it is, it's going to get more difficult for me. It's very hard to get played on the radio if you're not 17 years old. My new record is as vital as anything I've done, but it won't get played. They think, 'Oh, that's Alice Cooper, that's classic rock.' But one thing I can be sure of is that people will always want to see me on stage."

With that, Cooper makes his apologies, saying he needs to sit down in front of a kung-fu movie – his way of relaxing before a gig. "I'll see you after the show," he says, smiling. "That is, if you survive it."

'Dragontown' is out now on Eagle records