Alice Cooper: Is it time for rock's oldest shocker to give up the gore?

Vincent Furnier may once have had his problems with crack and booze, but these days the 61-year-old is a Republican golf fanatic who teaches kids religion every Wednesday. So why can't he give up his alter-ego Alice Cooper, songs about serial killers and decapitating babies live on stage?
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"There are one or two subjects I have to ask you not to raise with Alice Cooper," his publicist warns me. "I hope you'll understand."

Understand? I know what's coming. I've read all the cuttings and I have all the books. This is going to involve the alcoholism and the crack habit, the encounter with the founder of the Church of Satan and the simulated necrophilia. It may also have to do with that song he released just after Columbine, which contained the line: "I got a pocket full of bullets and a blueprint of the school," or that unfortunate evening in Toronto when he tossed a live chicken to his fans, who tore the bird to pieces. And just possibly the stage set which was described by a suitably traumatised envoy from the Daily Mail as "a Dachau death pile of twisted dolls' heads".

With these and other lively images in mind, I wasn't entirely prepared for what came next.

"Golf."

"Pardon?"

"This is a man who beheads babies on stage. He rapes women on stage. This is his persona. He's spent over 30 years developing it. So please don't talk about golf. Or religion. Or his family."

"I'll write a memo to myself: avoid the Three G's: Golf, God and Grandchildren."

A pause. "The thing is, Alice Cooper is a really lovely man. But we don't want your readers to know how lovely he is."

This is something of a novelty: a celebrity who wants to appear to be more degenerate than he actually is. Am I wrong in thinking that the title of his second autobiography, published in 2007, was Alice Cooper, Golf Monster? A book which, in its first eight lines alone, mentions the word "golf" three times, and refers to golf courses on seven occasions?

Cooper will talk to me for an hour. At most.

"The way it works," his PR says, "is that I come in after 45 minutes and then, if he's bored, he'll give me a sign."

"You mean like the Masonic signal for distress?"

"We have a sort of a code."

A few days later, we meet in London at the St James's Hotel and Club, which is just behind the Ritz but no less grand. In a small suite, I meet Cooper's manager and the singer himself. "About this 45-minute signal," I ask them. "What should I do if I get bored?"

"And what about me?" says his manager, as he's leaving. "I'm bored already."

Everything his publicist told me about Alice Cooper is true. He's articulate, funny and engaging. A Conservative Christian who's been sober for 25 years, he's 61; on a scale of affability, he's far closer to his late friend Bob Hope than he is to, say, John Lydon. Age suits him; the wrinkles strangely complement his carefully dishevelled head of luxuriant, ink-black hair.

"In 1969, you said: 'Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse.' That hasn't worked, has it?"

"No. Which is funny, because all my buddies from the early days – the guys I used to drink with – they're all dead. Jim Morrison. Janis Joplin. Jimi Hendrix."

Cooper's new album, his 25th, is called Along Came a Spider. In a short film that amalgamates three of the singles from the album, he plays a serial killer bent on assembling a spider from the severed legs of young women. This somewhat improbable scenario involves his trademark accessories: straitjackets, zombies and instruments of torture. It's been greeted as one of his finest albums, enhanced by the always compelling presence of his long-time ally, former Guns N'Roses guitarist Slash. Yet, as even die-hard fans would concede, Along Came a Spider is hardly breaking new ground.

"Do you know that Randy Newman song, 'I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It)'?" I ask him. (An unforgiving portrait of a wizened rock star, it begins: "I have nothing left to say / But I'm going to say it anyway / Thirty years upon a stage / And now I hear the people say: 'Why won't he go away? '")

Cooper gives his generous laugh.

"I know that song. Randy is great."

"I've often wondered who inspired it: do you think it might have been you?"

"When you are woven into the tapestry of rock, you are this character... luckily I can step away from it..."

"Did you ever think those lines might be about you?"

"Yes. But in this business, if you don't have thick skin, then you are dead."

"You've often suggested that your stage act is cathartic; that it releases 'poison' festering in the minds of the audience. I have to tell you that I've never dreamed about butchering new-born babies, or bathing in buckets of blood."

"What do you dream about?"

"You know, the usual. Beagles... VAT... Manchester United."

"I believe you, but there is a thing about that. Do you remember how, in school, people would tell jokes about shoveling dead babies into a truck? It was on the edge of where you were not supposed to go. I always thought: I like that edge."

He's fond of recalling something Bob Dylan once said, about Alice Cooper being one of the great unrecognised songwriters. Actually, Dylan said the same about Meic Stevens, who currently plays pubs in the Aberystwyth area. While few people would regularly spend whole evenings listening to Alice Cooper albums, the man born Vincent Damon Furnier can justly claim to have invented the notion of rock as an essentially visual medium; an idea that would be exploited by Kiss, Marilyn Manson and, in a different way, Madonna and the late Michael Jackson.

"Most people I know, of all ages, might have the odd Alice Cooper album," I tell him. "They like 'School's Out' and 'Elected'. But they'd never place you in that pantheon with Bob Dylan, or Joni Mitchell, or even Iggy Pop. Your songs, standing alone, are just..."

"I think," Cooper interrupts, "that sometimes when you are overtly theatrical, it can..." He's about to say something like "obscure your gift as a lyricist", but pauses (just briefly) before he plunges into immodesty. "I don't think people will look at my lyrics until 50 years from now. When they do, I think they'll see some very clever lyrics."

"And – let's be frank – they will also see some total bullshit."

"Absolutely."

The first album by Alice Cooper, Pretties For You, released in 1969 on the label of his mentor Frank Zappa, is one of the worst records I have ever heard. The adjective "dire" is overworked in criticism, but sometimes it's the only one that will do. You might try downloading a song called "10 Minutes Before the Worm": a hideous illustration of what can happen when an instinctive conformist strains to achieve the state of marketable weirdo. Lines such as "Living is only one part of being" would shame Spinal Tap. To find a fictional group that might have produced work like this, I personally have to think back to a vintage BBC Play For Today that featured a group called The Crap Shovellers.

"Early stuff like Pretties For You," Cooper says, "was just silly philosophy. Actually, ' some of what I call the blackout albums" (he uses this term to describe four records he made around the early 1980s, when he was using drink and drugs) "have the best lyrics, because I was so messed up."

"So drink, drugs, and activity you would now consider evil, have a connection with creativity?"

"I believe so. You tap into your subconscious. If you're high or drunk, who knows what's going to come out. You open this floodgate. Almost like diarrhoea of the mind, you know?"

"Morality is a big thing in your life and work, isn't it?"

"Yes. America needs a big hypodermic full of morality."

"This may sound strange, but reading about you, and listening to your records, the song that kept coming to my mind was [the fire and brimstone country anthem] 'Satan is Real' by the Louvin Brothers."

"Oh, yeah?" Cooper asks. "Why?"

"Maybe because you've spoken a lot about Alice [Furnier habitually refers to his alter ego in the third person] having something of the Marquis de Sade about him. That's an interesting comparison because de Sade wasn't just writing about evil; he was doing it. 'If you're not with Christ,' to borrow your phrase, 'you're going to Dragontown.' By that logic, it's not a close call as to where the Divine Marquis is at the moment."

"No. He totally let..."

"The side down?"

"He let go of everything. He's down there with... I think all of us have the capacity to be Charles Manson."

Vincent Furnier was born in Detroit in 1948, the son of Ether, who worked first as a car salesman, then as a draftsman for the Goodyear tyre company. His mother Ella was a waitress.

Ether wrote a perceptive preface to the singer's first autobiography, Me, Alice. Published in 1976, it isn't that widely read these days, perhaps because prices currently range between $350 and $1,250 on amazon.com. Vincent's father was a drinker who reformed while his son was still an infant. When the future star was 11 they moved to a middle class suburb of Phoenix, where Ether did missionary work on reservations. (His mother still lives in Arizona.)

Me, Alice goes into more detail than most readers might require concerning the young Vincent's various techniques of masturbation. Parts of it read like Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint without the laughs. The book is an early testament to its author's awareness of the potential link between outrage and wealth. As his late father wrote in his introduction: "Vincent found success after realising that the norm does not attract attention as well as the bizarre."

"Around this time, you said there were three things you had no use for: socks, underwear and funerals, however close the deceased." Cooper slips off a shoe to reveal a bare ankle, then slips a thumb into the top of his jeans. "I am wearing underwear," he says. "Darn it."

"And when your father died?"

"I went to his funeral. Of course I did."

Furnier belonged to a number of semi-professional bands before founding Alice Cooper. Originally the name of the entire group, the nom de guerre was soon appropriated by the singer. He now says he chose it because it seemed to encapsulate childhood innocence. In Me, Alice, he claims the name was communicated to him while he was using a Ouija board with a girl named Alice Paxton, and that Alice Cooper was a witch who was born in Sussex on 4 February (his birthday) in 1623.

He met Anton LaVey, founder of the Satanist Church, in San Francisco, early in the band's career. "I was both interested and repelled," he wrote later. "I knew it was wrong but I didn't know how much of it was a joke."

None of his work, "even at the worst of Alice, was ever Satanic. I always had this core of: don't go there. This is wrong. If you open that occult door there are things that want to come through."

The Alice Cooper band, as protégés of Frank Zappa, shared a house, and Coop, as friends call him, was the lover of Christine Frka, one of a Zappa-sponsored band of groupies known as the GTO's (Girls Together Outrageously). "Miss Christine" died of an overdose, aged 22.

"Isn't Frka supposed to have inspired Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman to write the Flying Burrito Brothers' 'Christine's Tune' – tactfully renamed after her death, from its original title: 'She's a Devil in Disguise?'"

"Who said that?"

"Bob Dylan."

"I don't know. But Miss Christine was something. The GTO's styled Alice Cooper. Ripped-up black leather pants, cowboy boots with blood on, smeared make-up. That was the first glam look."

In the early 1970s, his most significant girlfriend was Cindy Lang. "When I'm on tour," he told the Daily Mirror in 1973, "we call each other three times a day. I think that's really Lord Byron." (An interesting analogy, although – since the author of Don Juan died in 1824 – calls from his mobile were probably hampered in some areas by restricted network coverage.)

At this period of his life, Alice Cooper seems to have struck most observers as an inebriated transvestite. "I remember him sitting on the top floor of the Rainbow Bar in LA, night after night, getting plastered," one British tour manager told me. "I have never seen anybody drink so much beer in my life."

What musical credibility the Alice Cooper band achieved can largely be attributed to Toronto-born producer Bob Ezrin, who would go on to work with Peter Gabriel, Lou Reed and Pink Floyd. Cooper made a strong first impression on the Canadian. "They played me tapes," Ezrin recalled. "The tapes were horrible. And I mean, horrible. I almost threw up. I thought: these are all faggots," he continued. "The manager is a faggot. The roadies are all faggots. They are all after me. So I'm sitting there with my short hair, in my blue jeans, shaking, and here's Alice Cooper. His hair is down to his shoulders, his pants are so tight I can see his penis through them. We parted company and I was so relieved. It was a horrendous experience."

Ezrin overcame his reticence to produce a string of successes for the group, following their disappointing first two albums. He delivered the 1970 hit single "I'm Eighteen" and, the following year, their acclaimed third LP Love It To Death. Over the next 30 years, Ezrin produced 11 albums, including the best-selling School's Out and Billion Dollar Babies.

With success, Alice Cooper's stage show became increasingly audacious, to a point that appalled Mary Whitehouse and prompted questions in the Commons. As recently as 1988, David Blunkett publicly condemned a show in which an imitation baby was torn apart and a girl appeared to have her throat cut. "I am horrified by Alice Cooper's behaviour," Blunkett declared. "It goes beyond entertainment. It's an indication of the sick society we're moving into. Something drastic should be done to protect young people from paying for this sort of obscenity."

Curiously enough, I tell Cooper, the only time I have seen him in the flesh before today was when he was eating dinner alone at the Ivy, in London's West End, a couple of years ago.

"Also in the Ivy that night," I tell him, "was David Blunkett." (The blind MP, who called his autobiography On A Clear Day, was just a few tables away from the rock star.) "Of course he had no way of knowing you were there. To be fair to him, as a good Yorkshire Socialist, he may not even have known he was in the Ivy; he probably thought he was in some more proletarian establishment."

"I'd possibly have said the same things David Blunkett did," Cooper replies, "in his position. I'd have said: this is the last thing we want our kids to be. But that's why the show worked."

Furnier married his current wife, the former dancer Sheryl Goddard, in 1976. He says he has never been unfaithful to her (and together they have three children, Calico, Dashiell and Sonora Rose). But matrimony didn't curb every sinful impulse.

"Alcohol to me was like speed. I would drink and I'd be thinking: 'Right! Let's go!' I was on a golden buzz. I used to drink all night and just smile. I was never a mean drunk."

Me, Alice tells a slightly different story. "I was a freak," he writes. "An oddball; a joke. I drank to buffer the hatred. I got loud and obnoxious." To illustrate the exuberance with which he occupied his leisure hours, the book recalls a visit he made to Jamaica. The paragraph is too lengthy to include in full, but can be condensed as follows: "Bar... nausea... diarrhoea... nausea... men's room... threw up... regained composure... I picked up my armadillo and flushed."

By 1977, his predicament had become acute; he was kidnapped by his wife and taken to rehab in New York State. That experience (which inspired one of his bravest and most interesting albums, From the Inside, written with Elton John's former lyricist Bernie Taupin) doesn't sound quite so much like a "golden buzz". '

"I began to realise that I didn't have control. I'd had no idea that I had an addictive personality. Now I realise everything I do is extreme. Like, I play golf every day."

"Steady. We're not supposed to talk about that."

Cooper cackles.

"Why," I ask him, "would anybody worry about you talking about golf? Robert Newton might be best known for his role in Treasure Island, but nobody expected him to walk around off set with a wooden leg and a parrot on his shoulder."

"They..." Cooper gestures towards the door his manager and PR exited through, "worry about that more than me. I don't think they get the fact that Alice has no idea what golf is. A golf club would be a weapon to him."

"In 1978 you went through detox, but by the early 1980s you were talking publicly about your addiction to crack – how did that happen?"

"Crack was everywhere in LA. All my friends did it." (Cooper tends to volunteer circumstantial excuses, rather than analyse his own motives for taking the drug.) "In the end," he says, "I thought: stop. This is crazy."

"You wrote that: 'By September 28 1983, I'd beaten my demons.' Before that, you famously blamed the drinking on Alice. As I recall, you saw a psychiatrist who said: 'Does Alice drink? No.'"

"That was the most amazing revelation to me. Alice didn't drink. On stage I only drank water. So Alice wasn't the alcoholic. I was. Yet I blamed everything on Alice. Dr Frankenstein had the problem, not the monster."

"Looking back at that time, you once said: 'I went to the devil. If I die in a car smash, I'm going straight to hell.' What exactly did you mean by that?"

"That I had abandoned all the things I grew up with."

"Such as?"

"The principle that sex out of marriage was taboo. Excess drinking. Drugs. In LA, I was in Sodom and Gomorrah. And I definitely partook of everything."

"Gay sex?"

"Not gay sex," Cooper replies, swiftly. "But it was, like, the female population was there for the taking. And I was expected to behave as I did. I was Alice Cooper."

"You started living like a cartoon character?"

"Exactly."

"Except cartoon characters are infinitely regenerative."

"Right. There were nights when I would go, 'How do I get in enough trouble tonight to make people talk?' Meeting Keith Moon used to be a good start."

"You've said many times that you believe Satan exists. Do you think that, back then, you were in the grip of the devil?"

"Absolutely. I was a prize."

"In what way?"

"Because I knew the truth but acted against it."

"I know there are songs you won't perform any more, on principal." (These include "Trash", one record whose title was in no danger of contravening the 1968 Trades Descriptions Act.) "Is there anything you used to do on stage that you feel uncomfortable with, in terms of morality?"

"Yeah. I did things with mannequins. Very horrific things."

"Like simulated rape?"

"Yeah. I'd have the girl's legs going up in the air and a hatchet going down through the middle, and blood everywhere."

"You teach Bible classes, don't you?"

"Wednesday mornings."

"Given what you do on stage – the demonic caricature, the decapitation of babies – would I be wrong to detect just the hint of a contradiction there?"

"You'd be absolutely right. But if I was playing Macbeth, would that be OK?"

"One difference – and I'd argue there are a few – is that the darkness in Macbeth doesn't spring directly from the actor's mind."

"But it's still witchcraft and it's still murder. Macbeth is much bloodier than my show."

"Some reports have blamed your act for teenage suicides. Do you think your show might have given people ideas?"

"If people watch Alice Cooper and, you know, go do something – I wouldn't let them watch Kojak."

"You might let them watch The Sound of Music."

"Yeah, but then they'd turn into Mary Poppins. 99.999 per cent of the audience gets it for what it is."

"In your second autobiography, you don't shy away from the big questions. Things like: 'What is the condition of your soul? What happens if you die?' Are you absolutely sure that you aren't going to walk up to those celestial gates and hear a voice saying: 'Wait a second; let's just take another look at his baby-slashing video?'"

"No. Because once you're saved, you're saved."

"You can still mess up, can't you?"

"It's a one-on-one relationship with Christ. If I do something, I have to go: 'God, what did I do? I am so sorry.' And I will be forgiven."

"You're an icon now, and with that comes influence. British kids know you from that Aviva Insurance advert, where you appear with Ringo Starr. Did you check the company profile before you did that?"

"No."

"I wondered if you knew that campaign would coincide with them discarding UK employees like old socks." (In April, Aviva, which owns Norwich Union, announced it was to cut 1,100 jobs during 2009 as part of an efficiency drive.)

"I didn't. But most products you use are probably against what you believe. Who knows who owns the big corporations? Probably somebody that's torturing people in East... er... you know?"

Cooper, like his friend and fellow son of Detroit, guitarist Ted Nugent, is a man of robustly conservative tendencies. He was a supporter of Gerald Ford and the Bush administrations. Me, Alice is dedicated to Richard Nixon. He is "a very big fan" of Tony Blair.

"How about Obama? You were badmouthing John Kerry a few years ago, weren't you?" (Cooper referred to Kerry supporters as "treasonous morons".)

"Obama is a shot in the arm for America."

"Did you vote for him?"

"No."

"Did you vote?"

"Yes."

Political allegiance aside, has any aspect of Alice Cooper's personality remained unaltered over the years? The journalist and artist Caroline Coon wrote the following assessment 35 years ago, and her insight has lost none of its relevance. "It would be difficult to imagine anybody more coldly calculating, more determined to be a millionaire at any cost," she observed, going on to refer to "his Madison Avenue [ie adman's] mind".

If the career of Alice Cooper illustrates one single truth, it is that appearance can, in certain circumstances, be everything. If he dressed to reflect his true character, acumen and focus, I think he'd be wearing a Brooks Brothers suit, hurrying through Manhattan with a sensible haircut, clutching a designer laptop case and a copy of The Wall Street Journal.

Be that as it may, he now seems to be welcoming old age as an opportunity to behave with the irresponsibility of youth. But the whiff of sulphur, Cooper insists, has long dispersed. His new character Spider, the psychotic assassin in his stage show, he argues, "is not just a serial killer... he has a religious epiphany."

Is he actually suggesting that his act is, on one level, a kind of morality play?

"Alice Cooper," he says, "is highly moralistic. There is always a consequence for Alice. These shows are about crime, punishment and resurrection. Alice is a horrific, character, spitting at society. And he gets executed for it. Much as I love the villain, I need him to get caught. Because if evil ever does win, we're all in big trouble."

I have absolutely no doubt that he believes this. And the grace of God, as St Peter once said, can take many forms. But when Alice Cooper returns to British venues later this year – armed, no doubt, with bigger hypodermics, sharper guillotines, and more scantily clad female amputees – even the keeper of the gates of heaven might be surprised at how diverse those forms can be.

'Along Came a Spider' is out now on RSK. He begins a UK tour in November (see www.alicecooper.com for details)

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