Rock and horror: Alice Cooper on 40 years of beheadings, fake blood - and voting Republican
Alice Cooper is living the rock'n'roll dream: perched on the sofa of a luxury hotel suite, shortly after the sun has risen over the nearby Hollywood Hills, with a half-empty bottle in his hand, and an enormous flat-screen TV blaring. Could the mise-en-scène be more perfect? Not unless he was to leap up, wrench the telly from its wall socket, and toss it off the balcony... where tradition dictates that it would land with an almighty splosh in the swimming pool.
That will not be happening today, however. It is 9am. His half-empty bottle contains nothing more potent than vitamin water. "The Coop", as his PA calls him, has risen early, showered, and is now eating a wholesome breakfast of sunflower seeds and miniature chocolates. There are some dark smudges around his eyes, but hard living, and outrageous self-abuse are not to blame. Instead, they come from a fresh dusting of mascara.
So, here's the thing about Alice Cooper: onstage, he's now been at the cutting-edge of shock-rock for an incredible 40 years. Chickens have died at his stage shows. Nooses have been hung round effigies. Fake blood has been sprayed like ketchup, and outraged politicians have called for his music to be banned. He's been there, done that, sold the black T-shirts. But offstage? Things couldn't be more different.
"Hi, I'm Alice," he says, utterly engrossed in a daytime reality programme about cars. Cooper, who is 63, has newly-shampooed hair and the hint of a pot belly spilling over his belt. "Isn't that thing beautiful," he adds, gesturing to the vehicle onscreen. "Wow, I want that." Then he stops himself, and turns the TV off. "I'm sorry: I got carried away. I'm a real muscle-car guy. But I'm also pleased to meet you. Shall we begin?"
The Coop, whose real name is Vincent Damon Furnier, turns out to be a man of two parts. To the public, he is of course famous for wearing leather and singing tracks with such terrifying names as "I'll Bite Your Face Off". His gigs are noteworthy for gory pieces of performance art, in which he pretends to stab women, or decapitate babies, or canoodle with live pythons. In private, however, he's a pillar of respectability: married for 36 years, teetotal for almost as long, with two grown-up children, who he loves very much. At home, in suburban Arizona, he's big in the local church, and addicted to the bourgeois pursuit of golf, which he plays every day, off a handicap of two.
In person, Cooper also turns out to be charming and extremely well-spoken. And this disconnect, between his private and public persona, is probably at the heart of his appeal. To see Alice perform, wreaking havoc in leather, studs and back-combed hair, is to experience a glorious piece of artifice which will never grow old. The fact that we know it's all an act makes him a sort of a national treasure. A genuine legend, whose vaudeville falls on just the right side of self-parody.
We meet on the morning of the launch of Cooper's 25th studio album. Twenty-five! The new record's called Welcome 2 My Nightmare, a sequel to his Seventies classic, Welcome to My Nightmare. Later that day, he's due to play Whisky a Go Go, a Hollywood nightclub which became legendary in the 1960s. "The last time I played there was about 40 years ago," he says. "Back then, we were supporting a little-known band called Led Zeppelin."
After that, Cooper and his band are due to continue a tour that consumes roughly six months of their annual calendar. This month, they're swinging through half a dozen UK venues, including Alexandra Palace tonight, where he'll stage a special "spooky" show. "I'm trying to bring the idea of Hallowe'en to London," is how he explains the project.
Go along to those gigs, and you'll appreciate another important fact. Behind the blood, gore and arachnids, Cooper can also turn out some top-quality rock'n'roll. His most famous hits, such as "Welcome to My Nightmare" or "Poison" or "No More Mr Nice Guy" are insanely competent pieces of music: catchy, exhilarating, and multi-layered; in fact, no less an authority than Mr Bob Dylan once declared Cooper to be the most underrated lyricist of his generation.
"I consider Dylan to be a poet laureate, so that's a huge honour," he says. "But when you've been around for 45 years, and done 30 world tours, the songs have to be good for you to survive. People like Iggy [Pop], and Ozzy [Osbourne], and me, we've gone through the generations, and we're still here. The reason for that has to be our music. It has a pedigree that still stands up. I mean, I can play "School's Out" to an 18-year-old today and he'll get it. If your songs go over five generations and still work, I guess that's what can make you legendary."
Cooper's newer stuff keeps him relevant, too. Welcome 2 My Nightmare has a cameo from Ke$ha, and one of its videos features Johnny Depp performing with "Coop" at London's 100 Club. In the US, the record debuted this month at 22 on the Billboard charts, making it his best release since 1989's platinum selling Trash. Like many an old-stager, he credits at least some of that recent success to a woeful lack of competition from younger rivals.
"Rock'n'roll has to be upsetting. It has to piss someone off a little bit. It has to have some sort of edge to it. Even now, I don't think we've ever lost that edge," he says. "But these songs young bands are putting out today, well Ozzy, me, Deep Purple, any of the bands from our era, we'd have thrown them away. I do wonder why so many young artists don't want to be in proper rock bands any more. It's weird to me: today's lot just want to fit in. Where I come from, the idea of rock is not to fit in."
For all his devotion to pissing people off, Cooper can also sometimes be disarmingly conservative, particularly when he strays off the topic of heavy-metal music. When we start discussing his life in Arizona, for example, he sets off on a tangent, revealing that he's friendly with local Senator John McCain, the elderly former Republican presidential candidate. There follows a surreal discussion of politics.
It turns out that The Coop is in many ways a right-leaning tea-partier. He energetically advocates a flat income tax (15 per cent would be fair, he says) and bold moves to rein in America's national debt. On social issues, he has much in common with the evangelical Texas Governor and current Republican presidential front-runner Rick Perry, who recently made headlines by expressing scepticism about Darwin's theory of evolution.
"I'm Christian. I believe in evolution inside individual species, but I believe in Creation first," is how Cooper puts it. "I think God created the species and then let them evolve. Even [Stephen] Hawking once admitted that he believes in Creation, because as a physicist, you can't get something from nothing."
Discussing life's big questions with a man who sometimes wears a cape in public feels a touch surreal. But Cooper is on a roll. It turns out that he also thinks George Bush gets an unfair shake from the media. "When people say, 'Bush went to war', I say, 'Wait a minute!'. He's got to go through 150 people to do that, and they all agreed to go to war. So why does he get all the blame?"
On a more topical note, Cooper is also keen to voice support for Jan Brewer, the Republican firebrand who is currently his native Arizona's Governor. You may know her as the tub-thumping populist whose efforts to curb Latino immigration sparked controversy, amid concerns that they encouraged racial discrimination.
"That whole immigration thing got totally misreported," he says. "Our Governor was trying to protect the Mexicans who were already in Arizona. These guys, who come over the border, they're criminals. Who are they killing and stealing from? The Mexicans! So our Governor goes, 'I need to protect the Mexican people'. You know what? I'm a big supporter of hers."
Fox News politics aside, Alice Cooper hasn't always been such a darling of the Right. Born in 1948 and raised in a Phoenix trailer park, he began performing at high-school in a rock band called first the Earwigs and then the Spiders. After graduating, the band travelled to LA, and in 1968, were signed by Frank Zappa, who encouraged them to start making headlines by upsetting the chattering classes.
The first step was to adopt a more memorable stage name. "I created Alice then, out of necessity," is how Cooper recalls it. "I looked around at rock'n'roll, in the late Sixties, I felt that it didn't have a villain. It did not have the personification of evil. It had Jim Morrison, but he was more of a victim. And I wondered: 'Where is this character who walks on stage and makes everyone take a step backwards?' That's what Alice became."
Early audiences, expecting a female singer to tiptoe onstage, were duly stunned when several angry young men in black leather emerged. After that, the group merely needed to seal their reputation for outrageous behaviour. That was achieved at a gig in Toronto in 1969, when a live chicken was thrown on to the stage. Thinking it could fly away, Cooper threw the creature back into the crowd. It was duly torn to pieces.
To the delight of Zappa, the incident made front-page news ("The press blew it out of proportion," says Cooper). A year later came his first really successful album (Love it to Death). In 1972, he hit the big-time with the number one single "School's Out". And by 1973, his infamy had risen to the extent that Labour MP Leo Abse attempted to have his UK tour banned, on the grounds that his track "Cold Ethyl" was an "anthem of necrophilia".
"Politicians use anything they can to get in front of the press, and we were a great target," Cooper recalls. "At that period, most of Alice was urban legend: there was no internet, there was no CNN, there was none of that. It was all word of mouth. So by the time we reached England, that snake was 40 foot long, and Alice had supposedly killed 15 people, along with hundreds of chickens."
"It was all exaggerated. I mean, I've never killed any chickens at all. But people are willing to believe what they are told." It probably helped that he liked to skewer a doll and pretend to set fire to it onstage, while singing a song called "Dead Babies". These days, it's got harder to shock.
"When Alice Cooper 'cut his head off' onstage in the 1970s, that was shocking. Blood squirted out. It wasn't Creedence Clearwater, but even so. Well now, you turn on CNN and there's a guy really getting his head cut off, by terrorists. How can I compete with that? When Lady Gaga did the meat dress, I told her: you didn't go far enough. In my day, we would have put her on a spit and pretended to have a barbecue. But at least Gaga tries to shake things up. Today, and this is my pet peeve, most of the bands – 80 per cent of the bands out there – are so PC. So boring. They walk onstage in their Gap shirts and Dockers and sing, 'Oh, the rainbows are wonderful!'... What's that all about? Give me Mötley Crüe, any day."
There were moments, mostly during the 1970s, when being the bad-boy of popular music started to exact a toll on Cooper. In fact, it's fair to say that he devoted the decade to pursuing a rock'n'roll lifestyle. "When I came to LA, the first people I met were the Doors and the Mothers of Invention. So I'm trying to keep up with Jim Morrison drink for drink," he recalls. "I'm trying to keep up with Janis Joplin and Keith Moon, drink for drink... These guys went on, and on, and then one day, they died."
By the time he'd reached his thirties, Cooper was drinking a bottle of whisky a day. But the party ended in 1981, when his wife, Sheryl, dragged him off to rehab. "I was 33. I'd had a great run, and didn't die. Close. Very close. I was getting up in the morning and throwing up blood. My problem was the fact that I was a totally functional alcoholic. I never missed a show. If I was in a movie, I never missed my lines. I was never mean, I was never angry, I was never belligerent. I was Dean Martin, on a golden buzz. But it was killing me."
In rehab, Cooper realised that he needed to put clear blue water between his private personality and his stage persona. He achieved that by stumbling on a new addiction: golf. For the past 30 years, he's played relentlessly and obsessively. At first, he had to keep it secret from fans ("Golf is what their Dad plays") but in recent years, he's decided to embrace the sport, regardless of its fuddy-duddy image.
"I'm now invited to all the best clubs, because I'm a two handicap. Here's the deal, though: every heavy-metal band I know now plays golf. Pantera play. In Metallica, two of the guys play. Almost every band I know does. Because when you're on the road, in some town like Wichita, what else is there to do? If you are a musician, it ends up being a really strange addiction. There's something really satisfying about it. Almost like a drug. If you make a great shot, it feels like taking a great hit."
Not much sits above golf, in Cooper's affections. But one thing which does is his wife, Sheryl. They've been married since the mid-1970s, and despite the temptations of life on tour, Cooper says he's never strayed. In the world of entertainment, that's a remarkable feat. What's his secret?
"You have to keep romance in a marriage. And understand: women are pressure cookers, men are microwaves. With women, sex for them is mostly the process to get up to sex. My wife also happens to be absolutely gorgeous. I've been with her since she was 18 years old. And she's a ballet instructor and a jazz dance instructor, so she's got the body of a 30-year-old when she's 54. That helps a bit, too."
With that, Alice's manager, Toby, intervenes. We've been talking for ages, far longer than planned, and it's time for a photo-shoot. What's more, we have a minor problem to address: Rob, the photographer, has asked to take a few pictures in front of the metal grill outside the hotel's parking garage. Toby thinks that's a bad idea, since "Alice is a creature of darkness" who hates being photographed outdoors. In the end, though, Cooper agrees to step into the fresh air. Deep down, as we now know, he's sunnier than you think.
Alice Cooper's UK tour continues until Monday. See alicecooper.com for details
Essential Alice Cooper
Chosen by Nick Ruskell, features editor at Kerrang!
1. Welcome To My Nightmare (1975)
This is haunting, creepy, and simply dripping with dread – just like Coop himself! It's basically a mission statement for Alice and his whole head-chopping, noose-hanging, parent-bothering act.
2. School's Out (1972)
Remember the last five minutes of school before you broke up for the summer hols? Remember the giddy thrill when the bell finally went? This is that exact moment in musical form. Rock 'n' roll doesn't get more joyous than this, especially not when you get a class full of kids going mad to it.
3. Poison (1989)
Temptation, lust, urges... you can imagine a little Alice on your shoulder whispering all these things into your ear. Or, in this case, singing sleazily about them over a massive, pop-metal chorus.
4. Billion Dollar Babies (1973)
Alice makes a point about corruption and money and other bad stuff. But all anyone ever thinks of when they hear this is Coop killing dolls onstage. Bah.
5. No More Mr Nice Guy (1973)
In the Seventies and Eighties, the church and the American right must have found a song where Coop boasts that he's becoming less nice absolutely terrifying. Not so much these days, mind, as he's one of the few rock stars who actually minds his p's and q's...
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