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Interview: John Walsh meets Alice Cooper - Alice in Nice Guy land

"Take the electric chair," said Alice Cooper's genial, owlish manager Toby, indicating a floral monstrosity in the corner of the sixth- floor suite at the Conrad Hotel. It was not, in fact, wired up, or plugged into the mains, but I could see his point: the armchair was at right angles to, and as close as possible to the sofa where a 49-year-old apparition lay, watching CNN. Alice Cooper at first sight is merely disconcerting. At second and third sights he is downright worrying. His hair is long and black like a bedraggled raven's. His dark skin is full of shadows, as if covered in cobwebs from some particularly neglected dungeon. His nose is hooked, his mouth tight as a fob pocket, his jaw sullenly unshaven. His handshake is like a claw extended by a momentarily sociable turkey. Most alarming, though, are his eyes, which are a weirdly pure Virgin Mary- blue with a phosphorescent tinge. You can see some light switching on and off inside them, like the eyes of Mysterons. You can imagine, with a shudder, sitting in that inoffensive chair and having this corpse-chewing wraith suddenly leap upon you, fangs bared, eyes flashing. Frankly, electrocution might be preferable.

As first impressions go, it's a strong one - and Mr Cooper spends the remainder of the interview completely subverting it. A man who likes to control things, he consents to being interrogated for 28 and a half minutes, after which the Bunterish figure of Toby will re-appear, insinuate himself into the conversation and then say, "Turn that tape recorder off. You don't wanna hear my opinion." But in that time, Cooper somehow metamorphoses from the demented, semi-retired king of Shock Rock into a creature closer to, say, Andy Williams. He is surprisingly good company - charming, forthcoming and thoughtful, even in his most vainglorious moments (which are many). He's a very conceited piece of work. But then he has a lot to be conceited about.

His heyday was the early Seventies. Alice Cooper, the band, came out of Phoenix, Arizona in 1969, a snarling antidote to the herbivorous hippie dream. They combined heavy metal rock 'n' roll with decadent poseurism. The singer, who was then still Vincent Damon Furnier (he adopted the name to Alice Cooper a decade later) nonced about in draggly make-up and sluttish lingerie, while his guitarist Mike Bruce played wild abrasive solos. In the Seventies, they stepped up the Grand Guignol theatricals: amid the smoke bombs and dry ice, Alice prowled about in tourniquet leathers, black gloves and a bullwhip, dismembering doll babies filled with blood. He met a sticky end most nights in a noose or an electric chair, only to return re-born in white tie and tails. He was, they said, "the most evil rock singer in the world".

Now he's up there with Jagger and Daltry, vying for the title of "oldest rock singer in the world". The ironies of a man of 49 still singing "I'm Eighteen", or "School's Out" or "Teenage Lament '74" are not lost on Cooper. "We're in a very strange generation," he muses. "We're finally watching our idols grow up and get old". Is talking about himself being too old to boogie? No he's not. He's talking about his audience. "I'll sit next to a guy on an airplane who's 40, 45 years old and he looks like a businessman, very stodgy - and this guy's got 10 of my albums. And I keep forgetting, yeah, that age, they'd be fans. They grew up. I didn't grow up. But they're still fans. Just because they fit into that part of society, doesn't mean... that part of rock 'n' roll in them hasn't died."

He is equally baffled by the teenagers who flock to his concerts. "I look at the first 10 rows of the audience and they're all 15-year-old kids. And," he continued, wide-eyed, "they know the words. We're doing `Desperado' or something and I look down and all these 15-year-old girls, they know every lyric." His daughter, Calico, now 16, is a fan of English bands, like Bush and No Doubt. His 12-year-old son Dash (short for Dashiell, as in Hammett, since you ask) when asked to name his three favourite bands, nominates ("next to Daddy, of course") the Beach Boys, the Beatles and the Four Seasons. "He has every Four Seasons album," reports his father proudly. "And he can sing every one of them". [Adopts warbly treble] "Cannnn- dee Girl..." Nothing is said about the excellent taste of Sonora, aged four, but you can see where his argument is heading: good songs, well crafted, classic workmanship, timeless quality. Soon we'll start to sound like an advert for the Franklin Mint.

He has scaled down the blood-drenched theatricals now, with the exception of the leathers, the whip and the straitjacket. After shocking people for 28 years, he considers audiences unshockable by anything any more. "I'm sitting here watching CNN and I realised a long time ago that my show isn't as shocking as CNN. When that happened, I thought, `Okay, I'm out of the shock business now, that's over, I understand that, let it go.' " And in its place? "Instead you just do the classic stuff. You play the hits. And they wanna see Alice come out of the straitjacket. And you do Gutter Cats vs the Jets and do the West Side Story rumble on stage..." And you make it sound like the records.

If you buy his new CD, A Fistful of Alice and enjoy its frantic, bombastic but crisply recorded showcase of the whole Alice Cooper backlist, caught live at Sammy Hagar's Cabo Wabo Cantina in Mexico; and if you're told that he's cut down on the blood and gore count, the visuals, and told that he's trying to sound exactly like the record, you might be forgiven for thinking it might be just as fun to stay in as go to a concert. If not, you can catch Alice at Wolverhampton, Glasgow, Newcastle, Manchester, Southampton and London's Astoria in July. He'll probably welcome you with open arms. He likes English audiences because they discovered him.

"Yeah, the British got it first. The Americans just didn't see it. We weren't big in America until we came over here. The English gave us a great welcome. Leo Abse and Mary Whitehall [sic] threw us out. They had the good taste not to let us in. They banned the record and it got to Number One, and got America's attention. They figured, `Whoa, if they're that dangerous in Britain, we'd better listen to them.' " He adds that London audiences encouraged the band's extravagant behaviour. "They encouraged us to do all these Hollywood pranks in Piccadilly Square [sic]."

He looks with a certain wariness at the British Prog Rock scene as examplified by Kerrang! magazine, in whose pages enormous, hairy-arsed Goths and tattooed baldies gurn for the camera and fill their videos with an Alice Cooper paraphernalia of babies, skulls, dungeons, leather and chains. Alice is at once grandfather, godfather and image-bank of the heavy metal fraternity. On Monday, he did a signing at Tower Records in Piccadilly, where the place pullulated with the faithful. And, of course, they all said, "We are not worthy". Everybody says "We are not worthy!" and wave their arms in fake salaams when they meet Alice Cooper, ever since the guys in Wayne's World met the singer backstage at a real-life Cooper concert, prostrated themselves before him and intoned their devotions. "I get that maybe 20 times a day, sometimes 40," yawns Cooper. "Even when I went to see a coupla the guys from U2, they started in on it..."

It's about this time that you realise that there's a curiously homely, shockable side to Alice Cooper. You regard his bony frame and remark on the split-personality it conveys. His trainers and socks are immaculate, pristine white. His blue jeans are washed and ironed. But above the waist everything goes all combative -- army flak T-shirt, slightly protruding hairy tum, metal crucifix. You think of him confronting his alarming fans whose fixation with guillotines and dead babies is rather less than his own. You recall how his band never got into trouble with drugs, preferring drink. And wasn't there a period (just after his solo album, Welcome to my Nightmare) when he took up golf and appeared on chat shows being urbane?

"Yeah, but we were always the all-American band," says Cooper with delight. "I mean, we were just a study in Irony. Everyone said, `They gotta be gay', but nobody was. They said `They gotta be into heavy drugs' but this is as heavy as it got." He raised his innocent bottle of Diet Coke. "They said, `Well, they gotta be from real degenerate families' and all our families were, like, real nice middle-class average-as-you-can-be families. Nobody was beaten, nobody was abused. We were real American kids."

To complete this Norman Rockwell picture, one should add that Alice / Vincent's father was a clergyman. Vincent was born in Detroit in 1948, but the family moved to Arizona where he took to high school life like Al Capone to brandy snaps. "Did you see that movie, Ferris Bueller's Day Off? About a kid who ran his school just by being charming? I loved high school. I conned all my teachers into giving me good grades. I was the class clown. I had great-looking girlfriends. The toughest guys in the school were my best friends. I was an athlete, a four-year letterman in distance-running. I was in a band... I had everything going for me." Did he study? "I hated it. The things I liked doing were like art, physical education... I did really well in English literature, in creative writing. But [he drops his voice conspiratorially] I just died in algebra..."

A terrible loss to the world of pure maths, Cooper began writing songs in junior high and joined a band. The Earwigs begat the Spiders, who became the Nazz, who turned into Alice Cooper in 1968 when the charismatic Vincent decided he was the reincarnated spirit of a 17th-century witch by that name. The newly-maquillaged and out-to-shock quintet were spotted by Frank Zappa who signed them on to his label. But as their career went ballistic in the Seventies, two things started going wrong. One, Alice Cooper was drinking enough to irrigate an alcoholic desert; and two, the relationship between the real man and his stage incarnation had become inextricably difficult. He hired shrinks who explained that he might be killing off the "evil" Alice every night, but the stage construct was forcing him towards alcoholic poisoning.

"I used to say I drank to turn into Alice. Well, I was surprised to find out I was wrong. I didn't have to do that. Alice was always there. The very first show I ever did sober was after I just got out of hospital. [That is, detox clinic]. The formula had always been the same for thousands of nights -- make-up, bottle of whisky, check songs, show. And it worked, night after night. If anyone'd said, you can't wear that or sing that, I'd have said, no that's part of the equation. And if they'd said, you gotta take the alcohol away... The first night I went out on stage I was terrified. I'd done a thousand shows, all with alcohol and all of a sudden, they took that part away. I thought, what if I go out there and Alice doesn't show? Boy am I gonna look a jerk. But I got myself together, got the band and went out there and realised I had so much energy. I was sooo Alice. In fact, I was more Alice because the alcohol was taking away from the energy. And when I turned into him, it was automatic - but it was a different Alice. It wasn't a victim. Alice was always a victim. People were always beating him. He was always throwing up, getting his head cut off. He was really wretched. This new Alice had a straight spine. The old one had been Maso-Alice. This one was Sado-Alice. He was in total charge of the audience..."

Genuinely scary at these rantipolar moments, Alice is soon back in Mr Nice Guyland, talking about his love of the well-crafted song. "I'm a complete songwriter junkie. Who are the great songwriters? Burt Bacharach and Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Laura Nyro." Unprompted, he crooned an old Cilla Black number: " `Anyone who hadda heart, donk-donnggg' - why can't I write that?"

He has no plans, for the moment, to re-position himself as a relaxed crooner in the style of Tony Bennett. Had he never even tried singing, say, "I'll Be Loving You Always"? "No, I could never do that. Much as I appreciate people who can do Broadway and stuff, I'm brutally loyal to hard rock. I have fun playing Alice and being Alice and I know who Alice is." So, having no future to discuss, we sat and talked about families, and his 21-year marriage and how he coaches the "little league" school teams in soccer and baseball. And it was all fantastically comfy-cosy, talking to the serial victim of a thousand guillotinings about his desire to be "a great dad. I wanna be as great a dad as I am a rock star. I wanna be as great a husband as I am a rock star. I don't wanna be confined to `Here's Alice Cooper the rock star'. I wanna be multi-everything."