AKRON, Ohio — Three and half decades ago, Alice Cooper — the band and the man — was the scariest rock show around.
Concerned parents, politicians, religious groups and members of British Parliament were shocked and horrified by the band’s macabre stage show, which included Cooper beheading himself with a guillotine, dismembered baby dolls, bloody mannequins and a chorus line of dancing teeth, among other sights not usually seen in rock ‘n’ roll shows.
Cooper and the classic lineup of the Alice Cooper band, which included Neal Smith and the late Glen Buxton, gave many adults nightmares, and gave the kids anthems such as the spot-on “I’m Eighteen,” “School’s Out” and Cooper’s solo tune “Department of Youth,” which expressed the confusion, boredom, insecurity, hormonal craziness of being young in 3-minute, fist-pump-inducing rock songs.
But now Cooper, 63, is an elder statesman of rock, a recent Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame inductee (along with the original band), and one of music’s most beloved figures.
The man formerly known as Vincent Damon Furnier who was at the center of one of the most controversial acts of the 1970s is now a golf-loving rock icon and workaholic (as opposed to the depressed alcoholic he was 30 years ago) and is arguably one of the happiest rock legends on the planet not named McCartney. While some rockers grow disillusioned or just plain tired of the travel and the interviews, Cooper is pragmatic about his chosen job.
“Now, a rock ‘n’ roll guy like me, we only have to work two hours a night,” he said from his home in Phoenix during a tour break. “So I golf in the morning and go out shopping and go to the movies and then do the show that night. So, I can’t complain that it’s really a hard job.
“Anytime anyone complains I go, ‘Guys, what was your dad doing when he was your age? Oh, he was working in a cubicle or selling cars? And I say, and what are you doing? You’re on stage flirting with every girl in the audience and you’re playing rock ‘n’ roll and you’re getting treated like royalty, so how is this hard?” he said laughing.
Cooper is on tour while putting the finishing touches on his next album, “Welcome 2 My Nightmare,” a sequel to his best-selling 1975 album “Welcome to My Nightmare,” due for a late summer release. The album finds Cooper reteaming with producer Bob Ezrin, who besides helming the original “Nightmare” also produced several of Cooper’s biggest-selling albums, including “School’s Out” and “Billion Dollar Babies.”
The album continues the story of Steven, whose nightmares populate the songs of the original, which included the empathetic domestic abuse ballad “Only Women Bleed” along with the title cut and the anthem “Department of Youth.”
Cooper said he was inspired to revisit the “Nightmare” concept during the rock hall induction process, an accolade that means a lot to him.
“The Hall of Fame experience was graduating, because the guys that vote you in are your teachers. You look out there and you realize the guys in the Hall of Fame — McCartney, Jagger, Clapton, Beck — all these guys are the ones that vote on you,” he said.
“They can only take five and if they vote you in, it’s because they’re giving you the stamp of approval that yes, you’ve graduated.”
While some peers and artists he’s influenced have expressed skepticism about the entire concept, Cooper believes that both “the private club” of inductees and the museum have merit.
“I thought I was going to get the secret handshake and I thought they were going to tell me what area 54 was and who killed Kennedy,” he joked.
“But the Hall of Fame is a really legitimate thing because there are 50, 60 years of great things that happened in rock ‘n’ roll that we just can’t let go. We want to see those things and say, ‘wow, look at the size of that.’ I look at some of (David) Bowie’s outfits and what was he, 12 years old? It is cool to see all that stuff,” he said.
He was inducted in March, and since then, he said, he’s been thinking about all the other artists who should join him, and a few of his suggestions may seem surprising from the master of the macabre.
“The very first person, and I will champion this for the rest of my life, is Burt Bacharach,” he said emphatically.
“Burt Bacharach wrote more hit songs than anybody, and he’s not in the Hall of Fame. You can’t go to the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s or ‘90s without saying Burt Bacharach — it’s impossible to ignore him. And then Deep Purple, the Moody Blues, Donovan, Joe Cocker. Once you start looking at the list there’s a lot of people who ought to be in. What about Kiss?” Cooper said.
Keeping in line with his penchant for theatricality, Cooper has a longtime infatuation with concept albums. Some have been more successful than others, including the forgotten “Dada” (1983), “The Last Temptation” (1994), “Alice Cooper Goes to Hell” (1976), and his most recent studio album, “Along Came a Spider,” about a serial killer who collects the legs of his female victims in order to “transform” himself into a spider (2008).
“I always thought that Alice likes to write three-minute songs that tell a story, so why not write 15 three-minute songs that tell a bigger story?” he said.
“I’ve done that my entire rock ‘n’ roll career. I’ve always looked at rock very theatrically, maybe even in a Broadway sense. I think I was just rebelling against the fact that I don’t want to do an album of 12 songs that doesn’t go anywhere. I’d rather do an album of 12 songs that take you somewhere,” he said.
Cooper has been going somewhere for more than 40 years on record, stages and screens. The Detroit native got his start with The Spiders — featuring Buxton — in his present home of Phoenix, where they had a local hit, “Don’t Blow Your Mind,” in 1966. The Spiders than moved to Los Angeles, where they were met with indifference from the local scene, and soon after relocated to Detroit.
“L.A. didn’t get us at all and I happened to be from Detroit, and the other guys in the band were from the Midwest also, so we felt more at home in Detroit then anyplace else.
“That’s when we met The Stooges and the MC5, Ted Nugent and (Bob) Seger, and we really felt right at home in that pocket of bands. So we played all the time in that route that went to Dayton, Akron, Cleveland, we’d go in a straight line around the Midwest.”
Cooper said that although the Akron natives in the band never brought him home to meet the folks or have a pizza at Luigi’s, he does have memories of playing the area.
“Man, we used to play these 3-2 bars, where you had to drink so much beer to get a buzz. I mean it was like you had to drink a case of this (3.2 percent alcohol) beer to get any kind of a buzz at all,” he laughed.
Now, with 30 years of sobriety under his studded leather belt, low-alcohol beer is not a concern. But ensuring that fans who come out to see him get what they want, and not just what he feels like playing, is still very important.
“There’s 15 songs you have to do. If you’re in the Rolling Stones or any of those bands, McCartney, you have to do your main songs and if you don’t the audience really lets you know,” he said.
“You try and do the songs exactly like the record, because I know if I see the Stones I don’t want to hear the reggae version of ‘Brown Sugar,’ I don’t want to hear the acoustic version of ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again,’ I want to hear it like the record so I really insist on that — we might stretch out a bit on the guitars but that’s about it,” he said.
Cooper, who is still svelte and is at the golf tee by 6:30 a.m. every day, said that going three weeks without working drives him crazy and attributes the fact that his voice is as strong as ever and his current state of contented delirium to a few simple factors.
“I’ve been blessed by the fact that I never smoked cigarettes and I quit drinking 30 years ago,” he said.
“I didn’t have any drug damage. I’ve been married for 35 years and my wife (former Alice Cooper stage ballerina/dancer Sheryl Goddard) and I have never cheated on each other, and we got three great kids (Calico, Dash and Sonora Rose). I’m totally stress-free and I’m probably in better shape at 63 then I was at 30,” he said.
With a new album he considers to be “one of the top five we’ve ever recorded” on the way and an upcoming appearance in the Johnny Depp adaptation of the cult favorite “Dark Shadows” television show, the recent rock ‘n’ roll graduate is looking forward to bringing his new show and band back to Akron.
“The Midwest, that’s the meat of our audience right there. Love ‘em.”
// Notes from the Road
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