Bob Ezrin was a rock producer who specialized in making records about people who crack up. His most famous collaboration in this arena was Pink Floyd’s The Wall, which was about a cloistered rock star who had a busted childhood and went through many stages of crazy, including desecrating a hotel room and chasing a groupie around a perilously situated deli cart. Ezrin’s most depressing record was Lou Reed’s Berlin, which is just too painfully specific to listen to repeatedly. It’s what they call a bummer.
Ezrin’s style is built on space and melodrama. When somebody’s going crazy, they’re probably hearing a lot of reverb in their heads. In fact that may be the first symptom of losing your grip: echo that’s not coming from your tube but your thoughts. There’s no gain knob you can commandeer to turn that shit down. Ezrin captured the grandeur of self-involvement, the decadent splendor of cracking up, and reverb was a big tool of his for this. Very few, if any, producers were sought out for this kind of glorious deconstruction. Most of those who were had social problems and would have smoked a lot of cloves if they’d been around.
The best Ezrin album ever? His first big one: Love It To Death by Alice Cooper. It too is about succumbing to strains of mental illness and the forces of darkness that visit upon freshly soiled youth. It’s perhaps the linchpin of the subgenre that evolved for decades afterward. But it’s not about drug casualties or rock and rollers coping with sad, oppressive dressing-room excess: It’s about escaping boredom through voodoo, only things don’t turn out so hot. But that’s okay; the protagonist doesn’t care. He’s gone nuts. How much worse can it get?
Cooper, one of rock music’s most undervalued satirists, knew better than to think the audience would just accept craziness without a practical point-by-point plan. He’d tried the alternative with his debut Pretties For You, a usually fascinating art-rock freakout in the manner of his mentor Frank Zappa, but knew it couldn’t last. Love It to Death, his (or his band’s) third album, was the first one where he went balls-out rocker. Even though the whole album probably wasn’t strictly conceived as a story, it works great in progression: It traces the giddy thrill of rock-and-roll belief, shoves it through classic identity crises, and drops down into a fairly shocking catastrophe. And it resolves in the most giddily sarcastic album-closer ever. The fall from grace on Love It to Death is comedy of manners, and I’m convinced the hilarity is of the intentional kind.
The first three songs set up the pre-psycho mood very well—What strange new land is this? How do we handle ourselves in the rock landscape? Who paid for the gas bills?—but the middle song of these defined much more than that, for many generations hence: “I’m Eighteen.”
Cooper knew that 18 is the age when everyone’s madness is more or less acceptable. It’s expected. Society knows it and allows it as long as nobody does any arson. The hormones are accelerating and backfiring, there’s a world of promise and threat awaiting at practically each new step, and school really is out forever. Cooper has one startling line in this song: “I got a baby’s brain and an old man’s heart / Took eighteen years to get this far.” (I always misheard that last word as smart, which I thought was a great joke, but the line as is also works fine.) It’s the old man’s heart part that gets to me. After going through routine heartbreak and bad prom dates, or backseat sex and acne, the kid senses his jadedness as a sign that he’s close to leaving this existence. And he probably is, if he goes to work in the insurance or telecommunications industry.
What an out-of-nowhere sentiment. And as he piles on the fear of knowing, the fear of not knowing, the puzzle as to whether he can trust himself, it all seems like it’s going to resolve nastily. But the song’s final message? “I’m eighteen—and I like it! Love it, like it, love it…” That’s when you know this kid has the capacity to love either the taste of caviar or the taste of blood. “I’m Eighteen” is one of the five greatest American rock songs ever about what it means to be young, looking outside at adulthood. The other four are by Chuck Berry.
If you haven’t figured out yet that things aren’t going to stay this blithe, then the nine-minute “Black Juju” will cinch it for you. The only sounds you hear for the first 90 seconds of the song are a crescendo of tribal percussion and a creepy monophonic organ riff. It takes awhile, and maybe it sounds monotonous in theory, but boy does it succeed as a transitional device. It also beats the Doors at their own game. “Black Juju” starts with the kid exhausted from all his uncertainty, spending about three minutes trying to get himself to go to sleep. The band keeps up a repeated pulse throughout the first part of the song but starts fading to total silence as Alice moans in a way that sounds like he’s given up on free will. It sounds like brainwashing when he says it: “Bodies / Need rest / We all / Need our rest / Sleep / An easy sleep / Rest / Rest.” The band sneaks back in, but they’ve become more sinister while this kid was trying to mosey off. You know the kid’s going to wake up before the song is over, and that when he does, it’s not gonna end well.
And it doesn’t. Cooper screams himself awake, and upon arising he discovers he’s taken the route of evil out of adolescence. The band screams back in. Evil births. The song’s parting message: “I am liking it! And loving it! That’s all in the plan!”—words strikingly similar to the final line of “I’m Eighteen.”
The rest of the album outlines the care and feeding of your new pet lunatic. You might suspect it’s not easy. Your suspicions would be correct. Now that the guy’s supped from the tree of knowledge, things aren’t terribly promising. “Is It My Body” is basically a warning that you shouldn’t deal with this guy at face value, and “Hallowed Be My Name” and “Second Coming” sew up any notions that the guy’s going to be saved by the good juju. And then, in “The Ballad of Dwight Fry,” the mental deterioration is complete, as the guy—who’s married with a kid, maybe too early—goes into the straitjacket. He escapes and chokes a stranger to death. Cooper’s screaming plunge into the terminus is one of the best hard-rock vocal performances ever recorded.
We don’t know how the man is punished for his crime, but we know how the story ends in “Sun Arise,” a sneering piece of fake optimism. You may not hear it as snidely as I do, but it’s hella snide. It sounds like a work song, as Alice puts on a fake country-bumpkin accent and reflects back on the folky nonsense of the Flower Power generation that just ended. To finish the joke Alice sticks in an opera singer at the end. Yeah, here’s your new generation, all you peaceniks. Welcome to Vegas. Dolts.
Love It to Death is the beginning of Alice Cooper as we know him, with his storytelling bent and Ezrin’s drapes of the epic. From there Cooper got more external about the nature of evil in his stage shows and symbols. Love It to Death explained how it all started and encouraged a lot of sideshow castoffs to address their own issues of corruption and uncertainty. Most of them went all shock-rock without Cooper’s gift of insight or dark humor. And that’s why Love It to Death isn’t depressing, or even cynical (until the end): When things get this twisted, maybe the best way out of it is to preserve your sense of humor. Waters, especially, tried to pass off this kind of soul corrosion as the worst thing that could possibly happen. Alice just figured that’s the way everybody was, or had the capacity to be, and that’s more believable and accessible to me.
It must have worked towards his ultimate happiness, because Roger Waters is now largely viewed as a cranky fart, and Alice Cooper has one of the best golf handicaps of any rock star ever.