It’s almost Halloween 2002. And who would have guessed that Alice Cooper would still be touring, gigging in his hometown of Detroit no less? It’s easy to forget that this man used to drink with Jim Morrison. That Raquel Welch, at the height of her beauty, chased him. That Bowie ripped him off. Cooper was a member of the legendary Hollywood Vampires, a no-holds-barred club of drinkers whose members included Harry Nilsson, Keith Moon, Bernie Taupin, Mickey Dolenz and Ringo Starr. It’s easy to forget just what a Dantesque rock ’n’ roll star Alice Cooper was/is. How the guy, given his track record — and myriad teen-spirit anthems — is lucky to be alive.
Welcome to his nightmare
In 1984, Cooper’s life chafed the bottom of the barrel, after delivering his final Warner Bros. record, the 1983 flop DaDa. By then his career and marriage were skidding to obliteration and booze had nearly finished him off.
But once Cooper stopped his vodka-fueled, vital-organ-halting habit — one that saw him nearly call it quits in a Phoenix hospital bed — his story shifted into a hasty, redemptory stride.
“One of the strategies in my life is that I have no willpower,” says the amiable Cooper, candidly. He’s on the phone from his hotel room in San Diego where he and his band just launched a world tour. “When I came out of the hospital I never once felt like I needed a drink, even in a pressure situation. ‘Boy, a drink would be good right now’ never entered my mind. It’s as if it never happened.”
Guys like Steven Tyler have asked Cooper how he stopped drinking without traditional support. Unlike many of Cooper’s sobered-up rock star contemporaries, the minister’s son, almost miraculously, never adhered to AA or any traditional stay-straight rhetoric or program. He just stopped and never looked back. It saved his life, his marriage and his career.
“When I talk about that, they say, ‘You’re a cured alcoholic.’ I say, ‘No. I’m a healed alcoholic.’ It’s a little more spiritual than that. It just doesn’t happen. Alcoholics go to AA meetings. They need that support. They need people telling them not to drink, that it’ll be OK. I never even thought about it. ... It’s almost like the drinking years never happened.”
Cooper pauses, then chuckles, “The cannibalism was harder. You eat one missionary and you have that taste.”
So he kicked booze a long time ago. Still, some balk at the idea of Alice Cooper in the year 2002. We say, fuck ’em. At the Michigan State Fair a few months ago, the Coop was remarkable; in ace form, commanding the stage to and fro, playing a two-hour, hit-heavy set. He’s still resembles the same peep show-barker-meets-Babylonian-priest he was on the precedent-setting Billion Dollar Babies tour, calling off lyrics like a guy 25 years his junior.
When the idea of age-vs.-relevance pops up, Cooper relates a little story: “I sat next to a guy on an airplane. He’s got a great suit on. He’s 60 pounds overweight, he’s lost most of his hair, he’s drinking three martinis and he’s miserable. And he’s sitting there, and he goes, ‘Yeah, I’ll be 38 next week.’ And I’m going, ‘Jeez, you look 60.’ And that’s because he chose to look 60. He looks at me and goes, ‘It’s about time for you to hang it up, isn’t it?’ I’m almost 55, and I could go another 15 years if I wanted to. I mean, honestly.”
After hesitation, Cooper cracks, “I’m about 30. And I am. I’m in better shape than the guys in the band. You know, I have absolutely no thought of how old I am on stage. And I think Steven Tyler’s like that. And Jagger seems to be that way too.
What about Ozzy?
“Ozzy, I think, is feeling his age,” continues Cooper. “Ozzy’s made no attempt at trying to like stay physically together.”
Unlike Ozzy, Cooper’s strengths as a rock star-cum-family man-cum-businessman are unprecedented. He’s the odd-duck paragon of the American dream. Alice Cooper has turned celebrity into an art form.
Whether it be a guy wielding golf clubs (long before it became rock star fashionable), or the rock star who brought full-on American rock ’n’ roll debauchery to No. 1 on the pop album charts back in 1973 with Billion Dollar Babies, Cooper has remained steadfast.
“Everybody around me worries about my image more than I do because I keep telling myself, ‘Look, the character Alice is Americana. He’s part of the American fiber. After 30 years, he has become that. And you’re never gonna change that. …’ No matter what I do. Alice is always gonna be Halloween, and he’s gonna be a certain amount of cynical comedy, the horror of rock ’n’ roll all put into one. Because we have the hits to back it up. I mean, when you have the hits to back it up, that gives you all of the lease on life that you need.”
Cooper’s career has sustained its share of lows and critical blows. Never mind that much of Alice Cooper’s music — his lyrics particularly, with their keen sense of comedic context and storylines that almost always adhere to larger themes — has often been misinterpreted and overshadowed by over-the-top theatrics. A term like King of Shock Rock is simply reductivist, a gross generalization.
Cooper’s gone from playing empty clubs to selling out arenas to half-filled theaters to now sustaining a large and loyal fan base, particularly in Europe, where he still headlines stadiums. The one huge Cooper comeback, engineered in the late 1980s with the album Trash — a few years after he nearly drank himself to death — saw Cooper return as a rock star field general, with a single in the top 10 and an album in the top 20. It’s funny, then, that Cooper says that the über-successful Trash tour was one he didn’t find particularly enjoyable. He says the 1976 Welcome to My Nightmare tour — his first sans the original band — was his favorite.
“The Welcome to My Nightmare (tour) was one of those things, where every night was just magical. Then there was Billion Dollar Babies … here we were, a garage band from Detroit. And everything in the world was at our feet and people were going, ‘Whatever you say goes. You make the rules, right now.’ I mean, how great is that?”
Though sales of late have slumped, the new record, Dragontown, reveals moments of classic Alice Cooper, particularly “Fantasy Man” and “Disgraceland.” The latter, about a quixotic kid with an Elvis complex, is sung in a perfectly skewering Elvis croon: I had a lot of girls/I had a lot of guns/When they found me dead/The whole world was stunned/Went to the pearly gates/Said, “I’m the hippest thing”/And Peter said, “Well, son, we already got ourselves a king.”
Cooper admits that he gets a little tired of being Alice, that is, until he gets on stage. “Then I look at the guillotine and I go, ‘Boy, I hope this works tonight!’ You know, I have no right to be bored. If I were in any other band, I can imagine being bored. In this band, and in this show, you have absolutely no right to be bored.”
So, Cooper is back in the same city that launched his career when, in the fall of 1970, Windsor’s CKLW played “(I’m) Eighteen” every hour before the rest of America had heard of the band. Detroit, Alice says, created the sound that seeped into his skull when he was a snotty juvenile.
“Detroit is — I don’t know if it’s in the water, but it is so rock ’n’ roll. And it’s in the fabric of the city. But even when I didn’t live there, when I lived in Phoenix, I had this Detroit sound in my head. I had this guitar driving, drums, Yardbirds, R&B thing happening. If it didn’t have a straight 4/4 beat and a guitar, I just didn’t wanna know about it. And that’s Detroit. When I heard the Stooges and the MC5 and Nugent, I never felt more at home. I said, ‘These are my bands.’”
Cooper says he likes that the kids appear to be digging rock ’n’ roll again and are buying the records. “I like the White Stripes,” Cooper enthuses. “I like the Hives. I like Sloan, the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club … at least there’s some movement toward rock ’n’ roll again. I was very surprised when I first heard the Hives. I just went, ‘I like this, not only do they wear the same clothes, but they’ve got such attitude. Their attitude is terrific. They’re really snotty. That’s great.’”
Alice Cooper will perform Thursday, Oct. 24, at the Royal Oak Theatre. For tickets, call 248-645-6666.Brian Smith is the Metro Times music editor. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org