Don’t let the Marriott International, the CompUSA commercials and the white polo shirt Alice Cooper is sporting, fool you, rock’s greatest thespian is still kicking, screaming and ready to blast you with more force than three Slipknots and The Rock on fight night.
OK, so Cooper is on the far side of 50, wears makeup, has a woman’s name and the last time the heavy-metal pioneer graced the TV screen, he was hawking personal computers or extolling the virtues of staying at a swanky hotel. OK, so he moonlights as a golfer and hobnobs with Bob Hope; Cooper can still flood a music venue with enough wattage to get California through its next blackout and rightfully deserves his seat at rock’s most venerable table.
Cooper’s latest release, Dragontown, plays like a post-modern take on Dante’s Inferno. It’s a blistering mutation of Phillip K. Dick’s dismal view of the future peppered with a Jonathan Swiftian dash of satire discretely located beneath the heavy metal veneer. The album is a dozen diatribes of dark deeds and dire consequences emblazoned with searing guitar riffs and malicious lip-curl vocals, undercut with a knowing nod and wink. An extension of last year’s Brutal Planet, the album follows its predecessor’s thematic thrust of moral decay and retribution but with greater emphasis on individuals as opposed to setting.
“Dragontown is the worst place on Brutal Planet … the capitol of Brutal Planet,” said Cooper via e-mail. “Dragontown is more character driven. Planet told of a time and place where we are heading. Dragontown explains what happens to the people that wind up there.”
Among the people populating Cooper’s Dragontown is the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Elvis Presley, who has a song dedicated to him titled “Disgraceland” which is one of the album’s highlights. The track is a daring hybrid of hillbilly boogie and out-and-out metal that pokes fun at the bloated Presley of the late 1970s who died of an overdose while on the “throne” in 1978.
“It’s about the Elvis persona,” said Cooper. “Not Elvis the person. He was the coolest. It’s a drag he died on a toilet seat from an overdose. If he had to die, it should have been from a car crash while driving a Ferrari with a blonde seated next to him.”Born Vincent Damon Fuller, Cooper took the female moniker in 1968 (he made it his official name several years later) during the band’s early, lean days.
“Around 1969 (we played our worst gig) at the Agricultural College in Canada – didn’t know we’d be playing for plants,” said Cooper.
In 1969, the 20-year-old shock-rocker and his tight, Yardbirds-meets-The Doors band were discovered by another zany, trailblazing rocker, Frank Zappa, who signed them to his record label before Cooper relocated to the parent company Warner Brothers in 1970.
By that time, Cooper had fine-tuned a maniacal stage show that included electric chairs, swinging guillotines, live snakes and the band’s lead vocalists in demonic costumes with rivulets of black makeup running down his face. Cooper designed his trademark makeup himself.
“(The inspiration was) a sort of demented, evil clown. It’s just very theatrical looking,” said Cooper.
The buzz created by Cooper’s stage antics paid off. In 1971, the band scored a Top 40 hit with “Eighteen,” a teen angst anthem that embodies the essence of rock ‘n’ roll – a glaring middle finger in the face of parents and authority figures everywhere – as well as any tune ever written. Twenty years later, Nirvana touched the tortured souls of Generation Xers with the closely related, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
“The first time I ever heard our song on the radio was an incredible feeling, and we figured we wouldn’t mind stardom,” said Cooper.
In 1972, Cooper dipped his cup in the same stream of adolescent rebellion and reached a broader audience with “School’s Out,” another classic rock staple of today that enjoys added rotation in May and June.
While basking in the glow of international stardom, Cooper’s fan base exceeded post-hippie teens undergoing an identity crisis.
Acclaimed surrealist artist Salvador Dali cited Cooper as his favorite rocker, saying that Cooper personified confusion better than anyone did.
“It was a working relationship (with Dali), but a dream come true,” said Cooper. “I was an art student, and he was my hero. (Dali) said that confusion is the greatest form of communication. That’s why he liked (the Alice Cooper character).”
Dali honored Cooper with an astounding hologram that can now be found in the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg.Other Cooper admirers of the 1970s include the late, great comedic genius Groucho Marx.
“My manager (at the time) was working with (Marx). He came to my show and loved it. He understood the Vaudeville aspect of it,” Cooper said.
Cooper racked up six Top 10 albums in a row before his career started rolling down the mountain in the late 1970s. In 1978 he sought help for alcoholism and failed to reach the Top 40 for the next 10 years. In 1989, Cooper reemerged on the charts with the album Trash, which included the smash single “Poison.”
In 1992, a massive audience of youngsters became acquainted with the master of theatrical rock when the blockbuster film Wayne’s World boasted a scene in which Wayne and Garth bow before Cooper and chant, “We’re not worthy, we’re not worthy.”
“Mike Myers (Wayne) and Dana Carvey (Garth) made it difficult to work as they were always making everyone laugh whether the camera was rolling or not,” said Cooper.
With a slew of rock’s most recognizable nuggets to his credit, one might expect that Cooper approaches the recording studio with trepidation, knowing that nothing he will do could possibly eclipse the work of his halcyon days.
“I don’t think in those terms,” said Cooper.
“I’m making albums that are still Alice Cooperish but that are more in step with current bands than bands from the 1970s.”
Although Cooper was not the first rocker to bring bazaar theatrics to the stage (Screamin’ Jay “I Put a Spell on You” Hawkins perfected a creepy, skull-packed voodoo show in the early 1960s), Cooper’s shadow looms the longest. Everyone from Kiss to Slipknot owes at least one “We’re not worthy” to The Coop.
“I think (among the theatrical rock artists who have followed me) Rob Zombie carries the tradition best,” said Cooper.
These days, Cooper indulges in collecting cars, “It’s forever changing … looking for a classic Avanti right now,” said Cooper.
Cooper also boasts an extensive autograph collection. The signature he is most proud of? Don Knotts. Andy Griffith, eat your heart out.
Cooper has been bringing artistic mayhem to the stage now for 25-plus years, but he insists that it is more rewarding today than it was in the 1970s.
“I’m not drinking anymore, so it can be more enjoyable, and I’m more in control onstage now,” said Cooper.
Cooper may be “more in control” these days, but that doesn’t mean he’s above blasting through his juicy backlog and letting some heads roll.
“(We have) an all new show that Florida has never seen – all the hits, some classic album tracks and a handful of new stuff. And yes, the guillotine will be there,” Cooper said.
- Alice Cooper will be performing tonight at Ruth Ecker Hall in Clearwater. For tickets/info call (727) 791-7400.
- Contact Wade Tatangelo at oracleofflimits.com