From The Archives: Q&A: Alice Cooper Looks Back – ‘Nothing Has Ever Been Too Dangerous’
The shock-rock icon is the subject of the star-studded doc ‘Super Duper Alice Cooper,’ premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival
“We did not bring the chicken,” Alice Cooper tells Rolling Stone, emphatically gesturing with his hand in a New York hotel room. This September, it will be 45 years since Alice Cooper became Alice Cooper after running a-fowl of the audience at the Toronto Rock’n’Roll Revival concert while opening for John Lennon. As legend has it, someone had thrown the bird onstage and, thinking the poultry should fly (“I’m from Detroit and never been on a farm in my life,” he maintains to this day), threw it into the crowd — only to see the audience rip it to shreds. “When I realized later that the first five rows were all in wheelchairs, that made it even more macabre,” Cooper says. In hindsight, the frontman still credits that day with inspiring the onstage persona he uses to this day. “I realized, the audience is hungry for a villain,” says Cooper, who still dresses up and down in black, including black leather pants. “They’re really hungry for this villain – and who better to play it than me?”
Cooper has been doing some deep reflecting in recent months, as he’s participated in a documentary about his life, Super Duper Alice Cooper. (The movie premieres tonight at the Tribeca Film Festival and is getting theatrical screenings throughout the U.S. this spring.) With a wide-reaching cast including Elton John, Bernie Taupin, Johnny Rotten, Iggy Pop, Cooper’s mom and, of course, Cooper himself,Super explains how mild-mannered Detroit denizen Vincent Furnier became the villainous character that’s been welcoming fans to his nightmare onstage and on hard-rock staples like Love It to Death and Billion Dollar Babies since the Sixties.
The highly stylized doc, which was made by the people behind the Rush documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage and combines animation with archival footage, examines how Cooper became a household name and how the character almost got the better of him. It touches on the singer’s meeting Salvador Dalí, the group’s alcohol-fueled tours, and even why Cooper ultimately found solace in Christianity. It’s a tale of survival, endurance and momentum.
Now that the doc is complete, Cooper, 66, is working on the next chapter of his life. Currently, he is recording a collection of cover songs by the likes of Harry Nilsson, T. Rex, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors and others. “I said, ‘Let’s confine it to all of our dead drunk friends – the Hollywood vampires – those were the guys that we drank with every night, and 80 percent of them are gone now,'” says Cooper. “There are so many artists to cover, and it’s surprising who shows up that wants to play on the album. I can’t talk about it yet, but I can tell you it’s a super band.” And what is the album called? “I wanted to call it My Dead Drunk Friends, but I got a feeling it’s not gonna be called that,” he says with a laugh. “Probably Hollywood Vampires. There could be a part one and two on that, too. There’s an awful lot of songs to cover.” But before he returns to that, he tells Rolling Stone how Super Duper Alice Cooper got so super in the first place.
How did it feel to see your life flash before your eyes?
It’s funny, because I don’t live in the past. I understand how people want to know how it all worked, how it all started and everything, and it was an interesting story. But it was fun for me to go back. And I don’t apologize for anything – it all happened in the “Golden Age,” when you could make references to Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison and realize, “I used to get drunk with those guys.” That makes it infinitely more interesting because you were there for the “Lost Weekend.” In fact, I think was the bartender that week. [Laughs]
As you recounted stories about people like Hendrix and Morrison, what struck you?
What I learned from them – except for John Lennon, of course, which was a really different thing – was that they all just burned out. Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Keith Moon: They all were of that mindset of, “Get it done now, because I don’t want to be doing this when I’m 30.” And my mindset at that time was, “I’ve got to figure out how to separate myself from this character, or it’s going to kill me.” [Laughs] For me, it was figuring out how to eliminate the gray area so that I could have a life, and “Alice” can have his own life, without apology.
In the doc, you describe the Alice Cooper as being something like an aristocratic villain, à la Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis Dr. Moriarty — but when the group started out you were wearing frocks. How did you develop the character?
I didn’t really figure it out until later. The Alice character was originally a victim. He represented all the disenfranchised kids that didn’t fit in, the kids that didn’t even listen to mainstream FM. These were the kids that were going to get bullied. These were the artistic kids. These were the kids not looking for something straight up. And there were lots of them.
When I got sober in 1982, I went, “I’m not that anymore. The character’s not that, so who’s he going to be? I want him to be this arrogant villain. I want him to be this condescending, ‘I’m in charge’ villain.” So I changed him, totally. Now when he stood up, he stood with his chin up, didn’t say “thank you” to the audience. And the audience liked that; they liked the idea that this guy was totally in charge. But there was a little bit of [Inspector] Clouseau element – that he could blow it. He might slit your throat, or he might slip on a banana peel. [Laughs] So I liked the humor involved in that. I still play Alice like that, because I can’t play him as a victim. He just isn’t that anymore. He isn’t the whipping boy; he is the dominatrix. [Laughs]
You discuss God and religion in the doc. Has that held the Alice character back?
To this day, there’s this moment of going, “Do I want Alice to go there?” I like the fact that Alice has places he won’t go. Alice never swears; that would be uncool. There’s an elegance to him. When I say he’s like Moriarty, I meant the smartness of Moriarty and the cleverness. But he’s also really hard rock; he never lets that up. Still, there are songs I won’t do as Alice that I wrote a long time ago. Like stuff I don’t want Alice to promote.
You know, if I was going to do a song like “Bed of Nails” or “Spark in the Dark” or stuff like that, they’re fun, kind of teenage songs, which are great and they work, but now I go, “Eh, too obvious.”
But I always loved this: There will always be your right-wing Christians who go, “How can you play Alice Cooper?” And I say, “Would it be OK if I played Macbeth?” “Sure.” “Macbeth is 10 times worse than Alice Cooper,” it’s witchcraft. But since it’s Shakespeare, it’s fine. So I can always sort of fall back on that. Christianity is basically your one-on-one relationship with Christ. You don’t worship the church; you worship what the church stands for, which is what Jesus stood for. Nobody ever comes down on Buddhists; it’s always Christians that get a punch in the eye.
You still sing “I Love the Dead.”
Oh, but to me, anyone taking it that seriously. . . yeah. In 2014, I don’t think you can shock an audience anymore. If I cut my arm off and ate it, OK, that would be shocking. But you can only do it twice. [Laughs] Better make it a big concert.
I get my head cut off with a guillotine at concerts. You can turn on CNN and watch a guy get his head really cut off. You can hang me; I’m watching [Saddam] Hussein get hung on television, live. And I went, “Well, shock’s gone. So let’s just entertain the audience.
Speaking of hangings and your guillotine, did you ever devise any practical effects that were too dangerous to pull off?
Not too dangerous, but there were a lot of “Spinal Tap moments.” When I saw Spinal Tap, I went, “Oh, boy.” I got stuck in the pod a couple of times. But there were things like, “Well, let’s shoot Alice out of a cannon,” and we bought the cannon and it worked great. I’d get in the cannon, I’d get out the back, and they’d shoot the dummy across into the thing and I’d already be on the other side and walk out. It’s an illusion, but it looked great. And of course, I got it on stage and the cannon goes “BANG!” and the dummy comes out about about six inches. You have to play it like, “O…kay.”
But nothing has been too dangerous. The guillotine is a 40-pound blade; it misses me by six inches every night, for the last 40 years. Same thing with the hanging: It’s a piece of piano wire keeping you from hanging, and you got to hope that piano wire has been checked that night. When you get a 12-foot python on the stage, 99 percent of the time, he’s gonna be OK — but what if there’s that one night when he decides, “This is the night I’m gonna just do it”? I’ve always liked the idea that there’s an element of possibility of something really happening.
The doc includes the Toronto concert where fans threw a chicken onstage, you threw it back and the audience tore it to shreds. At that show, you were opening for John Lennon. Did he ever say what he thought of that?
Oh, he loved it. John Lennon was a Hollywood vampire. He was one of our drinking guys. But it was John Lennon and Yoko when they were doing their art. So they saw it as that; Yoko and John were like, “Yeah, this is great.” John thought that was funny. And I didn’t kill the chicken. [Laughs] Even if they would have wanted me to, I wouldn’t have killed the chicken. But I realized at that point how bloodthirsty people at the peace-and-love festival — that’s what it was — were. They had no problem killing the chicken.
While we’re on the topic of rock stars: There’s an interesting scene in the movie when you meet your manager, Shep Gordon, at the Landmark Hotel and run into Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison in a room filled with marijuana smoke. That scene left an impression on you.
You have to remember we were a young band from Arizona, and we could make a joint last for a week, ’cause that’s all we had. And you walk into a room that you can’t see from me to you because of the smoke, and then when the smoke clears, [whispers] “Hey look, it’s Jimi Hendrix over there.” And Shep, our manager, he opens the drawer, and there’s a drawer [of marijuana], and he takes a handful. “This is our manager. This is gonna be great.” In ’68, ’69, that was the coolest thing ever. So yeah, seeing those guys freaked us out.
The funny thing was our band was beer drinkers. It was very weird that the bands with all the bad reputations were beer drinkers, and then the Mamas and the Papas, Jackson Browne, everybody else was doing heroin. It was just the opposite of what you thought it would be. The Monkees were always on acid. We drank Budweiser. [Laughs]
In the doc, Bernie Taupin expresses remorse for turning you on to cocaine right after you had cleaned up. Did he ever apologize to you personally?
No, Bernie was my best friend. And cocaine was, like, breathing in Los Angeles at the time. I didn’t know anybody that didn’t do coke. I was maybe the only one that didn’t. Having an addictive personality, it was the worst thing I could’ve tried.
At least I had the experience of kicking alcohol, which was the hardest thing for me. So kicking cocaine was not hard. That was just a matter of, “OK, enough of that.” The alcohol was really the drug for me that was a tough one, because it was so available, it was legal.
The film has observations from the likes of Elton John, Iggy Pop and Johnny Rotten, among others. Did anything they say surprise you?
We grew up in Detroit. We did not feel at home in L.A. We were not “peace and love.” We didn’t mind a little violence at our show, and [hippies] just hated that. They were against Vietnam, against violence, and we were like, “Violence works really good onstage. A little West Side Story never hurt anybody.” We went to Detroit, and we were home. I was from Detroit. And all of a sudden, I’d heard about this band MC5, and I’m like, “Wow! A show band.” And then I saw Iggy and the Stooges, I went, “What? That’s really good.” And then we brought our brand of that onstage, and we fit right in. Now we were at home. Detroit was home for us, ’cause we could do what we wanted to do, and people got it. But those guys, yeah, I grew up with Iggy. I did so many shows with Iggy.
What about Johnny Rotten then? Do you see Alice Cooper’s influence on punk?
The Johnny Rotten thing was interesting, because I realize that we did have a punk thing to us – there was a certain rawness to us that was punk – but we were still steeped in the Yardbirds and the Who. We spent nine hours a day working on the music and only about an hour on the theatrics, so the music was always more important. The punk thing was never about the music; the punk thing was always about the exhibition. And I always thought that people missed the sense of humor to the whole punk movement.
I totally got what the Sex Pistols were doing. The Sex Pistols were as close to the Monkees as anything else. They auditioned to be in that band, the way Monkees did. And Johnny got that. He says, “Hey, we’re put together. We’re not just a band that got together in an alley somewhere. Malcolm [McLaren] put us together as the new Monkees, only we’re the punk Monkees.” I got that. Then when I heard their album, I said, “Great album.” And the Monkees did good albums too.