Alice Cooper On His 50 Years As A One-Man Nightmare Factory

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Listen To This Eddie is a weekly column that examines the important people and events in the classic rock canon and how they continue to impact the world of popular music.

Long before Travis Scott had ’em “stage diving out the nosebleeds.” Long before Drake deployed flying Lamborghinis and synchronized drones on his Aubrey And The Three Migos tour. Long before Kendrick Lamar battled ninjas onstage during his DAMN tour. Long before Kanye West wore custom jeweled Margiela masks and mounted ice volcanos on the Yeezus tour.

Long before anyone really considered what it meant to bring spectacle to a live concert, there was Alice Cooper. With his ominous array of boa constrictors, guillotines, gallons of fake blood, inflatable set pieces, and signature black face paint, the horror rock icon helped define the very concept of a concert as something more than just a way to watch your favorite performer play your favorite songs at hazardous volume. He made the experience into a real show. Something you’d tell your friends about for weeks after it happened. Something you’d never forget as long as you lived. Something that’d haunt your dreams.

For 50 years and more, Alice has been terrifying crowds across the globe with an ever-evolving backing group of world class musicians. I personally saw him for the first time live a few years back opening for Mötley Crüe on their farewell tour, and I can say with 100% conviction that he blew the headliners off the stage. No amount of flamethrowers or ridiculous upside-down rollercoaster drum kits could compete with the opener’s obvious charisma and dedication to being Alice F*cking Cooper. Sorry, Tommy Lee. Can the giant, lumbering Frankenstein’s monsters and electric chairs and become a little camp? Yeah, of course. But you still wouldn’t wanna cross the man screaming bloody murder in the straight-jacket. Also, with all due respect to “Kickstart My Heart” or “Girls, Girls, Girls,” the Crüe never wrote an anthem half as menacing or primal as “I’m Eighteen.”

“[When] that curtain goes up all of a sudden I am not that same guy,” Cooper told me recently about his onstage transformation from Vincent Furnier into the man we all love and fear as Alice. “I become that character and the game is on. And that character is a villain and he goes out there with absolutely no attitude of ‘Gee, I hope you like us tonight.’ He goes out there with the attitude of grabbing ’em by the throat and shaking them for an hour and a half.”

Cooper’s latest throat-grabbing endeavor is a live album titled A Paranormal Evening At The Olympia Paris that was recorded in December 2017 at the end of his last tour. With several live albums and concert films to his name already you might wonder why he’s decided to roll out another one. Well, the answer is pretty simple. “This band just clicks every single night and I said, ‘Well, when you’ve got that kind of a band, record it live,’ because I knew that every night the show was really good,” he explained. “Our drummer Glen Sobel was just voted best drummer in rock and roll. Our lead guitar player Nita Strauss was just voted Best Female Guitar Player in Rock and Roll… I just surrounded myself with the best players.”

His reasoning becomes even more sound as you listen to the 90-minute exploration of some of his biggest hits like “School’s Out,” “Poison,” “Feed My Frankenstein,” and “The Ballad Of Dwight Fry,” to name a select few. The songs sound just as menacing as they do on record, touched with even more bombast and musical proficiency than ever before.

Cooper certainly knows a thing or two about great musicians, having played with and around some of the best to ever do it throughout his lengthy career. One of his most noteworthy and mind-blowing gigs came early on, when he was just starting out with the original Alice Cooper Band, while they were steadily working their way up the up the ladder around Los Angeles, vying for a spot at the famous Whisky A Go-Go on the Sunset Strip. “That was the big deal because The Doors were the house band there,” he said. “Just get to get your name up on the board on Sunset Blvd. You know what I mean?”

But “Alice Cooper” wasn’t the only name on the marquee that brusque evening on January 4 and 5th in 1969. “We all went, ‘Huh? I wonder who Led Zepplin is?’ Because nobody had ever heard of ’em,” Cooper recalled. Indeed, this was one of Zeppelin’s first gigs ever in the US, coming a week before their first album even hit the shelves. “They walked in and a bunch of young guys from England. And I looked at the one guy and I said, ‘Wait a minute, that’s Jimmy Page. He was with The Yardbirds.’

This realization was a huge deal for Alice personally. “The Yardbirds were our patron saints,” he remembered. “That was the band that we tried to be, and so I immediately went up to him and I said, ‘Hey, we open for you.’ I said, ‘You were in The Yardbirds, and that’s religious for us.’ And he said, ‘Well, okay, but tomorrow night we open for you.” And I went, “Okay.” The show went off without a hitch. Alice Cooper were their predictably wild selves, while Zeppelin blew the roof off the joint with their soon-to-be signature blend of blues, rock and folk music delivered at blistering volume.

To this day, Cooper maintains a friendship with Page, and recently caught up with the reclusive guitarist in London after a gig with his other band the Hollywood Vampires, whose lineup includes Johnny Depp and Aerosmith’s Joe Perry. “Jimmy Page came down and sat through the whole show,” Cooper said. “[Afterwards] he came back, we talked in my dressing room for half an hour and we… talked about that show at the Whiskey.” As to whether or not we might ever see Page onstage again, Alice has a guess. “I mean he’s a player. He would. I think that he wants to get back onstage.”

Fast-forwarding to 1973, when both Zeppelin and Cooper were riding high, but the latter had the distinction of notching the biggest album of the year with Billion Dollar Babies. Packed with now-classic tracks like “Elected,” “Generation Landslide,” and especially the single “No More Mr. Nice Guy — which was used to such perfect effect in Richard Linklater’s film Dazed And ConfusedBillion Dollar Babies struck a chord with a generation looking for something a little more off-kilter. “School’s Out comes out and then Billion Dollar Babies comes out and its No. 1,” Cooper said. “We had established ourselves now that we were in the game.”

You’d think Cooper would’ve been ecstatic, but the success was a lot to handle. “Once you get a hit record, all the focus goes on you,” he explained. “And we were this band that everybody hated because it was so theatrical and it was so different.” There was also the weird sensation of having surpassed your idols to grapple with. “I looked at the charts and it said Billion Dollar Babies is No. 1 and I think The Stones were No. 4, McCartney was No. 5 or 6, and it was embarrassing,” he said. “I wanted to call them up and say, ‘We’re really sorry. We don’t deserve to be above you guys. You know, this is all an accident,’ because honestly you really don’t feel like you should ever chart above your teachers. And then you have to digest the fact that, ‘Yeah, you are the hot thing right then.’

To help cope, Cooper turned to alcohol and drugs, and a rigorous touring schedule that kept he and his band on the road almost indefinitely, but it still wasn’t enough. A couple of year later, he ditched the original members of the Alice Cooper Band, recorded another stellar album titled Welcome To My Nightmare and hit the road again for a live show the likes of which had never been seen before.

“It made the Billion Dollar Babies show look like small,” Cooper recalled. More gore. More scares. More dancers. More everything. “It was going to be something that was either going to be genius or idiotic and it ended up being the most successful thing we ever did. It ran for two years. I remember we did 65 cities in 72 days. We were young enough that we were bulletproof. We lived on beer. We lived to just party.” A pair of shows at the Wembley Arena in 1975 were filmed for the Welcome To My Nightmare concert film, a commercial flop that went on to become a midnight movie house cult session — think The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Eventually, the party caught up with him. The late-’70s and early ’80s were a rough time for Alice, during which he released more than a handful of albums that he can’t even recall recording. That’s not to mention his short stint in an actual mental institution in 1977 where the straightjacket became all too real. A love of wine and beer turned into an affinity for cocaine and by ’83 he landed in the hospital with a diagnosis of cirrhosis of the liver. He had a choice: Continue and die, or get sober and live. Thankfully for all of us, he chose the latter.

However, his newfound sobriety was put to the test just four years later in 1987 when he decided to bring a new hard-partying band from Los Angeles named Guns ‘N’ Roses out on the road with him as his opening act. Guns were on the verge of breaking out into the mainstream with their debut album Appetite For Destruction, and their dalliance with whiskey and heroin was already legendary. “I was lean and mean and sober, ready to kick everybody’s butt and our opening act was unbelievable,” Cooper recalled. Nevertheless, the experience turned into a positive one. “They actually helped us because they really challenged us… they really challenged us to be a better band. And it worked. Can you imagine Gun ‘N’ Roses going on and then Alice Cooper? That’s quite a show!”

It seems like Alice has done just about all you can do throughout his time in the spotlight and seems to be living his best life at the moment, alternating between touring with his regular group, rubbing shoulders onstage with Depp and Perry as the Hollywood Vampires, and hitting the links when he’s back home in Arizona. He’s rocked the biggest stages on the planet, sold millions of records, and memorably logged one of the all-time great movie cameos when he patiently explained the Native American origins of the city of Milwaukee to a worshipful Mike Myers and Dana Carvey in Wayne’s World. He’s even played a few gigs recently with the living members of the original Alice Cooper Band, and might even be down to play a few more.

“Mentally we could do it,” he said. “I would like to use the original band in a limited thing where they could really shine… but I wouldn’t put them through that thing of saying, ‘Let’s do 50 shows full out for two hours.’ I don’t think that’ll be fair.” In the meantime, he’ll keep putting on the paint, keep busting out the snakes and bringing his unique, rock and roll nightmare to a town near you.

“The audience wants him,” Cooper says of his onstage alter-ego. “And they don’t want him to be nice.”

Alice Cooper’s new live album A Paranormal Evening At The Olympia Paris is available on August 31 via Earmusic. You can pre-order it here.