FEATURES: Why I Love Alice Cooper
When Alice Cooper was a young boy, a relative took him to see the movie, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. He recalls it as his first encounter with that part of existence that might be thought of as creepy, strange, or maybe just…other. It made a deep impression on him. If you have a more than surface knowledge of Alice Cooper, then that this particular movie should have acted as the catalyst for what would ultimately come later is probably no surprise. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, it’s full of monsters. Fair enough. Second, and just as importantly, it’s a comedy. Yes, Alice Cooper has a sense of humor; a wicked, acid, morbid, and sometimes just plain vaudevillian slapstick sense of humor. The movie itself was released in the waning of the heyday of the Universal Horror films, and would almost be a grand and early example of jumping the shark if it wasn’t actually pretty good. It gets the stamp of approval from the most die-hard Universal Horror enthusiasts and manages at once to have the atmosphere of the better films (Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein, etc.), but also to make fun of them…with two idiots running around the plot refusing to let the whole thing take itself too seriously. It’s Alice Cooper’s career in a nutshell.
If you don’t know, Alice Cooper was a band before it was a man. That is to say, the collective of musicians on the early records sat down and came up with Alice Cooper as their name. Urban legend claims it came from an Ouija board session, and some band members still tell that story with a serious tone (while others admit it is made up). In any case, it wasn’t until the dissolution of the original band that Vincent Furnier (Alice’s real name) fully and officially became known as Alice Cooper, though arguably even he began to lose track somewhere in the rush of the band’s seminal albums. This was actually a bit of a running joke in the group (and a source of discontent, as Furnier received more of the spotlight since the audience assumed he was Alice). On the track "Be My Lover" from the Killer album, Furnier has a conversation with a girl in a bar that focuses on the humor but also the confusion of the situation. “I told her that I came from Detroit City and I played guitar in a long haired rock and roll band. She asked me why the singer’s name was Alice. I said listen, baby, you really wouldn’t understand.”
Alice Cooper (the band) is indeed from Detroit City, by way of L.A. After having signed on to Frank Zappa’s record label in the late 60’s, the band failed to gain any traction in Los Angeles. In fact, they didn’t gain traction anywhere. The whole thing was just a little too dark and weird for most people, especially at the height of hippiedom. So when the band got an especially good reaction in Detroit while on tour, they decided, ‘this is where we're from now.’ And there they stayed. The general agreement was that the menace and dark depths of Alice Cooper went over better with beer drinkers than acid loving free folk. They fit in well with the other groups in the area (the Stooges and the MC5 in particular), and it was here that Furnier began his transformation to the darkly comic Alice…the guy.
Way out here in the 2010’s it’s a bit difficult to fully appreciate how edgy and shocking Alice Cooper was in the 70s. And he was/they were. Consider the chorus to "Dead Babies," also from the Killer album, a song about a baby who swallows a pound of aspirin and dies, untended by her mother who’s always at the bar. “Dead babies can’t take care of themselves. Dead babies can’t take things off the shelf. Well, we didn’t want you anyway. La la la…” Of course, the sense of humor was present, as it also was in the tear out calendar that accompanied the Killer album, a rather graphic picture of Alice Cooper hanging, dead in a noose, intended as an affront to parents. Presumably, kids would hang it on their walls (hey, it had a useful 1972 calendar on it!), while simultaneously causing their folks worry and concern. It makes a pretty good satire too, of the usual beach babes and hot rod chicks you might find on the more acceptable teenage calendars of the era.
My intent here though is to focus more specifically on Alice Cooper, the man And while it’s true some of the earlier albums seemed more focused on shock than anything else, over the course of his career Alice began more and more to talk about himself in his lyrics. What he’s amassed amounts to a brutally honest, rather detailed autobiography, and he’s done it with such cleverness and cheeky self-effacement, all while using the whole of the American landscape of thought as his medium, that it’s fair to consider him one of the great artistic voices of America. Seriously.
Probably the first notable self-commentary by Alice comes in the lyrics to the bands first bonafide hit, "Eighteen," from the Love it to Death album. It’s kind of a strange song, at least to have become a hit like it was. It’s overly self-aware, and there’s an almost homoerotic undertone to it. Even though Cooper was 23 at the time it was released, his almost simplistically insightful remembrance of what it was like to occupy an 18-year-old head is striking. Calling it simplistic is a bit of a disservice. It's more archetypal, as are most of Cooper’s lyrics. That is to say, rather than get too terribly lost in the deep abstract he tends to focus on big, almost biblical words. In "Second Coming," from the same album, Alice either tells the story of the return of Jesus, or perhaps imagines himself in that role. Probably the latter is more likely since the song is immediately preceded by another called "Hallowed Be My Name." "Second Coming" starts like this: “I couldn’t tell if the bells were getting louder, the songs they ring I finally recognize. I only know that hell is getting hotter, the devil’s getting smarter all the time. And it would be nice to walk upon the water, to talk again to angels on my side.”
Alice Cooper reports (in many, many interviews) that it was more and more difficult to tell the difference between Vincent Furnier and Alice Cooper, even though he was acutely aware of the ‘character’ aspect of Alice. This confusion tended to flow over into his lyrics, sometimes in the most literal sense, but also sometimes (to great effect) as concerned the things he talked about other than Vincent/Alice conundrum. Sometimes it’s difficult to know if he’s talking about himself or America or the world as a whole. And I don’t mean to suggest that Alice was the confused one here. I think he knew (and knows) exactly what he was trying to say. He’s undoubtedly aware his metaphors work on many levels. "You and All Your Friends" from Alice’s latest album, Paranormal, illustrates the point well: “We’re burning down your city, the message has been sent. Angels without Pity, we hold you in contempt. And this is how it all ends for you and all your friends.” It’s typical AC, in that it feels like the war cry of a rampaging touring band, an uppity youth anthem ala "We’re Not Gonna Take It," and a biblical warning all at once. And in Alice’s case, it’s probably all three. Just in case the biblical possibility strikes you as unlikely, I would point out that now, in his later years, Alice has ‘found God.’ Regardless of your views on the existence of a God, my feeling is that if anybody could find him it’s probably Alice.
There are, of course, plenty of examples of the dialogue continually in Vincent’s head about just exactly where Alice begins, and Vincent ends, and vice versa. Some of the best are on Alice’s most profoundly biographic record, From the Inside. Even the album’s title is a bit of a clever play on words. He’s taking a deep look inside himself, but he’s doing so while (literally) inside an asylum. Alice rather famously imploded because of the (anti)heroic amounts of alcohol he swallowed in the 70s. In fear for his survival, he was finally forced by his manager and family to seek treatment. Unfortunately, this was the 70s, and it wasn’t as obvious how to deal with such a situation as it is now. Alice was unceremoniously dropped off at an upstate New York asylum, very much in the style of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Ironically, it was just the ticket for Alice, and his primary memories of the place are that it was full of interesting characters and that every day he was there, he felt a little better. After his ‘release’ he was intent on telling the stories of those he’d met inside, and set about (clean and sober) to doing so. Even the album’s cover is a bit of a metaphor. The back of the LP sports the doors of the asylum. Through clever packaging, you can actually open the doors, and there you find Alice and all of the characters he sings about racing for the outside, all holding papers declaring them “released.” Of course, there’s no telling if anyone he encountered there besides himself was actually released, but in telling their stories, he brings them with him to the outside world. The album opens up with the title track in which Vincent, presumably for the first time since the early 70’s, considers that Alice is not actually who he is and that he may have got the better of him. “I’m stuck here on the inside looking out; I’m just another case. Where’s my makeup, where’s my face on the inside,” Alice sings. He then simultaneously praises and blames the fans for egging him on. “You all got your kicks from what you saw up there. Eight bucks buys a folding chair….You were screaming for the villain up there, and I was much obliged.” Later, in "Serious," Cooper talks more about his addiction issues. “All of my life was a laugh and a joke and a drink and a smoke and then I passed out on the floor… again and again and again and again and again.” Further on, on the track "How You Gonna See Me Now" Alice wonders what his wife will think of him on returning home, admitting “I might have grown out of style in the place I’ve been,” and worrying in the chorus “How you gonna see me now? Please don’t see me ugly babe. ‘Cause I know I let you down in oh so many ways.” In "The Quiet Room," Cooper speaks of isolation, madness, and his comforting thoughts of home. “The California air, your nightgown on the stairs. I remember every night, scenes from home in the quiet room.” He continues “They’ve got this place where they’ve been keeping me, where I can’t hurt myself. I can’t get my wrists to bleed. Just don’t know why suicide appeals to me.” Ultimately he admits “My confidant, I have confessed my life. The quiet room knows more about me than my wife.”
The balance of the tracks on the album is dedicated to those who Alice encountered in the asylum. I’ve no idea if the ‘names are changed to protect the innocent’ but the stories are real enough, and as previously noted, it’s not easy to tell if Alice is telling their story, or his story, or OUR story, or if he is telling all of these at once. And though it must have been a horrific experience for Cooper, he tells the whole of it with his usual humor. In "Nurse Rozetta," Alice tells the tale of a preacher who is in the asylum for an unnamed reason and lusts after a nurse on the ward. The song produces one of Alice’s clever turns of phrase with “she popped the buckle off my bible belt.” "Millie and Billie" tells the story of two “criminally insane,” lovers with the fantastic chorus of “God made love crazy so we wouldn’t feel alone. He was thinking of us…” I don’t want to give away the ending of that one, but you owe it to yourself to give it a listen for the punchline alone. There’s the story of a Viet Nam vet who comes home to confusion and another song from the perspective of an inmate who just wants to get out in time to save his dog (in a shelter) before she gets gassed. And there is the grand finale, "Inmates (We’re All Crazy)" which is classic Alice Cooper. He takes up the mantle for the whole of the institution, speaking on behalf of all its denizens. He assumes a kind of mutual guilt, while simultaneously downplaying the seriousness of the crimes that have landed them all in ‘the clink.’ He reports: “It's not like we did something wrong, we just burned down the church while the choir within sang religious songs. And it's not like we thought we was right, we just played with the wheels of a passenger train that cracked on the tracks one night.” And here is a grand example of my own confusion where Cooper’s stories are concerned. Is he merely telling a tale about those he ran into in the asylum? Is he recognizing that he was a patient in the asylum, and so speaking in their voice, assumes his part in each crime? Or is he metaphorically saying we are ALL CAPABLE of and do crazy shit? It speaks to the archetypical style of Cooper’s lyrics. Put shortly, it works on many levels, and it’s pretty fucking genius.
Alice was a massive celebrity in the 70s. Massive. He had his own tv specials and brushed elbows with Salvador Dali, Frank Sinatra, and even the Muppets. If you’ve not seen his guest spot on the Muppet Show, you owe it to yourself to dig it up. In it Alice acts as the agent for the devil, attempting to get the Muppets to sign over their souls for wealth and fame. Particularly funny is that Gonzo, the little purple muppet with the long crooked nose, is willing to take the deal, but spends most of the episode unsuccessfully looking for a pen to sign the deal. Of course, Alice Cooper was hyper aware of his celebrity, and it became fodder for his lyrics. He wasn’t self-aggrandizing in most cases. Rather, he tended to make a bit of fun of the whole thing. As the track "Department of Youth" from the Welcome to My Nightmare album fades to a chorus of “We’re the department of youth…we got the power!” sung by middle school children, Alice asks “And who gave it to you?” “Donny Osmond!” is the reply, prompting an incredulous “What???” from Alice. Such was Vincent’s view on his own celebrity. America thought he was corrupting their children, but he knew that not only had he failed to get anyone to sign on the dotted line, but he also held about as much sway as Donny Osmond. Welcome to my nightmare indeed.
He takes the whole concept up a notch on the Alice Cooper Goes to Hell album. In the first track, "Go To Hell," he’s convicted by the populous at large. “For criminal acts and violence on the stage. For being a brat, refusing to act your age. For all of the decent citizens you've enraged…You can go to Hell.” Later, in the amusing track "Give the Kid a Break," Alice finds himself in hell and argues with the devil for his release. When the devil asks him why he deserves reconsideration, Alice can’t come up with a reason. It’s a kind of funny bit of self-incrimination. Still, when the devil gives his final decision (no breaks for Alice), he bases it on Cooper having “cast his pearls before swine.” This explicitly biblical passage is a warning from Jesus’ servant on the mount, that roughly translates to ‘if you give what is holy to the dogs, they’ll tear you to pieces.’ That is to say, Alice was not convicted for having done wrong things, he was convicted for sharing those things with a bunch of people who were never going to understand him or what he was doing. Again, classic Alice. It’s difficult to know if he suspected that he was a bad person (of sorts), and so the Devil appreciated his work, or if Alice felt he was indeed a good person, and that the mindless masses wouldn’t get the joke behind his art and would hang him for it. Probably it’s a mix of both.
Alice Cooper’s lyrics are full of self-references, social commentary, and weird lore, but they (and his music) are also just plain fun. He’s played with aspects of popular culture throughout his career. On "Halo of Flies," he sings “Daggers and contacts and bright shiny limos,” to the tune of "My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music. On the track "Gutter Cat vs. The Jets" from the School’s Out album, the band actually transitions into a minute’s worth of music straight from West Side Story, “When you’re a jet you’re a jet all the way…” And of course, there are the references to Frankenstein, the guest spots from Vincent Price, and on and on. That’s Alice; regularly commenting on his surroundings and personal situation, while using those surroundings as a metaphor to better understand himself. He convicts and satirizes the public, all the while recognizing himself as a mixed up part of that public. He’s in on the grand joke. We’re all crazy. You, me, him, her, and isn’t it all an awful lot of fun?
For all the high flown concepts (mixed with base level humor), Alice is, of course, a rock musician first and foremost. And he’s a good one, a great one. It’s harder to pin down explanations of just why, in the aural sense, Billion Dollar Babies, School’s Out, and Killer (among a host of others) are just plain great hard rock albums, but they are. They are gut punch, proto-metal masterpieces that fire on all cylinders. And Alice hasn’t slowed down. There’ve been some clunkers here and there to be sure, but aside from a few short breaks from the public, Alice has pretty consistently reinvented himself over and over, putting out albums of substance. There’s no better example I can think of right now than his latest, Paranormal. Because here is Alice at just under 70 years of age, proving he can still sing (yes, Alice can sing), digest and satirize the world around him, and have a damn good time doing so.
I’ve had a somewhat difficult time deciding exactly where or how to end this. I’ve barely scratched the surface of what Alice Cooper’s concepts and music have to offer, and I haven’t even written about the thing Alice may be most famous for – his live shows. But I’ve decided to leave well enough alone. After all, the man is still with us (thank goodness), so it’s reasonable enough to call the strange case of Alice Cooper a work in progress; a case not yet closed. With that, it’s probably best to let Alice have the final word. The lyrics below come from an Alice Cooper song that isn’t really an Alice Cooper song (it’s a cover). But that works well, because Alice Cooper is not really Alice Cooper.
At the end of the rainbow, there's happiness
And to find it how often I've tried
But my life is a race, just a wild goose chase
And my dreams have all been denied
Why have I always been a failure?
What can the reason be?
I wonder if the world's to blame?
I wonder if it could be me?
I'm always chasing rainbows
Watching clouds drifting by
My schemes are just like all of my dreams
Ending in the sky
Some fellows look and find the sunshine
I always look and find the rain
Some fellows make a winning sometime
I never even make a gain
I'm always chasing rainbows
Waiting to find a little blue bird in vain
(Rainbows seems to fade away)