Just as Kiss did some years later, taking off their make-up and revealing who they were, so did Alice by being very open and honest about the fact that Alice Cooper was just a character made up for stage. By doing this some of the magic disappeared for both. Not that I don`t love Kiss or Alice just as much, but I think there is a certain element that got lost when they suddenly became “ordinary” people.
Anyway, a good article, so read on!
A teddy bear`s picnic with Alice
Martin Hayman talks to Stephen, the man behind the mask of Alice Cooper
If we looked at Alice Cooper as a latter-day Mr Bojangles he would probably be flattered. Fred Astaire would certainly be puzzled and the thousands of Cooper fiends would look askance at the connection: what sort of a snake is Ginger Rogers?
But if the all-singing, all-dancing and definitely showbiz Alice isn`t doing a contemporary version of blackface (exorcising through the medium of stage lampoon) the lurking chilly fears then I`ll trade in my hi-fidelity stereo system for a bag of golf clubs and sign myself Bing Crosby.
Meanwhile back at the headband conference, Alice, Mr Nice Guy, hangs out in a suite at the Savoy and, for the benefit of reporters` entrèes, takes in a little target practice with plastic spring guns shooting rubber-suckered darts with dubious accuracy. Acolytes range themselves in front of the shooting range – a number of Heineken cans perched in a row along the top of the TV, which is noiselessly flickering images of white-flannelled heroes on the green sward – and adopt a variety of shooting positions, from Widmark to Bronson.
Alice – for so his entourage describe him to a man, though Cooper is later to deny that such a person exists outside the confines of a stage – is smaller and slighter than you expect, and is wearing a pair of immaculate white trousers and, on his torso as well as, one presumes, the rest of his body, an almost insultingly healthy tan; though one remarks with satisfaction that his thin aquiline beak is just beginning to peel. Too many lingering hours on the links? one speculates.
Alice Cooper, unsurprisingly, is here on tour. In fact his sojourn at the Savoy is a mere break, for the European operation, campaign you might say, will have begun in Scandinavia by the time you read this. For a man who has just completed a 66 city tour of the US (which his record company dutifully reports was seen by one million and a quarter people) and is about to embark on a further 14, his affability is unflagging.
Particularly as he too confesses to the touring madness: “After about five shows I lose track of where I am I call up the roadies and ask `Where am I`? You get to a mentality where you don`t care what city you`re in, there`s always a Holiday Inn and a MacDonald`s. In Europe it`s different though. You learn to love it… or you get a nervous breakdown.” He laughs. It does not sound like the hysterical laugh of a man on the brink. “It`s a lot easier to get to love it. Breakdowns take too much time.”
He says his favourite stop on the route is going to be Munich, “just because it`s such a party town – I love it. And the girls there! And they do have Budweiser, too.” This is a reference to Alice`s favourite brand of beer, without which no interview with Alice would be completed. Rarely can one man have done so much to promote his favourite beverage; he surely must be to Budweiser what Rod Stewart is to football, or the Bay City Rollers to Tartan scarves.
A propos of football, Cooper reports that the game is really beginning to get a hold in America, and that newly sprung up leagues there have succeeded in attracting no less a talent than Pele as a professional coach. He had to confess himself – ah – stumped by cricket, though doubtless the TV watching which goes so agreeably in hotel rooms with a crate of chilled tubes might induce some understanding of this extraordinary form of competition. If it`s showbiz, Alice can dig it!
Still on the subject of beer: “You know, I never did a paid advertisement for Budweiser. But I`m a real beer drinker,” he says with a broad smile and a hint of confidentiality. “I wake up at 7 am and I have to have a Budweiser. It`s better than coffee. Actually I don`t drink beer to get drunk, I drink it as a habit. I drink Seagram`s whisky to get drunk. Beer just keeps you on a nice even keel.”
This all on a slightly ribbing note; when the serious word habit is murmured there is a hint of a cloud and, unsolicited: “I don`t do any drugs at all, just because I saw too many of my friends dying – Morrison and Hendrix were good friends of mine. If any good came of their deaths, it`s that people tended to move away from them.
“I used to sit around and get drunk with Morrison a lot. It`s too bad a talent like that was lost… he just wouldn`t take care of himself. If I drank a bottle of whisky he`d drink three.” Something like a death wish? “Mmm…
I think it shows up. He`d jump out of moving cars, never go to the doctor if he was sick. Everything about him was really original but he was always trying to destroy it. I don`t think he liked the responsibility of being a spokesman, though he was a natural.
“I think the whole culture is turning away from drugs. I`ve noticed that everybody is drinking a lot more. Maybe it isn`t bad, but it`s legal at least you don`t go to jail for drinking… unless you`re Keith Moon.
Alice chortles at the joke on his confrere and neatly ducks out of what was starting to look suspiciously like a bit of hobby-horse riding. The mention of Moony provokes recollections of his (Moon`s) party at LA, and how Peter Sellers had donned his `Pink Panther` persona Inspector Clouset. Alice chuckles with mirth at the idea of his pal Sellers muttering and bumbling his way through detection of the “guilty party”.
Alice says he`s a great fan of Sellers and the Pink Panther, which he had been to see soon after his stage accident: “I went to see it and I was laughing so hard I swear I had to turn away from the screen at least three times because it hurt me so much. It`s hard to laugh when you`ve got cracked ribs.”
On cue, Alice demonstrates one of the ribs which is sticking out at an odd angle from his bronzed torso. It was one of the six; he also sustained facial injuries in the accident at Vancouver necessitating 12 stitches, but they aren`t evident. The incident occurred when one of his stage props collapsed. It`s a point when Stephen (Alice`s persona for the `Nightmare` show) thrusts the dancers back into the “toybox”. The lid of the box collapsed, overbalancing Alice into the eight-foot orchestra pit, where he hit a photographer en route.
“It totally knocked me out. I just couldn`t focus on anything. But I went straight back on because I had so much adrenalin going. It was only when I realised that I couldn`t focus on anything that I thought I must have a concussion. You have super powers when you`ve got the adrenalin going.”
Happily for the customers this was the 63rd show of the tour so there were few who got the abbreviated version. All credit to Cooper for keeping the show on the road despite the injuries: “All we had to do was re-schedule the show so that I wasn`t on as long as I should be. But also when you`ve got broken ribs you can`t hit the notes. But after a week of rest it was OK.”
It also meant the deletion of some of the more risky, or should I say spectacular parts of the show such as when the nine-foot cyclops picks Alice up and hurls him bodily across the stage. This was more complex than might appear, for the whole show is tightly produced by choreographer David Winters and re-arrangement of any part affects cues for the action.
“The whole show is programmed like a musical, not a rock show,” says Alice. “I would hate to say rock opera, because it`s a musical. The whole idea is of Alice playing a character called Stephen. I`m not actually Alice Cooper, it`s just a stage persona.”
Alice explained that the theme of the show was this nasty, bratty kid-brother called Stephen waking up in the middle of the night to find that his teddy bear had turned into a cyclops and his toy-box disgorged by monsters.
“Everything that he`s very familiar with turns into a nightmare in front of him.”
The production is filled with clever props, including a piece of back-projected film which features Stephen, pursued by monsters, rushing headlong toward the stage. At the point the film image disappears Alice emerges from a concealed trapdoor on the stage (in person) leaving the monsters to beat helplessly at the celluloid barrier. All rather “Alice through the Looking Glass”-ish, but it calls for impeccable timing and unwavering discipline on the part of musicians and dancers; and also of course sizeable funds – the “magic screen” device represents 45,000 dollars` worth alone.
Alice Cooper – we`re talking about the real Mr Nice Guy and golfer now – believes in the showbiz production through and through. “I really believe that rock and roll should go into that level,” he says. “At seven dollars, why should an audience just go and see a rock band play? It`s much better to produce it visually. As far as I`m concerned I don`t care how much it costs as long as the audience get their money`s worth. Why not do a Barnum and Bailey? I wouldn`t feel right in pair of Levi`s.
Cooper is certainly putting his mouth where his money is, for the American tour was an unprecedented success and, so they say, sold out LA`s 18,000 capacity Forum in a phenomenal 17 minutes. It`s the attitude that`s all-important, he thinks: “I never go on and think, here goes, I hope you`ll enjoy it. I like to really take hold of them – it`s almost a sexual thing. I think people like the sensationalism.
“When I first came over here people thought I was the devil incarnate. The rumours that preceded me were so diabolical they almost scared me! They understand now that the Alice Cooper thing was total showbiz – it`s fun. Nobody should ever take Alice seriously as a horror show. He was always a fun ghoul.”
Al`s taste for the bizarre was fostered from an early age when he used to see old Bela Lugosi movies which, he says “used to scare me out of my pants”. But it`s healthy enough he reckons; balance in all things. “For every John Denver you have to have an Alice Cooper, for every Elton John you have to have a David Bowie.
“So many people think that rock and rollers are brainless idiots with loud guitars, but if you want to make rock and roll showbiz then it can be. I think the audience love that. Rock and roll can`t just stay in the same place for ever – I`m so glad Elton has got into that. Everybody`s gonna have to get into it sooner or later. People just won`t have that old stuff any more.
“The difference between a star and a superstar is that the superstar can not only sell his music but sell himself visually as well – though the audience sometimes do love to see the artist blow it. On the `Billion Dollar Baby` tour for example we had a show where everything fell apart. I was stuck in the guillotine without a microphone. That night the audience just laughed, and I realised the only way to play it was slapstick.”
So we`re invited to notice the wink behind the mask of terror? “As much as a character Alice is an attitude,” says Cooper. “He`s a brat, the kid that puts the tack on your chair, a bratty little brother – but everybody likes Alice. I like Alice. I like being Alice – once a night. But when I get off the stage, that`s when I leave him behind. I never become Alice off-stage. I would get into trouble, he`s got such an arrogant attitude, he thinks he can get away with anything.
“When I first created Alice I thought I had to play him out. I wore black leather and drank about a bottle of whisky a day and got into fights in bars.
“But now I put the eye make-up on and become Alice, but as soon as I come off I take off the make-up and stop being Alice. I remember one time this guy who must have weighed 240 pounds came on stage, crazy-drunk, and I – or rather Alice – got hold of him and threw him about 10 feet across the stage. He looked really surprised that this skinny little punk did it. But it was Alice that did it. Like a character inside me.
“But Alice has toned down a lot now. He`s more directed than before, he`s not as crazy as he used to be. I used to do anything for sensation, but now we direct the energy.”
Before leaving, I venture that, if showbiz ever palls, or if the public move on to more and more grandiose spectacles, Alice could always become a golf pro (he has a handicap of nine).
“Yes,” he returns, quite seriously, “I`d like that.”